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The interior of Malaysia Kopitiam, tucked downstairs on M Street in Washington, D.C., reminded me very much of the many local restaurants from back home in Malaysia.
I knew this place existed as I walked down 17th Street near Connecticut Avenue, looking for some Asian cuisine to tuck into.
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The bright red awning with the name “Malaysia Kopitiam” emblazoned in white is nestled near a Vietnamese restaurant and not far from the Daily Grill.
During my visit, I sat in one of the vinyl booths and perused the extensive menu filled with familiar Malaysian dishes like nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk) and beef rendang (tender curried beef simmered in coconut milk and roasted dessicated coconut).
Minutes go by and two young Americans walk in to inquire about the food. “What is Malaysian food?” one asked the waitress while her friend scrutinized the names of the foreign dishes. “It’s a mix of Chinese, Indian and Malay flavors. … We have noodles and rice, too,” explained the staff. Still not convinced, the woman asked, “So, is it like Thai?” to which the waitress replied, “It’s similar, but we use different spices. You should try it.” Both women seemed hesitant, so they politely declined and left.
Chefs help customers embrace Malaysian menu
Actually, this is not the usual scenario at Malaysia Kopitiam. “A lot of Americans who come in here already know what to expect of Malaysian food. You would be surprised how adventurous they are,” said Penny Phoon, 54, the chef who owns the business with her husband, Leslie, 58. The couple lives in Falls Church, Va., with their two sons.
The owners hail from Ipoh, a city in the northern state of Perak in Malaysia. In 2000, Malaysia Kopitiam was the first Malaysian restaurant to open in the Washington, D.C., according to Penny.
“There was a café called Penang, which unfortunately closed down after two years. We feel lucky to have survived the first 10 years with the support of regular customers and our staff. It was tough because we went through a recession, too,” she said.
Because Thai food is the more popular Southeast Asian cuisine, Penny and Leslie make it a point to educate their customers. “We tell them Thai food consists of mostly cold salads, grilled fish and the use of roots and different peppers as well as lemon and sugar. In Malaysian cooking, we use a lot of coconut and gravitate towards tamarind and lime in our dishes.”
Those with spice intolerance will ask what on the menu is spicy and what is not. “There are more adventurous ones who can eat more spicy food than we do,” Penny said.
The menu comprises mostly signature Malay, Chinese and Indian dishes from Penang and Ipoh, including roti canai (Indian-influenced circular flat bread usually consumed with curry), assam laksa (sweet, sour and spicy broth with thick rice noodles, fish, onions and mint leaves) and char koay teow (flat rice noodles fried with dark soy and chili sauce, egg, chives and bean sprouts), to name a few.
Many people have a love-hate relationship with assam laksa because of the “fishy texture.” “You either like it or hate it. If you are adventurous then go ahead, which is what I tell my customers. If I can’t decide what to eat, I will choose laksa, especially in cold winter months as warm comfort food,” Penny said.
Leslie said that apart from surviving the volatile economy, naming the restaurant was another hurdle. “We wanted to simply call it Kopitiam, but it was too generic,” he said. (“Kopi” means coffee in Malay while “tiam” means shop/cafe in the Hakka/Hokkien dialect). “So we had to go with Malaysia Kopitiam, which means Malaysia Café.”
Hung on one wall in the restaurant are the accolades they have garnered over the years. They were bestowed the title of Restaurateur of the Year in 2002 by Washingtonian magazine; 100 Very Best Restaurants Award from 2001 to 2005, and 2007 and 2008; and 100 Best Bargain Restaurants Award from 2001 to 2010, also from Washingtonian. They were also rated “excellent” by Zagat.
When I accompany Penny to the kitchen, she starts to prepare a serving of hokkien mee (thick egg noodles braised with shrimp, fish cake and cabbage in thick soy sauce). She mutters some orders to her helpers in Spanish. “I don’t speak fluent Spanish, but good enough to communicate,” she acknowledges.
I was curious as to where she sourced her spices. “It’s easy to get them from Asian markets here … stuff like turmeric, lime leaves, galangal and torch ginger are available. The first five years we had a supplier make a delivery every two months,” she said.
