Cafe Malacca harks back to a simpler period when Malaysia's ethnic cuisines were dominated by robust flavors. Rebecca Lo samples some home-style favorites, in Hong Kong.
I have to admit: I get very confused when people talk about Malaysian food. That is because the cuisine is dramatically different in every Malaysian town. The laksa of Penang is worlds apart from the Cantonese-inspired seafood dishes served in Kota Kinabalu, and Kuala Lumpur eateries dish up Hainan chicken rice that doesn't exist on Hainan island.
Like Chinese cuisine, Malaysian fare is dependent on local culture, available produce and each chef's individual flare. Whether the chef is a crusty street stall man with a wok or working in a 5-star hotel, authentically good eats can be found in every corner of the country.
Cafe Malacca helps to untangle the confusion by offering signature dishes from Malaysia all in one spot. In a way, the casual all-day dining restaurant in Traders Hotel Hong Kong is a throw back to Shangri-La Hotel & Resorts' roots. Not only does it present the best of founder Robert Kuok's home country on assorted plates, the atmosphere has the vibrancy typical of small town Malaysian hawker stalls - in more posh and hygienic surrounds, naturally.
Assorted satay is a typical Malaysian dish served at Cafe Malacca. Rebecca Lo / For China Daily
You can almost always get a table without a reservation, even on Friday or Saturday nights, as many diners tend to grab a bowl of noodles and go.
To the left of the reception desk is a U-shape open kitchen with buffet lines, popular with the lunch crowd who prefer the soup and salad specials. To the right is the open dining area, with a variety of seating options including armchairs for lounging and sharing dishes, benches for large groups, and intimate tables for two. There is also a private dining room available for functions beside the elevator bank.
Cafe Malacca's menu offers both Malaysian and Western dishes conveniently divided into two distinct sections. I have to admit, though, that I only glanced at the burgers and steaks on those pages at the back, being much too distracted by the wide variety of Malaysian noodles, rice and snacks.
It was difficult to decide what to order. Along with a decent selection of wine and spirits, there were Southeast Asian beverages such as bandung - a rose-flavored milk-based drink that balances spicy dishes.
I love laksa, yet couldn't make up my mind whether to have Singapore laksa or Penang assam laksa. In the end, our waiter helped out by suggesting the Singapore version, as it was rich in coconut milk.
I loved the broth and how it gently flavored the noodles. Plump shrimp, tofu puffs and half an egg made the dish a meal that was just this side of spicy without being too overpoweringly so.
We also shared the assorted satay, which came with two skewers each of pork, chicken and beef and served with little rice cubes, crunchy cucumber and pungent red onion, as well as a gorgeous dipping sauce heavily laced with chopped peanuts.
Another dish that is one of my all-time favorite comfort foods is beef rendang.
At Cafe Malacca, it is straightforward: just a generous portion of the fragrant beef stew and white rice on the side. The beef was so tender that it practically fell apart on my fork. It had a complexity that spoke of many hours stewing in mysterious spices and reminded me of subtropical jungles.
We also shared some vegetables: fried eggplant with curry leaves and fried carrot cake. The deep fried eggplant was seriously addictive. Crispy on the outside and sweetly firm yet tender on the inside, it was topped with a heaping portion of pan-fried garlic and curry leaves that added a welcome, slightly bitter contrast.
The carrot cake was actually made with radishes and pan-fried with crunchy bean sprouts, prawns and green onion. It boasted a charred finish that enhanced the soft radishes. Cafe Malacca has turned into one of my local haunts for whenever I have cravings for Southeast Asian dishes. I plan to work my way through the menu and maybe even give the Western dishes a try.
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(China Daily 11/02/2013 page12)