Redang Island's Sweet Tarts
Redang Island is one of the few places you can get a drink in Malaysia. While officially part of the peninsular Terengganu state, the small island—lined with glitzy Chinese-owned resorts—lies 10 miles offshore. As the pelican flies, it's not far from Thailand, either. The island's restaurants mainly sling pizzas and burgers for beachgoers, though a local specialty of rice vermicelli with anchovy sauce sometimes receives mention in tourist accounts.
Redang Island is also the name of a Malaysian restaurant in Bath Beach, Brooklyn, that lurks in the shadow of the elevated D train. On a Saturday night, when we pulled up around 9:30, the joint was hopping. We gladly undertook the 30-minute wait, because the food we saw as we pressed our noses against the glass looked so damn good. The restaurant's name justifies the kind of menu sprawl common to most Malaysian places today, allowing it to list Thai and southern Chinese dishes along with Malaysian ones, though largely ignoring the cooking of Terengganu, which obsesses on rubbery fishcakes.
The menu is littered with dishes representing the centuries-long Chinese diaspora across Southeast Asia, many of which have become incorporated into Malaysian cuisine. There's an astonishingly good Hainanese chicken ($7.50 for a half-bird)—cold, poached poultry deposited in a rich soy sauce, decorated with fronds of cilantro and slivers of green onion. The recipe is associated with Hainan Island, China's southernmost province, and if cold chicken doesn't sound like your kind of thing, think again, because the sliced bird is spectacular, rubbery skin and all. To enjoy it properly, order a bowl of "chicken rice" ($1.50) cooked in the poaching broth.
The Chinese have been migrating to Malaysia for so long that you can often tell when they came by what they eat. The earliest arrivers, called Straits Chinese or Babas ("grandpas"), have resided in the northern Malay peninsula for centuries. To sample their Nyonya ("grandma") cuisine, grab a bowl of asam laksa ($5.25), a noodle soup based on a strong mackerel broth made doubly tart with lemongrass and tamarind. What's that undertaste? The soup also flaunts the pungent leaf daun kesom, sometimes known as Vietnamese mint (even though it's botanically unrelated to mint). The cooking of comparative Chinese newcomers is represented by another delicious soup, wonton mee ($4.50), which floats thin-skinned dumplings stuffed with pork and shrimp in a broth mobbed with lo mein, perfect in its mellow Cantonese simplicity.
Redang Island does commendable versions of the strange, sweet salads that Malaysian cuisine is famous for, including Indian rojak ($6.95)—a wild lettuce-less ride of jicama, tofu, bean sprouts, shredded jellyfish nearly indistinguishable from the sprouts, and homemade crackers embedded with shrimp, dribbled with dark palm syrup. Like your salad even tarter? Achat is a sesame-strewn slaw of pickled fruits and veggies guaranteed to contort your lips into a pucker. Other good starters include chicken wings fried with screwpine leaves neatly tied into a bow, and poh piah ($4.95), Nyonya egg rolls that have evolved to the point where they don't resemble egg rolls anymore. More like Philippine lumpias, they sport a glove-soft wrapper bulging with minced shrimp, crumbled egg, bean sprouts, and what the menu rather unfortunately labels "shite turnips," served with a sweet red dipping sauce.
Inevitably, seafood is prominently featured, with whole-fish presentations favored. One of the signatures of Malaysian cuisine is a small stingray smeared with fermented shrimp paste and grilled in a banana leaf. Here, the scary denizen of the deep (which recently killed Australian naturalist Steve Irwin, a fellow diner reminded me) is steamed instead of grilled, making the dish more pallid than it should be. Much better is "steamed fish in hot bean sauce," offering a choice of tilapia ($18.95) or striped bass ($23.95). Pick the tilapia, because it's bigger, cheaper, and tastes better in the beany, shallot-choked sauce.
Of course, real Malaysian aficionados will head for the fishhead stews, four in number. All come in deep crockery and are profusely dotted with okra, long beans, carrots, and other vegetables. Glorying in its Baba and Indian influences, curry asam fishhead ($15.95) was our favorite, thickened with coconut milk and, once again, spectacularly sour. And the fish component was not limited to head—there were collars, tails, and other odd parts of various fish in the mix, too, lending a wonderful glueyness to the broth.
Eating a bowl of fishhead stew is much better than a boring week spent lying on the beach at Redang Island—the one in Southeast Asia, rather than the one in southeast Brooklyn.
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