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Nonya Business 

The blending of hits and misses at S.F.'s oldest Malaysian restaurant

Wednesday, Aug 30 2006
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We might tend to think of fusion cuisine as a modern innovation, with French-tradition chefs using Asian ingredients and Asian-tradition chefs adopting French techniques. In fact, that sort of hybridization has been going on as long as humans have been migrating from one place to another — which we've been doing about as long as we've been cooking.

You can find one of the most fruitful examples of gastronomic miscegenation in Malaysia. There, starting around the 15th century, Chinese Muslim immigrants married indigenous Muslim Malay, leading to a hybrid cuisine commonly called Nonya ("grandma" or "auntie"). Muslims from north India and Hindus from south India — whose vegetarian cuisine posed no problems for pork-eschewing Malays — also added dishes, spices, and techniques to the mix. As the area industrialized, workers started eating most of their meals at hawker food stands, leading to greater familiarity with each others' cuisines and even more crossover.

Lots of Malaysian restaurants have opened over the years in San Francisco, but for reasons unknown most of them haven't lasted. One exception is Singapore Malaysian, opened around 1990 by a Chinese family from Penang. The space is your typical Clement Street storefront; there's not much to say about the decor, except that over the past 15 years the walls have been spruced up and the previously glaring lights replaced with pleasant minipendants. As at most such places, service has always been friendly and informal — even more so today, when the family's teenagers are waiting tables.

You must try the roti canai, a Malaysian version of the Indian Malabar paratha: a dense, flaky flat bread, glistening with butter, served with an equally rich coconut red curry sauce. The first time I ate here, with half a dozen friends, I came back for lunch a few days later so that I could have one all for myself, and ended up eating two. Given how good the basic roti is, it's sad that the menu doesn't also include murtabak, an often wonderful meat-filled variation.

The pork satay is thin slices of meat, marinated in coconut milk and lemon grass, quickly grilled to acquire a nice, smoky char while remaining moist and juicy, and served with a chunky, spicy peanut sauce. Otak-otak, fish mousse flavored with green onion, wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled, has a mild, slightly rubbery-chewy texture and a bland flavor that encourages use of the accompanying smooth, slightly tart, mild peanut sauce. It was striking how the very similar-looking red peanut sauces that came with these three appetizers tasted so different.

Sometimes being a restaurant reviewer means suppressing one's natural tendencies, such as the desire to put aside the rest of the dishes on the table and devour the whole order of chow kway teo. These are the same fresh, flat rice-flour noodles as the Thai gwaytio, prepared in fundamentally the same way — fried with shrimp, scrambled eggs, and bean sprouts — but more assertively flavored, with lots of chili and some gamey Chinese sausage sliced paper-thin and slightly wok-charred to add umami and a smoky aroma. A plate of this and a bottle of malty Tiger beer to cool the heat would make a perfect meal for a solo diner.

Curry mee (noodle soup) is also a winner: a thick coconut-milk broth, similar in flavor to the roti dip but with more peanut and spice, packed with fried tofu, sliced chicken, shrimp, al dente green beans, bean sprouts, hard-boiled eggs, and so many wheat noodles (mee) that it's almost more of a noodle dish than a soup. Unless you're carbo-loading, you might not want to order this with another noodle dish. Penang laksa (Penang-style noodle soup) is a generous helping of udonlike fresh rice noodles sauced with a very delicate fish broth subtly flavored with pineapple juice, mint, a hint of tamarind, and chili.

Pepes ikan is something of an entree version of otak-otak: A fish or piece of fish is coated with spice paste and wrapped with fresh herbs in a big piece of banana leaf. The packet is then steamed, grilled, and opened at the table, releasing a lovely aroma. Unfortunately, the piece of salmon at this meal wasn't of even thickness, and the thinner half was overcooked and dry.

Daging rendang (Malay beef stew) usually comes in a thick sauce, oily with coconut milk, fragrant from aromatic vegetables and spices, that overpowers the meat, which has a tendency to be dry. Singapore Malaysian's version seems almost like a French or Italian braised beef: The beef stays juicy, slow cooking brings out its natural gaminess, and the sauce is very light, comprised mostly if not entirely of braising juices. It won't satisfy a craving for traditional rendang, but, taken on its own eccentric terms, it's yummy.

Hainan chicken and rice, named after the island from which many of Malaysia's Chinese immigrants came, is a homey dish in which you poach a chicken, cook rice in the resulting broth, and serve the two together. I suspect the kitchen here doesn't follow this practice, since we were offered a choice of having the bird fried or steamed. No matter — the rice was delicious, rich with chicken fat and juices. Steaming left the meat mild and juicy, a bit boring by itself but good with the accompanying sauce of pure hot chilis.

Nasi lemak, the traditional Malay breakfast, was originally rice cooked with coconut milk instead of water, and served with small amounts of fried anchovies, fried peanuts, sliced cucumber, hard-boiled eggs, sambal (chili sauce), and/or various other savory or high-protein items. The first time I visited Singapore Malaysian, years ago, I was so surprised at the mild coconut flavor that I asked about it. The owner explained that in the old days the Malays were doing farm work all day, so they needed the calories, but these days people don't want to eat so much fat, so they use part water. I checked up on this claim and, in fact, contemporary recipes often provide two versions, one old-school, one lower-fat. On this visit, though, the nasi had gone too far down the water path — I could smell the coconut, but the rice didn't taste of anything but salt. This was pretty grim, especially compared with the great chicken rice.

Javanese fried chicken reflects similar dietetic concerns. My favorite version has a crunchy and aromatic coconut batter; this was marinated but fried bare. It was still tasty enough to gnaw the bones, but as with the rendang, it wasn't what we expected.

A seasonal special of sambal kang kung (aka water spinach or ong choy) sautéed with a few fresh shrimp and lots of chilis was a perfect counterpoint to the mostly rich dishes. The same goes for rojak, a refreshing, crunchy salad of cucumber, jicama, bean sprouts, fresh pineapple, and chopped peanuts, with a complex dressing including palm sugar, thin soy sauce, and prawn sauce. Sambal ladyfingers (i.e., okra) was less interesting, just simply sauteed and flavored with a bit of shrimp-chili sauce.

So my search for the ultimate old-school, coconut-crazy, artery-clogging Nonya meal continues. In the meantime, if you're craving some dynamite roti, noodles, or chicken rice, head to Singapore Malaysian. By the way, if you've been avoiding Clement Street because of the parking hassle, it's gotten much easier: The city now allows use of the Muni stops in the evening.

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Robert Lauriston

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