Day 52: Malaysia
Malaysia has always just sounded good to me. From its tropical climate to those awesome looking buildings, Malaysia feels like a place I want to visit. I’ve heard nothing but good things about the food in Malaysia, with its heavy Chinese and Indian influences and its location right in the heart of all things delicious (Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia), but now, I’m going in for the taste test. I’ve decided on Belacan Grill (pronounced blah-chan) in Redondo Beach, CA, whose name refers to the Malaysian sauce of chili and fermented tiny shrimp paste.
Still battling this miserable cold and with GirlfriendBites at my side for the drive down south, I’m eagerly craving some kind of powerfully spicy soup to drive out these vile toxins. We arrive for an early lunch and step inside, immediately marveling at how much bigger the restaurants get once you’re in certain areas of Los Angeles. Granted, every section of Los Angeles manages to have at least one inexplicably enormous Chinese restaurant, which I will always consider to be one of life’s most pleasant mysteries. Back inside, the blue and pink lit bar serving wine, sake and Puckers immediately stands out as looking like a great place for a party as we are shown to a table in the thus far empty restaurant. We sip tea and water while interrogating our server for any particular Malaysian dishes we ought not not to miss. She timidly offers suggestions, we order them and then sit back, taking a moment to admire the menu which features travel ads for Malaysia in the bottom corner of every page.
For the first time, I’m happy I’m sick. I always love soup, but somehow, the experience changes when you’re feeling weak and uncomfortable. So imagine the wide smile on my face when I take my first sip of their seafood lemongrass soup, a spicy broth similar to the Thai tom yum soup, filled with tongue-tender fish pieces, perfectly crisp and gentle shrimp, velvety scallops, straw mushrooms, tomatoes and assorted vegetables. There isn’t an ingredient in this stuff that I’m not crazy about and it tastes so damn comforting that I’m beginning to think that one of my great grandmothers must have been an old Malaysian woman. I would do terrible things for the chance to have this soup brought to my door every morning for the rest of my life.
“Hey, Noah. We’re willing to bring you this soup every morning for the rest of your life.”
“Really? That’s amazing!”
“Okay, here’s the thing. Don’t ask why, but we need you go kill this hobo. Do you think you can do that?”
“The soup comes every day, right? Forever?”
“Do I have to fight this hobo?”
“He’s already pretty weak. It won’t take much.”
“Yeah, all right. I’m in.”
Char kway teow, a spicy, stir-fried, dark soy sauce based flat noodle dish is set in front of us alongside nasi lemak, coconut rice with pandan leaves (a Southeast Asian plant which is used, most notably in this exact dish, but also in curries and even hand crafts), served with a chili and anchovy condiment, roasted peanuts, hard boiled egg, cucumber and green beans. The char kway teow is the most muted of all the dishes on the table, so it tends to get overwhelmed by the spicier elements surrounding it. But when you sip some tea, take a minute and then have a few uninterrupted bites, its flavors become more clear. In the end, however, it doesn’t totally stand out as that different from many other stir-fried noodle dishes from this region of Asia. But that’s not the worst thing in the world either. The nasi lemak, however, is its own beast. Chewy bits of tiny, spicy anchovies, soothed by the mellow, but all encompassing coconut flavor in the rice, it is a dish that, if you had it in a trendy restaurant in Manhattan, you would think it was a modern deconstructionist take on the cuisine of Southeast Asia. But this is the way the dish is meant to be eaten. Each component is separated on the plate, each is fully formed and tasty on its own, but leaves the opportunity to customize it to your own taste. The flavors and the experience change drastically with each modification. Rice and anchovy is a wrestle between extremes, but once the crunchy roasted peanut is added, it becomes a holy trinity. Too aggressive? Toss in some cucumber, egg or green beans.
Now, dessert is not usually a thing that garners a lot of excitement for me, but I’ve been hearing about ice kacang for a while. I don’t know much about it, but I do know it involves a lot of ice. It’s set before us on the table and looks like some kind of space aged, alien trash heap. A small mountain of reddish shaved ice covered in an unrecognizable sauce and topped with a list of ingredients that I’ll have to take the menu’s word for. It says “Red beans, sweet corn, grass jelly, red rose syrup and evaporated milk,” but there is so much more. Do I see lychee? What are those translucent white cubes? I’m pretty sure those guys over there are peanuts. Who invented this thing, L. Ron Hubbard? I attempt to power my spoon through this arctic wonderland, transferring it to my own bowl. I gaze deeply into it for a moment and wonder if it has a soul. Okay, time to stop screwing around. I scoop up a bite of mystery slush, slide it inside my mouth and…yes. I don’t know what I’m eating, I have no frame of reference, but I like it. A lot. The sauce sort of tastes like a Thai iced tea, which gives every bite a comfortable base. Then as each ingredient makes its way into my mouth it adds its own powerful element. Fruity, sweet, crunchy, soft, cold, I’m kind of in love with it. The sweet corn is oddly powerful, the peanuts ridiculously hard and those translucent white cubes absurdly dense. GirlfriendBites is usually game to try most things, but if its too out there, she’ll be quick to say that it isn’t something she’d go back for. But this stuff? “I’d order this again. On a hot day? Oh yeah. Absolutely.” I don’t understand this dish, but I adore it. Now it’s time to take a memo. To: Snowcones. From: Noah. Message: Stop wasting my time. There’s a delicious, icy dessert in town and it sure as hell ain’t you.
I get home, still feeling pretty sick, lay down and take a long nap. I wake up, it’s dark outside and the apartment seems empty. I stumble across the living room in my bath robe and find GirlfriendBites at her computer.
“Hey, babe,” she says, “guess what I’ve been doing?”
“What’s that?” I ask.
“Finding out how much it would cost to travel around the world, starting in Southeast Asia.”
“Are we going to Malaysia?”
“Awesome. I love you.”
Now I just need to find a job.
2701 190th St # 100
Redondo Beach, CA 90278
Food Breakdown: 2 non-alcoholic beverages, 3 entrées
Distance From My House: 14.6 miles