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.
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.