Malaysian Rasa Sayang

Written by Adam Heimlich on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

In hiphop
slang there’s a pseudo-Islamic alternative map of New York, in which Brooklyn
is "Medina" and Harlem is "Mecca." Queens gets stuck with
"The Desert." It’s a typical slight against what was long perceived
as the "soft" borough, relatively devoid of zones where outsiders
fear to tread. Even Jersey got lucky with "New Jerusalem." A generation
of homegrown rap legends somehow failed to unseat Archie Bunker as the archetypal
symbol of Queens.

emigrants also contribute to the perception of Queens as a wasteland, preferring
to relocate to Brooklyn or Upper Manhattan. Moving to Queens would be like growing
a mustache instead of a goatee or big sideburns. It’s cop-like. Taboo.

exceedingly difficult to alter people’s mental maps. When Mobb Deep put
out the toughest-talking hiphop, it was said they were overcompensating for
their borough’s softness. MOMA has invested heavily in Queens, but so far
the demographic from which the museum draws its members seems much more interested
in the ongoing settlement of Tribeca Annex, aka, Dumbo. When John Rocker said
how much he hated the 7 train, the tabloids portrayed your average Mets fan
waxing furious at the pitcher for dissing Queens, then in the next breath muttering
that he had a point about all the immigrants.

Queens Stereotyping
Disorder can be cured through targeted dining. Thanks to this technique, now
when plans to visit Queens are afoot, I get giddy with anticipation. My ride
on the G–the green-headed stepchild of subway trains–finds me recalling
the peoplemover prelude to Disney World’s legendary Space Mountain. Only
now the attraction is relief from theme parks. Queens is perhaps America’s
best example of urbanity. I don’t know where else in the Western Hemisphere
representatives of so many cultures can be found, within a manageable (okay:
semi-manageable) space, putting their best tastes forward. When you live to
eat and eat to learn, Queens is the opposite of a desert. From Woodside to Jackson
Heights, no doubt, it’s hardcore.

no need to be wildly adventurous. All I’ve been doing is trying the well-reputed
places. Results have been awesome. The only downside is that friends might start
to see you as sort of a reverse snob: Nah, I don’t eat Thai food in Manhattan–only
Queens. Once you’ve freed yourself from the culinary Plato’s cave
in which people who eat at Penang unknowingly, needlessly suffer, it doesn’t
matter to you what they think.

Rasa Sayang was discovered by the Daily News in 1999, and it’s barely
registered a blip on local media radar since. The takeout menu bears a strong
resemblance to the standard storefront Chinese one, except for the preponderance
of seafood and the picture of Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers on the front.
Inside the Jackson Heights restaurant, you can get an illustrated menu and plenty
of help from the waitstaff, both of which are probably necessary for a first
experience with Malaysian food.

In Malaysia
there’s a wide variety of food options for travelers. Dozens are presented
in roped-off clusters of outdoor stalls. These exist all over the country, and
have collectively earned it a reputation as the site of some of the world’s
most hygienic street food. Many restaurants are run by Chinese-Malaysians (who
make up a significant percentage of the national population, as do Malaysians
from India). Our waiter at Rasa Sayang seemed to be Chinese (he wrote down our
order in Chinese characters, which Malay does not use), and the food seemed
a bit more akin to Szechuan Chinese than to Vietnamese or Thai. Tropical ingredients
and spices from the subcontinent gave a sense of monsoon swelter, but flavors
were more straightforward than the 3-D ones achieved with fermented fish sauces
and radioactive chili peppers.

The first
two appetizers to arrive demonstrated a pair of divergent variations on peanut
sauce. Rojak ($5.25), a salad of cucumber, jicama, mango and pineapple cubes,
had a cold, soy-based sauce, dark brown with crushed peanuts. The fruit cubes
were whitish, intentionally unripe (like the papaya in a Thai papaya salad),
so the astringent crunch and salty nuts came off doubly appetizing, almost a
tease. Squid with Chinese watercress ($7.95), on the other hand, was bathed
in a creamy peanut sauce that practically candied the greens and chewy tentacles.
From sharp dressing to sesame-style soothing, this initial tasting was like
a lesson in peanut power.

Yet another
different peanut sauce came with the chicken satay ($5.25). On the wooden sticks
was fatty dark meat, well-done at very high temperature, and what was in the
dipping cup was oily, thick and yellow. It was practically a peanut curry, for
meat that was practically pork (in fact if pork satay were on the menu, we’d
have assumed it’s what we were accidentally brought–which says something
about how accustomed to foam-rubber breast meat we are). Even though the sauce
wasn’t very spicy, the satays felt like tough-guy food–char-broiling
and complex curry seasoning didn’t mitigate the rawness of these impaled
strips of flesh.

The starter
we’d wished we’d ordered more of was Roticanai ($2.25). Rasa Saying’s
roti had a balance of oil and air rarely seen in an Asian pancake. It had plenty
of crispness and flavor, yet was doughy enough to soak up its side sauce. That
was, again, yellow and different: this time an equatorial chicken curry, with
the twilighty buzz of a mellow soup and the intrigue of a sly entree-maker.
Having only a tiny cup of the stuff was a little too intriguing.

