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Malaysian food: too much of a good thing? || RIGHTBD


Over on the travel site , I've written about the mind boggling diversity of Malaysian food. A group of us ate our way around several regions there earlier this year, as guests of the country's tourist board, who are keen to demonstrate why their cuisine deserves to be as well known and loved as, say, Thailand's.
It's fair to say Malaysian food isn't spectacularly familiar to most people in the UK. The dish most commonly associated with the country is probably the rich dry coconut curry, beef rendang, a traditional Malay recipe, while many cuisines - from Nyonya, a distinctive Chinese/Malay style of cooking, to that of the Indigenous peoples of Malaysian Borneo - are far less well known.
But most of us will be better acquainted with aspects of the country's cooking than we realise, due to the many styles of Indian and Chinese cuisine that flourish there. And there's an abundance of nearby regional recipes that have been assimilated, so visitors will come across several well known dishes, such as roti canai, satay and tom yum. To add to the confusion, such classic dishes are sometimes cooked in the traditional style of their home country, and sometimes given the treatment of the cook's own culture so not only will you find, for instance, Chinese restaurants serving traditional Malay dishes, you'll find Malay - and other - restaurants serving variations of Thai, Chinese, Indian, and Indonesian dishes. Amongst others.
When it comes to Malaysian restaurants in the UK, and there are relatively few of them so far - 70-odd in total - I wonder if this can make for a confusing dining experience. After all, I reckon there's nothing the British like less in a restaurant than to look uninformed. I spoke to Norman Musa, the Penang-born chef who runs Ning, one of Manchester's two Malaysian restaurants. He opened four years ago and said it had been a struggle to win people over, partly because they didn't know much about it, but also, because they prefer to focus on one type of food. "They like Thai," he told me, "because they feel they know what it is - green or red curry."
In fact, up at Ning, they've now introduced some Thai dishes to cater for the less adventurous punter, but I wonder if this doesn't compound the problem - when so many other restaurants are paring their menus back and simplifying, is there a danger that greater choice is just overwhelming? Or, worse, is it possible that, the more variety people find on a menu, the more they consider it an Oriental buffet experience?
Norman Musa recently ran a competition asking what dish would best represent Malaysia. "Beef rendang," came the reply. But while that would be nice and easy to market, it wouldn't be accurate. Malaysian cuisine is, by its nature, enormously diverse and that's to be embraced. But isn't it more likely to be embraced by an adventurous minority than the masses who will happily go to their local Thai restaurant for a green curry or a pad thai?
I must admit I'm somewhere in the middle. Like many people, I'm naturally suspicious of a kitchen offering such a variety of cuisines, although a trip to Awana Malaysian restaurant reminded me it can be pulled off. Nowadays, and particularly in the case of Malaysian, I'd be much more likely to mix it up a bit, perhaps enjoying some roti canai, followed by char koey teow and buah melaka. How about you? Does a wide ranging menu put you off?



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