James Oseland, just hired as editor-in-chief of Saveur, also happens to be a Malaysian-Indonesian food guru. His new book, Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking From the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia calls on the twenty years he spent in that part of the world. So how do people who spent the last twenty years traveling no farther than the Coney Island F stop make sense of the cuisine? And where can they sample its highlights? Oseland walks us through the type of menu you'll find in most Malaysian restaurants, in his own words.
Guide: The Typical Malaysian Menu
First you're going to find what we call appetizers. They're more like snacks. Look out for rojak, a piquant salad of pineapple, cucumber, and jícama dressed in a powerfully spiced savory dressing. Order the Ipoh bean sprouts — very simple, lightly blanched bean sprouts served in a soy dressing with plenty of freshly ground white or black pepper.
Happy Joy, 25 Canal St, nr. Ludlow St.; 212-388-0264
Roaming further into the menu, you'll find a bunch of noodle dishes: fried noodles, which are known in Malaysia as mee goreng, and noodle soups, the best of which is called yong tau fu. The latter is a really fantastic dish, a variety of barely blanched or deep-fried ingredients such as tofu, bitter melon, and eggplant that have been stuffed with a gently seasoned forcemeat of mackerel, and served with lo mein noodles and either a clear stock or an intensely seasoned coconut-milk curry broth.
Nyonya, 194 Grand St., nr. Mulberry St.; 212-334-3669
The next section of the menu will have a range of rice dishes. The go-to one would be the coconut rice — nasi lemak or nasi uduk. It's steamed with coconut milk and flavored with aromatics like ginger and lemongrass.
Minangasli, 86-10 Whitney Ave., nr. Macnish St., Elmhurst; 718-429-8207
New Indonesia and Malaysia, 18 Doyers St., nr. Bowery; 212-267-0088
Fatty Crab, 643 Hudson St., nr. Horatio St.; 212-352-3590
Next you're likely to find an array of stir-fries. The best of them is called kang kung belacan — it's fresh-water spinach that's been quickly fried in a very hot wok with shallots, garlic, chiles, and dried shrimp paste (belacan).
And finally, there's the proteins: fish, chicken, beef, and, if it's Malaysian-Chinese (and isn't halal), pork. The must-have meat thing would be beef rendang. It's slow-braised in coconut-milk curry, flavored with cloves and cinnamon and nutmeg and ginger. All the liquid evaporates, and the meat is left to gently [brown] in the beef fat that remains in the pan. In Sumatra, they use water buffalo, which results in a fantastically rich dish.
Upi Jaya, 76-04 Woodside Ave., near 76th St., Woodside; 718-458-1807