Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Armchair Chowhounding: Tapas in Malaysia

Welcome to the strangest food posting of my entire life.

The least cool thing to do while traveling is to seek out familiar food (American, French, Italian, etc). The slightly cooler thing is to seek out local food. Like, duh. But coolest of all would be to go all the way to Malaysia for Spanish tapas. That's the sweet spot, right there. I can't travel right now, but am remotely surveying tapas options in Penang, an especially interesting Malaysian food region (making it all the more gleefully perverse to go there for tapas)

I'm not proposing some cold-blooded hipster scavenger hunt for Insta-worthy food oddity trophies. It's deeper than that. The way Culture X cooks Cuisine Y is deeply revealing. It sheds light on the whole situation. If you order something ubiquitous like laksa in Penang, the chef would be working under loads of expectation, every nuance and deviation registered and judged under a microscope. But something like wienerschnitzel flies free. Pure id. Less Anthony Bourdain and more Carl Jung/Joseph Campbell.

While Malaysian wienerschnitzel will surely be wrong - though most likely weirdly delicious (because food matters here, so chefs are conscientious) - there's something greater to be gained by poking around the edges for the unhinged and the feral. You can learn things you'll never get from under-microscope cooking.
Dear lord. Sure enough, here, courtesy of Tripadvisor user John K, is the wienerschnitzel (plus menacing potatoes) at the cheekily-named (in a Muslim nation!) El Cerdo ("The Pig") in Malaysia's capital city of Kuala Lumpur.
Anyhoo, without further adieu, here are two restaurants serving Spanish tapas in Penang, Malaysia. The first is, confusingly, Indian-owned Hygge Dining & Bar. Photos courtesy of Peter Yeoh.

Having stalked Malaysian food for some time (I've never actually been), my distinct impression is that it's essentially Asian Mexico

Definitely Asian Mexico, though.

Here we are

Spanish omelette with truffle aioli.

My Spanish friends' heads all just exploded. I can't even begin to explain. Just know that this is an "11" on the disorienting weirdness scale. The surreality actually doubles back to make it extra Spanish in its breathtaking non-Spanishness. 

Click this, and subsequent photos, to expand. Really. Do it. 

Spanish omelette with truffle aioli (detail)

Corned beef croquetas!

An Irish touch by an Indian chef in a Malaysian restaurant serving Spanish food. Bravo, tío; bravo. Gutsy fusion that actually makes sense (though I’d like to see a croqueta cross-section). 

Pork belly with potatoes.

I don't know if they think this is Spanish. Basques do a bunch of things with pork belly, but nothing like this. I'm guessing it's a riff on Japanese buta no kakuni, or perhaps, at least, a version of buta no kakuni filtered through Taiwan, the most Japanese of estranged Chinese regions, via Fijian immigrants. I'm pretty sure it's not Indian, though whenever you make a declarative statement about Indian food, 900,000 lurking counterexamples are poised to prove you wrong.

"Ang Moh" Lamb Curry - slow-cooked lamb meatballs, served with rice, masala, and papadum.

I don’t think this is on the tapas menu, but Spaniards would agree that those are serendipitously righteous-looking Andalusian albondigas (meatballs). Crazy!

Hygge Signature Laksa, with prawns, chicken, fishcake, bean-curd and hard-boiled egg

If you eat, say, Chinese food in Spain, you'll be served bread and wine with your meal, because, c’mon, we're not savages here. Similarly, I don't think you're allowed to open a restaurant in Penang without laksa on the menu. My instinct would be to avoid it here, but that's why I travel; to scrape away caked-on expectations. Hygge‘s laksa is apparently ace. Kent Hunt Food says

"Unlike any ordinary Curry Laksa in Malaysia, the broth is cooked using loads of Prawns and Flower Crabs... simmered for hours to fully accentuate the flavors of the sea. The seafood flavor is so rich and it almost feels like eating a seafood broth soup instead of a Laksa. The dish is good on its own but even better with a dash of Lemon juice and a spoonful of their home-made Chilies. The addition of acidity increases the depth while the Chilies introduces a peculiar smokiness which makes it instantly becomes multi-dimensional. The price is a little steep [28 ringgit, just under 7 bucks] but definitely worth the experience."
Laksa detail

So trippy

Here's the tapas menu

....and here's the regular menu, with microdots of skewed kookiness.

