(11 May 2002)
© Copyright 2002, D. Crocker, Brandenburg
A series of notes on living and working in Malaysia, during Jackie's Senior Fulbright Fellowship to Universiti Putra Malaysia, near Kuala Lumpur. Copies may be freely distributed, but must retain this preamble. Previous notes are located at www.bbiw.net/amj. To subscribe send me a note. /Dave <email@example.com>
The U.S. is getting familiar with Southeast Asian food. Cambodian and Burmese food are mostly restricted to the major, urban foodie venues, but Thai and Vietnamese restaurants have sprouted up everywhere, with lemongrass added to many American cooks’ repertoire of ingredients. Now we are starting to see places specializing in Malaysian or Singaporean cuisine, just in time for Jackie’s and my bouts of nostalgia.
In spite of claims that they are vastly different, Malaysian and Singaporean cuisines fall into the same category for me. Perhaps Singaporean is more eclectic and more subdued. Malay food is always hot. South Indian frequently is. However the various Hainan, Hokkien, and other Chinese contributions, and the Chinese/Malay fusion culture, called Nonya, are mild. Still, all these influences make it difficult to view Malaysian cuisine as “less” eclectic.
When we returned from our year in Malaysia, there was only one choice in the South Bay area, a clone of Straits, a popular Singaporean San Francisco restaurant. The food was good and did an excellent job catering our 100th birthday – that is, Jackie’s and my combined 50th. Today there are more than five choices around the South and East Bay area. Predictably, they make concessions to their U.S. environment. The heat factor is vastly subdued and some of the dishes have a Malaysian marketing appeal, but no authenticity. At E & O Trading, a very good San Jose California/Asia fusion spot, an ethnic Malay dish had pork in it, violating the Muslim stricture. Over in San Ramon is a spot that has excellent food claiming to be Malaysian but not matching anything I ever had there. In particular, the flavors were delicate and distinct, with zero heat. The owner is from Malaysia and insists it is what his family ate all the time at home. As with most Southeast Asian restaurants in the U.S., the owner is ethnic Chinese, and my guess is that the food is Cantonese.
So we visit each new Malaysian or Singaporean restaurant, enjoying some more than others, but never returning frequently.
Penang Village, nestled next to San Jose airport, is going to be the exception. During our first meal, I noticed myself reflecting on the similarity of the ambience to some restaurants around Malaysia. Its freestanding building is enclosed and frankly cleaner, but the rough wood and slightly ramshackle tone hint at Malaysian places near the water. Jackie liked the fact that one of their posters had also hung on her wall for a few years.
The food is great. Jackie was very upset that my second visit did not include her, but she really would not have enjoyed the Internet business discussion that prompted meeting a colleague there. The menu does have some pseudo-Malay items, but they seem to be pretty good, too. The menu covers a range of ethnic Malay, Indian, Chinese and Thai dishes. The ones with an asterisk really do have some heat, but they won’t turn up the fire to the level of Malaysian norms unless you ask them to. Alas, the prices are reasonable American, rather than unreasonably low Malaysian.
I have taken to using Mee Goreng (stir-fried noodles) as a metric. It is actually Indian and includes vegetables exotic for Malaysia and imported from its Cameron Highlands region, since that is the only place in Malaysia cool enough to grow... potatoes. During our ex-pat year, we ate it regularly in a cafeteria at Jackie’s university, so I originally did not realize that it could be excellent. After all, university cafeterias everywhere treat food the same. The dish can easily lose its flavors, with everything combining into a uniform, heavy-sauced mush. The version Straits delivered for our 100th tasted good but the visiting Malaysian minister and I agreed that it was not what Malaysians eat. However when freshly made and carefully seasoned, the dish is alive with flavors. Penang Village gets it right. (The ministerm was predictably polite and said that fancy Malaysian hotels served this version to tourists, but Jackie and I ate in plenty of those hotels and never had Mee Goreng like this.)
Here is a quick run through the Penang Village dishes we have tried: Malay Kang Kung is a green leafy vegetable they list as “canvolvulus”. The sauce is spicy and the dish is delicious. The name of the vegetable is the only part of the dish that is truly exotic or daunting. Cheng Lai Fish is deep fried with a thick, chunky, spicy and sour sauce. We had not had it before, to our regret. Beef Rendang has a dark curry sauce and was a signature dish for Jackie; for some reason she liked it for breakfast. The sauce in Penang Village’s version is more liquid than we used to have but the flavors are on target. Taro Chicken is a thick “basket” of deep-fried taro, filled with mushrooms, chicken and more. Again, it was one of Jackie’s favorites. I never find myself wanting to order it, but when it’s on the table I can’t stop eating it. We have not yet had the Penang Village Asam Laksa soup. Laksa originates from Penang and is another item we use as a metric for Malaysian restaurants. The version at Kopi Tiem, in Washington, D.C. is stellar.
We are not clear how many months it will take us to work through the entire menu, but we look forward to the task. You will be safe ordering anything on the menu. Malaysian food has strong flavors and heat, but you do not have to wonder what strange animal it came from and the textures lack the challenging wiggle and squish of more adventuresome cultures. As a frame of reference, I view most Malaysian food as akin to Indian. The strangest item will be a desert called Ice Kachang, and it is delightful. It is shaved ice with red bean, corn, red rose syrup and other goodies. Personally, I’m biased towards the Thai desert, Mango Sticky Rice, with brown or palm sugar and coconut milk.
Alex, the owner, is ethnic Chinese. He came from Penang twenty years ago to continue doing specialized construction for IBM. He searched for years to find a location with just the tone of the site at Coleman and Brokaw. They are open every day, for lunch and dinner. The staff are family and friends. Some have been to Malaysia and others, like his young daughter’s friend, are looking forward to their first visit. We chatted about our experiences living there and how much we appreciated the memories invoked by his restaurant. Alex goes back to Penang regularly, if only to obtain asam and belachan. The first adds a sour flavor and the latter is a shrimp paste solidly qualifying as an acquired taste.
On our first visit, our waitress was Alex’s daughter and she reported to him my comment that we had lived in Malaysia. He was at our table in a flash, asking where we lived and how we liked it. The natural warmth of Malaysians is infectious and Penang Village spreads it readily. As we were leaving Alex initiated the usual polite thank you sequence, with a “terimah kasih” and I immediately followed form with the requisite “sama sama”. He smiled brightly with pleased satisfaction and his daughter’s friend got wide-eyed. Apparently, Malaysia really does have its own language.