MALAYSIA IS DEFINED by its melange of cultures, which are visible in many ways. In most Malaysian cities, you'll hear several languages being spoken, find Hindu temples across the road from Chinese ones and experience flavours that originated in many different parts of the world.
Food from the Strait of Malacca is a blend of Islamic, Eurasian, Peranakan, Chinese and Indian influences. The cuisine is not easily found in Hong Kong, and when you do find it, it's rarely as good as it is in Malaysia or Singapore. But that is about to change.
"Hong Kong is on a similar latitude [to Malaysia] so we have similar basic produce. But initially, it was hard to find special regional ingredients in Hong Kong," says Sunny Tse Wai-keung, the chef at Cafe Malacca at the Traders Hotel in Sheung Wan. Dried slices of tamarind, for example, which were once difficult to get, are essential for the Penang speciality assam laksa (sour and spicy fish soup).
Tse says distributors are now more willing to import speciality ingredients as demand for them has risen. Cafe Malacca opened late last year, and in a few months was so busy that it was able to meet the minimum orders required by distributors.
Zaimah Osman, trade commissioner of the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation, says the group launched a programme in 2010 to promote Malaysian restaurants and help them import ingredients. It now works with 17 restaurants in Hong Kong.
Having spent more than two decades at the Island Shangri-La in Admiralty, Tse had come into contact with a range of cuisines, including Malaysian. During the pre-opening phase of Cafe Malacca, he travelled all over Malaysia and Singapore to reacquaint himself with the flavours. The restaurant also employs a consultant from Penang. The hard work has paid off, as the restaurant now boasts the Singaporean consul-general as a customer, as well as Malaysian and Singaporean expats.
Cafe Malacca offers dishes such as assam laksa, that are ubiquitous in Malaysia, but hard to find in Hong Kong. Assam laksa features tamarind and pineapple which render the broth slightly sour - something Hongkongers might not be accustomed to, especially in the form of a soup.
Tse says that shrimp paste is another unfamiliar flavour. Penang's dark, viscous shrimp paste differs from the dried Cantonese variety. "It has a more fermented flavour, which isn't to everybody's taste," the chef says.
In Penang, the shrimp paste would be served on top of the noodles, ready to be mixed in. But here, Tse serves it on the side, so diners can decide if they want to add it.
Tse is also quite proud of his rojak, a salad found on almost every street and in hawker centres all over Singapore and Malaysia. "Ours might even be better than some in Malaysia because we don't skimp on the ingredients," he says, "and we make sure we give the dish enough sauce."
The thick, glossy sauce made of tamarind, shrimp paste, chillies and palm sugar is the soul of the dish. It gives life to the jumble of fruits and vegetables, such as pineapple, cucumber and, most importantly, jicama fruit, all cut into large cubes. To finish, a generous sprinkle of coarsely chopped roasted peanuts is added.
It's simple, packed with flavour and loved in its home region. "I don't know why it isn't more popular in Hong Kong," Tse says.
There are some other new locations in Hong Kong for Malaysian food. Syed Bukhara has recently opened its first branch here, serving Malaysian-Indian cuisine. While the chain is well known in Malaysia, it's a style that is hardly represented here. Most of the menu consists of rice dishes, or nasi.
The Malaysian classic, nasi lemak (coconut rice with an assortment of accompaniments, such as anchovies, peanuts, curry, cucumber, sambal, and a hard-boiled egg) also makes an appearance. But the main attraction is the mutton nasi Bukhara. In the true spirit of fusion, it has a hard-boiled egg, a mutton curry, and a large mound of biryani and achar (pickles).
Fatty Crab, which originates in New York, opened last month on Old Bailey Street, and brings another element into the mix - a Western take on Malaysian food. Co-founder Rick Camac recognises the challenge of bringing Asian food to Asia.
"Fatty Crab is our take on Southeast Asian cuisine. We don't really take ourselves too seriously. We're not looking to do what is done here and then do it better. We have our own take on what we feel is Malaysian or Southeast Asian-inspired cuisine and then put a particular twist on it. There's a bit of fun and playfulness in it."
One of its signature dishes is crisp pork belly and pickled watermelon. "That's not a Southeast Asian dish," says Camac. "But it's become so prevalent in the US that people think of it as a Southeast Asian dish, which is funny, and very complimentary to us."
Familiar-sounding names are on the menu, such as char kway teow and chilli crab, but they won't be the same as you would get at a Singaporean hawker stall.
They adapt the dishes according to the location of the restaurant. Two years ago, they opened a branch on the Caribbean island of St John, but "there's no crab on St John, so we're serving Fatty spiny lobster", says Camac.
"Fatty Crab is more of an experience than a menu. In Hong Kong, we want to make changes that are suited to the demographic. You have to be sensitive to both cultural issues and seasonal issues," he says.
The restaurant's chefs go to the wet market every day to hunt for produce and this has resulted in new dishes such as a steamed whole fish and a tempura dish served with soy sauce made by local company Kowloon Soy.
The New York branch has become famous for its barbecued dishes. Camac says, "We're marrying Southern American barbecue with Southeast Asian flavours, and, honestly, we invented that, it doesn't exist anywhere else." That is particularly evident in the Jalan Alor chicken wings, named after the famed food hawker street in Kuala Lumpur, that combine the sticky sweetness familiar to Asians with the smokiness of barbecues that are characteristic of the American South.
Tse says that finding chefs with the right experience is the most difficult part of running his kitchen." Our chefs are all local [Hong Kong Chinese]," he says. "The flavours of Southeast Asia are quite foreign to them, but now that we've run this menu for a while, they're getting used to it."
THE SPICE IS RIGHT
Level 2, Traders Hotel, 508 Queen's Road West, Western district, tel: 2213 6613
Madam Chow Pao Woo Mansion, 177-179 Wan Chai Road, Wan Chai, tel: 6779 3619
Shop 15-16, Chungking Mansions, 36-44 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 5635 2723
11-13 Old Bailey Street, Central, tel: 2521 2033
Old Town Restaurant
11/F The Loop, 33 Wellington Street, Central, tel: 2522 2009
Hong Keung Mansion, 32-34 Hong Keung Street, San Po Kong, tel: 2325 8669
11A Mercer Street, Sheung Wan, tel: 2542 4111
Katong Laksa Prawn Mee
8 Mercer Street, Sheung Wan, tel: 2543 4008; 155 Jaffe Road, Wan Chai, tel: 3168 2478
Sabah Malaysian Cuisine
98-102 Jaffe Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2143 6626 142-146 Queen's Road Central, Central, tel: 2871 2628
197 Johnston Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2892 1386
Shop 4, Basement, Silvercord, 30 Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 9096 2113
Food Republic, Level 3, Plaza Hollywood, 3 Lung Poon Street, Diamond Hill