We just got back from Penang! The restaurant, that is.
I've been intrigued by the descriptions of indigenous Malay ingredients combined with the contributions of other cultures who settled there, contributing spices, techniques and foods of their own homelands, such as China and India. It's a truly multi-cultural cuisine.
I’d read about Nonya cuisine of Malaysia in a recent food magazine, and learned more from June Chua who writes the Asian food column on Suite101 where I write about Gourmet food.
After reviewing June's cheat sheets, Caleb and I decided to try out Penang in Chinatown. It’s one of several Malaysian restaurants in a chain that includes restaurants in New York, Washington DC, Philadelphia and Cambridge.
Our Malaysian Dinner
We started with Roti Canai with curry chicken dipping sauce. This is sort of a cross between Indian Naan and a French Crepe. A very light, thin crepe that comes hot off the grill; you tear pieces off and dip it in a cup of curry. The curry is a savory yellow curry that is distinctly different from Thai or Indian.
For our main meal we ordered three dishes:
Hot and Spicy Jumbo Prawns “Chef’s Special”
Large prawns served in tomato, ginger, garlic, carrot and white carrot sauce. Though marked as a spicy dish, it was pretty mild so I asked for a side of hot sauce – sambal. This chili sauce is fantastic, again somewhat familiar but distinctly different. It wasn’t just heat, but along with the fiery chilies, you can taste a touch of sweet and a touch of garlic. Love it.
Kang Kung Belacan
This green vegetable is called convulus, I’d never heard of it. Also called ‘water spinach’, which makes sense since it grows near water. It has bright green tubular or reed-like stems and darker green leaves and may be called “ong choy” or "a choy" in Chinese restaurants. As prepared at Penang, it’s fairly soft thought the stems retain crunch. The greens are tender and less astringent than spinach and not quite as aromatic as water cress.
The belecan sauce makes this dish. Belecan is similar to fish sauce in Thai recipes, or dried shrimp paste used in Chinese or other Asian cooking. Belecan begins with sweet baby shrimp which are fermented. It’s less fishy than the other Asian fish sauces and as represented in this dish, has a nice nutty saltiness to it.
House Special fried rice or “Nasi Lemak”
Nasi lemak a staple in Malaysian cuisine, is rice cooked with coconut and shrimp, ham, peas, peppers. I was worried the coconut flavor would be overwhelming but it was more of a subtle background flavor. Although it wasn’t listed as an ingredient, I’d swear that the rice was seasoned with turmeric.
- There seemed to be just one type of fish in the tanks (sea bass) but they looked vibrant and the tanks are some of the cleanest I’ve seen. I’m definitely going to try a fish dish next visit. In contrast to (light, steamed) Cantonese preparations these dishes suggest a fried preparation.
- Dishes were served family style, so this would be a great dinner for a group. The menu was huge, so there’s bound to be something for everyone’s taste. With more diners, you’ll get to sample more dishes.
- Check out June's articles which include an introduction to the basic flavors and ingredients and a handy ordering guide for beginner, intermediate and adventurous eating.