Roti Canai. Teh Tarik. Rendang Daging. Crispy Ayam Goreng. Slurpy Laksa. Chewy Bakso Ikan.
That's a short list of foods that I was beginning to believe weren't available in Toronto. (Okay, so if the bakso ikan weren't available, I was okay with that. I has no love for fish balls.)
About a gabillion years ago, I lived for a year in Indonesia. With lots of side trips to Malaysia, I fell deeply deeply in love with Southeast Asian food and food culture. Night markets and roadside stalls, gorgeous richly flavourful dishes you eat with your hands, and a granularity in specialization that amazes me. No, not that stall, you want the one two down... they make the best martabak. That one prepares only tofu in the style of this particular city, and that's where you go for great es kacang. Bright lights and generators, satay, sticky air, and the heady smoke off a hundred clove cigarettes. Heaven.
But this damned global village exposes your taste buds to new and fantastic flavours, and then puts them an expensive plane ride (carbon emissions) and pile of vacation time (self-employed) away. With deep conviction in Toronto's food options, I was hoping I would come home and be able find many of the same dishes. No. such. luck. One gado-gado on a Thai menu does not a Southeast Asian menu make.
Lots of people who live downtown think anything worth eating/seeing/doing is also downtown. Ironically, lots of people who live downtown also grew up in the 'burbs. And many of us need to get over our suburbaphobia if we're going to try some of Toronto's best food (if only it were nearer a subway line).
A couple of weeks ago, I mooched a ride to Richmond Hill to check out a recommended Malaysian restaurant -- aptly named "Restoran Malaysia". That trip is on a short list of the best mooching I've ever done.
Restoran Malaysia has the kind of menu that makes me nostalgically weepy. Every page (and there are a lot of pages) had several items I just had to have. Ordering actually became a problem, as we were suddenly acutely aware of how far away from home we were, the physical limitations of stomach size, and how much one could reasonably doggie bag.
We (begrudgingly) settled on just the following items: Indonesian Fried Rice, Medan Fried Chicken, Rendang Daging, Roti Canai, Kuay Teow and some Tehs and Kopis. Much too short a list to satisfy our ambitious cravings, but definitely amounting an almost insurmountable pile of food.
Roti Canai (pronounced "chanai") are soft flatbreads served with a spicy curry, served in stalls throughout Malaysia, and eaten throughout the day - often at the extreme ends, early in the morning accompanied by a strong sweet cup of coffee or tea, or late at night to satisfy afterdark munchies.
Roti Canai is listed at Restoran Malaysia as an appetizer, though they note that in Malaysia it's eaten at any time. If Restoran Malaysia was nearer my house (and open for breakfast) I would be there every morning, dipping my roti and sipping teh tarik. A boiled egg and a piece of toast is all very well and good, but come on. Roti Canai ftw!
After the stomach warm-up of scrumptious roti, everything arrived promptly and at once, overwhelming our table with fantastic smells and textures. Each dish held its own for interest. Done well, a fried rice dish (like the Indonesian Nasi Goring above) is complex and delicious, not just filler. Comes with shrimp chips. That actually taste like, wait for it, shrimp.
My two co-diners got into a bit of a turf war over the Penang Fried Kuay Teow (even though technically it had been my choice). It was perfectly prepared, and substantial in quantity. Negotiations over who got to finish it devolved into light name calling, and veiled threats about withholding the drive home.
Happily Restoran Malaysia's Medan Fried Chicken is as gorgeous as it is in Medan. Soft nubs of chicken in a light but flavourful coating.
And, best of all, Rendang Daging.
Rendang is proof of the idea that it's not the cut of meat, but what you do with it. A slow-cooked preparation that results in a richly flavourful falls-apart-when-your-fork-even-goes-near-it succulent piece of meat. There's so much flavour in a rendang daging (meat rendang) that it makes other approaches to meat prep seem a bit flaccid. I ate the leftovers cold, straight outta the tupperware, and they were awesome.
I opted in for sambal belachan to go with our meal. A warning to the fair stomached, if you waste your hot sauce or sambal "a dollar will be charged onto your bill". I used up every bit, and could (read: should) have also bought a bottle to take home.
We had all gorged so thoroughly on our mains that dessert was a bit of a non-starter. Dessert's not the focus of Malaysian cuisine, but if you can manage to fit in one more drink, a frothy teh or kopi tarik is a perfect finisher.
In my opinion, teh tarik is one of the best hot drinks Toronto (or anywhere) has to offer. Teh tarik literally means "pulled" tea, referring to how the tea is poured back and forth from height between two containers, aerating the tea, changing the temperature and flavour.
The result is a warm creamy drink with a slightly earthy taste. The pouring is important, but a big part of the magic is the evaporated/condensed milk. It's a luscious combination - devilishly dark caffeine and sweet milk.
You can opt for your tea or coffee (teh or kopi) un-tariked as well. It will arrive at your table looking something like Vietnamese coffee, with the black coffee sitting on top of the treasure trove of condensed milk at the bottom. Stirring kopi is a simple but great pleasure. Swirling syrupy sweetness up into the bitter coffee. Enak sekali.
Restoran Malaysia laid out an enormously satisfying meal, which we enjoyed a couple of times over via our leftovers. The food was outstanding, delivering on every hope and expectation, in a comfortable but nicely appointed space with attentive but unobtrusive service. Selamat Menjamu Selera!
All photos generously taken by Patrick Smith, who will work for Laksa.