Sunday, October 18, 2009

Malaysian Food: The World's Great Fusion Cuisine

I'm generally skeptical of fusion and pan-Asian restaurants, places with concepts and menus put together either by hot-shot chefs who are trying to come up with bold new flavor combinations or by mediocre Asian restaurateurs who are trying to cover all bases. On the other hand, conquest, migration and trade have certainly influenced almost all cuisines to some degree throughout the course of history by bringing in "foreign" elements. And certain cuisines have developed through a more aggressive melding of diverse influences. The cuisine of Macau, for instance, mixes Chinese cooking techinques and ingredients with those of Portugal and the other former Portuguese colonies. The food of the Indian Ocean islands Mauritius and Reunion melds the cuisines of the French settlers, Indian workers (once known by the politically incorrect term "coolies") and Chinese merchants and workers. For my money, the world cuisine that most brilliantly incorporates multiple influences is that of Malaysia and Singapore.

Perhaps the greatest food trip of my life was the one I took in the early nineties to Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia (though the one that included Bologna and Verona would make a worthy opponent). In Thailand I found that the best food was to be found at food courts and night markets rather than restaurants. The food was dirt cheap, and much of it wonderful, but after a while I found that Thai food lacked real variety, despite the regional variations.

Once I got down to Penang, Malaysia, where I spent about a week, I was in foodie heaven. As in Thailand, much of the best food in Malaysia is sold by outdoor vendors, most specializing in a particular item. Certain dishes tend to be made by members of particular ethnic groups, though in the U.S. a great deal of them find their way onto menus of restaurants run by ethnic Chinese from Malaysia. In Malaysia the best way to eat is to go to one of the hawkers centers, outdoor clusters of vendors selling one or two specialties. You take a table with a number on it, go up to the vendors and order your dishes, give them your table number, and they bring the food to you when it's ready. One of the most famous hawker centers in Penang is at Gurney Drive, a pleasant waterfront setting that is bustling at night. Something I noticed in both Singapore and Malaysia was that all ethnic groups seemed to enjoy each other's food, and sometimes dishes weren't relgated to any particular sub-cuisine.

Hawker Centre in Penang (probably Gurney Drive)

The main ethnic groups of Malaysia are Malay, Chinese and Indian (predominantly Tamil, but also some North Indian). One can find excellent South Indian food in that region, as good as in India. Traditional South Indian cuisine hasn't found its way, in general, onto overseas Malaysian restaurant menus. You won't find a dosa at a Malaysian restaurant. But you'll most certainly find roti canai (pronounced "chanai"--"c" before a vowel in Bahasa Melayu, the Malaysian language, is pronounced "ch") at every Malaysian restaurant in the U.S.

Usually described as "Indian pancake," it's a flaky, multi-layer fried bread that's served with a curry dipping sauce with meat. In Malaysia I think I had it mostly from little roti shops run by Indians, and I think they were Indian muslims as opposed to the mostly vegetarian Tamil Hindus. According to one site I found:

The most widespread local Indian stalls, eateries and restaurants you will find in Malaysia, are Indian-Muslim. Affectionately referred to by locals as Mamak stall or Mamak restaurant, they serve an extraordinary cuisine of Indian-Muslim food - a culinary assimilation of Indian and Malay cooking styles. The curries and entrees are unmistakably Indian, yet unlike those found in India.

Indian Muslims also ran many of the foreign exchange places. At first I found this odd, but I learned that foreign exchange, unlike money lending, does not break the Islamic prohibition against usury.

A pickled vegetable salad common at Malaysian hawker stands as well as overseas Malaysian restaurants is called achat or achar (achar is the name for pickle in India).

The Malaysian version has a tangy sesame-peanut dressing. It's also a component of nasi lemak, a composed plate of coconut rice ("nasi" means rice), some curry (usually chicken or beef), dried tiny fish (ikan bilis), achat, cucumber, and crushed peanuts. It's often eaten for breakfast, and I found mine in Penang at stands run by Malay women. But the Indian influence is apparent, as it is on much of Malay and Indonesian cuisine. In fact, when I first tried Chicken Chettinad, in Chennai (Madras), I noticed the similarity to an Indonesian and Malaysian dish, daging rendang, meat (usually beef) with a dry curry. In Indonesia it is truly a dry spice coating, but the Malaysian version is a thick gravy.

