1/2 Sometimes you need distance to see the silliness in food debates. It’s doubtful that anyone outside NYC cares about who serves the best fried chicken (though to be fair that’s more of a discussion than a debate, and a fun one). And I can say with 100% certainty that the average American has no idea what Ampang yong tau foo is, let alone whether it’s Singaporean or Malaysian. But Malaysia is all cranky over Singapore’s successful food branding (at least in the region—once again, I think they may be overestimating a worldwide perception that Singapore is a culinary destination) and are trying to play catch up.
As a Westerner who’s been to both Singapore and Malaysia, I know a very obvious way that Malaysia could differentiate themselves and appeal to global foodies: artisanal cred. Coconut milk squeezed from the flesh the not a can, cendol colored green with pandan not dye, curries from freshly pounded rempahs not packaged pastes, satay grilled over charcoal not gas. Slow food, Southeast Asian-style.
The only real effect this article had on me, though, was the need for a bowl of laksa. Lemak, a.k.a. Singaporean-style, I’m afraid. I just don’t trust that they’re going to get assam version right here. Copious amounts of coconut milk can mask more ills than sour fishy broth.
The version at Elmhurst’s Taste Good was better than I had expected. I say that because in Malaysia, as in many countries, street food is specialized and often kept to a handful of choices. How can a menu with hundreds of offerings all be good? And Taste Good uses the term laksa very loosely with a list of 35 dishes beneath that heading that include Hong Kong-style beef noodle soup, Hokkien mee, tom yum mee hoon, and both curry and assam laksas. All over the place.
The Singapore kari laksa, in their parlance, was creamy with enough spice to cut through the richness and contained nice fat rice noodles. The menu gives no hint what the toppings might be, and there was a surprising hodgepodge: small shrimp, half a hard boiled egg, shredded chicken, slices of fish cake, bean sprouts and my favorite, fried bean curd puffs. These spongy squares absorb the broth and dispense a mouthful when you bite into them. The only thing missing was sambal and lime wedges.
Rojak is dressed with an eerily dark sauce of sweetened, tangy prawn paste. I love it but I know many who can’t stand the smell of belacan. A woman, who appeared to be in charge, was asking a non-Malaysian Asian diner, “Doesn’t the smell bother you?” Apparently, it didn’t. Love or hate, no one is neutral on the smell of roasted shrimp paste.
Hiding under all the black goo topped with sesame seeds were jicama, pineapple, cuttlefish, cucumber, chopped peanuts and chunks of crueler. After sitting awhile, the fried dough performs the opposite function of the tasty bean curd in the laksa. I drunkenly picked at leftover rojak that evening and almost choked on all of the pungent sauce that oozed from the now mushy and disintegrating cruelers.
I’ve never heard of dry curry beef rendang noodles but here they are. Rendang seems more suited to rice, if you ask me.
For NYC Malaysian food with a Chinese bent, I was satisfied by Taste Good. Purists, I’m sure would find details to nitpick.
Taste Good * 82-18 45th Ave., Elmhurst, NY