Mike Peters

China Daily (Canada) - - ONE WEEK FREE SMART EDITION -

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 michaelpeters@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.