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Posts from the ‘Malaysian’ Category

Air Itam Laksa

“Laksa,” the taxi drivers hovering at the bottom of our hotel’s driveway in Penang started calling out when we’d walk past. “You like laksa! You want more laksa?” Embarrassed and a little proud, we’d have to turn then down, “No, we’re just walking.”

Penang is not a huge place, so after one of the men drove us out to Air Itam for laksa on our first day on the island, we became recognized as the laksa-lovers. I liked that about Penang, that locals were kind of amused but didn’t think it was particularly odd that the Westerners wanted to go on laksa excursions.

For contrast, in Bangkok, we used Saochingcha, the Giant Swing, as a landmark to direct taxis, not because we wanted to see the monument or the wat next to it, but Saochingcha was a word we could pronounce and that would be recognized and happened to be near a good eating neighborhood off the subway system, away from the hotel strips of Sukhumvit and Silom.

But when we asked our doorman at our first hotel to explain our destination to the cab driver (one of the most humbling aspects of traveling in a non-English or Spanish speaking country) he was discouraging and warned, “There’s nothing to do there.” Our “Oh, we’re going to eat” reassurance just baffled him further. Later in the vacation when we told the man directing cabs at MBK that we needed to get to Saochingcha he actually shook his head at another staffer and rolled his eyes.

Air itam laksa stand

Air Itam, a community that’s also home to Penang Hill (sadly, they closed the funicular just a week before we arrived—not that the rickety incline during a rainstorm didn’t jangle my nerves on our last visit) and Kek Lok Si temple, is just under four miles from the Gurney Drive area but feels much more isolated. I actually saw a man using a kandar, a long wooden pole atop his shoulder to carry plastic grocery bags, a modern nod, rather than balancing pots or baskets of yore. The entire area west of Air Itam on Google Maps is blank.

Air Itam is also known for its laksa. I had read that this corner stand is a tour bus stop and feared mobs, but when we arrived in the early afternoon no one else was seated at the few metal tables.

Air itam laksa

The first thing you’ll notice about this soup is that it’s much chunkier than what you typically find at stalls. They use a base that contains a larger proportion of flaked mackerel. Combined with the fat, round rice noodles just below the surface, even a smallish bowl (they have one standard size for RM3.00, which seemed to be the going rate for laksa in Penang, about 90 cents) is hearty. We were asked if we wanted chiles. Yes, and you should too. Malaysian food is spicy but rarely hot. The red chile rings meld with the sludgy topping of mint, onion, cucumber, bunga kantan (torch ginger bud—not that that means much of anything here either) and black prawn paste, and makes the whole hodgepodge taste like…well, laksa.

Easier said than done. I’ve never attempted to cook this asam style at home but my forays into laksa lemak and Sarawakian laksa (using a paste straight from the Malaysian state) fell flat. Something is lacking (don’t say love) and the flavors always end up dulled. Good enough for NYC but not great.

Air Itam Laksa * Jalan Pasar next to the Air Itam Market, Penang, Malaysia

Northam Beach Cafe

Northam Beach Café is a newer, more organized, I guess pricier, hawker center than Gurney Drive. I liked having a numbered table because who’s to say you’ll find a seat near where you ordered? The other benefit was a dedicated beer stand where you can get your large sized Tiger beer (we initially grabbed a bottle out of the cooler but the cashier gave us a colder one from behind the counter) and two iced mugs. Two fresh mugs each round. In Thailand they drank ice in their beer, a practice I didn’t encounter in Penang.

Northam beach cafe tables

And while there appeared to be fewer obvious tourists (I couldn’t identify a Singaporean or Kuala  Lumpur resident by sight) the stalls were more international, going well beyond Malaysian classics. What convinced me to try this center in the first place was the supposed presence of a Mexican food stand. That, I needed to see. Unfortunately, it wasn’t there.

Northam beach french stand

Consolation prize went to La France. I do still wonder about the advertised frisee salad with lardons.
Northam beach german stand

German sausages were a close second. 

