By Kaitlin Steinberg
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By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Kaitlin Steinberg
The orange redang curry tastes something like the spicy peanut sauce you slather on sate. It's so thick and oily that you have to be careful when you slurp up a mouthful of the spaghetti-sized noodles that it saturates or they'll flip around and spray orange stains all over your shirt. This combination of thick noodles and distinctive Malaysian curry is pretty hearty, but that's just the beginning; the smothered noodles are tossed with crisp bean sprouts and perfectly cooked green beans and topped with bite-size chunks of crunchy fried chicken, fluffy tofu and silky eggplant. It's one of the most intriguing (and cheapest) lunches I've had in a long time. But the most fascinating thing about this unusual noodle dish is the harmony of cultures that it represents.
Malaysia Restaurant has been open for a few months now, and it's the only Malaysian restaurant in the city, a reader named Maxine Tan told me. Tan met me here with some friends last week. The place is drably decked out in industrial carpets and cheap modern tables and chairs. The entrance is flanked by a plastic banana tree on one side and a fake coconut palm on the other. A giant aquarium sits near the front, and lots of Buddhist good luck charms hang behind the cash register.
The crowd was entirely Asian on my first visit, although it's difficult to identify the specific nationalities. Malaysians come from so many different cultures, there isn't really a typical look, except for those who are of the original Malaysian ethnicity, Tan told me.
Curry chicken noodle lunch special: $4.25
Fook-kien lam mien: $5.95
Malaysian eggplant: $6.95
Nasi lemak: $4.95
Malaysian fried crab: $12.95
Tamarind prawn: $12.95
Curry beef: $7.95
I asked my Malaysian hosts to order ten dishes for the five of us. Noodles are the part of Malaysian cuisine that Tan, who is Malaysian-Chinese, loves best. "That's my comfort food," she said. She went with the fook-kien lam mien. The big brown noodles looked like round buckwheat udon. They were tossed in a sauce with the distinctive Malaysian belechan seasoning (more on that in a minute) and some shrimp and vegetables.
Patrick Daniel, a Malaysian of Indian extraction, was eager for me to try nasi lemak; the name means "rice cooked with coconut milk." The rice was mounded in the middle of a plate with little piles of tidbits around it. These included a hard-boiled egg sliced in half, a fermented fish sauce made with anchovies, tiny fried minnows tossed with peanuts, some beef curry and a couple of small pieces of chicken. This, Daniel explained, is the most common breakfast in Malaysia. It was pleasant enough. And I tried to be open-minded, but I don't think anchovy fish sauce and fried minnows are going to be a regular feature on my breakfast table anytime soon.
We also sampled some stupendous Malaysian fried crab: a whole Dungeness crab cracked into pieces and stir-fried with a coating of belechan sambal. Belechan is a paste made by pounding tiny dried shrimp. The paste is then toasted and combined with chiles to make the sauce. It tasted great, but the aroma of the toasting shrimp paste is considered absolutely horrible by most outsiders, Daniel said laughing. But to somebody from Malaysia, this is the familiar smell of Mom's home cooking.
The outstanding dishes, besides the crabs and noodles, included the sate. The well-seasoned shrimp, beef and chicken grilled on sticks (my kids call them shrimp, beef and chicken popsicles) were served with one of the best sate sauces I've ever had. It was thick and shiny, as if the peanut butter had been whipped, and the heat level was just short of perverse.
The homemade Muslim-style flat roti bread was soft and well browned, and tasted like a very moist flour tortilla. It's excellent eaten with the brick-red curry, which is served in a small bowl on the side. Long cooked eggplant is presented in diagonal slices that melt in your mouth.
I probably wouldn't order the sweet and hot tamarind shrimp again. The combination of sweet tamarind paste and hot chile peppers was a little too extreme for me. A beef curry wasn't very good either; the meat was just too tough. And in the take-it-or-leave-it category, there was a curious fruit salad covered with peanut chunks called rojak. I can't tell you what the fruits were, as they were entirely obscured by the crushed nuts.
But the specifics of how each dish at Malaysia Restaurant appeals to my particular taste wasn't the main topic of conversation. I was more intrigued by the larger question of how this astonishing array of Asian ingredients and cooking styles ended up on the same table.
"Malaysian food is the original fusion cuisine," Daniel told me. And a brief history of the place explained why. Malaysia lies along the Strait of Malacca. This narrow passage is the nautical crossroads of the Asian world, connecting the Bay of Bengal and the Indian subcontinent with the South China Sea and the Far East. The strategic land has been colonized by the Dutch, the Portuguese and the British, as well as countless invaders, visitors and colonizers before them. And every new ethnicity brought along something to eat.
There's curry from the Indians, noodles from the Chinese, roti from the Muslims, coconut milk from the Thais, fish sauce from the Indonesians and Vietnamese, and belechan from the Malaysians. The English also left their mark. Malaysians still drop everything at four o'clock each day and have a cup of tea. "We also have more languages and more holidays than anybody else," Daniel laughs. Malaysia is the most ethnically diverse country in the world. So when you sample Malaysia's "pan-Asian fusion cuisine," you're tasting an authentic expression of a national culture.
