Laut Singapura

Instagram Post 1/9/2020

My dining buddies and I had independently visited Union Square’s Laut, the Malaysian, Singaporean and Thai restaurant, often enough to anticipate that its offspring, Laut Singapura at 31 E 20th St in Manhattan, might hold some promise. My comrades opted for more prosaic fare (more about that in a minute) but my fancy was taken by “Oatmeal Shrimp: crunchy shrimp with oatmeal sand, curry leaf, chili padi (aka Thai chili pepper), and egg floss.”

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Looks like a presentation the chef concocted hoping it would prove Instaworthy, doesn’t it? The huge shrimp were indeed crunchy (head intact, shell on, the way they should be) although the crispy coating didn’t have much character of its own; still, the shrimp per se were fine. In contrast, the bed of oatmeal “sand”, shot through with curry leaves and chili pepper, was piquant and flavorful; that savory sand is a sine qua non of this dish, deployed to complement the more passive shrimp. But it had a fatal flaw: how does one consume this architectural fantasy in public? Perhaps knife and fork to lop off a nubbin of shrimp, then dip it in the…no, the sand won’t adhere to the shrimp. Use my fingers to pinch together a bit of shrimp and a wad of sand, Indian style? Um, no. Eventually, I requisitioned a spoon, scooped up some sand, and topped that with a morsel of shrimp, the better to marry them and ultimately reveal the deliciousness of the dish – but in terms of table manners the maneuver had Emily Post rolling over in her grave.


My collaborators who traveled the more conventional route ordered Spring Rolls and Salad (came with their lunch special),


Murtabak, folded Indian crepe stuffed with ground beef, egg, onion, scallion and chili,


Sambal Belacan, shrimp, eggplant, okra, and onion in a shrimp paste sauce,


and Indian Mee Goreng, sweet and spicy egg noodles with mixed seafood…

…and were unenthusiastic about any of them.

So I put it to you, my friends: have you tried Laut Singapura? What did you order and what were your thoughts?
 
 

Little House Cafe – More Savories

Instagram Post 1/8/2020

Picking up from a few days ago, here are a trio of savory dishes from the remarkable Little House Café, 90-19 Corona Ave in Elmhurst, Queens as promised.

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Chow Kueh Teow (you might see char kway teow) is practically a national dish in Malaysia and Singapore but is enjoyed throughout all of Maritime Southeast Asia in innumerable variations. Thick rice noodles along with rice cakes are the foundation accompanied by shrimp, squid, pork and bean sprouts in a rich, dark sauce that is the essence of this stir-fry. Good eats.


Bakwan Udang – an Indonesian treat; deep fried shrimp fritters, crispy on the outside, yielding within. And yes, those are whole shrimp on top, shells and all. (I told you they were crispy!)


Chai Kueh – steamed dumplings with dried shrimp, jicama and carrot.

And as usual, everything we tasted was great!
 
 

Little House Cafe – More Sweets

Instagram Post 1/5/2020

Kuih are Malaysian snacks – sweet, savory, salty, ubiquitous throughout the region – and they’re well represented at the always reliable Little House Café, an Asian fusion counter service venue with a few tables because you can’t wait until you get home.

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Frequently, when you spot a two-tone layered beauty (seri muka/kuih talam) like the ivory and tan polyhedrons shown here (upper right and lower left) half is salty, the other half sweet. In this case, the creamy layer (salty) has the flavor of coconut cendol freckled with green pandan noodle bits; the supporting role is made from sweet palm sugar.

Glutinous rice, imbued with a blue hue courtesy of butterfly pea flowers occupies the diagonal counterpoise. These days, blue food is the darling of foodies in search of the novel and Brazil’s jenipapo berries are gaining ground, but that’s a story for another day. Crowning the plate is pandan kaya (coconut egg jam) for dipping (or slathering if you’re anything like me).


They have a righteous Chinese Wife Cake here as well; a flaky pastry generously filled with candied winter melon paste and abounding with legends about the origin of its name, it’s recently adopted a refurbished identity as a symbol of resistance in Hong Kong.