Northam beach pork bbq & spaghetti

Northam beach filipino stand

My international maneuver was a mistake. I got excited when I saw the words ihawan and Filipino bbq because in the US that means sweet, smokey meat on sticks. I love it way more than satay. But they only had dinner combos and bbq pork ended up being a few fatty slices or meat drenched in a gooey sauce and served with spaghetti. If you’ve ever encountered sugary, wiener-laden Filipino spaghetti, you’ll know it’s an acquired taste. I’ll eat pig’s blood, shrimp paste and the like, but really do think you have to have to have grown up with this spaghetti it to love it.

Northam beach satay

Some of that perfectly pleasant satay. Chicken because they were out of mutton.

Northam beach pasembur

Gurney Drive has pick-a-mix pasembur where you can choose from plates and plates of fried beige things to be tossed with the sweet potato dressing. Here, you get what they give you. I like the idea of crunchy bits, seafood and vegetables tossed together but it’s bland compared to rojak.

Northam beach belacan fried chicken

James will almost always order fried chicken when it’s available and it was plentiful in both Malaysia and Thailand. I told him I saw a stand in the back corner. What I didn’t tell him was that it was belcan fried chicken. He thinks that he hates shrimp paste, though I really think he just hates the smell of the block I keep wrapped up in the crisper drawer of our refrigerator. It really isn’t that strong after it’s been cooked, I swear. The funny thing was that he didn’t notice the shrimp paste until the chicken cooled down to room temperature. The fishiness doesn’t hit you over the head, instead adding rich umami undertones.

Northam beach mua chee stand

Northam beach mua chee

Mua chee, as they call it, is mochi. Here, steamed glutinous rice blobs drizzled with a peanut sauce. Apparently, offering a variety of flavors is unusual. You can mix two and I had pandan and black sesame. The others were sweetcorn, original and green tea.  My only quibble was that the pretty colors don’t show up once peanut-coated and displayed under the night sky.

Northam Beach Café * Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, Penang, Malaysia

Gurney Drive Hawkers

When I first started reading user reviews of Penang's G Hotel, which is shoulder to shoulder (but not adjoining—that air conditioned, never-exposed-to-the-elements luxury is more Singaporean) with Gurney Plaza, they were almost evenly split East-West. I'm generalizing of course, but a typical Asian reviewer might say, "It's next to a mall—great location" while the Europeans (Americans barely make a dent) would be more, "It's next to a mall—ick."
Penang hotel & mall complex

Not ick because the hotel, which didn’t even exist on my last visit in 2005, is not just next to a mall, it's also across from the Gurney Drive hawkers, the best-known outdoor food court in the city. If you're a novelty-seeker like me, it doesn’t get much better than walking out of your room to beef ribs at the ground floor Chili's and rojak down the street.

Gurney drive rojak

Here would be said crazy salad of jicama, cucumber, pineapple, water apple (the fruit a cashew is harvested from. I know! Nuts from fruit?), cuttlefish, bean curd and Chinese crullers tossed in a thick, spicy prawn paste and topped with crushed peanuts. I am a fiend for the hot, fishy sweet. Shrimpy and fruity is likely to either disgust or charm you, no in-between.

Gurney drive rojak stand

You can buy the dressing at the stands here and probably elsewhere, too. I'm not sure what the difference is between the white-topped and red-topped jars. Perhaps one is pure prawn paste and the other has sugar and chiles added for a ready-to-use dressing.

Gurney drive laksa 

Gurney drive asam laksa

Penang laksa is a totally different beast than most Malaysian laksas. Coconut milk-free and lemongrassy, the asam style is soured with tamarind and enriched with flaked mackerel. Once again, the sweet and fishy combo. Toppings usually include cucumber, pineapple, mint and torch ginger bud. The dark condiment on the spoon is black prawn paste, same as in the rojak. I don't order this in NYC because my experiences have been more bad funky (at Singapore Café there were twigs floating around in the broth) than appetizing funky.

Gurney drive fried things

James picked up some chicken and a few other unidentified fried tidbits served with sticks at a stall wonderfully named McTucky Fried Chicken.

Gurney drive char kway teow 

Gurney drive char koay teow stall

We only made one attempt to seek out exemplary char kway teow on this visit. Loh Eng Hoo Coffee Shop, my first choice, was closed. Honestly, I'm not enough of a connoisseur to find fault with this version.

