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Triple Threat

Straits of Malacca delivers three takes on the complex tastes of Malaysian cuisine.

To the growing list of world cuisines settling in the southern Ohio Valley, you can now add Malaysian. As much of a melting pot in the far east as the United States is in the west, Malaysia bridges the flavors and culinary traditions of two land masses that reside south of the Asian continent and have been central to maritime trade routes for hundreds of years.

At Straits of Malacca in Mason—named after the narrow waterway that separates Malaysia from the island of Sumatra, considered one of the most important shipping channels in the world (and the playground for a fair amount of modern day pirates as well)—this leads to many tasty detours. Take, for instance, the snack-sized puffs of tofu, which are grilled and served with Malaysian-style peanut sauce for dipping and cucumber and bean sprouts to provide some snap. Or the pork that is  marinated, slow-roasted, and diced, then mixed with a sweetish barbecue sauce and stuffed into housemade dough. Baked to order, the fist-sized rolls are familiar as Cantonese dim sum, but it wouldn’t be farfetched to draw a relationship to Carolina ’cue. A Flintstones-sized lamb shank, beautifully russet and clove-scented atop a bed of biryani rice, is surrounded by Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, and batons of butternut squash. The fried cipollini onions astride the shank add to the mash-up of European, Indian, and Chinese ingredients. Five-spiced duck stuffed with a fine dice of chestnuts and persimmon, primal and rich, has a decidedly French accent. Dessert of mango rice—the rice sweet and sticky with coconut milk, the mango ripe and spicy—imbues traditional Thai.

Fusion, right? Yes...but if you’re considering the sort of fusion cuisine that has become a euphemism for superficial eclecticism, then no. We’re talking about food that gets a lot more serious than that.

In addition to an Indian and Chinese confluence there’s Thai, Indonesian, and Vietnamese cuisine to contend with. Plus, the spice trade between the ancient civilizations of North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and China all intersected in Malaysia. Portugal occupied Malacca in the 16th century, the Dutch in the 17th. And let’s not forget the British, whose colonial presence introduced such ingredients as Worcestershire sauce and the tradition of afternoon tea. And there are even more genealogical and cultural rabbit holes: Malaysia’s Peranakan (also called Nonya) cuisine—begat from Chinese migrants marrying Malay women—has its own distinct flavors. So, it’s fair to say that Malaysia’s multi-ethnic population has embraced a culinary diversity that is bona fide fusion.

Straits of Malacca occupies an historic Art Deco building on Mason’s West Main Street that was once the town’s municipal building. In 2005, a $3 million makeover transformed it into a 140-seat enterprise called One Restaurant (conceived and operated by chefs Sean and Jennifer Kagy, it closed in 2007). Now, it is three restaurants—or rather, three concepts with three different names under one roof and one name. Get it? No? I’ll break it down for you.

Straits of Malacca is the umbrella under which Tioman Café, Langkawi Spice, and Blue Intan Tapas Bar reside. Three separate rooms, three separate menus. Sort of.

As you enter the front door, the café is in a small room to the left of the vestibule. It operates during lunch and brunch hours. Wooden tables and chairs with a cafeteria-style line define the room; street food defines the menu. It’s here I felt closest to authentic Malaysian dining.

Whole prepared meats hang from hooks behind a glass partition; pictures of dishes line the wall. We dined on luscious slices of crispy duck (one of the displayed birds) and a vinegary garlic chili sauce laced with ginger and onion for dipping. Char kueh teow, a smoky, flavorful dish of wok-fried rice noodles, shrimp, scallions, and sprouts is as popular in Penang as pad Thai is in Thailand. Asam laksa—a hot and sour fish-and-tamarind–based broth loaded with rice noodles, cucumber, onion, pineapple, mint, and jalapeños—represents the Peranakan cuisine unique to the cultural history of Malaysia. And in the national dish of Malaysia, nasi lemak, individual foods—meat or vegetables (your choice), hard-boiled egg, cucumber slices, peanuts, and anchovies—surround a mound of coconut infused rice. The beef rendang that anchors our nasi lemak is sweet with dry-toasted coconut and spicy with clove, cardamom, cinnamon, and fennel.

To the right of the entrance hall is Blue Intan Tapas Bar. Tropical cocktails, craft beers, bubble smoothies, lychee juice, and rambutan martinis accompany a menu of hand foods: beef and chicken satays, fried calamari, shrimp and chive fritters, those glorious grilled tofu puffs, and more. Many of these same items cross over to the café menu or to the dinner menu.

Langkawi Spice downshifts to a slower dinner-only flow in the back room, a high-ceilinged room that reads cool with blonde woods, steel fittings, and large, uncovered windows. White tablecloths and royal blue linens seem a little stark in the overall scheme, but some sort of textiles are needed to warm it up.

It’s here that chef Paul Liew (who owns Straits of Malacca with siblings Mary, Susan, and Alvin) peppers his native Malaysian cuisine with fine dining fundamentals.

The 46-year-old chef has cooked since he was 16, briefly co-owning a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur before migrating to the United States in 2007 with a restaurant dream. Intent on learning American tastes first, he made the rounds of some local kitchens including Blue Gibbon, Raymond’s Hong Kong Café, and most notably, Jean-Robert’s Table, where he worked butchery, pastry, and sauté before being offered the position of chef du cuisine (he declined, hoping to open his own establishment).

Dishes in Langkawi Spice are colorful and flavor intensive: a spiky crown of julienned vegetables atop grilled cobia alongside shining grains of rice wrapped in a paper-thin egg omelette. Risotto rich with oyster mushrooms, fresh shrimp, and taro root serves as a bed for seared scallops crested with a Parmesan tuile. Arugula bunks with lentil curry, aloo ghobi, and New Zealand lamb; sweet potatoes, okra, tomato, and fried plantains with curried Cornish hen; mussels with lemongrass, chilies, basil, and tamarind. Entire civilizations exist in one dish.

Understandably, western ingredients will dictate and compromise a true eastern dining experience, and Chef Paul admits his presentation and integration of the dishes on the Langkawi Spice menu is designed to suit a wider audience. I saw only Caucasian people in the nearly empty dining room, while I was one of several Caucasians amid Asian and Indian customers in a packed Tioman Café. What does that indicate? Either the three-in-one concept is brilliant (Liew tells me it’s common in Malaysia), or at the very least western palates are getting hip to the traditional flavors of Malaysia. Which really means that we’re wholeheartedly embracing the flavors of the world and no longer need the toned-down or jacked-up versions of ethnic cuisines. Give it to us, er, straight up. 

Straits of Malacca, 202A W. Main St., Mason, (513) 492-7656, straitsmalacca.com

Originally published in the February 2013 issue.