Thursday, June 30, 2011

Still Missing Malaysia

Thanks to various bloggers, I've discovered that some specialties available in Malaysia, which I thought weren't available in Auckland, can actually be found here.  Things like fresh durian, fresh roti canai and banana leaf rice,which I'll go into in a minute.  And though I have yet to see another establishment sell a kaya toast set here since the demise of Kaya+Toast (mentioned in my previous post), it is pretty easy to create it yourself at home.  What I absolutely don't have information on, though, is the dish that my friends roundly regarded as our best meal in Malaysia: beef ball noodles from a stall in the basement of the Lot 10 shopping complex.  Not only have I failed to find a place which sells this in Auckland, but I have failed to find a recipe for it on the web, though there were plenty of photos in the search results.

A half-eaten beef ball noodle set.  The noodles were pale yellow to begin with and came with vegetables which also had a dark sauce on top.

"What do you mean", I can hear you asking.  "I've seen plenty of places around selling beef balls and noodles."  Well, yes, but they aren't the same beef ball noodles.  What you are probably talking about is beef ball noodle soup.  These were dry noodles, with a combination of two dark sauces ladled over the top, the secret ingredients of which I would dearly love to know.  I am pretty sure that the lighter of the two was made of minced pork, and I found something in the Asian grocery store which resembled the contents of the darker sauce: Chinese olives preserved with vegetables (gan lan cai, olive vegetable or 橄欖菜 on the label).  But what have they done with these things to make the sauces taste the way they do?

I'd rather dwell on my successes, so let me tell you about the dishes that I have managed to find...

Fresh Durian

Okay, so durian is not so much a dish as an exotic fruit.  Frozen durian can help satisfy a strong craving for its fragrant flesh, but nothing beats the taste of a fresh creamy durian.  Widely known as the King of Fruits in Southeast Asia, it is probably considered more a Tyrant of Fruits by those who dislike its strong odour and unusual flavour.  You'll never know if you are a lover or a hater of this plant till you give it a try, so round up your friends for a culinary feast (to share the fun, and because you will never get through a whole durian by yourself).

Knowing durian is in season and acting on a tip, I could already smell my target before I entered the fruit shop housing it.  After picking out a 2.5kg specimen (shipped over from Thailand) and getting it wrapped in newspaper, I placed it in the boot of my car for transportation.  I should have thought to bring plastic ziploc bags with me, because I could smell it in my car for a week after I brought it out for slaughter.  Having the beautiful, spiky ball in my hands was worth it though.

Fresh durians for sale in Newmarket
My durian, cut open
And the verdict?  This durian tasted just like the durians we ate in the streets of Kuala Lumpur, but there were some crunchy bits along with the soft, gooey goodness.  I am guessing I should have given it an extra few days to ripen before consumption.

Available for $13.99/kg at
Song Kee Fruit & Veges
5-11 Kent Street, Newmarket, Auckland (that one way bit under the Rialto carpark, opposite the Newmarket Plaza food court)
(09) 520 6288

Fresh Roti Canai

I've been told there are a couple of places in Auckland where you can buy fresh roti canai, spun out on order in front of your eyes.  I've only been to Tastes of Malaysia in Manukau, and I don't need to go anywhere else, because the roti canai here are exactly how I expect them to be, soft and layered, with some crusting on the outside.

Roti canai with Chicken Curry, served on a plastic banana leaf plate with a small salad garnish on the side
The only disappointing thing is that they were rather slow to arrrive.  Friends who ordered the mamak mee goreng got their meals first.  A very hungry friend looked on jealously and quickly ordered a mee goreng of his own, which still arrived before the roti he had previously ordered.

I should also point out that this place is in a food court, but since when has ambience been an issue in the pursuit of good food?

Roti canai being spun out
Available for $4 - $12 at
Tastes of Malaysia
"Food Junction" foodcourt, 615 Great South Road, Manukau, Auckland
 (09) 262 2066

Banana Leaf Rice

The first time I was introduced to banana leaf rice in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, I was blown away.  Eating off a banana leaf was quite a novelty on its own, but having a whole range of vegetarian side dishes to accompany your dhal/gravy on rice was even better, especially when I discovered that all those exciting options (deep-fried bitter melon slices were my favourite) could be topped up endlessly, all for the equivalent of about NZD$2.

On my more recent trip to KL, we only managed to find a banana leaf rice place in the upmarket suburb of Bangsar.  The food was equally delicious, with seemingly more meat and fish options, but you had to pay extra for top-ups of side dishes, which included deep-fried okra, leafy greens and cucumber chunks in yoghurt.  Some friends had the optional chicken rice and extra meat dishes, and we all had a refreshing lime drink, making for a most satisfying meal.

When I discovered a restaurant in Auckland offering banana leaf rice, I just had to give it a go.  The first thing that was different compared to my Malaysian experiences was that containers of food were placed in the middle for you to serve yourself, rather than having someone come around and dish up each option.  In both cases you have control over how much goes onto your banana leaf plate, but I guess in the NZ version, you could end up with wasted food at the centre of the table, and presumably the labour costs in Malaysia are much lower.

Another difference was that you could eat as much as you wanted.  Not just the rice and side dishes, but also the chicken and lamb curry mains (sorry vegos, you have to make do with the sides, unless you want to pay extra).  I've always felt somewhat shortchanged at all-you-can-eat places, mostly because I don't eat that much, and I can think of other places where you could have done better for less.  Well, I don't know of any other banana leaf rice restaurants in Auckland, but it felt a little bit more expensive than I expected anyway.

Although the food tasted good at Santhiya's, the most interesting bits were missing from their banana leaf Sunday Special.  You got a poppadom, but no pickles or salted chilli.  You got side dishes, but they were braised cabbage, grated carrot in a sweet vinaigrette, lentil and potato dhal, and a kind of chutney; I missed the deep-fried curiosities, the dark leafy vegetables, the unusual flavours of unidentified ingredients.

Side dishes for banana leaf rice at Santhiya's
Not the best picture of banana leaf rice
Whatever its shortcomings, though, I am glad to have found a banana leaf restaurant in Auckland.  It brings back pleasant memories, and it is always great to have more diversity in the food scene.

Available for $16 (lunch) or $19 (dinner) on Sundays only at
1270 Dominion Road, Mount Roskill, Auckland
(09) 620 2986
Mondays closed.
Tuesdays to Sundays 11:30am - 3pm and 5 - 9pm
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