Gurney drive sarsi & sugar cane juice

Sarsi is a sarsaparilla soda. I thought it tasted a little like Dr. Pepper. I was told to order a sugar cane juice with lime so I did. Some proprietors can be pushy, not rude more this is our specialty. If I'm correct the beverage-sellers have territories, so if you sit in their section you have to order from them.  I'll say yes to practically anything because the food is cheap even when tourist-priced. For reference, the laska above was RM3.00 (approximately 90 cents).

Gurney drive hawker center

Gurney Drive Hawkers * North end of Gurney Dr., Penang, Malaysia

OBAO Preview

In 2006 I worked a block from where OBAO, Michael Huynh’s latest venture, is scheduled to open on Monday. The immediate area has shaped into a multi-culti lunching paradise (Güllüoglu, Barros Luco, Mantao Chinese Sandwiches) or maybe it just seems better in comparison to the Financial District blandness I’ve grown accustomed to. And I shouldn't complain so hard, we're getting a Baoguette down here.

Obao lamb, beef on sugarcane & pork belly

Based on the sampling at OBAO’s preview party, there is high promise. The grilled cubes of pork belly were a little sweet with nice char and good balance between the meaty and fatty bits. Lamb chops were coated in chopped lemongrass and tasted like they’d been marinated in coconut milk. Instead of shrimp paste, thin slices of beef were wrapped around sugarcane. Bacon too. Why had I never thought of that?

Obao satay & shrimp roll

Shrimp rolls and chicken satay were perfectly fine renditions, but couldn’t compete with the oomph of the pork, lamb and beef. Or maybe I just have a preference for the fatty.

Obao soup

I think this was a pho. It definitely was pho-like, but the poached egg threw me off.

The unknown element will be the noodles, which weren’t showcased at this event. I’m crazy for laksa and can’t decide if the non-traditional green tea soba noodles as they are touting will be a welcome tweak or just weird. Will the char kway teow also be an Asian hybrid? I’m sure I’ll get the answers soon enough.

Obao exterior
I imagine the signage will be complete and the garbage bin removed by opening day.

OBAO * 222 E. 53 St., New York NY

Taste Good

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.

Taste good singapore laksa

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. 

Taste good rojak

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.

Taste good rendang noodles

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

Fatty Crab Uptown

I don't know if the relatively new uptown Fatty Crab needs a new entry here, as the food is pretty much the same as at the original location. The main differences being that the UWS branch is larger and is on Open Table (an important distinction to me since I had a $20 rewards check burning a hole in my pocket and now thanks to the recession I feel less like a rube using a coupon).

But not being a mental multitasker, I feel compelled to post these photos and impressions so I can shift my thinking to from Malaysian food to spice-averse Madrid where I'll be in less than 24 hours.

I enjoy the food at Fatty Crab, always more than I expect that I will. No, it's not wholly traditional but the flavors are strong, funky and not tamed for Americans. My only quibbles are that the service is dudely, they overexplain everything (I do realize that Malaysian food isn't as familiar as Thai or Vietnamese to most New Yorkers and from my observations diners do ask lots of questions) and upsell on top of it, the pacing is random; things come out willy nilly and there can be ten-minute gaps between dishes. And, well, I would feel better if $3-$5 were shaved off the prices across the board (quality ingredients and labor intensive prep, acknowledged). Sounds like a lot of caveats, but I really like the food.

Fatty crab sliders

We went cross-cultural with small plates. First up the sliders: spicy, juicy, slightly fishy little meat blobs dressed with thick pickles and aioli. These were cute and packed a lot of punch into a small toasted package.

Fatty crab fatty dog

Because I am a weirdo who doesn't like hot dogs, I was wary of the Fatty Dog, but as soon as I realized it contained a house-made sausage and not a boiled wiener I was more excited. The pork sausage contains belachan, pickled garlic and XO sauce, not wiener-y at all. Combined with pickled chiles, garlic, radish, cilantro and cucumbers and spread out on a potato roll, it's more of an open-faced sandwich than finger food.

