My years at CNN meant that one tune, more than any other, was hardwired into my brain – and it wasn’t the inimicable tones of James Earl Jones. Whatever the Malaysia Tourism Board were paying CNN was clearly enough to warrant what felt like an ad played in every single commercial break for all 13 years of my career. Today’s version is slightly more upbeat than the original:
Malaysia was also the first country I visited in Asia, climbing Mt Kinabalu before food writing would make the thought considerably less appealing. All of which is to say that I’m fond of the country and particularly its food. Who isn’t? It has to be one of the most beguiling selection of dishes anywhere, a variety to embarrass other countries into culinary submission. So it’s a bit surprising that it has never really been taken that seriously, at least from where I’m sitting. There’s high end Thai, Vietnamese, Balinese (The sexy codeword for Indonesian) but when did you last see a cutting edge Malaysian restaurant?
In that regard it’s similar to the Philippines, a country which is finally undergoing a long-overdue culinary renaissance and recognition. Just ask Jonathan Gold in the LA Times or read my piece in Cathay Dragon’s Silk Road this month.
Anyway, to Hotel Jen just 30 seconds walk from HKU MTR exit. Up on the 2nd floor sits Cafe Malacca. As a brand with Malaysian owners (it’s Shangri-La owned – and they’re owned in turn by the Kuok family), you know off the bat that things will be done with real care in the kitchen and that’s evident from the off.
Don’t go expecting romance or atmosphere – it’s a pretty functional dining space, but the food is the star, as it should be, served mainly on banana leaves. Satay always have to be ordered. It’s the law, or should be. Here they’re chicken, beef and mutton along with vege chunks for $98.
The vegetarian is in a happy place with the warm salad delights of gado-gado, more than enough for dinner at $82. As with every dish at Cafe Malacca, it’s the care and thought and no little love that goes into each and every sauce. A Malaysian lady runs the place and is seemingly demanding of the highest attention to detail on every dish – and it shows.
Malaysian carrot cake famously of course has no carrot in it, at least not the orange version we know and stick in snowmen. It’s the white radish that goes in the pan with rice flour, garlic, eggs, preserved radish and more. Sticky, sweet, crunchy, spicy and always a winner.($78)
On the carnivore side, two knockout dishes. First up, an impeccable sambal stingray, a glorious black sheen of flavour which slowly crystallizes into crunch bits. Squeezes of calamansi bring it together as forks and fingers alike are licked clean.
There’s a brilliant bowl of Penang laksa ($98), so good it makes me forget that I loved Penang unconditionally for the food but then hated it a little bit for giving me dengue fever. So much good stuff going on, from the spiced and sharp fish soup, a drop of black fish paste, the sweet tang of pineapple and then those fresh herbs, mint, cucumber, flowers and more. So delicious.
Then finally to another standby and must-order, beef rendang. ($108) Super-tender beef cheek that falls apart if the word fork is so much as mentioned in its presence. Coconut milk, of course, added to the heady base mix of cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, lemongrass, tamarind, lime leaves, fresh coconut – and more secrets besides.
There are also desserts, the standout of which is a durian pudding ($52) which is way, way better than it sounds.
You wonder if or when Malaysian cuisine is going to get the global respect it deserves for such extraordinary flavours condensed into every dish – but for now, before it becomes the latest trend, get to Cafe Malacca for a taste of how it should be done. Truly Asia, indeed.