For an Education in Malaysian Cuisine, Head to Williamsburg's Pasar Malam
New Yorkers have fervently propelled many types of Asian cuisine into buzzy stardom -- just look at the dozens of ramen stalls and Isaan restaurants that line our streets. But Malaysian food remains relatively obscure, and that's something chef Salil Mehta wants to change.
All photos by Noah Fecks
Mehta oversees Laut, a Union Square restaurant that serves Singaporean and Thai food alongside Malaysian dishes. And while he's adapted the presentation of those plates to match New York expectations, he noticed people still tend to order the more familiar Thai items. At his new restaurant, Pasar Malam (208 Grand Street, Brooklyn), they won't have that option.
"At Pasar Malam, I want to educate people what Malaysian food is about," explains the owner, a native of New Dehli who got into the restaurant business in the States after getting his degree from Parsons and getting married. "If you like Indian food, Thai food, and Chinese food, you will love this food -- it's a little bit of everything. It's these cultures coming together and supporting each other."
His board here includes staples like nasi lemak, a blend of coconut rice and fresh pandan leaves served with pickled vegetables and anchovy sambal, and a traditional Hainanese chicken rice dish he's upgrading by using fried chicken (instead of the more common boiled poultry) and topping with chili sauce. On weekends, you'll find the rambly burger, one of Malaysia's most popular fast food dishes for which a patty is wrapped with an egg and then topped with cheese, cabbage, and mayo. "It's a big thing in markets," Mehta says. "This is what Malaysians usually order. I've limited it to the weekends because I want people to crave it."
The restaurant also has a house-made roti menu, some of which are served with savory toppings, like spicy curry sauce, and some of which are spread with sweet treats like kaya jam, a coconut egg jelly that boasts the flavor profile of decadent French toast. In an effort to get New Yorkers to try roti, the chef has also incorporated more familiar flavors, like one with peanut butter and banana.
While Pasar Malam's liquor license is still pending, it's serving up a board of holistic Chinese drinks, blending ingredients like ginseng and corn or serving concoctions laced with licorice root, which helps with respiratory issues. Once the eatery can serve booze -- which should happen in the next couple of weeks -- look for a menu with drinks like the mai tai and traditional Singapore sling in addition to cocktails made with sugarcane juice.
Pasar Malam opened this week after an extensive remodel -- Mehta says his team found styrofoam in the walls when they started demolition, requiring a huge overhaul. Now that construction has been wrapped up, the restaurant is open from 3 to 11 p.m. on weekdays, and 3 to midnight on the weekends. On Saturday and Sunday, the restaurant is also serving brunch.
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