"Fusion cuisine" is a silly fad, concocted by modern chefs with limited skills and overactive imaginations, many chefs and critics contend. "Different cultures have different constellations of spices that they use to put their own labels on certain common foods," food historian Elizabeth Rozin observes in an article in Smithsonian magazine. When you combine these spices incoherently, cooking loses its cultural integrity. In seminars, Rozin illustrates her point by passing out paper cups containing six samples of chicken broth.
Each cup of broth conjures up a culture. Ginger and sesame are instantly recognizable as Chinese flavors; southern Italy is represented by olive oil, garlic, tomato and oregano, a mixture that smells like pizza; the Thai sample has coconut, lime, coriander, lemongrass and hot pepper; an Egyptian mix includes cumin, lemon, garlic and mint; Indian is ginger and coriander; and the Mexican soup tastes like chiles, oregano and cumin.
Rozin catalogs examples of what she considers the worst in fusion cuisine. "I once had something called Siamese tacos. For me, the combination of the strong corn flavor from the tortilla and the Thai spices used for the pork filling was awful," she told the seminar.
On the other hand, when the conquistadors brought tomatoes back to the Mediterranean from Mexico, maybe tomato sauce was so novel and radical it was considered bad fusion cooking, she admits. And there lies the crux of the controversy. While some see fusion cuisine as a contrivance that is ruining the public's appreciation of traditional ethnic cooking styles, others see it as the experimentation that's occurring on the leading edge of a new multicultural approach to cooking.
And then there are those who are trying to turn back the clock. When the Houston Chronicle's new food editor, John DeMers, ventured beyond the Junior League fare that former food editor Ann Criswell was known for, he horrified some Chronicle readers. DeMers reported that the most frequent question he got in his first year on the job was "Why do you write about so many weird recipes with so many weird ingredients?"
Some Houstonians, it seems, are struggling to keep pace with the rapid change in our cultural demographics. In 1970 Harris County was 69 percent white. The Asian population has increased sixfold since then, and Hispanics now outnumber Anglos, who make up only about a third of the population. As Rice sociologist Stephen Klineberg puts it, "In the past 25 years, Houston has gone from being a biracial Southern city, dominated by a white, male business establishment, to one of the most culturally diverse cities in America."
The Pacific Rim Caesar salad with wasabi tempura rock shrimp at benjy's, a hip restaurant in the Rice Village, uses crunchy fried wonton noodles instead of croutons. The Caesar dressing is made with the traditional egg yolk and anchovies, with ginger, wasabi and lemongrass added for a Pacific twist. The shrimp are fried in tempura batter, tossed with romaine and then presented on a plate decorated with stripes of soy paste. It's one of the tastiest (and priciest) Caesar salads I've had in a long time.
Benjy's "surf and turf" features dark and flavorful hoisin-marinated flank steak cut into strips and plump sautéed rock shrimp served atop a bed of slippery rice noodles with fresh snow pea shoots in a spicy Thai coconut and red curry sauce. Both dishes are excellent -- they're also two of the most popular dishes the restaurant serves.
The floors at benjy's are stained concrete, and the walls are painted in a sophisticated assortment of muted colors, including cocoa, teal and dove-gray. The servers are extremely attractive. The crowd at lunchtime on a weekday is mainly white and dressed in chic designer clothes. My dining companion describes them as "the Paper City set."
"The clientele we have is experimental and knowledgeable. They are looking for something unusual -- not a chicken-fried steak," says benjy's executive chef, Stephen Milstein, who grew up Jewish in Toronto.
I ask Milstein if fusion cuisine is a fad that's on its way out. He says the style is here to stay despite some problems with its reputation. "People bad-mouth fusion because it's flooded the market -- every Tom, Dick and Harry is doing it," he says. "And they're putting stuff together that doesn't make sense."
So how do you know what makes sense?
Milstein says he hones his sense of what works in the realm of Asian flavors by eating at lots of mom-and-pop Asian restaurants out on Bellaire Boulevard. (I tell him to check out Malaysia Restaurant.) And he tempers these flavors within the style he has learned in his French classical training. "There are certain things that don't fly in Houston. You have to be mild," he says.
"Are dishes like the Caesar salad and the surf and turf popular because of the recognizable names?" I ask Milstein.
"Exactly," he replies.
"Are Asian flavors creeping into the mainstream in Houston?"
"Big time," says Milstein.
I ask him why benjy's calls its food "modern American cuisine" rather than fusion cuisine.
"I think that fusion cuisine is basically what modern American food is," he says.
It's only a matter of time before Malaysia Restaurant picks up some Americanisms to add to the multicultural mix. Since they don't have big meaty Dungeness crabs in Malaysia, you could say the fried crab dish I liked so much is already a Malaysian-American fusion dish. No doubt the chicken, beef and shrimp taste different here too.
While Malaysian immigrants adapt their homeland cuisine to our local ingredients, modern American chefs like Stephen Milstein will borrow their flavors and introduce them to mainstream diners in innovative dishes of their own. Whether you call this process fusion, assimilation or simple coexistence, it's a two-way street that's changing the way we eat.
"The Future of Fusion" looked at five Houston fusion cuisines in an attempt to understand what the foods say about the cultures that created them. The complete series can be found online and will be presented at an academic panel titled "Global Food? Fusion, Creolization and Hybridity in Culinary Culture" at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association in Houston this November.