The bing bisected.

Little House Café is located at 90-19 Corona Ave in Elmhurst, Queens. Stay tuned for a look at some savories.
 
 

Coco

When I write about restaurants on Instagram, they’re usually brief takes accompanied by a photo or two. (You can see my feed right here on ethnojunkie.com, updated almost daily, by selecting the “Instagram” category from my home page – no signup required.) But because of Instagram’s character count limitations, it’s often necessary to break up a review into several parts. This one originally appeared across multiple posts, published in December 2019.


Coco at 82-69 Broadway in Elmhurst, Queens features reliable, people-pleasing, accessible Malaysian cuisine. I’ve enjoyed their fare on so many occasions that I thought it fitting to do another rogues’ gallery of some winners, so here are a few of my favorite dishes from their seemingly infinite menu compiled from a number of group dinners. They’re presented in no special order: everything was delicious and everyone was delighted.

(Click any photo to view in glorious high resolution.)

Stir Fried Pearl Noodle

Decades ago, one of my favorite dim sum parlors in Manhattan’s Chinatown was the beloved Hee Seung Fung, better known to its patrons as HSF. (Anybody here remember it?) It was there that I first encountered a dish called Silver Noodle. Served under an inverted small plastic bowl to keep it warm, it consisted of thick, chewy semi-translucent rice noodles with every imaginable protein and a variety of vegetables in a brown sauce. But the key ingredient, the one flavor that stood out above the rest for me, was its wok hei (aka wok qi), the breath of the wok, created by stir-frying over incendiary heat.

When HSF closed, I didn’t know where to track down this seductive dish; I’ve since learned that it can be found in restaurants featuring Malaysian, Singaporean, Hong Kong, and other cuisines that hail from regions near Guangdong. Silver noodles go by many handles, silver needle noodles and rat tail noodles (because of the tapered shape at one end) to name but two. Shown here is the rendition cooked up by Coco. They do my memories justice.

We usually score an order of this on my Ethnic Eats in Elmhurst ethnojunket by the way. (Hint: Click here! 😉)

Roti Canai

I’m told that if you don’t order the Roti Canai for an appetizer in a Malaysian restaurant it’s breaking some sort of rule (just kidding), so here is Coco’s version; it’s essentially a flaky, crispy, paratha-like flatbread with a spicy, sweet, chicken curry sauce on the side for dipping.

Roti Telur

Roti telur conceals an egg (telur means egg) and onions among the folds of the roti.

Coffee Sauce Pork

Sometimes restaurant dishes are fancifully named. Not this one. If you don’t like coffee, Coffee Sauce Pork isn’t for you. But if you do, this crispy curious combination is worth a shot. Be prepared for someone at the table to intone “Cawfee Sawce Pawk” and go all SNL on you.

Belacan Lady Fingers

Lady fingers, a more colorful name for okra, in the pervasive Malaysian fermented shrimp paste.

Curry Young Tofu Soup

Curry Young Tofu Soup can be found amid the Appetizers section of the menu, not the Soups. I suspect there are more names for this delightful soup than there are recipes for the dish itself, but Yong Tau Foo is not uncommon. With origins in Hakka Chinese cuisine, this Malaysian version was varied and satisfying.

Stingray wrapped in Banana Leaf

One of the house specialties at Coco. Only moderately spicy, served with a piquant sauce on the side, the texture and flavor of stingray (also known as skate wing) falls somewhere along the fish <-> shellfish continuum. No bones about it, but an ample cartilaginous skeleton that provides easy access to the flesh; look for the sweet meat on both sides of the structure. Good eats.

Grilled Pork Chops

Perfectly cooked, expertly seasoned, a plateful of tastiness.

Indian Mee Goreng

You might see Mie Goreng but it simply means fried noodles. Spice level adjustable to the taste of the diners, here served with vegetables due to peer pressure. 😉

Malaysian Marmite Chicken

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who’ve never tasted Marmite and those who loathe it. Just kidding. A gift from the Brits, used as an ingredient in cooking or simply spread on a hapless slice of bread, this dark brown, umami-rich, sticky yeast extract could easily serve as a dictionary definition’s example of “acquired taste”. All of which was enough for me to insist on getting an order of Malaysian Marmite Chicken for the group. The verdict? Crispy, sweet, and fantastic! The moral? Context is everything.