Penny’s mother was her biggest influence when it came to cooking. “She told me, if you want to be a good chef, you must listen to the good and bad comments. Otherwise, you won’t progress. That is why I keep as close to the ingredients in my cooking but adjust it to suit the local taste here.”
The aroma of the spices permeating throughout the restaurant and warmth from the familiar food was blissful, as I was really missing all of it for the six months I was in the U.S. It was like a home away from home.
Top photo: Assam laksa from Malaysia Kopitiam. Credit: Aida Ahmad
Ramadan, the fasting month that began July 9, is a time when Muslims around the world abstain from food and water from sunrise to sunset, resist temptation and desires and, more important, become introspective on spirituality.
After a full day of fasting, there is one essential starter always on the dinner table in most Muslim households: dates. In the Malay language, dates are called kurma. Eating them is like having apple pie on the Fourth of July or turkey on Thanksgiving.
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The dry and sweet texture of this rich fruit (similar to prunes) derives from the Phoenix dactylifera (date palm) and has been a staple food in the Middle East for thousands of years.
A handful of these during our pre-dawn meal along with other sustenance make for a hearty supplement to last us the entire day, because they are a good source of sugar, fiber, carbohydrates, potassium and magnesium, according to associate professor Dr. Raja Affendi Ali, a consultant gastroenterologist. For breaking fast at sundown, dates are most often the first thing we reach for to replenish the sugar in our system.
About three months before Ramadan, dates are widely sold in supermarkets and wholesalers stock up for special orders for their customers, many of whom are corporate clients wanting to present packaged dates as gifts.
In Penang, Malaysia, where I’m from, a man named Mohamed Meera Sahib Noordeen operates his namesake store along Penang Street in the middle of the Little India enclave, selling dates all year long. To put it simply, he enjoys brisk business, especially during Ramadan.
The store name, Meera Sahib, is actually Mohamed’s grandfather’s name, and the store is famous for its quality dates. They even have dates named after the man himself — “Kurma Meera,” or Meera dates.
As you walk in to Meera Sahib, the whiff of exotic spices is comforting. Mohamed sells them along with local dried food like nuts and grains. The sacks of various types of premium dates are specially imported from countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Iran, Oman, Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan.
The best seller among the dates is a variety of Deglet Nour from Tunisia. They are light gold in color and not very sweet. “Our online orders are really good too,” said Mohamed, adding that 15% of the store’s sales come via the Internet.
The dates are delivered all over peninsular Malaysia.
Aside from Deglet Nour, Mohamed sells Mozafati (honey dates) from Iran; Safawi, Mabroom, and Ajwa (rich, darker and sweeter in flavor) from Saudi Arabia; and Medjoul and Barhi (larger in size and sweeter) from Jordan. The most expensive of these is the Ajwa, known as the Prophet’s date.
It is learned that Prophet Muhammad always broke his fast with dates, which is why Muslims are encouraged to observe this tradition.
For Mohamed’s store, they have full-time distributors in each state in Malaysia and have a network of distributors in countries such as Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Brunei.
One regular shopper from Penang who frequents Meera Sahib describes the establishment as a household name on the island. “The dates here are always fresh and it’s where I come to stock up on my spices,” housewife Amina Abdullah said.
During Ramadan, a deluge of dates floods the shelves in various grocery stores in Malaysia as well as Ramadan food bazaars.
Tucked in an exclusive shopping center in the Bangsar township is an upscale confectionery boutique in an affluent area of Kuala Lumpur that which sells premium gourmet dates. At Dubai-based Bateel, 100 grams of dates are sold for $10 to $15. For those willing to pay the high price, they take pride in gift-wrapping your purchases.
Bateel’s concept combines an exquisite blend of Arabic architecture and modern retail space reflective of the rich cultural tradition of the Gulf region. From its own groves in Al-Ghat, Saudi Arabia, it offers more than 20 varieties of high-quality dates, including Naboot Seif, Sokari, Kholas, Sekki and Khidri. All are available all year-round.
The biggest sellers are dates stuffed with pecans, orange peel and lemon peel. They replenish the stock of dates every two weeks, in line with their emphasis on strict quality control.
When I’m feeling rich (which is very rarely), I indulge on dates stuffed with lemon peel, and they are delicious.
