Makan Malaysian Cafe could turn you into a roti rooter
It doesn't matter whether you brine and cook the bird yourself, pick one up from Whole Foods or hand a bottle of bubbly to the friend who invited you over for the feast. Regardless of who does the holiday cooking, chances are good that before your alarm rings on Monday, you'll have seen enough turkey, sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce to lull your tastebuds into a permanent tryptophan slumber. Short of tossing all those leftovers, here's a way to end the food coma: Pack up Aunt Marge and those rowdy nephews and head to Makan Malaysian Cafe.
Photos: Inside Makan Malaysian Cafe
Launched in June by Karen Wee Lin Tan Beckman, a native of Malaysia, and her husband, Corey Beckman, this fledgling restaurant in Platt Park is attempting to do what few ethnic eateries have dared. Rather than neutering dishes to eliminate unfamiliar ingredients or spices, as happens at many Thai, Indian and Chinese restaurants, it is serving authentic Malaysian fare, in all its fishy and highly spiced glory, in a comfortable, lime-accented, blond-wood dining room. Whether making dumplings, stir-fried rice noodles or curry chicken, Beckman prepares food according to recipes mostly learned at her mother's side, diverting from tradition only when a particular ingredient isn't available.
One of those hard-to-find ingredients is the calamansi lime, which boasts an uncommon sweetness and slightly orange flesh. While a spritz of the unusual citrus would certainly be nice, a standard lime does the trick here, adding a welcome sweet-tart pop to mee siam, stir-fried vermicelli loaded with shrimp, tofu and eggs. Order the noodles, along with a few appetizers, a roti and curries, and jump in with an open mind. In Malaysia, food is commonly eaten family-style, and Beckman encourages diners to adopt this practice when tackling the menu.
Longtime fans of the farmers' market on Old South Pearl might recognize the appetizers, most of which Beckman sold from a stand for four seasons while making the switch from travel manager to full-time restaurateur. Curry puffs, two per order, are flaky half-moons filled with a smooth blend of curry chicken and potatoes. Siu mai, steamed dumplings plumped with pork, shrimp and water chestnuts, resemble a bouquet of tulips, with vertically pinched edges for petals and an orange burst of grated carrot on top. Skewers of satay chicken and beef are tasty on their own, thanks to a marinade of lemongrass, ginger and garlic, but they're irresistible when dipped in Makan's peanut sauce, made in-house with coconut milk and peanuts, not peanut butter. Even if you don't think you'll need it, order the large portion, with eight skewers instead of four; that way, you won't offend anyone when you break the code of family-style conduct and eat more than your share.
Popiah might be less popular. Made with minced dried shrimp, these non-fried spring rolls have such a pungent fishiness that the other ingredients — sausage, eggs, jicama and carrots — seem present in texture only. And even if you adore shrimp, you might want to think twice before ordering sambal kangkung, a Malay favorite. Kangkung, or water spinach, has been designated a noxious weed in parts of the United States because it spreads easily and clogs waterways, but in Southeast Asia, the plant is a common vegetable. Beckman stir-fries the hollow-stemmed leaves, then douses them with so much sambal (chile sauce) and belacan (shrimp paste), the effect is like a Red Bull, or three, for your tastebuds. While Malaysians "always order that dish," Beckman says, she admits it's "not for everyone," and she might offer that disclaimer to first-time diners at Makan. If she's in the kitchen and you're being served by one of her recently hired staffers, however, you're likely to be on your own, as they seem to still be learning the ropes.
Roti is a safer bet. Made with white flour, the folded flatbread is extra flaky due to oil in the dough and a heavy brush of clarified butter prior to that dough's hitting the griddle. Order at least one for the table so that everyone can rip off a toasty piece and dip it in the accompanying bowls of curry chicken sauce and dhal.
Consider the sauces a preview of good things to come, since you'll want to order more curry chicken and dhal for the main course. With tender pieces of chicken and just a few potatoes, the dish is all about the sauce, a yellow, coconut-milk-based broth that ranks far lower on the heat index than Thai versions. Dhal wasn't on the opening menu, but Beckman says she got so many requests for it from guests who'd sampled it with roti that she later added it as a side. Spiced with cumin, coriander and turmeric, the sauce resembles a thick soup, full of whole (not puréed) lentils.
Round out the main course with beef rendang. Listed as a curry, it's as far from curry chicken as the Rockies are from the South China Sea. Made with five-spice powder, the dish — with fork-tender beef and a savory brown sauce thickened not with flour or cornstarch, but shredded coconut — is likely to please the entire group. So will the coconut rice, which can be substituted for steamed white rice for an extra dollar. Pandan leaf, coconut milk and ginger are added to the rice while it cooks, imbuing the grain with a slightly sweet, aromatic flavor. Coconut rice can be ordered by itself, or in nasi lemak, a savory rice-based dish with peanuts, anchovies, eggs and chile paste. In a rare accommodation to cultural differences, Makan serves it at all three meals, though in Malaysia it's mostly eaten for breakfast.
If you want it in the morning, come on a weekend, when breakfast is served until 11 a.m. Just make sure you bring a friend, so that one of you can try the nasi lemak and the other can order the kaya toast. Having loved this dish at ChoLon, chef Lon Symensma's upscale ode to Asian cuisine, I was surprised to learn that the sweet, custard-like coconut jam — which gets slathered on two pieces of white toast — is supposed to be kept separate from the accompanying bowl of soft-boiled egg. "Toast is a middleman so the two don't mix," explains Beckman. Sprinkle the egg with white pepper and soy sauce, savor the sweetness of the jam, and ask yourself whether Wheaties or kaya toast is the breakfast of champions. (I know what my vote is.) Teh tarik, a tall glass of frothy, milky tea, is very good but very sweet; unless you're from the South and grew up on sweet tea, you might prefer a cup of strong, Aussie-style coffee instead. Speaking of beverages, Makan does not yet have a liquor license, though the application should be in soon.
For such an underrepresented cuisine, Makan's menu feels oddly familiar. According to Beckman, that's because Malaysian cuisine represents a "blend of so many different ethnicities," including Malay, Chinese, Indian, Portuguese, British and Dutch. As a result, she says, there's "a big mesh of food." Not to mention a big bang for your buck when you're trying to revive those slumbering tastebuds.
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