Roti canai is something special. Roti, a member of the illustrious flat bread fraternity (i’m looking at you pita and naan), is special in and of itself. But when you add a glistening bowl of yellow-orange curry to the equation, it’s elevated to an entirely different level. And New Malaysia’s roti canai is some of the best food that I’ve ever eaten at a restaurant.
Roti canai, a product of Indian influence, is found in many incarnations and has a wide geographic reach–from northern India, where it is commonly served with dhal, to Indonesia where it’s mutton curry’s chief co-conspirator, to Malaysia where, as in this restaurant’s case, you’ll often find it with a vegetarian potato curry. This small and cheap appetizer, as were many of the other dishes we ordered, is emblematic of Malaysia’s location as a crossroads. Lying smack dab in the middle of the most heavily trafficked blue-water trade route in the world, outside influence was bound to furrow, take-hold, grow, and sprout into not only a unique and cosmopolitan culture and people, but into a cuisine that embraces some of the best techniques and dishes that India, China, and many other regions in Asia have to offer.
Pataya fried chicken, squeezed with generous amounts of lime and surreptitiously dipped in our bowls of spud-stuffed curry (previously the exclusive domain of the now entirely devoured first order of roti) turned out to be winner of best dish in a supporting role. Really just a plate of fried chicken–the pieces are broken down one or two steps further than your average bucket at KFC–it’s akin to latino chicharron de pollo or Brazil’s frango do passarinho.
The remaining standouts amongst a bevy of dishes (we really did go crazy, and New Malaysia is the exception to the rule that restaurants with huge menus are invariably mediocre) were chow kueh teow and kang-kung belacan. The chow kueh teow is a flat rice noodle stir fry that speaks to the Chinese influence on Malaysian cuisine (home to a huge Chinese diaspora) and is quite similar to the chow fun you see on almost every Chinese restaurant’s menu; this version was exemplary. The kang-kung belacan was a vegetable side dish that broke out of the boring shackles so associated with a ‘vegetable side.’ Kang-kung refers to water spinach–a vegetable ubiquitous throughout east asian cookery and belacan refers to the dry shrimp paste of the same name, a powerful ingredient best used in moderation, but when employed correctly packs an umami filled punch. These two ingredients, sauteed together with garlic and chilies, helped the kang-kung belcan bully it’s way to the forefront of our table where it was, to everyone’s astonishment, immediately consumed.
There are more details I could go into, such as a good natured argument on the difference between hash browns and home fries that threatened to turn ugly and our confusion as to where exactly the restaurant is located (you’ll see what I mean if you ever make it down there), but an indulgence in ardent spirits at the time of eating clouds my memory, and anyway, I should save a few new things to say for the next time we go.
46-48 Bowery #2, New York, NY (212) 964-0284
(About Mensday Wednesday: Being located in New York City gives us the opportunity to sample a wide array of food. After all, there are over 20,000 restaurants here and in a huge city, built on the contributions of immigrants, which continues to draw people from every corner of the world, it is statistically probable that there exists a commercial enterprise operating to meet everyone’s taste, as disparate as those tastes may be. There are no set requirements as to where we dine, but a sort of tacit set of rules have emerged: price is important–the final bill should never cause us to wince, ‘international’ cuisine is preferred, and in the event of a debate, byob is the trump card.)
Calder Quinn is a fearless gastronome exploring New York City one restaurant at a time and the eldest son of Lucinda Scala Quinn, Living’s Executive Editorial Director of Food.
Follow Mensday Wednesdays on Twitter @mensdae