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For the jaded foodie, Malaysian fare has myriad charms. Ever tasted screwpine?
Although it sounds like a pervert having his way with a shapely evergreen, the name refers to a shrub native to Southeast Asia, also known as pandanus. Ripped down the middle to release their savor, the long, shiny leaves tie up the fried chicken wings ($7.95) at Banana Leaf—a new restaurant in Sunset Park—imparting astringency and adding vanilla notes to the skin and flesh. Then there’s petai, sometimes called stink bean, a bulbous legume about the size of a lima, with a firm-but-creamy texture and slightly obnoxious smell—much milder than a ginkgo nut stepped on in the street but in roughly the same vein. Enjoy it in a garlicky cook-up of shrimp, onions, and peppers in sambal petai ($12.95).
Banana Leaf is the fourth Malaysian restaurant to appear in Brooklyn’s Chinatown. It’s an awful moniker, since there have been a half-dozen other places in New York with the same name in recent memory. While the Indian restaurant Banana Leaf on Lexington in Curry Hill is now closed, the recently reviewed (and highly recommended) Sri Lankan in Chelsea is still alive and kicking. The interior of the Sunset Park establishment is like half the other restaurants in Chinatown: fish tanks in front, alongside a dumbwaiter to the basement kitchen, big round tables in the middle, and a private dining chamber in back. Lath lines the walls in undulant patterns—possibly intended to evoke an island village or maybe the inside of a ship’s hull.
In the style of the city’s Malaysian restaurants, the menu meanders all over the Far East, and you can find Indonesian, Chinese, Thai, and the stray Japanese dish presented for your delectation. When I complained about this to a Malaysian friend, she noted: “It’s that way in the town where my family comes from. In Ipoh, Thai food is a local favorite, and everyone wants to make it.” Still, the geographically far-flung choices on Banana Leaf’s menu are not the point of the place, so stick with the Malaysian stuff, at least initially.
That cuisine is a fascinating synthesis of Chinese, Indian, European, and aboriginal influences, reaching its apogee in the cooking of the Peranakan or Straits Chinese. This group traces their lineage to four centuries of Chinese immigration to the Malay Peninsula, intermarrying with other populations they encountered. Their gnarliest recipe is asam laksa ($5.95), a super-sour soup scented with lemongrass and dried fish—for that skanky wallop you can’t forget. A wealth of soft noodles at the bottom might remind you of Japanese udon. Banana Leaf’s version is flavorsome but a bit shy in the quantity of broth.
The best way to approach this cuisine for the first time is to check out nasi lemak ($5.50), a one-person smorgasbord of coconut rice, dark curry chicken, a tart vegetable pickle, hard-boiled eggs, sliced cukes, red-skin peanuts, and a fish sambol—one of the many pungent small dishes in a Malaysian meal. Indeed, the cuisine’s signature flavor is belachan, a fermented shrimp paste. It’s the archipelago’s answer to bacon. In its most glamorous usage at Banana Leaf, a live pompano is plucked from the tanks and expertly fried till the fragile bones, face, and tail are crisp enough to eat. As the fish swims to the table, its head and tail rise up from a salty wave of crumbled belachan (market price, $19.95).
Standouts among quintessential Malaysian dishes at Banana Leaf include popiah (a freshly rolled crepe filled with tofu, egg, wobbly sprouts, and crunchy jicama, served with a trickle of palm sugar syrup) and Indian mee goreng (egg noodles and potatoes in a delicious dried squid sauce)—though there’s hardly anything Indian about it. If you want something that owes an obvious debt to South Asian cooking, go for the roti canai ($2.95)—a flaky, buttery paratha served with a coconut-laced chicken curry. Admirably, the restaurant offers the pancake in three variations—one with crushed peanuts, making an excellent dessert.
There’s also a fine version of the Malaysian passion usually called chili crab (“hot and spicy crab,” $14.95). Order it and find yourself up to the elbows in a sweet and hot sauce, with a tall pile of bright red crabs that were squirming in boxes at the fish stalls along Eighth Avenue not long before. Not only are you responsible for their demise, but also for your own cleaning bill, as you get up from the table, coated in sticky splattered goo.