Each of the fifty-plus items on Red Kwali’s menu claims a different point of origin. The roti canai, for example, are described as “Indian Mamak,” the chick kut teh as “Penang Chinese Nyonya,” the gado-gado as “Indonesian Malay.”
In other words, they’re authentic Malaysian food.
Tracing the roots of modern-day Malaysia’s multicultural society would take more space than I’ve got. Some four hundred miles of ocean separate the two halves of the country, which touches Thailand to the north and Singapore and Indonesia in the south, and whose economic and cultural ties with India and China go back hundreds if not thousands of years.
All of these influences result in dishes like the chick kut teh, a cola-colored, clear chicken soup with a caramel-toned sweetness, the flashy crunch of Chinese celery, and the indefinably herbaceous bitterness and aroma of seven Asian herbs. Chick kut teh is a specialty of the Peranakan (otherwise known as Straits Chinese or nyonyas and babas), the distinctive Chinese-Malay subculture that descended from the entourage of a 15th-century Chinese princess who married the sultan of Malacca.
Like I said, I don’t have the space.
In brief, the country’s three primary ethnic groups are the Malay, Chinese, and Indian, primarily South Indian Tamils. Add to them the Peranakan, Indonesian, Thai, Northern Indian Muslims (or “Mamaks”), and Eurasians — a half-century of Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonialism is bound to produce a few — and you have quite a cultural hodgepodge.
Owner Aslina Abdullah is certainly representative. She defines her ethnicity as Indonesian Malay, “but I have Indian in my blood and on my mother’s side, my great-grandmother is Chinese.” After living in the States for many years, she missed the flavors of home so much that she pledged to re-create them in her first restaurant. She brought cooks over from Malaysia so they would have the same instinctive sense of how the food should taste.
How Abdullah has chosen to deal with the profusion of cuisines from her home country is to subtitle her restaurant a “hawker center.”
Hawker centers have taken Malaysia’s diverse street food and turned it into a gastronomic event — the primary way Malays eat out. Found all over Malaysia and Singapore, these centers hold anything from a couple of vendors to huge warrens of food stalls. Eating there involves finding a centrally located table and then shopping around. One stall sells South Indian vegetarian cuisine, another Chinese stir-fried noodles, some just a single dish like nasi lemak. Place your order, and the stall will deliver it to your table.
I can’t imagine a more perfect way to eat, or a more tricky culinary feat to pull off in one kitchen. It’s as if you decided to open an “all-American” food court in Moscow serving hamburgers, pepperoni pizza, barbecued ribs, Caesar salad, burritos, chow fun, California rolls, and Frito pie.
Red Kwali seems to succeed, though. The restaurant opened up in a huge strip mall in Newark that has become something of a hawker center in itself, a cluster of good Asian restaurants and markets. It’ll take a few years to scrub the strip-mall sheen off Red Kwali’s decor, but it’s an attractive room, with double-high ceilings, rows of black-lacquer tables, and a spotless open kitchen staffed by equally spotless cooks. A circus-like affinity for strips and squares of ochre, green, and gold seems to echo the pleasant jumble of hawker centers, and finely wrought pen-and-ink drawings of street vendors stake claim to the restaurant’s roots. But instead of getting up from your table to wander from cook to cook, you give your order to a waitress, who taps it into a wireless-enabled PDA.
So what do centuries of free-market culinary exchange taste like? Well, there’s Red Kwali’s signature appetizer, roti canai — pan-fried, layered flatbreads sweetened by coconut milk. They’ve been stretched and folded so many times that each pancake has the texture of a good croissant. Tear off pieces of the roti and dip them in a creamy curry sauce dominated by coriander and turmeric. The dish seems Indian, but not quite. Or the “Chinese” wantan ikan, straightforward-looking fried wontons filled with a fish mousse spiked with aromatic Chinese celery (think the bastard stepchild of celery, cilantro, and parsley) and served with a sweet red dipping sauce touched by the funk of fermented shrimp paste.
The ethnic Malays gravitate toward coconut milk, sweet-sour tamarind, complex mixtures of Southeast Asian and Indian spices and herbs, and that shrimp paste known as belacan or belachan. In Malaysia, the latter is used like fish sauce in Thailand or salted pork in the southern United States: as an aromatic flavor intensifier. It floats up like a rich fog from the kangkung sambal belacan, crunchy “water spinach” sautéed with belacan and sambal, a deep-red, throbbing chile paste.
Red Kwali’s kangkung sambal belacan isn’t the best version I’ve tried, but it’s a charismatic dish whose strong flavors seduce more than they repel. Belacan also makes its way into Chinese dishes like the char kway teow, where it dissolves into the background of the salty soy coating on chow fun tossed with fish cake, prawns, eggs, and mung bean sprouts.
Other signature Malaysian dishes on Red Kwali’s menu that are certainly worth a try include the satay, skewers of moist grilled chicken or beef rubbed with ginger, cumin, and turmeric, and served with rice cubes, cucumbers, and a too-sweet peanut sauce. Malaysia’s national breakfast dish is nasi lemak, a mound of rice cooked with coconut milk and surrounded by piles of tiny dried fish, roasted peanuts, hard-boiled egg, and cucumber. It often comes with sambal; at Red Kwali, you’re given a bowl of stunning beef rendang, a rich coconut-milk curry flavored with lime leaves. You can — and should — order the beef by itself.
The most challenging dish, laksa assam, ladled a mackerel-tamarind curry over rice noodles. The tanginess of the tamarind actually didn’t clash with the meatiness of the ground fish; the mint, pineapple, and raw onion sprinkled over top did. As Abdullah told me later, “Malaysian cuisine is for strong palates.” She tries to steer diners who aren’t as familiar with the tastes — the restaurant’s regulars are primarily Filipino, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, and Singaporean — toward tamer dishes like chicken curry or caramel prawns.
Cultural biases aside, I wasn’t wowed by the quality of the overcooked pompano in the ikan kukus, where it was steamed and topped with sweet soy sauce, ginger, and chiles, nor by the combination of sugary peanut sauce and chilled, blanched vegetables in the gado-gado. But I’m itching to return for the dishes I didn’t have enough stomach space for — oxtail soup, fried chicken with chile sauce and calamansi lime, and the spicy, tomatoey stir-fried noodles known as mee goreng.
Red Kwali’s food comes out as each dish is ready, but the servers pay attention to make sure your soups and appetizers are done before they start with the entrées. In fact, the servers are terrific, especially once you’ve managed to convince them you want food with shrimp paste and chiles. Or durian.
On my first visit, two curious friends wanted to finish the meal with the sticky rice and durian — you know, the fruit that tastes like custard and smells like a gas leak. By the time I’d managed to persuade the waitress that we all knew what we were getting ourselves into, we were both snickering so hard that my friends started worrying just how bad it could be. (It was great, actually, and not too smelly until it warmed up.) But order things like that, especially if you’re not Asian, and you’ll get noticed quick.
By the end of the second visit the owner had come to the table to find out why we were ordering so much Malaysian food. She pretended to be pacified by my lame excuse, and coerced us into ordering a banana wrapped in a sweet crepe and fried, then topped with a scoop of lychee ice cream. But after the stomach-rumblingly rich, potent food, we were happiest with a glassine volcano of shaved ice and tapioca. Salted coconut milk spewed down the sides, threatening to engulf the watermelon balls ringing the base of the mountain. Was it Chinese? Malay? Indonesian? Peranakan? After the first bite, we didn’t much care.