At Bateel, some dates are marked “XPL” and “PL,” which mean “extra premium large” and “premium large.”
Because of their naturally occurring high sugar content, dates might not be good for some people, especially diabetics. However, certain varieties, like the Sekki dates, contain less sugar.
Bateel not only sells dates but also fine chocolates and chocolate truffles and many products derived from dates, including sparkling juice, nectar, jams, biscuits and cookies.
The Medjool dates from California are always available, and these babies are bigger in size and more succulent in flavor.
“You pay a hefty price for dates here, but they make great gifts for our very important corporate clients. I guess the exclusivity comes with the territory,” said Jane Lee, a corporate communications executive from Kuala Lumpur.
Top photo: Deglet Nour dates. Credit: Bateel
Rice is a staple of the Malaysian diet. You can choose to have rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sadly, this habit has contributed to rising obesity cases in the country, according to the Malaysian Ministry of Health. But we Malaysians do love our rice.
One quintessential rice dish considered our darling, pride and joy is the humble nasi lemak.
“Nasi” (pronounced nah-see) in Malay means rice, and “lemak” (pronounced luh-mahk) is translated in the cooking context to mean enriched. In this case, it is enriched with coconut milk. In any other sense, “lemak” means fat. But to directly translate nasi lemak as “fat rice” would be linguistically wrong, gastronomically speaking.
Even expats living in Malaysia, in the west peninsular particularly, are more or less familiar with this rich, decadent dish, which is a staple in most local restaurants. It is hard not to love a nice, warm plate of nasi lemak. It would be like being in Italy and not having pizza or pasta.
Two important elements make up this dish: the rice, which is cooked in coconut milk with little shreds of ginger and lemongrass as well as screwpine (pandan in Malay) leaf thrown in for added fragrance, and the spicy sambal, a chili-based sauce that has either fried anchovies (ikan bilis in Malay) or prawns in it. As many would say, it’s all in the sauce, and this one packs a punch. The other essential condiments usually found in nasi lemak are sliced cucumbers, half a hard-boiled egg and roasted ground nuts. Nowadays, many variations of accompaniments are served with the dish, such as chicken, beef or prawn curry and even fried chicken.
The traditional way of packing nasi lemak is to wrap it in a banana tree leaf, as the leaf gives added fragrance. It is still sold as such throughout Peninsular Malaysia, but restaurants serve up a “modernized” version on a plate with all the trimmings.
One Australian expat I interviewed last year, Hugh Ujhazy, had this to say: “People think it’s a dollar’s worth of rice in a brown paper packet. For me, the rice and sambal has to be just right. I love it with coarse-cut onions, chili, ginger and garlic. The side of fried anchovies is also essential. I have yet to find the perfect nasi lemak,” he enthused.
Origins of nasi lemak remain unknown
Be it that we Malaysians have long claimed nasi lemak to be ours, the truth is no one really knows where it originates from because the practice of using coconut milk in rice is also common in countries like Thailand, Indonesia and India. While driving to work one day, I was lucky to catch an interview with a Malaysian heritage historian — a man named Najib Ariffin — on one of our radio channels, who happened to talk about the origins of the famous nasi lemak.
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Ariffin studies ethnic origins and relationships between cultures, focusing on the Indo-Pacific region. He said he has yet to come across any conclusive evidence on the origin of this dish. There is even a folklore story set in the historic state of Malacca (a couple of hours south of Kuala Lumpur) about a young village girl who, while helping her mother cook, accidentally spilled a cup of coconut milk in a pot of rice, much to the chagrin of her mother, who ended up actually liking the taste, hence the birth of nasi lemak.
The fact that Malaysia is a melting pot of different races — including Malays, Chinese and Indians — translates into our cuisine as well. “Malacca has its own Chinese version of nasi lemak which is judged on how they cook the sambal. Some like it a tad sweeter and some don’t,” he explains.
Some clues show nasi lemak, which is often consumed as a big breakfast meal, originated in the west coast of Malaysia, he said. The east coast, which is the most culturally conservative part of the country, has its own signature traditional rice dishes with prominent, distinct fish flavors. “The nasi lemak has not changed their fondness for their local dishes. It just adds on to the variety of rice dishes available there,” Ariffin added.