Four Varieties with Belacan

Okra, green beans, eggplant and peanuts in belacan, the ubiquitous Malaysian fermented shrimp paste. Tasty.

Chow Kueh Teow

Chow Kueh Teow (you might see Chow Kway Teow), one of Malaysia’s (many) national dishes. The literal translation is stir-fried rice cake, but this seafood version included shrimp, squid, noodles, bean sprouts and lots more. A classic.

Pork Belly with Basil Sauce

Lots of veggies to balance the fatty richness of the pork in a savory sauce. It’s one of the five basic food groups, I’m told. 😉

Malaysian Nasi Goreng

Nasi Goreng simply means fried rice; we chose shrimp from among many options.

Crispy Fried Duck

Yet another crowd-pleaser. It’s crispy. It’s fried. It’s duck. What more could you possibly need? (Other than an additional order, perhaps.)

Chicken and Beef Satay

From the Appetizers section of the menu. With roots in Indonesia, it’s possibly the first dish that comes to mind at the mention of Southeast Asian street food. (The Indonesian spelling is Sate.) Nicely seasoned and happily not overdone, these were comped at one of our banquets.

Steamed Fish Fillet in Malaysian Hot Bean Sauce

Thai Tom Yum Fried Rice

Tom Yum is a type of hot and sour Thai soup seasoned with lemongrass, makrut lime leaves, galangal, lime juice, fish sauce, and crushed red chili peppers. Here, those ingredients are used to create a unique version of fried rice.

Salted Egg with Chicken

If you’ve never experienced this dish and you spot it somewhere, I urge you to try it; be on the lookout for it in regional Chinese restaurants around the city as well. Mashed cooked salted duck egg yolks are fried to a frazzle and are then stir fried with just about anything from poultry or seafood to vegetables (an egregious oversimplification) which serves to coat the chief ingredient. The word “addictive” is overused in food writing, but it does convey its potential. Coco’s version has a teeny kick, a welcome attribute.

Grilled Beef Short Ribs

Tender, meaty, well-seasoned, and met with appreciative sighs of yumlike murmurs from the assemblage.

Rainbow Ice

Shave ice is a popular dessert across many cultures, particularly those of warmer climes. Here’s Coco’s contribution.
 
 
Coco is located at 82-69 Broadway in Elmhurst, Queens.
 
 

Singapore Malaysia Beef Jerky

Instagram Post 1/18/2019

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One of the delights of living in NYC is enjoying easy access to our five or six Chinatowns and the culinary treasures they embrace. Tucked away at 95A Elizabeth St is Singapore Malaysia Beef Jerky, a tiny shop that delivers big flavor in the form of freshly grilled, delicious jerky – a regularly scheduled stop on my Manhattan Chinatown ethnojunket. The word “jerky” has its roots in the Andean Quechua language – ch’arki meaning dried, salted meat – and this savory-sweet version is unique. They offer three kinds of meat in two spice levels and two styles.

[1] The first style (and my favorite) comes in the form of slightly charred squares of wonderfully seasoned pulverized chicken, pork, or beef. (Sometimes they have a combo of shrimp and pork – if you see it, get it.) The three varieties are similar in appearance: chicken is slightly pinker than pork which is lighter than beef; the flavors are identifiable – if you’re eating one labeled chicken, you know it’s chicken; the texture is supple (chicken is subtly more tender than beef); and their distinctive seasoning blend is the reason to go here. All three are available in spicy as well as regular designations; “spicy” has a finish with a tiny kick, but well within anyone’s tolerance.

[2] They also make a style that consists of very thinly sliced meat (pork or beef) with seasoning similar to those above, available in spicy and non-spicy recipes as well. In terms of texture, expect a little more resistance – after all, you’re chewing an actual slice of meat. The second photo shows an example of the two side by side.