Fatty crab hokkien noodles

Thick and chewy hokkien noodles were so hefty they bent my wooden chopsticks. The dark sauce is sweet from kecap manis and tarted up with a bit of black vinegar. Small strips of beef, shrimp and little clams are the main ingredients, though I was impressed with the traditional addition of tiny crispy lard cubes. In Malaysia some health-minded hawkers have been moving away from using extra pork fat, and it would be a shame to omit that much needed touch here.

Fatty crab kang kong

Kang kong, a.k.a. water spinach was appropriately shrimp pastey and chile hot. There's a lot more here than one would think. We were actually going to do without a vegetable side but our server made it sound like we'd suffer miserably if we didn't order a $9 bowl of greens.

Fatty crab short rib rendang

We were totally full by the time the short rib rendang came out; I could only eat a small chunk. Both the meat and rice are saturated with coconut milk, so it was a bit rich as the final plate of food. Thankfully, the braised dish keeps well and improves with age. Combined with leftover kang kong, it was enough for a full dinner the following night. And I just happened to have some toasted coconut lying around from a Thai pomelo salad I'd made (with grapefruit from the huge unwelcome sack I've been trying use) earlier in the week to spruce the rendang up.

Fatty crab whiskey sour

After cobbling together two dinners from our food on top of using the $20 voucher, I felt less reluctant to order a $12 Fatty Sour. It was a well-made cocktail, less sour and more herbal than a typical whisky sour, my drink of choice. The inclusion of Pedro Ximenez Sherry and real maraschino cherries rather than a slice of citrus, was welcome.

Fatty Crab Uptown * 2170 Broadway, New York, NY

My Mum’s Place

not sure if we were just hungry from scoping out so many restaurants embedded
in maze-like malls, but this food was really good, way better than I would have
expected from an eatery across the walkway from the always-busy Spageddies
(Hong Kong has a chain called The Spaghetti House, which looks equally
frightening). Being housed in a mall means nothing in Singapore, though; there
was also a branch of Din Tai Fung, a highly regarded Taiwanese chain I tried in
Beijing, around the corner.

love Nonya cooking but James always makes a stink (ha) about the rampant use of
shrimp paste in the cuisine. The strong flavors were balanced perfectly, just
hot and sweet enough padded with that belachan in a way that boosted everything
rather than overwhelming, kind of like a natural msg or narcotic even.

My mum's place sambal prawns

had shrimp sambals in NYC that were like eating nothing; a few sad prawns
sitting in a dull ruddy puree. I’ve also made sambal, myself, a huge tub sits
in my fridge that tastes like damp mush. This sambal could be a multi-purpose
condiment even minus the prawns. Plain white rice is all you need to go with
it, or even white bread for colonial-style tea sandwiches. Crusts removed, of

My mum's place kang kong

kong (I know, I always want to say king kong because I’m corny) is another one
of those things that’s lackluster in my hands (though I think our produce can
take some of that blame) but vivid here. There was plenty of shrimp paste in this, yet it didn't overwhelm the water spinach in the least.

My mum's place rendang

requisite beef rendang, ordered primarily to appease James who still contests
that we never had any in Malaysia and doubts its origins, altogether. This is
one SE Asian dish I don’t ruin. it’s hard to destroy coconut-and-spice stewed
meat, especially since it’s designed for tough sinewy cuts.

It's odd that I can't seem to find a website for this restaurant.  They were selling branded spice mixes and pastes at the front of the room, which implies broad name recognition.

My Mum’s Place * Paragon Shopping Centre, 290
Orchard Rd., Singapore


1/2 If Food Republic, a glorified food court, nearly made me crap myself with glee, then StraitsKitchen…um, I don’t like where this metaphor is going. Let’s just say that it is the most awesome buffet in the universe. Eating in malls and hotels isn’t shameful in Singapore and I must admit that the Hyatt knows what they’re doing. In Beijing, we tried Made in China, a similar concept that served Northern Chinese dishes. StraitsKitchen also brings local fare under one roof, and presents everything slickly yet with remarkable authenticity.