For example "Papa's Bolognese" contains "house made beef, spiced tomato sauce, parmesan cheese". I could pick that apart for hours (for one thing, I thought only God made beef - also let's also remember this dude's Indian - and who the hell "spices" the tomato sauce, or lists parmesan cheese as an ingredient, or declines to mention, much less specify, the presence of pasta), but it's time to continue our paseo... at Patois Kafe & Bistro at @ Burmah Square, with photos courtesy of Ken of Ken Hunts Food (here's his review of Patois).

American readers might not fully grok how insanely odd this paella is.

The mini wok for one thing, the cilantro (cilantro???) for another, the chili powder, and even just the grain of the rice are all crazy. Every photon spraying from this photo represents the polar opposite of paella. Though I’m sure it’s dandy. 

Calling crostini a tapa is like calling key lime pie "cajun food". Nice tomatoes (again, this is Malaysia, so all this stuff's surely delicious),

Those onions are fooling no one. You can almost taste the fermented soy sweetness in that sauce. And also... mustard! Look, I realize Bavaria seems nearly Mediterranean from this distant viewpoint, No food (possible exception: Sugar Frosted Flakes) could look less desirous of mustard than those glazed oniony sausages. OTOH, I'm assuming, just from the presence of that mustard, that they're bratwurst or something close...which would just add a whole new dimension of head-swimming wrongness. 

Special bonus weirdness: I threw in, way above, a link to a photo of some wienerschnitzel at El Cerdo, an all-pork restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, just for laughs. I just returned to the restaurant's Tripadvisor page, and found this, which left me gob-smacked:

...but not for the reasons you think - i.e. the bright red sauce or the non-sequitur slab of meat ("NSSoM").

This appears to be an ultra-rare field sighting of an extinct Sicilian soul food that’s among my holy grails: fried spaghetti (though the restaurant calls the pasta part "Aglio Olio”).

Fried spaghetti is the most peasanty of Sicilian peasant dishes. You fry leftover pasta in a pan with garlic and maybe some chili, and set the plate down hard on the cheap kitchen table with a scornful (perhaps hungover) clatter. This is exclusively home cooking, never something you'd find in a restaurant, and - forget the sauce and the meat - the grease-saturated, pan-seared, garlic-studded pasta in that photo might strike foodies as hilariously wrong, but it's stupendously right if you're an old Sicilian (or grew up in a neighborhood full of old Sicilians, as I did).

A Sicilian I know who is ridiculously touchy about such things pronounced the garlic’s coloration "on point". Woah.

This must have been taught to this chef - or to his great-grandfather - by someone with deep Sicilian roots. This is the only restaurant in the world I currently know to be serving fried spaghetti (whether they realize what they're really serving or not), which was never really a restaurant dish to begin with (you used to be able to ask for it off-menu in an obscure joint under the elevated subway in Woodhaven, Queens that had some connection to Bernadette Peters' father, but they closed like twenty years ago).

Also while I'd rather ignore the bright red sauce and NSSoM, the former is actually more apt than you'd imagine. Early 20th century working class Sicilians went nuts with tomato paste, which resembled their forefathers' strattu, a paste of sun-dried tomatoes. I dare to propose that this might represent strattu yearnings self-resurrecting via tomato paste in a kitchen in Koala Lumpur. Jesus.

I may be reading way too much into this (what, me???), but I don't think so. Those garlic cloves are too on point for this to be a serenditous accident. I don't see any ingenuous Asian wok non sequitur here. I don't believe that's what they're shooting for, nor what they've produced. Again, it looks exactly, precisely like an old Sicilian's fried leftover spaghetti (aside from the sauce and NSSoM). I do not understand what is happening here.

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