Malaysia, the fecund equatorial state on the bulging tip of the Thai peninsula, looms large in the consciousness of every self-respecting food lunatic in America.
Fans of The Fatty Crab in New York, Betelnut in San Francisco, Banana Island in Daly City and Asian hawker food in general (the antecedents of our cart-food culture) should know that Malaysia, not Singapore, has the best street eats in the world.
Now I do, having just returned. The glorious and ubiquitous street food of Penang, Kuala Lumpur and historic Melaka, just south of KL, is energized by ethnic diversity — Malay, Chinese (mostly Fujianese, Hakkanese and Teochow) and Indian, with echoes of Britain.
Alex Ong, longtime chef at Betelnut, grew up in Sibu, a small town in Eastern Malaysia on the island of Borneo, and all he could think about was leaving. At age 12 he discovered cooking, and after years of Catholic school, he joined a hotel management program in KL rather than going to university.
He talked his way into the Shangri-la Hotel kitchen, ruled by tyrannical French chefs in tall hats and jaunty neckerchiefs. He wanted to be one of them, to cook French, not local. Learning on the job, he swept an annual hotel cooking competition a few years later in Bermuda, and was recruited by the French chef at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead in Atlanta, fulfilling his real dream, living in America.
Ten years ago he took over as chef/partner at Betelnut, where, longing for Penang food, I was sitting at the counter in front of a slamming open kitchen that conjured the organized chaos of open air hawker carts and street stalls of Malaysia. Ong had come full circle.
After one bite of creamy, crusty, deep-fried black pepper chicken livers, I was back in Penang. These dreamy chicken livers (on a special www.blackboardeats.com menu, not on the regular menu, but beg for them), perfumed with crushed black pepper, nubbly with crispy bits of batter and moistened with sauteed onions, have the ring of nonya cooking, the unique cuisine of Malaysian-born Straits Chinese.
Ong nibbled them as a kid at the movie house in Sibu where a hawker out front fried them to order and poured them into a little plastic bag to be eaten inside with a wooden skewer. Woe to the moviegoer who punctured the bag. (Ong says he has never adjusted to the styrofoam popcorn at American theaters.)
The most beloved dish of Malaysia, curry laksa ($11.95) gets a permanent place on the Betelnut menu. The creamy, coconut milk-bathed bowl of rice noodles with tofu, chicken and shrimp is richer than any version I had there. The sauce, infused with a Malaysian curry paste and fragrant with Asian mint and basil, is good with a squeeze of lime.
Roti prata ($6.75), a buttery, multilayered, made-to-order flat bread, comes with bowls of coconut milk curry and yogurt, for dipping.
I could eat Penang noodles ($11.75) every day, wide al dente ribbons of rice noodle, delivered fresh from Oakland, stir fried with sprouts, little shrimp, egg and crab in a dark, sweet soy sauce — pure comfort food.
“Would my mom say, that’s like mine?” Ong says. “No, but I have to use what is around me,” which is exactly what cooks have done in Malaysia for generations.
My favorite coconut milk dish at Betelnut is fish head tamarind curry, ($15.88 and up) which must be ordered 24 hours in advance. This is a beautiful thing. All the best morsels of fish reside in the head. After breaking the head apart with the serving spoon, you just have to use your fingers to suck the meat off the bones. The fruity sourness of tamarind cuts the sweetness of the coconut milk. A judicious dab of shrimp paste gives it umami; red chile sambal, heat; pickled red chiles, piquancy; and cooked-down okra and tomatillios, natural thickening. This velvety curry, a bowl of rice and a damp napkin at the end, constitute a perfect evening.
If you see cured lamb tongue ($11.88) on the menu, order it. It’s an appetizer, paper-thin marinated slices topped with shaved, ginger-like galangal, deep fried taro shreds and a dressing of lime, fish sauce and sugar — hot, tart and sweet — an Ong original inspired by the flavors of Malaysia.
Salt and pepper veal sweetbreads ($12.88), crisply fried with ginger chiles and scallions, are a far cry from the sweetbreads in aspic he loved to make at the Shangri-la, but these vanish from Betelnut plates as fast as, well, popcorn.
Location: 2030 Union St., San Francisco
Contact: (415) 929-8855, www.betelnutrestaurant.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 11:30 a.m. to midnight Fridays-Saturdays
Price range: $6.75 to $23.88
Recommended dishes: Penang noodles, fish head tamarind curry, roti prata, laksa, crispy chicken livers in black pepper sauce
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express
Patricia Unterman is the author of the second edition of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.