Recently I had dinner at Penang Malaysian Cuisine in Boston’s Chinatown. It’s a pretty cool place made to look like a bit like tropical Malaysia without being too tacky or gimmick-driven. Despite its high capacity, it was packed by 7pm on a Saturday night. The menu was a nice blend of Chinese, Indian and typically Malaysian dishes which made me a tad nostalgic about the Asian flavors which were recently so close to my fingertips. The beer selection (Tsingtao – my go-to local beer in Hong Kong, and Singha – many of which were consumed with friends in Thailand) also warmed my heart a bit.
This is what I had.
This is veggie Achat, a popular hawker stand favorite in Malaysia, served on a plate to me in Boston’s Chinatown while it was snowing outside. The first thing about this dish is that it is cold, since it is technically a pickle, so it might be a good idea to order it as a side to some nice warm meat and noodle/rice dish, rather than as an appetizer. Technically it is a “snack” but, well, there isn’t really a section for this food type on a typical resto menu – maybe it should’ve been on the Salad list. It is made up of of long bean, skewers of cucumber and carrot and a few juicy folds of cabbage which are pickled in rice vinegar blended with turmeric, lemongrass, garlic, shallots and shrimp paste, and then turned in a bit of oil. I was actually pretty into this dish, cold and all. The veggies were tender but with a slight bite and the cabbage added a nice soft pillow texture to the mix. Earthy musty, slightly lemony turmeric added a nice flavor and a great deep yellow color to the pickle-glaze and suited the veg nicely. It was lifted up by the floral freshness of the lemongrass which followed the turmeric flavor closely. Shrimp paste was just enough to add umami but no fishiness. The liquid the veggies were pickled in was just enough to revive the veggies and make them extra juicy, without making the dish too watery. The toasted sesame and peanuts on top added a nice warmth, a nutty and oily crunch.
Roti canai: This is an Indian-style flatbreak which is served in Malaysia at the Tamil Muslim “Mamak stalls” and is known as “roti prata” in Singapore. A nice savory version of the flatbread I had as dessert in the largely Muslim Phuket Town in Thailand a while ago. It is made of butter, flour, egg and water. It is kneaded like crazy, folded over itself over and over again and allowed to rise. It is then flattened, thrown in a pan, coated in oil and pan-seared until the outside is crispy and flaky and the inside is fluffy and cooked through. This deliciously fatty, flaky and satisfying flatbread is served with a curry chicken dipping sauce which was slightly sweet and tangy, but which I wished was just a tad thicker, in order to better survive on the thin bread instead of just making it soggy and filling it with its flavor. It was also weird that there were two big chunks of chicken floating around in the dipping sauce, too big for the bread to really wrap around as it should. I wish the chicken had been shredded into the sauce to give every bite a bit of protein and serve as textural contrast.
Penang Popiah: This is a steamed springroll-like snack made with a very thin, paper-like wheat flour wrapper, stuffed with grated jicama, bean sprouts, lettuce, slices of fried tofu, fried shallots, shredded scrambled egg, and a bit of shrimp in there as well. It is topped with a line of sweet, nutty, thick Hoisin sauce and one of hot Sriracha chili sauce which balance each other pretty nicely. The jicama and bean sprouts on the inside are nice and crunchy against the fresh softness of the lettuce and the fried shallots add a bit of a fried to all that green freshness, while the fried tofu adds a nice chewy-outside/soft-inside texture. The bits of egg are good too; surprisingly they do not soak up too much moisture from the surrounding veggies and get soggy. The bits of shrimp in there also add a crisp texture to the mix. My only qualm with this dish is that the pieces fall apart completely when an attempt it made to pick them up with chopsticks. It seems either the skin is too thin to support the fillings or there just isn’t enough of it on the bottom to hold on to. Everything kind of ends up spilling out and the skin becomes more of a loose, transparent blanket to a salad, in which case it’s quite unnecessary.
Mee Siam: This is one of the most popular dishes in Singapore and Malaysia in general. Thin yellow rice noodles stir-fried in a sweet-sour-spicy Thai chili sauce. Tossed in were bits of dried bean curd, a few shrimps, bean sprouts, salted soy beans, spring onions for a delicate kick, some crumbles of scrambled egg and some fried shallots for an extra bit of caramelized comfort. The stuff was topped with crushed peanuts for crunch and served with slices of cold hard-boiled egg for a extra bit of gummy protein. This dish was executed with a perfect balance in flavors and thus wasn’t particularly sweet, salty or sour in itself but generally deep in flavor with all these flavor characteristics having equal say in its composition. The “gravy” which the string-thin noodles were tossed around in had a nice heat from the Thai chilis, a pungent, lemony acidity from the bit of tamarind added, a fresh floral quality from lemongrass, and a sweetness from the bit of sugar added. The noodles are incredibly moist and juicy from this mixture, without becoming soggy. The bean sprouts add a fresh, cool crunch to the warm ingredients. The stuff is served with a lime wedge for an extra bit of citric acidity. I would definitely order this one again.
Asam Laksa: This is a traditional Malaysian fish-based soup whose broth is heavily seasoned with tamarind, which gives it a sour flavor, and shrimp paste, which gives is a salty, slightly fishy flavor. These two (fishy and sour) work together to give the broth a very pungent aroma (gym socks), as well as flavor, although the floral, fresh lemongrass added alleviates some of the excess fishiness. Stewed into the broth are pieces of shredded fish, thin slices of cucumber and onion and chunks of pineapple. It is topped off with mint and ginger. The noodles used are thick, gummy udon-like rice noodles. I actually enjoyed this dish thoroughly, despite the initial shock that came with the depth of musky flavor. The noodles were chewy, gummy and slippery on the outside, and were offset nicely with the crisp bite of the cucumber slices around it. The pineapple chunks were a bit odd in there, although I’m generally not a fan of pineapples as an ingredient in any warm dish so I guess that’s a personal bias. The bits of fish (mackerel?) were there mostly for flavor and melted on the tongue pretty quickly. All in all it was a comforting, very filling soup with an interesting sweet-sour-funky flavor to it. Similar to other funky things like stinky tofu and durian, it’s one of those things you either love or hate. I happened to love it. Come to find, it was also voted #7 on World’s 50 most delicious foods by CNN Go in 2011. So I’d definitely recommend being adventurous and trying it out.
And for dessert, a popular one in Southeast Asia – Sticky rice with mangoes and pineapple chunks, lathered in sweetened coconut milk. Having traveled around Thailand and lived in Hong Kong for 6 months, I’m pretty familiar with the rice-mango-coconut combo ubiquitous throughout Southeast Asia. These 3 ingredients are combined in many different ways (throw in the occasional banana or pineapple) to make many different desserts which all kind of taste the same. This one wasn’t bad. The blob of sticky rice had a nice gummy consistency to it, while the mango was just ripe enough to be soft and smooth but not ripe enough to be too sickly sweet. The coconut jizzjazz poured over the top blended with the flavor of the slightly sour mango nicely while also giving a nice coating to the sticky rice. The chunks of pineapple were completely unnecessary. They were also canned which is kind of unacceptable in a Malaysian restaurant, so I chose to just ignore them completely.