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Malaysian symphony of flavors
By Andrew Chin

Although sometimes overshadowed by its neighbors Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia, Malaysia has been for years a popular destination for food tourists. With a population of mainly Malays, Chinese and Indians, the country's cuisine is as varied as its people.

Malaysian food staples reflect the different ethnic influences on the cuisine. Malay-influenced dishes like nasi lemak heavily features rice with sambal, a spicy chili paste that is both hot and sweet, vegetables like sliced cucumbers, a boiled egg and a piece of meat. It's a popular breakfast dish reflecting the varied flavors in a traditional Malay meal.

Noodles are also popular in Chinese-influenced dishes like Hokkien mee and kway teow noodles. Indian influences can be seen in the use of roti bread in popular street food items like roti canai.

Indian Muslims have also influenced cuisine and any visit to the country must include a meal at a mamak, a 24-hour street stall offering a wide range of food selections such as nasi kandar, a meal of rice, dishes of curry, pickled vegetables and a meat dish. It's eaten with the hands.

The tropical climate offers abundant fruit and coconut. The pungent (some say dreadful)-smelling durian fruit is immensely popular and features in many desserts.

Sweets include ais kacang, a shaved ice red bean treat, and pineapple tarts. Coconut milk is widely used, as it is in Thailand, and both countries serve rendang, a spicy meat stew with a hint of peanut flavor.

With so much to choose from, Shanghai Daily visits three of the best Malaysian food restaurants in the city.

Café Sambal

Cusine: Malaysian, Southeast Asian, some Singaporean, Thai and Chinese

Ambience: The large, chic restaurant is located in a corner of the hip Jiashan Market. Originally launched in Beijing, this Shanghai edition has been open since 2010 and is extremely spacious. The main floor has ample seating and semi-private rooms for large groups. Upstairs is a lounge bar with wooden floors and contemporary decor. It has an outdoor terrace that's perfect for an elegant evening.

Who to invite: Friend, family, a date, a large group

Pros: Ample seating and a warm atmosphere. The extensive menu showcases the wide range of Malaysian cuisine and a variety of desserts. Service is quick and friendly. There are lunch and weekend brunch sets that come with a couple of appetizers, a main meal and dessert. On Wednesday nights, it holds a gangster film night.

Cons: Portions can be a bit small. Some staples have been given a twist, which may surprise those looking for strictly Malaysian cuisine.

Recommended: Bah kuh teh, a home remedyin Malaysia for decades, is a health tonic soup consisting of boiled pork, herbs and garlic. This soup is especially tasty and will leave you feeling healthier with each slurp. The beef rendang (78 yuan) is filled with spices common to Malaysia and Indonesia; portions are large.

Don't order: The nasi lemak in the weekend brunch set is nicely presented but a little small and not as spicy as in Malaysia.

Drinks: Fruit smoothies, coffee, tea including teh tarik, beer, cocktails, soft drinks

Cost: 200 yuan for two (including drinks)

Address: Jiashan Market, 37A, 550 Shaanxi Rd S.

Tel: 3368-9529


Cuisine: Malaysian fusion

Ambience: Around the corner of Shaanxi Road N. and Beijing Road is this seemingly small diner. The interior is decorated in chic, contemporary style and has ample seating for small groups.

Through the back is a charming outdoor patios perfect for the summers, and another back room full of couch seating and a glass roof.

Who to invite: A date, groups of friends, business associates, people who love fusion or seafood

Pros: Contemporary Malaysian classics, with unique added flavors, make for some excellent meals. It provides an intimate dining but also has seating areas that can be arranged to suit diners.

The menu is extensive, with a large seafood selection. The restaurant has a unique twist on the classic Malaysian dish, kway teow noodles, by adding extra ingredients like seafood. Portions are large, service is friendly.

Cons: For people who love traditional Malaysian meals, some of the fusion twists may be unwelcome.

Recommended: The chicken curry is large, well presented and delicious. The Mee Goreng noodles are tasty and filled with bean sprouts, shrimp and other ingredients.

Don't order: The kway teow noodles were tasty but contained Chinese sausage and cuttlefish paste flavoring that may not appeal to all diners.

Drinks: Beer, cocktails, wine, Malaysian white coffee, soft drinks

Cost: 246 yuan for three people with drinks and desert

Address: 1124 Beijing Road W.

Tel: 6266-6646

Food Fusion

Cuisine: Malaysian street food, Malaysian fusion, Southeast Asian with some Thai and Chinese dishes

Ambience: It's on the top floor of Parksons on Huaihai Road M. and gets busy during lunch and dinner time. The restaurant is spacious but can get loud when it's busy. It has a nice view overlooking Shaanxi Road S.

Who to invite: Friends, business associates, lovers of Malaysian food

Pros: With four locations, Food Fusion is the most successful Malaysian chain in the city. The menu is extensive and includes Malaysian street food like roti canai and satay, seafood dishes and a large desert selection such as ais kacang and various durian treats. Portions are large and the lunch sets ranging from 32 yuan to 42 yuan are a solid deal. The service is also quick.

Cons: It can get loud and busy. While the food comes in large portions and is generally tasty, it sometimes doesn't capture the full range of Malaysian flavor.

Recommended: The Penang Hokkien Mee set is large and tasty. The popular noodle dish includes vegetables like bean sprouts, boy choy and seafood and meat. Their Curry Laksa set is full of coconut milk-flavored sweetness.

Don't order: While there's a large roti canai selection, it's a bit pricy and can't match the authenticity of the classic Malaysian street food.

Drinks: Smoothies, fruit juice, coffee, ice blended drinks, beer, alcohol, and soft drinks

Cost: 100 yuan for two during lunch special

Address: 8/F, Parksons, 918 Huaihai Rd M.

Tel: 6385-3906

(Andrew Chin is a Shanghai-based freelancer.)

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