Straits kitchen interior

Different styles of food, including Indian, Malay, soups, Chinese roasted meats and chicken rice, desserts, tropical fruits and juices, and more, were featured at individual stations.

I only regret that 9pm reservations were the only time we could finagle same day. They have two seatings and the first was fully booked. The problem being that we eat way too slow and leisurely to cram enough food into an hour and a half. I felt half-frantic the whole time, wanting to sample as many things as possible without filling up (after my super power fantasy of being able to speak and understand all languages in the world, my number one grotesque desire would be to eat and never get full or absorb the calories). Just because I like to order lots of food doesn’t mean I can actually eat it all.

Straits kitchen popiah
My first interaction pissed me off but I quickly got over it. I walked up to the popiah station where the guy spreads out the crepe batter and makes the roll custom for you from scratch and as I was waiting a clueless Australian woman walked up and asked a million questions about what these were, then decided she wanted one so he started making ours at the same time. But then she made a fuss about not eating shrimp and not liking spice and next thing I knew he had made our two rolls exactly the same. Not all white women hate shrimp and chiles. The New Yorker in me would’ve made him re-make mine but I’m not a total bitch, and time was wasting. Instead, I brought it back to the table, sulked and unhappily picked at the half-assed popiah not made my way.

Straits kitchen chicken rice

No time for tears, though. I moved on quickly to Hainanese chicken rice. I couldn’t fill up on all that rice, nice and chicken brothy as it was. I didn’t think I was going to have time to fit in this Singaporean classic during my week in town so I was happy for this quickie.

Straits kitchen indian food

James picked out some Indian food for us to share. That’s fish head curry on the left and I think tandoori chicken, biryani and something orange on the right. Bok choy and char kway teow are hiding in the background.

Straits kitchen malay food

Malay, my favorite. James is not so crazy about the belachan-based cuisine but I can’t get enough of the strong flavors. One of the things I appreciated about this restaurant was not dumbing down or simplifying and the offering of appropriate condiments. This plate includes beef rendang, sayur lodeh (vegetables in coconut curry), kari ayam (chicken curry) and sambal prawn.

Straits kitchen malay station

The Malay station, conveniently located closest to our table, had those tiny olive-sized limes, numerous sambals, a pineapple-cucumber achar, and more that I’m forgetting. I think that wooden bucket that looks to be filled with rocks actually contains buah keluak, a toxic nut used in Peranakan cooking. Yep, definitely going for authenticity and atmospherics.

Straits kitchen chile crab and satay

Moving on to Singapore with chile crab and the necessary fried mantou. Also, a few sticks of satay.

Straits kitchen laksa

My capacity was dwindling but James brought over a bowl of super lemak laksa and I couldn’t let it go uneaten. I think he went a little wild with the garnishes.

Straits kitchen sweets

A melting pot of desserts. I’m a freak who doesn’t like fruit even fresh beautiful tropical fruit, so just the foreign sweets for me. I had a hard time narrowing it down to just these five. Clockwise from far left: Indonesian lapis legit, Nonya ang koo, Hong Kong egg tart, Nonya kueh dadar (my favorite—I love the color green and hate that any American dessert that color is minty. I prefer my green goodies flavored with pandan) and Chinese peanut pancake.

StraitsKitchen * Grand Hyatt, 10 Scotts Rd., Singapore

What You Do Prata

1/2 I’m not ashamed to admit that a good food court is one of the few things in life I can get excited about. And by good, I mean a well-curated space offering diverse foodstuffs from the Asian continent. Essentially, an indoor hawker center (I’m not persnickety about hygiene but I do love me some air conditioning).

Singapore really takes the cake in this genre, which isn’t surprising since they prefer modern tidiness over grit. Yes, some might say soulless compared to say, Malaysia, Vietnam…or really anywhere in Southeast Asia. Of course you can eat outside in Singapore too; it’s just that everything’s organized and regulated in comparison.

I love the Food Republic concept. I even watched a television segment about its founder while recuperating in our hotel (one of the many evening spent lying in bed rather than gallivanting around town—I got like zero drinking accomplished on vacation). The thing about these restaurant collections is that for the most part, they’re not mega-chains, many are extensions or evolutions of local eateries, and you won’t find all of the same establishments in each mall.

