In the second of our cultural cuisine series, Anna King Shahab samples five of the best.
Malaysian cuisine is a fantastic thing - a melting pot of Malay, Chinese, Indian and Nonya (the progeny of Malay-Chinese intermarriage, but a distinct cuisine of its own rather than simply a merging). The majority of Malaysian eateries in Auckland have a Chinese-Malaysian focus, with nods to Malay and Nonya cuisines, and there a few Malay and Indian-Malaysian specialists in town, too. The dishes outlined here are all good representations of Malaysian hawker (street food) favourites, and will give you an insight into the wonderful array of flavours and techniques behind one of the world's most fascinating and mouth-watering cuisines.
Mamak Takapuna, 6 Huron St, Takapuna
Assam in Malay means sour, and in this case that note comes from tamarind. In assam laksa (also known as Penang laksa, because it's a favourite on that island), the tartness balances chilli heat and a rich fish flavour courtesy of mackerel - flaked, it thickens the broth to an almost stew-like consistency. Thick round rice noodles, and fresh, crunchy toppings complete the package. Many Malaysian eateries here don't put assam laksa on the menu for fear customers won't understand this veritable flavour-bomb, but Mamak Takapuna owner Geoffrey Ng says he's been surprised at how receptive his non-Malaysian customers are to it. Mamak's version is suitably rich, spicy and sour, and topped with julienned cucumber, fresh mint, onion and chilli that give it a refreshing edge.
CHAR KUEY TEOW
Malaysian Noodles and Rice, 57D Wolverton St, Avondale
This hawker classic seems to be dished up on just about every street corner in urban Malaysia. Flat, wide, fresh rice noodles are flash fried with bean sprouts, spring onions, different combinations of seafood and/or meat - including slices of sweet, deliciously fatty Chinese sausage. A good char kuay teow is cooked in a well-seasoned wok, over a searing flame that enters the wok to lick the ingredients and impart wok hei - the breath of the wok - a smoky, caramelised flavour from direct contact with the flame. Malaysian Noodles and Rice, a simple shop that does what the name says in a semi-industrial part of Avondale, does arguably the best CKT in town - all the right elements are in place including a notable wok hei, and their bonus addition of tiny dices of crispy pork fat is the master stroke.
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Santhiya's, 1270 Dominion Rd, Mt Roskill
Most of Malaysia's ethnically Indian population trace their roots to the South of India, so there are lots of Keralan and Tamil touches in the Malaysian culinary lexicon. Murtabak is a dish that has spread with trade through South India and outwards into the Arabian peninsula and Southeast Asia. There are infinite versions of Malaysian murtabak, but in essence it's a roti pastry stuffed with egg, onion and sometimes meat. Eaten with your hand, you tear off chunks and dunk them in dahl or curry sauce. Santhiya's is the only restaurant in the city that represents a Malaysian-Indian focus and their murtabak is nice and savoury with the addition of minced lamb, and comes with curry on the side.
Uncle Man's, 277 Karangahape Rd, Auckland
Making roti from scratch is an art, one that is considered too tricky and time-consuming by many Malaysian restaurants here, who opt to whip out the ready-made frozen roti instead. Not so Uncle Man's, a halal Malay eatery where the roti is their signature item and is made to order on the hot griddle in front of customers. How they get the dough that thin without tearing it is a mystery, but it's the key to their wonderfully fluffy pastry with crisp bits blistering the exterior. At Uncle Man there's a whole roti menu including stuffed roti, and roti canai (pronounced "chanai") which is roti with a sauce: your choice of dahl, chicken or beef curry. Oh and a dessert roti line-up, including the impressive roti tissue - wafer thin, crisp roti shaped into a towering cone, a bargain at $7.
KK Malaysian, 463A Manukau Rd, Epsom
Served in Malaysia from street carts, wrapped in a banana leaf or waxed paper, to be eagerly dipped into with the hand, nasi lemak is still just about as tasty enjoyed from a plate using cutlery. It differs from kitchen to kitchen, but generally you're looking at coconut and pandan-infused rice accompanied by sambal, hard-boiled egg, wok-fried peanuts, crisp fried anchovies (ikan bilis) and fresh cucumber - you might also get a meat curry on the side, and sometimes other condiments too. KK Malaysia, a legend on the food scene in Auckland for many years, serves up a version typical of Melaka, the part of southern Malaysia where the owner hails from. The ikan bilis is incorporated into the rich sambal, the rice bears striking blue flecks imparted by buttery pea-flower imported from Malaysia, and they serve a generous portion of their beef or chicken rendang alongside: gingery and coconut-rich and meltingly tender, it's superb.