An American Chef’s Malaysian Love Story
Almost a decade ago, I spent 10 months working at a traditional Malay restaurant in Kuala Lumpur ("KL" to locals) called Seri Melayu. I was the only Westerner who had ever cooked there, and the experience was life-changing: It completely opened my mind to new flavors and a whole new style of cuisine, and it ultimately led me to open the Malaysian-inspired restaurant Fatty Crab in Manhattan in 2005. Last year, when I started developing a Malaysian-inspired bar menu for 230 Fifth, a rooftop bar in Manhattan, I decided I needed a refresher trip to KL to revisit old haunts and discover new ones. That trip still resonates with me as I work on my most recent restaurant, Suka, in London’s Sanderson Hotel.
Malaysia is a peninsular country just south of Thailand. Because it was an important trading post in the 15th century—when the coastal city of Melaka, about 90 miles south of KL, was a well-established entrepôt—its food bears the influences of China, India, Portugal, Thailand and the Middle East. The majority of its citizens are ethnic Malays, but there is a large Chinese population, whose ancestors were brought to Malaysia in the 18th century to work in tin mines. The result is a fascinating mix, both culturally and culinarily.
When I arrived in KL, Malaysia’s capital, I noticed right away how much the city had changed since my last visit. Gleaming glass office towers and hotels have sprouted up on nearly every corner. Even the small, open-air restaurants and roadside vendors the locals call hawker carts, which serve KL’s best food, have changed dramatically. In Chinatown, street stalls that were once frequented only by Malaysians and a smattering of expatriates had become nearly full-scale restaurants, with lots of Western customers and menus with English translations.
Eating out in KL is one of the few Malaysian experiences in which everyone ignores the increasing economic divide between those making it rich off of Southeast Asian development and those still living humbly. Squatting side-by-side next to their favorite hawker or elbow-to-elbow at small tables in a stall, everyone from street cleaners to well-to-do businessmen makes time to roll up their sleeves and makan nasi (eat rice), enjoying the full-flavored noodle and rice dishes, curries and clay-pot stews that epitomize Malaysian cuisine. On the following pages, I share my favorite dishes from the trip and some of the recipes they inspired.
Nowhere else is lemongrass revered as it is in Southeast Asia. Aromatic and woody, it is shaved raw into spicy salads and eaten either on its own with a bowl of rice or as a component of a larger meal. The best versions of lemon-grass salad are found along the Thai-Malay border. On my journey to KL, I stopped at a bar in the Thai beach town of Phuket called Timber Hut (118/1 Yaowarat Rd., Amphur Muang; 011-66-76-211-839), which my friend Rob McKeown (an Asia-based restaurant consultant who guided me on this trip) claims makes one of the best lemongrass-and-sausage salads in Southeast Asia. Timber Hut is a roadhouse joint that would look more at home in the southeastern United States than in Southeast Asia. Malay and Thai rockers in black concert tees line the bar to listen to Eagles and Pink Floyd cover bands. But Timber Hut’s version of lemongrass salad reminded me of where I was, and why I had traveled so far. The cooks peel back the first two layers of lemongrass, which are too tough to eat, then shave the stalk very thinly before mixing it with sausage, diced pineapple and chile. (I sometimes substitute mango for the pineapple.) The dressing is a mixture of ginger, gula Jawa (palm sugar) and lime juice. The salad is completely refreshing, with just the right amount of spice and fat to keep you drinking beer all night long.
Seng Kee is a little noodle stall in KL’s Chinatown, opposite the Selangor Complex on Jalan Sultan. That is, it was a little stall in 1997, when I ate there all the time. The owner has since partnered with a robust and energetic Malay woman and opened up a large, open-storefront restaurant, complete with menus and plenty of attitude from the eccentric matron, who all but insists on what you will order and gets agitated if you try to speak to the cooks, who work their high-powered woks on the edge of the street.
Ignore the attitude. The loh shi fun—which means "rat noodles" in Cantonese—at Seng Kee is worth it. This dish features stubby, tapered rice noodles cooked in a clay pot in a rich sauce made with chicken stock, soy sauce, kecap manis (sweet Indonesian soy sauce), ground pork and pig liver, all topped with a raw egg. (I order it without pig liver, as I find the taste a bit strong.) The noodles are dense and chewy, with enough integrity to match the rich sauce. The raw egg is cracked on top of the steaming hot dish just before serving, so it gently poaches in the sauce. Like most dishes in Southeast Asia, the final seasoning is done at the table—you add extra soy sauce, fish sauce and chiles to taste. Loh shi fun is like the Bolognese of Malaysia—unctuous, slow-cooked and eminently satisfying.
I love gnocchi. It’s one of those dishes that takes a while to master and changes every time you make it, due to the water content of the potatoes and even the day’s humidity. Gnocchi is not something I think of as Asian—at all. One day, however, I ended up in Bangsar—an upscale, artsy, Soho-like neighborhood in KL—eating the Malay version of gnocchi, made with purple yams and glutinous rice flour instead of the potatoes and wheat flour used in the Italian version. These Malay gnocchi, called abacus seeds, are chewier than potato gnocchi but just as delicious. They are topped with fried shallots, minced shrimp, pork, Chinese celery and a little chile sauce. I have modified traditional abacus seeds by using all-purpose flour instead of glutinous rice flour and taro instead of purple yams. The result is slightly smoother and less chewy than the abacus seeds found in KL, and, as far as I’m concerned, somewhat more refined.
