I probably should have developed this habit from the very beginning, but I’ve just started to consistently google the phrase “national dish of (enter country name here)” before heading out to restaurants. In the past, this has led me to some beautiful meals—Burmese mohinga, West African attieke/acheke, and Barbadian cou-cou and flying fish, among other things. Since I’m a carb lover who also loves fat, my chest was pounding with excitement (or maybe just the pressure from my rapidly clogging arteries?) when I saw that nasi lemak, or “fatty rice,” is generally considered the national dish of Malaysia.
I mean, what could be better than fatty rice? Well, we went to a Chinatown spot called Nyonya, and found out that fatty vegetables are just as good. Later, I discovered fatty jerky, which was also pretty decent.
We warmed up with the fatty vegetables. Actually, I have no idea if that’s really the translation of achat, but the menu said that achat is “vegetable pickled in turmeric powder and spicy herbs w/sesame seeds and peanut.” The vegetables were really good, but also really fatty and spicy; imagine turmeric-flavored Korean kimchi made with a greater variety of vegetables and an extra half-cup of oil, and you’ll be close.
Along with our fatty vegetables, we ordered some fatty puffy roti, which is a hugely popular appetizer in Malaysia. The roti was extremely light, not unlike a thinner, airier version of a Mexican chalupa; it was served with a delicious curry dipping sauce, which wasn’t nearly as fatty as the fatty vegetables. Highly recommended.
Maybe he was mildly frightened by the fatty vegetable appetizer, but my pal Ryan made the very strange move of ordering a really conservative noodle entrée, some sort of unmemorable lo mein relative. It had noodles, chicken, and vegetables stir-fried in soy sauce. Not interesting.
I was much luckier with the nasi lemak, which I will refer to hereafter as just “fatty rice.” The rice is called “fatty rice” because it’s cooked in clove-infused coconut milk instead of water, leaving an absolutely gorgeous greasy flavor behind. The dish is served with bony spiced anchovies (I actually thought they were sardines; the menu says they were anchovies… who knows?), hard-boiled eggs, shredded curry chicken with random flecks of bone, screw-pine leaves, and… drum roll please… more fatty spicy vegetables!
All joking aside, the meal was absolutely delicious; like Korean bibimbap, nasi lemak is even better than the sum of its parts, thanks in no small part to the turmeric and cloves. I haven’t eaten all that many sardines (or bony anchovies) in my life and found them to be oddly chewy and woody at the same time, but that really isn’t much of a complaint—I got used to them as I worked my way through the plate.
Once we left Nyonya, things got even more interesting. If you’re familiar with me and/or my blog, you probably realize that I have a little bit of a love-hate relationship with NYC. Sometimes I hate the fact that soulless chain restaurants and cafes dominate huge swaths of Manhattan, sometimes I hate the fact that I can’t see the sun unless I stand in the middle of the street at high noon, and sometimes I really hate Manhattanites’ obsession with overgroomed yappy-type dogs that leave runty little poop stains all over the sidewalk. Anybody who has ever lived in New York can probably join me in moaning about the hundreds of reasons why living here is a pain in the ass; I also suspect that most New Yorkers have been tempted, at one time or another, to punt an overgroomed little yappy-type dog across Park Avenue.
But then there are moments of New York City magic that make it all worthwhile. As I was walking through Chinatown on my way home from Nyonya, I accidentally stumbled on a little store called Malaysian Beef Jerky that serves nothing but Malaysian meat jerky–your choice of beef jerky, spicy beef jerky, pork jerky, spicy pork jerky, chicken jerky, or spicy chicken jerky, all sold by the pound ($18/pound, in case you’re wondering).
Let me be honest here: jerky has never really been my thing. Whenever I think of jerky, I think about chewing on leather shoe or a baseball glove… or else I think about the jars of ancient, gooey red sticks that you find on convenience store counters in the South and Midwest. Malaysian jerky is served in large flat squares, and it’s actually surprisingly sweet and tender, almost like biting into a firm piece of meat jello. (Um… sounds good, right?)
I won’t pretend that I loved the Malaysian jerky, but it’s worth a taste if you find yourself in Chinatown and have a craving for some unusually-tender processed meat. But I’m actually pretty thrilled that NYC is filled with such random places. These little moments of NYC food magic make the city seem much more friendly and tolerable—and they greatly reduce the chances that I’ll punt a dog in a fit of Manhattanite frustration.
199 Grand Street, Manhattan
Subway: your choice of Chinatown trains