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Across the 6,000-island archipelago of Indonesia and the adjacent Malay peninsula lies one of the world’s greatest-yet least known-cuisines. It was toward this region that Christopher Columbus and his 16th-century successors sailed, dreaming of exotic Spice Islands bounty: cloves, black pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon. These-together with later additions of galangal (aromatic ginger), red chili sambal (a fiery condiment), belacan (a pungent dried-shrimp paste), and coconut milk-provide the distinctive spicy kick of Malaysian, Singaporean, and Indonesian food. Such a sophisticated culinary history may help explain why, in a CNN poll in 2011, the preeminent dish of this region, beef rendang, was voted No. 1 among the world’s 50 most delicious foods.
In Vancouver, Southeast Asian cuisine is becoming increasingly accomplished. The numerous locations of Banana Leaf and Tropika are deservedly beloved, but there are many smaller restaurants whose menus offer endless eating pleasures. Here are a few favourites.
KAYA MALAY BISTRO
“Malaysian food is unique,” says owner Scott Kwan. “Like Canadian culture, it’s all mixed up: Portuguese, Indian, Indonesian, Chinese.” For example, his wonderfully light roti canai (made fresh daily) draws on an Indian stretched-flatbread tradition, while delectable char-grilled chicken satay (with a potent chili-infused peanut sauce) has its origins in the flavours of Indonesia. Both are available as part of an eight-course tasting menu for two, bargain priced at $30 per person. 1063 W. Broadway, 604-730-9963
The dishes of Malaysia-born chef Danny Seun (formerly of Banana Leaf) are authentic and outstanding. Be sure to try the steamed mussels in a coconut-milk broth infused with garlic, cilantro, shallots, and ginger; and sambal okra with eggplant and green beans in a distinctive dried-shrimp paste. For dessert, the only option (and you don’t need another) is pisang goreng: crisp-fried banana with vanilla ice cream, decked with a sugary lime leaf, lemongrass, and crushed-peanut sauce. 1909 W. Fourth Ave., 604-428-6369
MAMALEE MALAYSIAN DELIGHT
Between the traditional dishes that link Indonesian and Malaysian cooking sits Nonya, a fusion cuisine based on Singaporean, Straits Chinese, and Malay cooking. Mamalee (formerly Café D’Lite) opened 23 years ago and is packed most evenings with diners who indulge in the restaurant’s signature dish, Hainanese chicken. Succulent ginger- and green-onion-stuffed chicken is steamed until juicy and tender, then served boneless at room temperature with aromatic rice and a ginger-chili dip.3144 W. Broadway, 604-733-8882
PENANG DELIGHT CAFÉ
These twin restaurants, in Renfrew-Collingwood and Marpole, are extraordinary-well worth the journey if you don’t live nearby. Clay pot curry fish (also with jumbo prawns) comes in a light coconut broth in which cinnamon, tamarind, lemongrass, and galangal vie for attention. Chicken rendang arrives in a thick sauce boasting a dozen tropical spices, while Penang tofu-topped with cucumber and onion, and served with a sweet and spicy crushed-peanut dressing-is unbeatable. 3885 Rupert St., 604-566-9898; 1316 W. 73rd Ave., 604-559-9898