[3] How it’s done. I can attest from experience that this is a universal favorite; if you’ve never tried their jerky, put it at the top of your to-eat list.

(And remember, subscribing to ethnojunkie.com to receive updates about the latest posts and upcoming tours is a piece of cake. Or easy as pie, perhaps. Just use the Subscribe button on any page!)
 
 

Kopitiam

Instagram Post 1/4/2019

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Nonya cuisine came about as the a result of Chinese immigration to Malaysia and Singapore during the 15th through 17th centuries; it’s a happy admixture of Chinese and indigenous Malay cooking with a soupçon of Portuguese, Dutch and British elements tossed in for good measure. Heritage aside, it’s hands-down delicious. The outstanding Kopitiam (Hokkien for “coffee house”) brings this cuisine to their super casual eatery at 151 East Broadway on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

[1] Pandan Chicken – gently seasoned ground chicken formed and swaddled in pandan (aka screwpine) leaf; [2] denuded. Add the browning maillard effect and the permeating flavor of pandan and you’ve got a perfect snack.

[3] Pan Mee – chewy, hand pulled, roughhewn noodles are the star of this anchovy broth that also features crispy fried anchovies, wood ear mushrooms, spinach, and minced pork; [4] droolworthy photo.

[5] Lobak – Five-spice seasoned pork roll wrapped in beancurd sheet and fried. Gotta love it!

[6] Salted Egg Chicken Wings – Wings are always great, of course, but the salted egg condiment is a flight of fancy that sends this snack over the top.

[7] Dessert anyone? Malaysian desserts aren’t overly sweet and these two filled the bill nicely. Pulut Tai Tai (pulut is Malay for glutinous rice) tinted with the suddenly ubiquitous blue morning glory flower (that’s the tai tai part) keeping company with Kuih Lapis, the puffy, thousand layer butter cake touched with cinnamon. Kuih are bite-sized sweets or snacks (spelled kueh in Singapore or kue in Indonesia) and lapis means layers; kaya (delicious coconut egg jam) on the side.
 
 

Little House Cafe – Pandan Cake

Instagram Post 8/8/2018

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Pandan cake (not the multi-layered cake) from the grab-n-go prepared food area near the register at Little House Café, 90-19 Corona Ave in Elmhurst, Queens. What you see is what you get. It’s pandan. It’s cake. What’s not to like? 😋

(Now that I think about it, a scoop of Chinatown Ice Cream Factory’s pandan flavor 🍨 would be perfect with this. More shopping to do!)
 
 

Little House Cafe – Nasi Lemak

Instagram Post 8/7/2018

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Nasi Lemak: coconut rice with dried anchovies, peanuts, cucumber, onion, sambal and a hard boiled egg; they all manage to squeeze into this Little House snack.

It’s a Malaysian standard and Little House Café, 90-19 Corona Ave in Elmhurst, Queens does it well. Once again, this treat was available at the grab-n-go prepared food area near the register, but when you arrive, don’t hesitate to sit down, have a look at the menu and order something more substantial. If your experience is like mine, whatever you choose will be great.
 
 

Little House Cafe – Savory Taro Cake

Instagram Post 7/29/2018

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Unlike their sweet layered dessert taro cake that I’ve written about here, this kind of savory steamed taro cake is more akin to the variety you might request at Chinese dim sum. Grabbed from the grab-n-go prepared food area near the register at Little House Café, 90-19 Corona Ave in Elmhurst, Queens, having gone home, I fried it lightly to heat it through. So easy and so good. Little House Café is an Asian fusion counter service venue with a few tables and remarkably delicious food. I’ve said it before: these folks definitely have their own spin on Malaysian food (even if this one is relatively Chinese) – and I like it!
 
 

Durian’s Best Kept Secret

Back in the seventies (ahem), Saturday Night Live did a sketch about Scotch Boutique, a store that sold nothing but Scotch Tape. They carried a variety of widths and lengths to be sure, but that was it. Just Scotch Tape.

