Monday, January 30, 2012

My Malaysian Lunch Adventure

She did not wear this to lunch, but she still looked lovely in her Philly attire.
I was invited to lunch with my dear friend Farah.  She hails from Singapore, is a legendary cook and hostess, and had a hankering for a taste of home.  Banana Leaf Malaysian Cuisine at 1009 Arch St. was our destination.

The atmosphere was pleasant; lots of bamboo-esque wood,  pastel colors, and a clean, uncluttered feel.  Upon arrival,  I put myself in the hands of my friend, and she proceeded to order typical Malaysian/Singaporean dishes.  "This takes me back to childhood," she said, "We had a canteen at school that sold this type of street food and I ate these dishes for lunch every day."

We started with a Rojak, which is a cold salad of fruits and vegetables.  When Farah ordered it, the server, who obviously knew her stuff, questioned the decision.  Farah assured her that she was from Singapore, was familiar with the dish and repeated the order.  The server then looked at me.  "She wants that?  You sure?".  I thanked the server for looking out for me but insisted that I wanted to try everything the way the chef prepares it.  She politely suggested that we have the sauce on the side.  I politely insisted that I would be fine with the dish as it comes.  When the server left, I asked Farah to dish on the dish.    "It has a rather pungent sauce, sort of sweet and sour fish sauce, and I just love it" she said.    I do a lot of Asian cooking and my kitchen is equipped with fish sauce, oyster sauce, and other authentic regional ingredients, so we were confident that I would be fine with this dish.   We were wrong.  Oh, so very wrong.  Farah tucked in happily, relishing the salad of her childhood.  I gulped down a heavily sauced cucumber whole with tea and passed her the plate.

Rojak--not for everyone.
Which brings me back to restaurant rule #1:  Listen to your server.  They do, after all, know the food (and their customers) rather well.  

All I can say is that like Gefilte fish, marmite, and tripe, none of which appear in my culinary ethnicity, rojak is something that you have to grow up eating to enjoy.  Or perhaps it is an acquired taste.  I can confidently say that I will never acquire it, but different strokes for different folks.

I fessed up immediately to the wise waitress.  As she passed by, I said, "You were right.  I don't like it.  I should have listened to you."  She chuckled good naturedly and brought our remaining two dishes, which were much more to my liking.

The Sarong Barong was a "bowl" made of fried taro, which was filled with lightly sauced, stir fried pieces of chicken, corn, snow peas, mushrooms and cashews.  It is important to appreciate the true divinity of this taro bowl.  Picture deep fried mashed potatoes and you are in the neighborhood.

And finally, the Singaporean Rice, I've never met a noodle I didn't like and these did not disappoint.   Tossed with shrimp, egg, bean sprouts and Chinese cabbage, these lovely strands were downright addictive.

So, in the immortal words of Meat Loaf...."Two out of three ain't bad."  I would return to banana leaf in a heartbeat.  The service was great (if only I'd allowed myself to truly benefit from how great), the price was right, the food was delicious, and the place immaculate.

Thank you Farah, for a lovely lunchtime adventure.  For our next girls' day out I'll have to come up with something equally regional and evocative of my heritage--Irish, German, Czech, and Dutch.  Oh, dear.  Not the most thrilling cuisines in all the world.  I may have to lay claim to a culinary ethnicity that is not technically in my blood to feed you properly.  Suggestions welcome!

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