This is going to sound absurd, but I think the best Malaysian food I’ve had was not in Malaysia, but in Philadelphia. It was at this restaurant called Penang, a Chinatown haunt where my college buds and I would eat our hearts out over the most flavourful bowls of chicken curry and fried roti, forkfuls of juice-dripping mango tofu with crispy noodles, greasy curls of mee siam noodles topped with crunchy peanuts and a hard-boiled egg, and tumblers of lychee juice to douse the flames being fanned by all that spice and curry gushing down our gullets. I’m no one to attest to the authenticity—this might be America’s reply to Malaysian food, the same way California Rolls are to sushi—but the thought sweet-tangy mango and crisp tofu or chicken slivers unleashes waterfalls of desire in my mouth even now, years later…
…in a way that doesn’t happen quite the same way when I think back to my trip to Malaysia. That was the real stuff, and pretty good stuff at that. But I’m sorry folks, I know this isn’t what I’m supposed to say…I do love the Penang in America even more than the Penang in Penang (and glorified it here, in my clumsy blogger-beginner days.)
When I read about Noodle Bowl in Satwa serving Malaysian food in The National last April, the restaurant name got firmly planted in my mind. Given my complete inability to remain focused on my Must-Eat list, the seed germinated into action close to a year after it was first planted in my weed-tangled mind.
Two trips later, my friends and I agreed that Noodle Bowl is a pretty solid lunch bet—dishes that feel fresh, thoughtfully prepared and not overly greasy. But it’s still no competitor to the flavours I dream about since my college years.
The Hokkien Kway-teow was the winner on my list after two trips to Noodle Bowl—though the menu is so incredibly huge, I’m sure something else will crop as a favourite after a few more visits to the place. The dish arrived as well-portioned plate of flat rice noodles glistening with dark sweet soy sauce, twirled in with fried omelette bits, crunchy sprouts, spring onions slivers and red bird’s eye chillies that looked scarier than they tasted.
The Kway-teow had a clean simplicity about it that I wouldn’t have expected from a dish that looked somewhat greasy with soy sauce at first. Crescents of shrimp sat nestled in the noodle curls, plump to the bite and heavy with the taste of ginger. For a louder burst of flavour, I occasionally poked my chopsticks into the shrimp sauce served on the side—but it wouldn’t have been missed had it not been on the table. I’ve actually tasted the street version of Kway-teow on Gurney Drive in Penang—and I preferred this version. It was low on grease, full on flavour, and spot on with the combination of crunchy-soft- stringy textures.
On my second visit, Noodle Bowl accommodated my anti-seafood friend with a chicken-only version of this noodle dish, and it got the ‘thumbs up’ once again.
Clearly Emily’s experience from her National article had faded from my mind, because I went ahead and ordered the steamed yeast buns—Bao. I have a real weakness for bao, but time and again, I’ve been disappointed with the ones that have the thick cakey texture. They look so cushiony and inviting that you want to run up and pounce on them like the new mattress that finally made it home…and then the springs of my anticipation almost always anti-climatically break with the pressure. This time was no different. Each of the mixed buns in my bamboo steamer—the sweet-sauced chicken shreds, the grainy solidified custard, and the sweet red bean one—may have been prepared perfectly, but the ratio of dough to filling is so high that I’ve finally learned my lesson. Yeast buns are not my thing.
The braised dumplings in black bean sauce also made the lunch table. Decent, but nothing that will make me remember them years later. Or next week, for that matter. The prize for the most flavourful filling in a dumpling/bun still goes to Nihal Chinese, a few blocks down on the same street.
The traditional Sichuan style chicken sautéed with red chillies and cashew nuts is a safe bet. This dish actually grew me on through the course of the meal, most things with cashew nuts and sweet sauce generally do.
The sweet sauce had an intriguing maple syrup sort of essence lingering in the background. For anyone who wants a less adventurous, no fuss chicken dish for lunch, this might well be it. Though beware, if you like dishes with spice and zing, this might not be it (even though it has two vicious chillies drawn next to it on the menu.)
The jasmine rice wrapped in lotus leaves got mixed reactions on the table. I was probably the person who enjoyed it the most, especially because of those bits of chicken tucked deep within the fragrant rice.
If anything brought me close to (sad) tears, it was my roti canai. I had all these images of poofy angelic sheets of Penang’s Roti Canai in Philadelphia rotating like a high res photo gallery in my mind, and then…I got these.
I was somewhat composed about the anticlimactic flat-looking paratha on my plate, until my friend across the table remarked that it resembled the frozen paratha they bought from the supermarket. It may not have been, but it did, and I didn’t want to think it. Or say it. But it had been said. My stomach just broke down and wept with sadness over a restaurant that’s too far away for me to trek over to any time soon. The chicken curry didn’t help to redeem the situation. It was bursting with an excess of curry powder and a few chunks of chicken clinging to thick bits of skin and fat.
Normally I just leave things in Malaysian/Chinese places at the salty stuff, but the deep-fried banana and peanut roll drizzled with chocolate sauce was in order (both to try and make up for roti canai, and also as a tribute to a foil-wrapped banana stuffed with peanut butter, chocolate chips and marshmallows that I tried to barbecue over New Year’s after reading an online recipe. I’ll let you imagine how that episode ended.)
This tasted exactly like what it was—banana + chocolate sauce + deep-fried wanton wrapper + occasional peanut if you snag the right segment of the spring roll. Don’t expect the drumrolls of deep-fried decadence to start sounding around you at the first bite. It’s sort of…silent.
Despite my roti canai bubble bursting into a mound of unspectacular roti and curry powder, I’m not giving up anytime soon with this restaurant. With a menu as long as theirs, there are bound to be a couple of hits and a couple of misses. It’s just a matter of time before I hit the zinger dishes. And save for The-One-Dish-That-Must-No-Longer-Be-Named, the flavours really do taste like they’re made at home. I also stupidly read the reviews of our very own Malay-Chinese food blogger in Dubai, Scribblelicious, after my two visits to Noodle Bowl. I haven’t tried even one of the dishes she’s recommended, which in itself will take at least two or three visits to cover.
Let me leave with you this. If you want homely Malaysian food, Noodle Bowl is worth a shot. There’s also the Pasar Malam or Malaysian Night Market with goodies dished out by the local Malay community that takes place every first Friday of the month at the Malaysian embassy in Dubai (remember the one I tried during Ramadan?)…and the last of which sadly took place this past Friday. There are times when I just shouldn’t bumble about with that Must-Eat list, and this was one of them. Le Sigh.