MK Durian Group at 5806 6th Ave in Sunset Park, Brooklyn sells nothing but durian. They carry a variety of cultivars and variations to be sure, but that’s it. Just durian.

And the durian they carry is wonderful.

You’ve probably heard the oft-quoted aphorism about it, “Tastes like heaven, smells like hell” (some would have the order of the phrases swapped but you get the idea), so much so that the fruit is banned from hotels, airlines and mass transit in some parts of the world. (And yes, I’ve been known to smuggle some well-wrapped samples home on the subway.) If you’ve never tasted durian, you might discover that you actually like it; a number of folks I’ve introduced it to on ethnojunkets have experienced that epiphany. There are gateway durian goodies too, like sweet durian pizza (yes, really), durian ice cream, candies, and freeze dried snacks and they’re all acceptable entry points as far as I’m concerned.

It’s difficult to pinpoint what durian smells like. The scent appears to defy description; I’ve encountered dozens of conflicting sardonic similes, but suffice it to say that most people find it downright unpleasant. Although I have a pretty keen sniffer, somehow its powerful essence doesn’t offend me although I am acutely aware of it – just lucky I guess, or perhaps I’m inured to it – because this greatly maligned, sweet, tropical, custardy fruit is truly delicious. So I was thrilled to learn about MK Durian Group (aka MK International Group) from Dave Cook (Eating In Translation) whom I accompanied on a visit there.

Often called the King of Fruits (perhaps because you’d want to think twice about staging an uprising against its thorny mass and pungent aroma), it comes by its reputation honestly but with a footnote. The divine-to-demonic ratio varies depending upon the cultivar and, if I understand correctly, a window of opportunity when certain cultivars are sweet and nearly odorless simultaneously. This, I believe, is durian’s best kept secret. But more about that in a moment. (Click on any photo to view it in high resolution.)

MK Durian Group works directly with plantations in Malaysia and is a wholesaler and distributor to restaurants and retailers in addition to catering to walk-in customers. We entered the commodious space with its many tables, all unoccupied at the time. Chinese-captioned signs showing photos of fifteen cultivars and another seven in English decked the walls along with a menu that, in addition to a price list for the fruit itself, included durian pancakes, mochi, and a variety of cakes, buns, and biscuits, a concession to the timid, perhaps. Durian cultivars are typically known by a common name and a code number starting with the letter “D”, so you might see Sultan (D24) or Musang King (D197), but sometimes you’ll find just the code numbers or sometimes just names like XO or Kim Hong. Scientists continue to work on hybrids to maximize flavor and minimize unpleasant smell.
Fion, without whom I would have been at a complete loss, urged us to get the Musang King, often regarded as the king of the King of Fruits. She selected one from the freezer case and microwaved it for a few minutes to thaw it but not warm it up. Our four pounder, stripped of seeds and rind, ultimately produced about one pound of (expensive but) delicious fruit.Using an apparatus that looked a little like some sort of medieval torture device to crack the husk, she then adeptly removed the yellow pods; each pod contains a single seed that can be used in cooking like those of jackfruit. We took our treasure to one of the tables where boxes of plastic poly gloves were as ubiquitous as bottles of ketchup would be on tables at a diner.

That Musang King was perhaps the best durian I had ever tasted, so much so that my new personal aphorism is “Durian: The fruit that makes its own custard.”

You may have seen durian in Chinatown in yellow plastic mesh bags where the fruit is often sold by the container and you don’t have to buy a whole one; you might conceivably experiment with whatever is available. But these were a cut above. As we left, I realized that something about the experience had been unusual: I asked Dave if he had noticed any of the customary malodourous bouquet. He replied no, but he thought perhaps he was a little congested that morning. I knew I wasn’t congested that morning. There had been no unpleasant smell to contend with. Had we stumbled upon that elusive golden window of odorless but sweet opportunity? Was that particular Musang King odor free? Or perhaps all of them in that lot? Did it have something to do with the fact that it had been frozen and thawed? We were beyond the point of going back and asking Fion, but I think it’s worth a return visit to get some answers!