When I told the waiter at that Chettinad restaurant in Chennai about the similarity to Malaysian food he explained that the Chettiyars are a Tamil non-vegetarian Hindu merchant class who traveled throughout Southeast Asia and facilitated a two-way culinary exchange. I prefer the Malaysian style of beef rendang to the Indonesian version, by the way.

Noodles are central to Malaysian cuisine, and were certainly introduced by the Chinese, but popular noodle dishes incorporate various influences. Mee goreng (which combines the Chinese word for noodle with the Malay word for fried) is sometimes called Indian Mee Goreng on U.S. Malaysian menus. Hokkien mee is a thick, yellow wheat noodle served in a brown soy-based gravy with mixed meat and seafood, and the name comes from one of the main Chinese groups in Malaysia, originally from Fujian province (Hokkien is the name for Fujian in the dialect of that province). Mee Jawa, a thick tomato-noodle soup, is of Indonesian origin, as the name implies. Perhaps my favorite Malaysian noodle dish is char kuey teow. Kuey teow is a flat rice noodle, similar to the noodle used for pad Thai, and char just means fried (a variant of "chow"). It's medium-spicy and contains a mix of seafood and sometimes Chinese sausage.

Another dish that's ubiquitous on Malaysian restaurant menus, as well as on many Vietnamese menus, is Hainan chicken rice. It's boiled chicken served on the bone atop very rich, oily rice that's been cooked in fatty chicken broth. It's served with several condiments. Hainan is a southern Chinese island that many overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia hail from.

One of the most popular vegetable dishes in Malaysia and Singapore is kang kung belacan, Chinese water spinach cooked with a preserved dried shrimp paste that is also the base for a Malaysian chili sauce (sambal belacan).

Belacan has a rather funky taste, but used judiciously it adds a wonderful dimension to many dishes. Similar preserved shrimp sauces are found throughout Asia.

When I was in Malaysia and Singapore, satay--grilled, skewered meat--seemed to be an item that was always made by Malay men.

It originated in Indonesia and is served with a peanut dipping sauce. In Singapore there's a famous outdoor venue called the Satay Club where numerous vendors cook their sticks on charcoal grills. It's actually one of the few outdoor venues I could find in Singapore when I was there. Most of the food hawkers had been relegated to sterile shopping center food courts by the anal-retentive leadership of the island who believed that al fresco food preparation was unsanitary.

The fusion cooking of Malaysia and Singapore is generally referred to as Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine. The word "Peranakan" itself refers to a more general cultural or ethnic fusion, growing out Chinese-Malay intermarriage, common in the 19th century. The male descendants became known as "babas" and the women "nyonyas."

All of the food photos above are from a recent dinner at the appropriately named Nyonya, in Chinatown, one of New York's better Malaysian restaurants (though I more frequently go to the Sunset Park branch). One dish that Nyonya does particularly well is cheng lai stingray, which is cooked with a spicy lemongrass sauce.

I've only scratched the surface of Malaysian food here. Because of the diversity of the cuisine, most Malaysian restaurants have very large menus, and the hardest part of a Malaysian meal is deciding what to order. At my recent dinner for six at Nyonya I focused on some of the greatest hits of Malaysian cuisine, making sure all of the major strains were represented.

Malaysian restaurants are "pan-Asian" without the artifice . . . and bad sushi ain't on the menu.

194 Grand Street (between Mott & Mulberry)


Anonymous vicki karno said...

Look forward to trying out this restaurant on our next trip to NYC.
When we were in Capetown, our favorite meal was at a little malaysian restaurant. The seasoning was what we were missing from most of our meals.

We will be going to Buenes Aires, Montevideo, and Santiago in February. Also a week in Cuba in Dec. If you have any suggestions for any of these places, we would love to hear from you.
vicki in New Orleans

1:46 PM  
Blogger Aidy said...

Thanks for the article. Malaysian food has always been one of the first fusion food that we know but sadly it was very under-rated.

11:15 AM  
Anonymous Singapore Freight said...

For me, Malaysian food is the best in the world. Love the mix of tastes which are influenced by so many cultures.
A strong but very pelasing taste to most Malaysian dishes.

1:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Acar does not usually accompany nasi lemak. The hot chilli that accompanies nasi lemak is actually called sambal.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

Huh? Sambal is a chili sauce, achat/ajak is pickled vegetables. Achar is the Indian name for pickles, which I think is the source of the name.

10:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Must try Soos restaurant in Toronto. Great Malaysian fusion like you've never had!

12:06 PM  

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