The phrase “Maritime Silk Road” evokes a heady period of Chinese history loaded with powerful imagery. While the overland trade route is most celebrated in lore and history, the sea route may have been more important.
That route took China’s great seafarers such as Zheng He to Malacca (Melaka) and other great ports of the day, with their cargoes of silk, tea, lacquer ware and porcelain. In Malaysia, they were trading for spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, the very culinary treasures that took me to the restaurant Raya in Beijing last week.
If Zheng, one of the greatest navigators of all time, arrived at the huge commercial mall with a Las Vegaslike glow where Raya is tucked in behind a Burger King, he might be forgiven for wondering “Where the heck am I?” But once inside the warm and intimate space of Raya, his nose would tell him he was just where he wanted to be.
My nose is sending the same message, as my face hovers over a plate of Penang char kuay teow, a noodle speciality fried with garlic, ABC sweet soy sauce and “our homemade spice mix”, I learn later from the restaurant’s owner, Tan Chuan Jin, an architect who operates Raya as a sideline.
That spice mix seems to have infinite potential, I discover on another visit. I’d ordered too many chicken dishes for our table, or so I thought. But each was prepared so differently that the recurring meat was never an issue.
It’s hard to imagine a Malaysian meal without curry, for example, and the traditional version with chicken (48 yuan, or $7.70) was pure savory delight. It’s not the fiery stuff of Indian restaurants, though we felt the influence of that country in some dishes and condiments — thanks no doubt to centuries of seatraders’ visits to southern India’s spice-rich ports. (Tan says his kitchen has tamed the level of pepper a bit, to cater to Beijing tastes, though a group of guests from his homeland would be served a somewhat spicier version.)
While the fried noodles we enjoyed earlier were underpinned with garlic, the chicken hotpot with wine sang a completely different tune: Its rich brothwasredolent with ginger as well as the lingering taste of rice wine, and the bite-size chunks of meat were gloriously tender.
So was the well-marinated meat in an appetizer of savory chicken morsels wrapped in pandan (screwpine) leaves. After the chicken is allowed to sit and absorb flavors including white pepper and plenty of ginger, the chef wraps each piece tightly with a leaf, stabbing the package with a toothpick to keep it together. Then the batch gets deep-fried until golden brown.
To keep the feast from being totally carnivorous, we ordered another Malaysian classic, sambal long beans. Sambal belacan is prawn paste, a popular condiment in this cuisine that’s also perfect for stir fries with vegetables like asparagus or these bright-green long beans. The resulting aroma is so rich that it’s pure pleasure to simply inhale— it’s almost a shame to eat those beans and make that sensory delight go away.
Raya’s extensive menu includes many other Malaysian favorites, such as salted egg-yolk sotong, sambal ladies fingers, crab in spicy chili sauce, pan-fried fish in sambal sauce, nyonya fried rice and laksa, a spicy soup with roots inChinese and Malay cuisines. In fact, the word laksa may have been derived from the Cantonese la tsa or “spicy sand”, due to the ground dried prawns that give the sauce a gritty texture.
“We also have Penang prawn noodles, lemon chicken, honey pork-ribs — typical Singapore/Malaysian dishes as well as a new yam stick dessert you really should try,” says Tan.
“Raya conjures up a sense of happiness and festivity. It also refers to our national flower (hibiscus),” he says of the name of the restaurant, which has walls adorned with wayang kulit puppets.
Tan has recently opened a second location at Oriental Plaza in Beijing’sWangfujing area, and he plans to broaden the restaurant menu soon, adding not only more Malaysian dishes but also other favorites from across Southeast Asia, hoping to appeal tomorewalk-in customers in the busy shopping areas that surround both restaurants.
It’s not intentional, perhaps, but it means more Silk Road flavors to come in this charming little restaurant. Contact the writer at email@example.com