Being born and bred in multi-cultural Malaysia, a food lover’s heaven in Southeast Asia, I benefited from being exposed to a unique cuisine, which draws from Chinese, Indian, and Malay influences.
I believe that it is this diversity that provides me with an appreciation for different cuisines and cultures. Having ready access to a multitude of cheap, eclectic eateries was not so much as a privilege but a birth-right, that I perhaps did not appreciate enough.
Since a recent relocation to Brisbane, I find myself missing this cuisine that has become a standard bearer to the diversity of the region. Despite the many fans among tourists and Southeast Asians, Malaysian food – good Malaysian food – is hard to come by in Brisvegas. Often lumped together with other Southeast Asian countries, Malaysian food is often found in restaurants that also serve Thai, Indonesian, and Singaporean food. This does little to suggest quality and authenticity as evident with the lacklustre online review of such establishments. The mix of “best Asian food and good value” with “nothing special” comments for the same restaurants suggests the reputation and understanding of Malaysian cuisine is not given its due recognition.
Nonetheless, having been craving a taste of home, I decided to give one such restaurant, Little Malaysia in West End , a try. In addition to the generally positive reviews and an authentic sounding menu, I was also heartened by the presence of a Malaysian-born owner. The humble-looking restaurant was modest and slightly dated, with a few incongruous chairs and tables, and brownish tinged menu pictures above the cashier counter, all of which are reminiscent of many small eateries in Malaysia.
As I screened through the menu, Nasi Lemak, which often termed as the national dish of Malaysia, seemed to be a promising choice. This rendition of the famous gastronomic, mouth-watering masterpiece popular across Malaysia consisted of aromatic coconut milk rice, and a mix-and-match of side dishes such as spicy sambal (chilli-based sauce), fried crispy anchovies, crunchy cucumber, pickled vegetables, hardboiled egg, curry chicken, and rendang (a spicy beef stew).
When the dish arrived in a banana leaf-shaped plate with appealing presentation, I could not wait to dig into the coconut rice. This core element of the dish is often overlooked by the generic Southeast Asian restaurants in the city that often substitute it with plain white rice, which is borderline blasphemous. Thankfully in Little Malaysia, the slightly sticky coconut rice had a mild, fragrant pandan taste, which exceeded my expectation for this small eatery. However, the successful coconut rice (and crispy anchovies) could not salvage the rest of the disappointing side dishes: the sambal was too sweet, the curry chicken was watery and bland, the pickled vegetables lacked an essential acidic kick and crunch, and the beef rendang was overpowered by what seemed to be the use of sweetened coconut cream, all of which let down the great first impression.
But I must admit, as much as this review seemed to paint an awful picture of Little Malaysia’s signature nasi lemak; at the moment of the meal, I finished the entire dish and wasn’t hesitant to pay for it at all. All because memories of eating nasi lemak in Malaysia occupied my conscious thoughts as soon I got a whiff of the pandan-scented rice.
The fondest nasi lemak memory of mine is from my mum’s tiny kitchen in Malacca, where she would make this sinful comfort food as a birthday treat. This delicacy was a time-consuming meal given the complexity of some of the side dishes. My two older siblings and myself would help out in the kitchen with simple tasks like washing the rice, slicing the cucumber, and plating while sneaking a taste of each irresistible element when my mum wasn’t looking. Despite the relatively modest surroundings, we felt most contented during these times.
And when I was a student with limited pocket money, Nasi Lemak was particularly vital. I remember buying a small pack of Nasi Lemak from a neighbourhood food stall for breakfast / lunch / snack, which was tightly packed with fluffy coconut rice, sinfully good sambal, a piece of cucumber, half a hardboiled egg, and a handful of fried anchovies, for a mere RM1.50 ($ 0.50). Again what would seem incredibly modest was enough to make any day better.
This is the power of authenticity in good food. The sight, smell, taste, and texture of certain dishes can bring back cherished memories from the past, provide a reminder of where we have come from, and for a brief moment, make the faced-paced hectic world around us stop turning. While it probably wasn’t the best dish I could get here nor the cheapest, the Nasi Lemak had a priceless non-monetary value for me at that instant. Serving up memories as if they were entrees is probably the hallmark of places like Little Malaysia. It may just give people enough of an idea of Malaysian food, to travel to the country themselves and hopefully make their own memories about it.
156 Boundary Street, West End QLD 4101
(07) 3844 0303