Malaysian Chinese Cuisine
One of the more exciting activities in my otherwise dull and predictable life is to try out different types of Asian cuisines. A particular favourite of mine is the Singaporean-Malay style of Chinese food. Growing up in that corner of tropical Southeast Asia where sweating is a national pastime and ice is something only found in refrigerators, my taste buds have become spoiled (or rather, according to my friends, irreparably damaged) by the bold and flavourful taste epitomized by this cuisine.
As such, I have a personal fondness for this type of Chinese food and am quite happy at seeing the recent growth of Singaporean-Malay restaurants in the GTA. The rather large number of restaurants serving this type of cuisine is a major improvement compared to its almost-nonexistent status when I first arrived in this tropical wonderland thirteen years ago.
The interesting thing about Singaporean-Malay Chinese food (SMC) is that it often doesn't taste like conventional Chinese food at all. For starters, many of the dishes contain a shrimp paste-based chili sauce, while others have generous amounts of coconut milk mixed in its noodle soups.
There are a lot of Indian and Southeast Asian influences that intertwine and end up blurring the ethnic origins over these food items. The best advise I can give is to forget the distinction between the various influences and just enjoy the way the flavours play off each other and dance in your mouth. Less thinking, more savouring.
Here are six places to eat Singaporean-Malay Chinese food in Toronto:
Arguably the most well-known SMC restaurant in the GTA, this restaurant offers a wide variety of favourites such as Hainanese chicken rice and nasi lemak (a coconut-milk fragrant rice mixed with meats and vegetables). It draws crowds from as far as Hamilton, despite being located near the Buttonville Airport. The ambiance and service are both very good, and the place has a slightly fancier feel to it, but I find that the overall taste of the food to be somewhat lacking in complexity. The spicy foods are just spicy, and the salty foods are just salty. It definitely feels the kitchen has toned things down for a Western palate. Worth ordering, though, is the nasi lemak which is one of the best in town.
This restaurant is run by a Chinese Indonesian and Malaysian couple and has been a long-time crowd favourite from the time it operated as a food court stall in an old Chinese mall close by. They recently decided to expand and open a full-service restaurant, and judging from the large crowds on Friday and Saturday nights, the decision was a wise one. The menu lineup is so formidable you'd expect to be quizzed on it afterward, but any fears of the restaurant overextending their offering are quickly put to rest once you take your first bite of their wonderful, wonderful noodles. Fresh, flavourful, and rich, the Malaysian fried yellow noodle is a personal favourite of mine. The laksa (a rich spicy broth mixed with rice noodles) is also one of the best that I've tasted in Toronto, and (bonus!) the prices are extremely reasonable. Don't forget to ask for a side of sambal with your dish, a spicy chili condiment containing shrimp paste, garlic, and other herbs. Dee-licious.
A local favourite, but unfortunately not one well-known enough to pull out-of-towners the way Restoran Malaysia does. This little restaurant offers a wide variety of SMC dishes that are more geared towards the Malay palate, which means generous amounts of peanut sauce and coconut milk. Run by a lovely Malay-Chinese lady from Ipoh, this restaurant always gets busy during weekday lunchtimes. Recommended dishes include the unbelievably crispy and flavourful butter shrimp (it's as good as it sounds) and the Penang flat fried rice noodles (called kway teow by locals). The only downside is that service can be a tad on the slow side.
The ugly duckling of this list, Villa Malaysia offers the most peaceful ambiance making it perfect for a quiet date. However, that's probably because locals know the food here is distinctly mediocre. The place is owned by the same people as Restoran Malaysia and unfortunately the weaknesses present there are magnified here. Most of the items are genuinely spicy (which is a plus) but are otherwise flavourless (which is not). The sambal beef and assam chicken are both very liberal in the spicy department but lack any richness or complexity. In fact, during my last visit I had to add salt to my food which is something close to blasphemy when it comes to this type of cuisine.
This can be considered a little bit cheating because Phoenix is actually a Hong Kong style restaurant, but I included it on this list because it offers what is perhaps the best Hainanese chicken rice outside of Singapore. And this one dish, believe me, is arguably the national dish of that country. Thus I cannot have a discussion on SMC food without including Phoenix restaurant, as strange as that may seem. So to keep it short, you have to order their Hainanese chicken rice. The chicken is moist, the dipping sauce is flavourful, and the rice is fragrant. Pretty much close to being perfect, and that's from someone who spent an awful lot of time during a 5 month stay in Singapore trying out different chicken rice stalls.
Lion City Restaurant has a number of diehard fans who proclaim it as the most authentic SMC restaurant around. The interior ambiance feels a little like Coconut Island in that it's simple, slightly underwhelming, and reminiscent of a small eating place in Asia. The Hainanese chicken rice is excellent, rivaling that of Phoenix restaurant, and the bak kut teh (pork rib in herbal tea - yes I'm serious) is quite close to the ones I've had in Singapore. Living in Markham as I do, I don't think it's worth the drive all the way to Mississauga when I have closer options that are almost as good, but the restaurant is a definite must-try for all those who live nearby or don't mind the drive. Try the fried kway teow too.