He goes on to say that back in the day, in an agrarian society, his grandparents would consume a healthy serving of nasi lemak for breakfast before heading out to the fields. “They really worked up a sweat as farmers so they needed a hearty meal in the morning. Eating nasi lemak kept them full because you have all the food groups covered — carbohydrates from the rice, oils from the sambal and protein from the anchovies.”
It is a pity nothing was recorded on paper back then. “I scoured old books, articles, libraries and even talked to some friends of my grandparents to find out about stories they heard. Let’s just say all the anecdotes died with them,” he concluded.
I love indulging in a hot packet of nasi lemak, but the best is always cooked by my own mother. She has graciously shared her recipe.
This recipe can be made in a rice cooker or stock pot. Make sure you simmer the rice on medium to low heat until cooked. You can cook the dish in your own kitchen, but you may need to substitute some ingredients if you can’t locate them in your area. Some Asian grocery stores might have them in stock.
2 cups white rice, rinsed and drained
2 ½ to 3 cups coconut milk, depending on your desired thickness
2 tablespoons cooking oil (to prevent rice from sticking)
One screwpine (pandan) leaf, or substitute with three bay leaves
1 stick of lemongrass, smashed
Pinch of salt to taste
2 tablespoons of fresh ginger, julienned
1. Wash the rice in a colander or pasta strainer until the water runs clear. Set aside.
2. In a rice cooker or pot, heat the oil on slow fire and add the coconut milk, lemongrass, leaves and salt. Add the rice.
3. When the rice is half cooked, add the ginger and close the lid until it is fully cooked.
This recipe calls for dried anchovies, which can be found in most Asian stores. If unavailable, medium-sized fresh prawns can be used.
2 cups dried chilies, seeded and soaked in water, boiled and blended (If unavailable, these can be replaced with 3 tablespoons of sweet paprika or cayenne pepper)
1 stick of lemongrass, smashed
4 tablespoon cooking oil
1 cup of shallots, ginger and garlic, puréed
2 tablespoons tamarind juice, plus enough water to make ½ cup (This can be substituted with 2 tablespoons of lime juice.)
3 cups of dried anchovies, washed, drained, dried and fried (If you are using fresh prawns, use the same measurement and wash and peel off the veins.)
Salt to taste
Sugar to taste
1. In a stock pot, heat oil over medium heat and add the lemongrass for two minutes.
2. Add the chili mix and stir until fragrant, followed by the shallots, ginger and garlic mix. Sweat it for about three minutes.
3. Mix in the tamarind or lime juice and simmer until everything is fragrant.
4. Toss in the anchovies or prawns and simmer until they are well coated or until the prawns are cooked, about 5 to 7 minutes.
5. Add the salt and sugar according to your preference.
Top photo: Nasi lemak. Credit: Aida Ahmad
Ask expatriates living in Malaysia about their favorite things to do there, and more often than not, their answer is eating the local food. As a Malaysian spending six months in the United States last year, I realized the usual exchange of pleasantries involves asking, “How are you?” In my country, it is a little different. We ask, “Sudah makan?” (translation: “Have you eaten?”) and this applies to friends, family and new acquaintances you meet on the street.
For us in a nation of 28 million, food always brings people together, and it’s the same in cultures all over the world. In our capital, Kuala Lumpur (KL), you can find almost any cuisine — Spanish, Italian, Indian, Chinese, Greek, French, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern. Despite being a Muslim-majority country, alcohol is widely served, from humble cafes on the street to ultra-posh and swanky restaurants in the city. Good wines, in particular, are readily available. Some will be surprised to know that Malaysia is one of the fastest-growing countries in the Asian market for wine consumption.
The Italian restaurant Svago in Kuala Lumpur is one place where you can treat yourself to fine cuisine and wine while taking in the amazing view of the Petronas Twin Towers, which were featured in the 1999 movie “Entrapment.” Svago’s lounge and bar area is an eclectic space of retro and contemporary decor, with parquet flooring, steel beams and floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The low-backed vinyl chairs and terrace encompass modernity.
