We all know what happens when cultures collide in Los Angeles: strange hybrid foodstuffs such as sashimi burritos or kalbi ‘n’ grits, odd hybrid cuisines such as Salvadoran-Chinese, Japanese-Italian, and whatever the stuff at Noa Noa is called. Most of the new restaurants on the Westside are awash in both risotto and wasabi vinaigrette, chipotle mayonnaise and Cajun seasoning. Quesadillas are likely to contain anything from Southwestern lamb stew to Chinese roast duck--and sometimes, even cheese. Nouvelle-cuisine chefs compete with Little Tokyo grandmothers for the best yama imo in the store.
But the concept of mix-and-match cuisine is nothing new in the world, and the whole cultural interaction thing was going on long before there was a Peter Sellars or David Byrne to note its existence. Look at Armenia, where Middle Eastern cooking runs headlong into the heavy peasant stews of Eastern Europe. Look at Malaysia, where Chinese food coexists with the spicy cooking of the immigrants from South India and the native, Indonesian-inflected cuisine of the Malay Muslims. Malaysian Chinese food is unlike any other Chinese food in the world.
There aren’t many Malaysian-Chinese restaurants in Southern California, and Little Malaysia is one of the best, a spare mini-mall joint in a strangely deserted stretch of El Monte, next to a Chinese video store and a couple of doors down from a Chinese buffet that’s intriguingly called Iron Lady.
You’ve been to a hundred places like this one, with travel posters on the walls and soft hits on the radio; hot tea in water glasses and paper place mats on the tables. At mealtimes, the restaurant is crowded with Malaysian emigrees, with Chinese-Americans who once stopped in Singapore on a holiday, and with locals who like the weekday lunch specials: three dishes for $3.25. The owner’s family serves, cooks, stuffs dumplings and answers the phone. Given the relative scarcity of Malaysian restaurants in the area, there’s not much to compare it to, but Little Malaysia seems to concentrate on the Nonya cooking of Penang, an island off Malaysia’s west coast: hot and spicy, liberal with such root spices as ginger and turmeric, tending more toward clean, sweet-and-sour flavors than toward the coconut-milk richness of much Malaysian and Indonesian food. Nonya cooking is also often considered the native cuisine of Singapore.
“Penang rolls” are thin crepes rolled into fat, steamed egg rolls around a lettuce leaf, which in turn is wrapped around a sweetened mixture of sauteed root vegetables and toasted garlic--the steaming concentrates the flavors in a marvelous way. Penang laksa is pencil-thick noodles in a great, tart, tamarind-spiked fish broth. There are Penang sausages and Penang mee noodles and--on weekends--spicy, Penang-style vegetables.
Kway ka involves stew-meat-size nuggets of rice noodle blasted with soy and spices over high heat until the edges crisp and become smoky, sort of a platonic ideal of Chinese chow fun . Pie tee are crunchy, thumb-size thimbles of fried pastry filled with sauteed vegetables. Slabs of bean curd are stuffed with delicious fishcake and braised in light-brown gravy. Nasi lemak is coconut rice accompanied with little piles of curried shrimp, spicy stewed vegetables, and a salty, chewy anchovy-peanut condiment that rivals any Northern Chinese fish-peanut dish. The intense lamb soup is sweetly spiced. Fish balls, served in a delicate stock, are fine and feather-light, Malaysian quenelles; baseball-size Hok Chou fish balls, which are stuffed with ground pork, may be too much of a good thing.
But when multiculturalism rears its head at Little Malaysia, things happen on the plate. In Singapore (and presumably in peninsular Malaysia as well) Hainanese chicken rice is as easy to find as a cheeseburger is in Westwood, a staple at every food court and the mainstay of every coffee shop. The dish--rice simmered in stock, accompanied by a chile dip and a few pieces of poached chicken--is easy to like. Little Malaysia’s version of the rice, subtly fragrant with ginger, grains separate and just barely oily, is very fine, and the flavor of the chicken is clear and distinct. Curried fish head, a standard at Singapore’s Indian restaurants, is delicately flavored and tartly sauced here, although the job of digging out the fish’s cheeks, jowls and lips is hardly a dainty one. Indian-style pancakes, roti , are crisp and savory, served with a side of tasty curried potato.
Desserts tend to be strictly Malaysian, which is to say a long way from panna cotta or chocolate mousse. Try pulut indi --a banana-leaf package that opens to reveal a salty ball of sticky rice that’s doused with coconut milk, laced with blue food coloring and topped with a sweet mound of coconut and palm sugar.
With the meal, you drink iced tea or coffee with milk, or pungent iced passion-fruit tea that may be to the pale beverage served at multicultural Melrose restaurants what Guinness Stout is to Miller Lite.
Little Malaysia, 3944 N. Peck Road, El Monte, (818) 401-3188. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Takeout. Cash only. No alcohol. Lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $11-$20.