Digging into pasembur ($6.95) is like excavating an Egyptian pyramid. Shrimp-embedded flatbreads shingle the tomb, while goobers lurk beneath crusted with fermented shrimp paste, making a superfunky peanut brittle. Below that, cucumber, sprouts, jicama, and jellyfish are mortared in a thick chile dressing. Stashed in var- ious secret chambers are matchsticks of rubbery dried squid that become progressively brinier as you chew, chew, chew. This massive structure could be dismantled by five as an appetizer.
Also known as Indian rojak, pasembur is one of the glories of Sentosa, a new restaurant offering a Singaporean perspective on Mal-aysian cooking. As with the other excellent Malaysian up the block, Proton Saga, the menu is an amalgam of influences: Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Thai, and Nonya—the chow of the Straits Chinese, who have lived in the Malay Peninsula for centuries. Their cuisine combines all the other elements, and then some.
Other killer selections at Sentosa include the Indonesian-leaning beef rendang on rice ($4.95), tender chunks cooked to blackness in a complex spice mixture that anneals to the surface. Oozing red oil, it comes cradled in a lettuce leaf. The lamb rendition is not nearly as good. Like pasembur, lobak ($6.95) is another omnibus dish with something for everyone, including fried bean curd served with a pair of sauces, meat-stuffed tofu skin, shrimp pancakes, pickled vegetables, and a scary black egg that transmits light like obsidian.
At intervals a chef appears in the dining room at a marble-topped table to roll dough for rotis. He flings them in the air and spins them like pizzas to achieve the gossamer thinness so prized in roti canai ($1.95), a small bowl of chicken curry accompanied by the bread wadded like a silk handkerchief for dipping. The same rotis are available stuffed with egg and finely chopped vegetables (roti telur) or crushed peanuts (“peanut pancakes,” on the dessert menu).
The recent appearance of fresh Southeast Asian herbs in Chinatown markets has been a boon to Sentosa. The pandan, or screw pine, has long tapered green leaves that were formerly available only in dried or frozen form. Fresh, they sing with a flavor somewhere between vanilla and gym shorts. Encounter them in pandam ayam ($7.95), a heap of fried chicken wings wrapped with shredded-leaf bows like birthday packages. Paired with clove, this subtle herb also infuses coconut rice (75 cents). Fresh Indian kari (the ancestor of the English word “curry”) leaves are exploited in kari ikan kepala ($14.95), a tour de force of gluey fish heads in a coconut-milk broth rife with okra, onions, and sweet peppers. The cheeks are the best part.
Seafood scales new heights at Sentosa, especially pangan ikan ($15.95, market price), a skate large enough to frighten swimmers, topped with a lumpy chile sauce and cooked in a banana leaf. As if it weren’t hot enough, a fiery sambal is served on the side in a very small dish. Don’t complain about the size until you’ve scalded your tongue with a fingerful. Other traditional sambals find their way onto the menu as main courses, including ikan bills, tiny dried anchovies fried with peppers, onions, and plenty of garlic and chiles. It’s not for the fainthearted: As the plate arrives, hundreds of tiny eyes glare up at you.