Planeta wines a perfect complement to dinner
When a chef manages to craft innovative canapés that tantalize your taste buds, it is sacrilege not to have a healthy glass of vino to go with it. That evening at Svago, we were introduced to the five top wines — two whites and three reds — from Planeta, which we were told is one of the premier wineries in Sicily, Italy. The wines we sampled ranged from crisp and light to robust and full-bodied.
Chef Andrea Buson stays true to his Italian heritage but is able to inject Asian influences in his dishes too. The food on the table comprised the likes of Arancini Rossi (a beetroot risotto ball topped with pesto calamari), Smoked Duck Breast With Grilled Ginkgo Nuts, Wagyu Beef Carpaccio on Rocket Topped With Cherry Tomato and Aged Pecorino Romano, Herb-Crusted Lamb Loin prepared Provencal style, and Stuffed Cannelloni With Ricotta and Truffle Mushroom Duxelle.
For our sampling of Planeta wines, we started with the La Segreta Bianco, which takes its name from the wood that surrounds the vineyard at Ulmo. “It is produced mainly from Grecanico grapes and was introduced to Sicily more than 2,000 years ago,” explained Simone Di Domizio, the export manager for the Asian market, who regaled us about the wine’s history and geography and the uniqueness of the flavors. Under the light, this white is clear yellow with slight greenish reflections. It has aromas of citrus, pineapple and white peach. The palate is fresh and balanced, and it is ideal with Mediterranean cuisine and fish dishes.
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Next came the chardonnay. While I more often choose Sauvignon Blanc over chardonnay because I don’t like the high acidity and rich oak texture in the latter, this one was buttery and smooth in all the right places. According to Di Domizio, the chardonnay “illustrates” the changes taking place in Sicilian wines. “Among the five wines, the chardonnay is our flagship wine and has gained the best ratings from reviewers all over the world,” he said. Its fermentation and maturing in French barrels have delivered a graceful and powerful wine. The golden yellow color with lively green glints beckons you, and on the nose there are aromas of peach, golden apple, white figs and vanilla cream as well as hints of hazelnut and Zagara honey. The palate is soft, round, energetic and full.
And enter the vivacious reds. The La Segreta Rosso is a young, fresh wine produced mainly from Nero d’Avola grapes. “This is a perfect approach to Sicilian wine with its excellent relationship between price and quality,” Di Domizio said. It has the brilliant color of ruby red with purple reflections. The explosive aromas of cocoa and tobacco first hit you, followed by bouquets of mulberry, plum and balsamic notes. The palate has ripe tannins with a fresh alcohol structure and is versatile with appetizers and meat dishes.
If you don’t already know, the heat in Malaysia comes with its friend humidity. By this time in the evening, even the air-conditioning was struggling to cool us down, and with the warmth from the wines we were positively toasty. The Maroccoli Syrah made its appearance with its fruity spiciness. “Sicily is a good place for Syrah,” said Di Domizio, because of its sunny dry places. The alcohol strength is subtle, and the aromas you get with this wine are blackcurrant, cinnamon and cloves, making it great with chili or curry. The Syrah would also pair well with the good Indian food in KL, I must say.
Alas, the night had to end, and it did so with a capping of the Sito dell’Ulmo Merlot. We were told it has enjoyed international attention since its first vintage, and the presentation of this noble grape is rich, round and powerful. It is found on the wine lists of some of the most prestigious restaurants and wine bars around the world. The palate is vibrant with a dense texture. “It has a balsamic and chocolate aftertaste which is fresh and complex. It works really well with fusion cuisines as well as mature cheeses and meat,” Di Domizio said.
Origins of Planeta wine
During our dinner, we discussed Planeta’s origins and history. Started by the Planeta family, which has have owned the estate at Sambuca di Sicilia since the 1600s, it is one of the most acclaimed Sicilian winemakers. While Planeta has penetrated the Malaysian market, the dinner was its inaugural wine-pairing event in Kuala Lumpur as an opportunity for consumers to sample the wines .
Planeta has five wineries in Sicily, and a sixth winery is being built. Aside from Malaysia, Planeta is making its mark elsewhere in Asia, including Japan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Cambodia and Indonesia.
“Malaysian consumers,” Di Domizio said, “have shown the yearning to further develop their wine knowledge” with the increase of international influences.
Top photo: The Planeta wines sampled at the dinner. Credit: Aida Ahmad