April 29th, 2010 by Brian Schwartz – Comments (16)
Some of the best Malaysian food you’ll ever eat can be found within shouting distance of Woodland Hills Mall, in a tiny restaurant cheerily decorated with photographs of Singapore, Bali and Kuala Lumpur. It opened in 2008. I heard about it, meant to go, but never did, put off perhaps by the word “fusion”. Meanwhile, the Indonesian woman who owned it sold the business, and the emphasis changed from Indonesian food to Malayan Chinese, for which the word “Bali” is as out of place as “Munich Cafe” as the name of a French bistro, but for which the word “fusion” is dead on accurate. Malayan Chinese is the world’s first fusion cuisine.
Sometime around the year 1500, small bands of intrepid Chinese left their ancestral villages in the area north and east of present day Hong Kong and set sail across the China Sea. Reaching the land of sultans, palms and pirates now called Malaysia, they settled down, thrived, and their descendants, known as Peranakan, out of touch with China, developed a culture all their own. And a cuisine too, a fusion cuisine, blending Chinese and Malay cooking techniques, with some Portuguese contributions (from their colony in south Malaya) and Indian spices thrown in. More Malay than Chinese, actually, the main thing being a blend of raw spices called a rempah, which is, like a Cajun roux or a Cuban sofrito, used as a base for sauces. That is totally unlike any other Chinese food I’ve heard of. Malayan Chinese food (or, as it’s called, Nonya food) is totally unique (and I know that a lot of grammarians say “totally unique” is not correct grammar, but they haven’t tasted Nonya food).
“What does it taste like?” I asked my friend Cathe. “Like nothing I’ve ever tasted in my life,” she replied. It was 4 PM on Monday and we’d just started on our meal at Bali Fusion. Here’s what we had. First, the Beef Rendang ($9). That’s probably why I was there. Beef Rendang is one of the most famous Nonya dishes, though it was invented, not by the Peranakan but by the Minangkabau people of central Sumatra. I’d tried it many times in New York, and I’ve never found it done right. It was always dry and tasteless, even though on two occasions I traveled for miles by subway to try authentic Minangkabau restaurants (which is a story in itself, the man at the cash register reluctant to admit he was Minangkabau because it is a matriarchal society, meaning he wasn’t in charge). I was lamenting my sadly rendang-deprived life on TulsaFoodBlog last week, and Dhevi, who found Asian Cuisine for me, tipped me off to the rendang here.
Finally, a good Beef Rendang!! The best I’ve ever tasted. This is what a good Beef Rendang looks like:
It takes hours to make. Beef is slowly simmmered in coconut milk that’s laced with spices, including ginger, galangal and lemongrass. It tasted so good! Tender moist beef, each bite redolent of that heady Southeast Asian spice blend. (And before you all rush to comment, yes, I have tried the rendang at Keo, but the chef there has totally reconfigured the traditional recipe, so while it’s very good, I don’t consider it a true rendang.) I think that was everyone’s favorite dish, though the rendang had stiff competition from our other two dishes. The first of these was Sambal Calamari($10).
This was a tip from our waiter, whom I think was the manager, and if he wasn’t he probably should be. He was informative and helpful. I’d ordered another kind of seafood dish, and he suggested this one as being more authentic. And he was right. It had all the elements of Nonya food pulled into one. It had a rempah, the blend of spices, and it had that most famous (or notorious) of Nonya ingredients, belacan. Belacan is a paste made of shrimp that are allowed to ferment (i.e. decay), then dried in the sun. Use the right amount, and it enhances all flavors. Use too much and you’ve ruined your meal. (And here’s a cooking secret: put one teaspoon of fish sauce (belacan’s cousin) — not more! — in an Italian ragu or spaghetti sauce as you’re cooking it and it will add a rich subtle flavor.) Here, they used the right amount, and the belacan added a rich, salty, seafood tang to mild, white, fresh and yummy squid. There were chilies too, and 20 other ingredients, and they each played a role. But, just as we were focusing on the squid, and the tasty coconut rice (and before I forget, always order the spice-infused coconut rice instead of plain rice, well worth the 50¢ extra), along came the laksa:
Noodle soups are very popular in Malaysia. Laksa is a kind of noodle soup, and it comes in several varieties. This one is a curry laksa. Noodles, with a sliced chicken breast thrown in, swimming in a rich curry liquid. Basically an Indian curry, but the kind popular in Japan and southern China, introduced by Portuguese traders hundreds of years ago. And this laksa was huge. “It’s enough for three people!” I said. But, hypnotized by the rich, wonderful flavor, we ate every bit.
“Dessert?” said the waiter. Oh, no! We were stuffed, stuffed and happy.
Open daily from 11AM to 9 PM
They have special dishes on the weekend, and when they do, they are listed on their Facebook Page Here.
Born in NYC, age 0, on my birthday. College in Oxford at age 16. Law School in New Haven, Conn. 6 years travel in Africa and Asia. Haven’t done much lately. Still, I’m the only Tulsa member of the little-known Omega Society. www.theomegasociety.com
I speak enough Chinese to order food not on any English menu. Spanish French Italian too (not fluently but food-ently) My favorite restaurant is Jean-Georges in New York. But those NYC chefs would sell their soul to get the produce available from the farms around Inola.
“A writer writes alone. His words tumble forth from a magical inner void that is mysterious even to himself, and that no one else can enter.” And yet, the most important thing to me the writer is YOU. Without you to hear them, my words are worth less than silence.