Strait Talking
[from September 2004 issue]

Letís make this point right here. Weíve got Straits of Malaya owner/chef Lawrence Tan to thank for bringing Malaysian cooking to DC some years ago. Others have since followed suit: Youíll find a Penang in Bethesda; two more Penangs in DC and Reston (though not related to the Bethesda Penang); and Malaysia Kopitiam on M Street, close by the DC Penang. What that says is that DC folk are ready for Malaysian cooking. Of course, that does not say that we are giving up on the deluge, flood, overload, and mass of Thai restaurants in the metro area. Geeeez, you can find a Thai restaurant on almost every corner. And what about Chinese???

But Tan has given us pause and an opportunity to explore something slightly different in Asian cooking. With his homemade meals (some are his momís own recipes) from the chili kingdom known as Malaysia, youíll find that the chili heat blends smoothly into folds of coconut milk and is sweetened slightly by palm sugar and given a subtle but distinctive saltiness from shrimp paste, the Malaysiansí ubiquitous belacan (Thai fish sauce with oomph).

Indeed, Malaysian cooking is unique among the cookpots of Asia because it is actually several different sub-cuisines: Chinese, Indian, Malay, and Nyonya. This unusual gastronomic blend is expressed in such diverse dishes as the famed roti canai--sadly missing from Tanís menu--a flat bread and chicken curry dish that is totally addictive; cha (sometimes spelled char) kway teow, a stir-fry of wide rice noodles with seafood add-ons, of which Tan has his version on the menu; and the unforgettable rending, a beef and chili and coconut milk stew that in the olden days had been cooked so thoroughly, a Malaysian explained, that it could sit out in the kitchen without refrigeration--because, of course, there were no refrigerators. Wish that Tan would put that on his menu, even if many Westerners wonder what to do with it.

Nevertheless, despite some absent favorites of mine, Tan takes us on a culinary cruise through his homeland. I suppose every meal ought to start with these two or three dishes: the laksa, a blazing hot fish-based noodle soup with a coconut milk base. Portions of this are large, so if you are not famished, a bowl and the fried jackfruit for dessert might well be enough.

But you should also add on the five-spice roll, a house special and, as the menu announces, Tanís motherís very own dish. Akin possibly to meatloaf or p‚tť, the roll consists of deftly seasoned ground beef wrapped in tofu skin, and then fried. Delicious, the two of us decided, as we divvied up the portioned slices evenly.

My friend headed toward the tamarind chicken, a mild-flavored, slightly sweet-slightly sour dish of chicken tossed with vegetables; I opted for the spicy udang goreng berempah, studded with unbelievably large, juicy and numerous prawns bathed in a chili-coconut milk mix that might bring tears to the eye.

But perhaps my all-time favorite here--and one I remember from a lunchtime here eons ago during the restaurantís first incarnation--is the cha kway teow. A Chinese-style noodle dish probably inspired by the luscious chow fun noodle dish, the Malaysian version is overlaid with flavors of soy sauce, chilies, garlic and the meat or meats added. Itís comfort food, Malaysian style, just as appealing as say, a bowl of tapioca.

Tan keeps his menu simple and straightforward. Though I might wish he would add on other dishes, what he does he does well, providing a friendly neighborhood setting--and, as the menu offers, for nearby residents who live within a five-minute walk, management will call when a table is free. Now, thatís right neighborly.

Straits of Malaya, 1836 18th St., NW; 483-1483. Hours: Sun.-Thu., 5:30-10:30pm; Fri. & Sat., to 11pm. Entrťe prices: $10.95-$17.95. Major credit cards accepted; reservations suggested.

*Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include food editor of Vegetarian Times, restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

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