In the West, a nice fillet is the most coveted part of the fish. Not so in Malaysia, where the head is the most prized cut, favored because of the delicious cheek meat. Once you’ve sampled the tender, sweet flesh from behind the jawbone, you’ll become a convert. The head is perfect for stewing because the flesh doesn’t dry out, even when it’s cooked for a long time. During my trip, the editors of the Malaysian Foodsters’ Guide took me to a small Indian/Malay stand called Bangsar Fish Head Corner in the Lucky Garden Hawker Center (No. 2, Lorong Ara Kiri 3) to indulge in some of the finest fish-head curry I have ever had. I prefer the sour, or asam, version, where tamarind is usually added to the broth, which is cooked with spices, chiles, shallots and garlic along with the fish heads and lots of vegetables. Many stalls use okra, tomatoes and small round eggplants, but I don’t see why a whole host of other vegetables couldn’t be substituted. The goal is a warming, balanced broth with a little heat and tender, moist and sweet pieces of fish. Yes, the same recipe can be made with fillets, but life is an adventure, so I suggest living a little. To truly indulge, this should be a hands-only experience—use your fingers to dig into every crevice of the head.
One morning, after a long night of eating and drinking in KL, I practically crawled into a nearby kopitiam (also called kedai kopi in Malay), a style of Chinese-Malaysian coffee shop you find all over the city. What woke me up and prepared me for another day of eating was a simple fried rice dish spiced with sambal belacan, a sauce made of crushed chiles seasoned with belacan—fermented, dried shrimp paste—and lime juice.
Two staples of the Malaysian diet, rice and sambal belacan, came together so simply and perfectly in a dish clearly born of the previous night’s leftovers, which in this case included egg, shrimp, bean sprouts, chives and mushrooms. Genius!
Kuching Kolok Mee
Perhaps no dish is more common in Asia than noodle soup. But how about a soup in which the noodles are taken out of the broth? In Malaysia, the noodles and toppings are often served dry, with the liquid on the side, so the eater either adds broth to his or her liking or slurps up the broth separately. I was amazed by the flavors of Kuching kolok mee, one type of dry soup found at the Lucky Garden Hawker Center in Bangsar. In Kuching kolok mee, ramen-style noodles are topped with ground pork, slices of roasted pork and fresh peas, with a light pork broth and pickled chiles served on the side. The dish is from Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. Kuching was once known as a pirate town, a home for seafaring opportunists from all over Asia and the Middle East who would stop to trade with jungle-dwelling natives. Noodles and pork are obvious Chinese influences, so I like to call this dish Chinese Pirate’s Soup—a name I decided on without any real hard evidence, but it sure sounds exotic!
It seems that every culture has a version of fried chicken, and variations abound, from the seasoning and coating to the type of fat and cooking method. In Malaysia, I tasted an amazing spice-rubbed fried chicken served with nasi uduk, a lemongrass-seasoned rice, at a pasar malam (night market) on the island of Langkawi, off the country’s northwest coast. There was a funky, salty, taste-of-the-sea nuance that was so addictive, I had to figure out the secret. Pasar malams usually set up in a certain spot only once a week, so I knew I had to act fast. After finishing my meal, I returned to the stall and watched two women fry the chicken, wrap a banana leaf inside a piece of butcher paper to form a cone, place the chicken inside and sprinkle a garnish of fried curry leaves. As the night wound down and the women’s business began to slow, I asked one of them for the source of the funky flavor, and she replied succinctly, "Cencalok." Cencalok is a traditional Malay sauce of fermented tiny prawns. These prawns, smaller than a child’s fingernail, are salted and bottled and left to ferment, so when you open a bottle, the sauce will often foam like Champagne. One night in KL, I found a stall in the Bangsar neighborhood just off the main road (it’s the best fried chicken stall in Bangsar and one of the few that’s open late) where the chicken had a similar intensity. I was unable to confirm whether cencalok was part of the seasoning; if not, I’m certain there was belacan in it.
Inspiration is elusive. It’s not something you can chase and expect to capture. So one hot morning (and it’s always hot in KL!), when I walked into the Yut Kee kopitiam (35 Jalan Dang Wangi; 011-60-3-2698-8108), inspiration was the furthest thing from my mind. I was looking only for breakfast, but from the look of the place, even that was doubtful. Yut Kee has been around for generations and seems never to have been renovated. There are tiled walls and rickety ceiling fans; faded photos of an unidentified man in military regalia hang on the wall along with a large menu board that lists Western specialties such as spaghetti and meatballs and pork chops with potatoes. These dishes are interspersed with roti babi (fried pork-stuffed bread), loh mee (noodles in a thick broth) and other Malaysian and southern Chinese specialties. But what was most compelling to me was the toast, grilled over hardwood charcoal—not gas, not electric coils, but charcoal—so that it tastes slightly smoky. It’s served with kaya, a coconut-milk jam similar to dulce de leche that’s made by slowly cooking coconut milk, sugar and eggs while constantly stirring. This simplicity of ingredients and cooking methods really struck me. Suddenly, I had a new dessert treat to include on the menu of my restaurant.
Fatty Crab, 643 Hudson St., New York City; 212-352-3590. 230 Fifth, 230 Fifth Ave., New York City; 212-725-4300.