I first stumbled upon a Food Republic in the Wisma Atria and they had a little of everything: Hainanese chicken rice, herbal soups, sushi, dim sum, laska and so on. We vowed to return for dinner but after spending all day going from mall to mall (nearly all of the shops on Orchard Road are connected) we had strayed too far to go back, plus, we’d already discovered a million other places where we wanted to eat (ultimately, My Mum’s Place in Paragon across from the always packed, distressingly named, Spageddies.)

Food republic

Our last night in Singapore, after eating so-so Indonesian food at House of Sundanese in Suntec City we did the mall-to-mall crawl and eventually found ourselves in another Food Republic. This one was classy and designed to look like a library with green-shaded desk lamps, wood tables, book wallpaper and padded leather signage. Seriously? A library-themed food court full of amazing Southeast Asian treats in a ginormous mall?! I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced this level of awesome before.

Suntec city food republic

We desperately need an NYC Food Republic. The equivalent would be going to…well, we don’t have real malls in Manhattan. But imagine a giant suburban mall at Union Square. There would be a food court but minus any McDonald’s or KFCs (they would be in the mall, as they are in Singapore, but not as part of the food court). Instead, you might find some of the beloved Red Hook vendors. You couldn’t get DiFara but definitely those Artichoke guys (they’re expanding, right?). Obviously, street cart favorites like Kwik Meal and Calexico could be there. You could go trendy with a salumeria stand, porchetta and charcuterie too. There would have to be bbq, bagels, oh, and deli food and hot dogs but not Junior’s or Nathan’s who would certainly jump on the wagon, Rachael Ray would also want her burgers represented but the public would demand a Shake Shack satellite (I say the public because I’ve never eaten there. Weird, I know) Will Goldfarb could pretend Picnick never happened and get in on the desserts. Duh, and a speakeasy stall, mixology for the masses. Alcohol is one thing Singaporean malls totally lack because they are lame that way. There would have to be drinks. The theme could be Gangs of New York and it could be decked out like Tamanay Hall. Or maybe the Immigrant Experience, yes, the second location in midtown would have Ellis Island memorabilia everywhere. I see pushcarts, newsies and chamber pots.

What you do prata

Do note the books tucked into the shelves in front of the stands. No eating in the library?

Many of the Food Republic shops are showy with big picture windows letting diners watch their Chinese donuts being kneaded, cut and deep fried in a giant oil-filled wok. Or their prata being rolled out and filled with tasty stuffings…

Cheese prata

I could only make room for something small, I mean, I wasn’t going to not try something, so James and I shared a cheese prata with the default vegetarian curry containing a lone okra pod. The griddled pancakes weren’t too oily and there was just a hint of mild white cheese (I couldn’t say what type). There’s no getting around the fact that prata are heavy, though. I restrained myself from ordering two and then thought twice when I noticed the woman in front of my getting three (if I were truly nosy, I could’ve followed her to see if she was dining with two others). I am always humbled by the culinary fortitude of Asian girls.

I didn’t realize the name of the stall was What You Do Prata until we were leaving. Despite the silly moniker, the food is a notch more serious. They have guy who makes your prata on demand. I was kind of paralyzed by indecision because in NYC we only have roti canai, no choice of filling or sauce. Here, you could have egg, onion, cheese, combinations of those or meat, but then I think chicken or mutton makes a prata become a murtabak. And there were curries in steam table trays behind glass. Everyone else seemed to know what everything was despite no labels.

Typically in Southeast Asia I haven’t been stymied by language barriers, Singapore is super English-friendly, it’s the food customs. I was thinking of this when I read about Ferran Adria being taken to Katz’s. Even though he could communicate with the Dominican counter guy in Spanish, it’s not like he knew how and what to order.