The restaurant
filled up quite well for a Sunday night. It’s hard to say without taking
a census, but I think we might have even been the only non-Malaysian diners.
That made me more and more suspicious, as the number of dead ducks hanging on
the glass window between Rasa Saying’s warm, no-frills dining room and
busy kitchen went from four to three to two, that our waiter had, via his advice,
steered us away from the most exotic available dishes. I don’t begrudge
him that, if he did it, because our main courses were very good. But please
understand they might not be quite representative of the restaurant’s standard
fare. On the plus side, nothing on other patrons’ plates appeared too different
from what our party enjoyed.

start with the worst entree, which was merely pedestrian–no worse. Steamed
Whole Tilapia with Bean Sauce ($16.95, seasonal price) came on an enormous plate,
with the fish butterfly-split and smothered in sticky brown sauce. It was nice
and fresh, but its sweet meat did little with the bean sauce, which was also
sweet, and bordered on Chinese-restaurant standard. Bean sauce requires a facility
with garlic that wasn’t in evidence anywhere in our meal. For all the variety
of Rasa Sayang’s flavors–and I haven’t told the half yet–it
all exists within a range that on my mental map of flavors was, until this meal,
very narrow.

Just like
there’s a planet in Queens, there’s a world of hot and sour. That
was the lesson of Asam Curry Fish ($15.95), which leads with tastes of lemongrass
and citrus. The sourness of this orange soup is powerful, not countered. Spices,
instead, surround the sunrise tang, tickling your tongue as it copes with the
pungent effect. The Asam soup’s onions, tofu and red and green peppers
all bring out distinct characters of the sour liquid. Its fire comes out best
from soaked chunks of firm whitefish, which easily earn their marquee (if anonymous–my
guess is sea bass) status. An alternative version is Asam Curry Fish Head: it
comes in a clay pot and costs less. I can’t imagine how it works, but I
intend to find out someday.

Kang Kung
with Belacan Sauce ($10.95) was our choice from the vegetable section of the
menu, and it proved to be a good dish to have around. The Kang Kung part is
sauteed spinach with stems, scallions and green beans. Belacan sauce is a finely
chopped blend of browned onions and chilis, suspended in shrimp paste. It’s
crunchy with a hot-and-bitter bite, perfect for the crisp greens. As much as
everyone in our party oohed and ahhed about Rasa Sayang’s seafood highlights,
this is the dish we all kept coming back to.

I would
regret having been advised away from Sambal Shrimp, which I’d heard was
red hot, if the suggested replacement wasn’t spectacular. It was. You’d
think Prawn with Asam Sauce ($16.95) would be kind of like Asam Curry Fish ("asam"
means "sour"), but it was as different as our two peanut sauces were
from each other. The asam sauce on the shrimp was that shade of brown you get
from mixing a whole lot of ingredients without concern for color. The prawns
were very large, with heads and exoskeletons more or less intact. Helpfully,
they’re split, but unless you’re going to ask for a knife it’s
necessary to get your hands in the sauce to peel these critters.

So my first
taste of this amazing sauce came via my fingers, which doubled the intensity
of a momentary flashback to a college year in India. Was it cumin? It barely
registered before a pineapple blast rattled my foundations. This was strike-up-the-parade
sauce, brassy and brash with a hint of something ancient. It wasn’t really
sour, only sort of sweet and not without some burn–I don’t think I’ve
ever had a sauce that had so much going on, yet was so hard to think about.
It’d be easier to write about what it feels like to sleep on a hammock
slung between palm trees on a beach. Eating those fat, juicy prawns with Rasa
Saying’s spiced-pineapple asam sauce was luxurious in exactly that way.

Plans for
dessert had to be canceled due to threat of exploding. If I’d been able
I’d have tried Sugar Cane Ice ($1.30) or A.B.C. ($2.25). The check came
with a serving of lichee–a mild, palate-clearing white fruit. The bill
came out to about $25 a head, including tip and some Tsingtao beers. We’d
gone all-out with the house specials, but it’s possible to eat at Rasa
Sayang for much less. The menu lists dozens of noodle soups, fried-noodle plates
and meat-and-rice dishes in the $5 range. I’d pop in for those after a
Mets game, but on a proper Queens food quest it makes sense to pay what you
would for a meal in Manhattan–that culinary wasteland.

Rasa Saying
is a very short walk from the Jackson Heights/Roosevelt Ave. station, where
the E, F, G, R, V and 7 trains stop. When visiting, be sure to check out the
Asian supermarket, Pacific, a few doors down. We stopped in for some Thai candies
for when our appetites returned, and ended up spending quite a while gawking
at the live fish, mammoth ramen display and hundreds of imported items on sale
there. Whoever stocks Pacific’s shelves is ultra-worldly. Compared to him
or her, most of us can be counted Archie Bunkers or Meatheads.

Rasa Sayang, 75-19 Broadway (betw. 75th & 76th Sts.), Queens, 718-424-9054.
Closed Tuesdays.