Damn Fine Fish Heads
My dining companion scrunched up her nose when our "Singapore fish head vermicelli soup" arrived. We were eating dinner at Cafe Malay on Westheimer near Beltway 8, and I'd ordered the soup for a starter.
"I knew you were going to go for the fish-head soup," she said, rolling her eyes.
"I didn't just get it because it sounds weird," I assured her. "It's one of the classic dishes of Singapore."
After a timid slurp or two, she was ready to cancel her fish-head reservations. I think she ate the lion's share. The milky broth was so intense, it almost tasted like it had been bolstered with chicken stock. The predominant vegetable was dark green cabbage leaves, which had a salty zing. The cabbage was brine-cured, the waiter told us; it tasted like kimchi without the chiles. The combination of fish broth and pickled cabbage was sensational.
On a lunch visit to Cafe Malay, I sampled another famous soup, which I liked almost as much as the one with fish heads. "Penang shrimp noodles" is made with big juicy shrimp, barbecued pork and a shrimp broth that tastes like gumbo without the roux. It comes from the Penang state, where Indians, Chinese and other ethnicities outnumber Malaysians. The country has one of the world's most diverse populations.
A quick glance at the map helps explain the reason for the multiculturalism. The Malaysian peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra are divided by a narrow sea passage called the Strait of Malacca. This is the express route from the Bay of Bengal and the Indian subcontinent to the South China Sea and the Far East. Everybody who's anybody in Asian history has stopped off to conquer Malaysia -- and they all left their groceries behind. Which has given Malaysia one of the world's most widely varied potluck cuisines.
The Dutch, the Portuguese and the British ruled the area at various times, and it was colonized by the Chinese, the Indians and countless others before them. Hence you find Portuguese sausage, Chinese noodles, Indian curry, Indonesian hot sauce and Thai seafood alongside the Malaysian dishes. And thanks to the English, everybody takes a break at four o'clock for tea and crumpets.
I first described Malaysia's Asian fusion cuisine in a review of Malaysian Restaurant, which was located out on Wilcrest ("Noodle-Gazing," February 28, 2002). That restaurant was sold, and the new owners turned it into a Cajun joint. Now, the same family that opened Malaysian Restaurant runs Cafe Malay.
The former location was a bit of a dump, but the new restaurant is all done up in interior-decorator colors. There are sage-green walls, a muted burgundy and gray-green floral carpet, and black metal chairs with upholstered seats and rounded backs. The logo and the menus look like they were done by a talented graphic designer.
But while the aesthetics of the new place are a definite improvement over the old one, I began to wonder after my first visit if the quality of the food hadn't fallen a little.
At the old restaurant, the dish called belacan crab featured a whole Dungeness crab; at the new place they're using smaller snow crabs, which are more of a challenge to eat. I finally gave up on separating out the meat and started eating the interior portions of the shell along with the crabmeat, the way the Asians do.
Belacan is a dried shrimp paste that's toasted and combined with chiles to make a sauce that appears in a great number of Malaysian dishes. While the crabs may be smaller, the fiery and funky-smelling belacan is as good as ever.
In my review of the old restaurant, I raved about a lunch special called chicken rendang, which consisted of spaghetti noodles in an orange curry sauce topped with bean sprouts, green beans and bite-size chunks of fried chicken, plus tofu and eggplant.
Hoping to taste it again, I ordered Cafe Malay's "chicken rendang noodle." That got me a large bowl of overcooked noodles topped with peanut sauce. It tasted dull and gloppy. So at lunchtime, on another visit, I described the mystery dish to the waiter. He told me that "curry chicken noodle" was the dish I sought. That turned out to be a rather pleasant curried chicken soup with noodles. But the dish I loved so much at the old restaurant has evidently disappeared.
After three visits, I've come to realize that the quality of the food hasn't actually declined. The new place simply has its own strengths and weaknesses. Some of my old favorites may be missing, but I've discovered some dishes that I like just as much, if not more. I don't remember if they had the Singapore fish-head vermicelli soup or the penang shrimp noodles at the old location, but these are definitely new obsessions of mine.
The sambal chicken was completely new to me. It's a fiery dish of chicken, onions and red and green peppers stir-fried in the Indonesian hot sauce called sambal, and it's one of my new top choices. I also loved the "fook-kein stir fried noodles," which looks like a plate of big brown earthworms. In fact, it's a stunning jumble of thick, round noodles and shrimp, squid and pork in what the menu describes as a "heavily flavored soy sauce."
The Malaysian eggplant was just as fabulous and silky-textured as it used to be, and the tamarind shrimp was just as greasy as it was before, too. And I still don't understand the "fruit salad" called rojak, which is so heavily coated in peanut sauce that you can't tell what fruit you're eating.
Classics that are faring well at Cafe Malay include the satay appetizers. You have, no doubt, eaten the grilled chicken and beef chunks on a stick at many Asian restaurants. But the thick and shiny peanut sauce here is something special. I don't think I've had any better. It's delicious on the chicken and beef, but I also tried a new satay dish at lunch the other day.
The satay tofu features fried rather than grilled chunks of tofu, which are served over a salad of greens and bean sprouts with the peanut butter-thickened satay sauce on the side. This could be my top vegetarian dish of the year.
Roti canai, a round of hot, elastic flatbread that looks like a crepe and has been called Singapore's answer to the doughnut, is served here with a curry broth on the side for dunking. I think the warm, chewy bread is better at the new Westheimer location than it was back at the old one on Wilcrest. Go ahead and order two -- they're only a buck and a half apiece.
The two Malaysian desserts are free with your dinner, but you have to ask for them. One tastes like sweetened oatmeal soup, and the other is a cereal broth with sweetened red beans. I would think either would make a wonderful breakfast. But in fact, the famous Malaysian breakfast, which is also available on the menu, is called nasi lemak. It consists of a mound of rice cooked in coconut milk in the middle of a plate surrounded by hard-boiled eggs, anchovies and chunks of curried chicken.
I didn't really like the dish much when I tried it at Malaysian Restaurant, but when I ordered it at Cafe Malay, I happened to eat half a boiled egg and a big chunk of anchovy together, and I suddenly understood its appeal as a breakfast. The salty anchovies went perfectly with the eggs, like a fishy bit of bacon.
I suggest you give the fish soups and some of the spicy dishes at Cafe Malay a try. And if you like to eat aromatic leftovers out of a big white Styrofoam carton for breakfast, order some nasi lemak to go.
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