Roti canai, a flaky, layered pancake that’s always served with a little cup of curry that usually contains as small bone-in chicken piece and one potato chunk, is something you’ll often see as an appetizer in Malaysian restaurants in NYC. I’ve since realized this is weird. For one, what we call roti is prata in Southeast Asia. That’s fine, just a semantics issue. It only occurred to me this time, on my third visit to Singapore, that roti, prata, whatever, isn’t even Malay (though it could be argued that it is Malaysian). It’s something you find at Muslim Indian stalls, a style that I’ve heard called mamak (don’t know if that’s an un-PC term or not). So, Malaysian restaurants in New York, which are run by ethnic Chinese serving Muslim Indian food, are really no different than the American restaurants run by Brits or Australians in Asia that serve tacos, bbq and Cajun food all together.

But more importantly, I have no idea how to categorize prata. Prata is a Singaporean bastardization of Indian paratha so is it Singaporean because it's part of the country's culture or still Indian? Malaysians would claim prata too and they are more Muslim than Singaporeans so is it also Malaysian? Ok, I'm going to call it Malaysian and Singaporean but not Indian, convoluted as it may seem. The closest local example I can think of is whether gyros are Greek or American. It's crazy when food starts making me think like a librarian.

What You Do Prata * Suntec City, 3 Temasek Blvd., Singapore

Skyway Malaysian

1/2  Assessing a restaurant based on two take out dishes is never wise. So I won’t. My foray to Skyway Malaysian was kind of peripheral anyway. I wanted to make something non-labor-intensive for Christmas Eve dinner, but still interesting and most likely S.E. Asian. This meant no complex spice and herb pastes because I don’t have the energy for pounding or foraging for obscurities.

I initially researched devil curry recipes before it dawned on me that I just made that Eurasian holiday meal two years ago. Duh. Even if no one else reads this site, it at least serves as a great memory-prodder for me. I don’t think Alzheimer’s runs in my family (though that’s hard to determine since no one makes it past 60) but keeping track of life’s minutiae might prove become practical in a decade or so.


As it turned out the only ingredient I needed for my roast chicken was kecap manis, oh, and the chicken, which still precipitated a four-subway-stop trip to Chinatown. I’m all about efficiency so decided to pick up a vegetable side dish at Skyway, just a block from Hong Kong Supermarket at the F station. Shrimp and green beans seemed right with chicken. I had to stop myself from ordering the curry fish head casserole because that would be overkill.


I couldn’t resist getting prawn mee to go, though. It could be a late lunch (I didn’t end up eating it until 7pm so now my dining schedule is screwed up). I hate dining in restaurants alone or else I would’ve just eaten the soup on the spot. Luckily, they do package the broth separately from the noodles, shrimp, kangkong and hard boiled egg, so sogginess is averted.

I was imaging a more coconut milk-based, Singapore laksa-like soup but this was a deep, spicy, very shrimpy broth. I could just eat a big bowl of the liquid but the chiles might make me cough if I slurped too fast. My only criticism is that it was a little too salty. But I’m very sensitive to salt, so it might be spot on for an average palate. I'm not sure why the broth looks frothy after I combined the two plastic tubs.


All I can say is thank god that I’m stuck here for the holidays. The sidewalk in front of Skyway happens to be one of those cheap Chinatown bus’s stops, and there was a massive luggage-toting crowd filling the entire stretch of Allen Street and blocking the door to the restaurant. It looked like a fun bunch of people: pushy non-lining-up Chinese and African Americans mocking the way the driver was saying Richmond. Ok, it did sound like he was yelling, “Reecheemon” but everyone knows you’re supposed to make fun of others quietly. Uh, or on your blog.

I was thinking the subway wouldn’t be crowded even though it was rush hour because the city had thinned out for Christmas, but no luck. I still had to stand with all my bags and the seated woman I was hovering near began covering her nose. “Oh shit, my shrimp paste.” I’d also bought a baggie of dried shrimp at the grocery store, which couldn’t be helping matters. I felt nervous for a second, then I was like, “Fuck you and this whole subway car. Oh, and seasons greetings.” I’m annoyed on a daily basis by my fellow riders, so grossing out strangers for fifteen minutes on Christmas Eve was the least of my concerns. In fact, I kind of enjoyed it.

Thank you, Skyway for empowering me to shed my usual self-consciousness. I should stink up subway cars more often—a lofty goal for 2008.

Skyway Malaysian * 11 Allen St., New York, NY