Stepping out of my culinary comfort zone can be frightening, especially when that step’s into another hemisphere and requires speaking a different language.
Add that the locale is a tiny storefront in the crook of a less than structurally sound Little Saigon strip mall, and my guard is more than up.
The trip to Malay Satay Hut began as an excuse for a meal with a close friend who grew up in Malaysia and still gets teary-eyed at the mention of durian, a smelly South Asian fruit. We opened the door at Malay Satay to low lighting, rickety tiki-style paneling, and the overwhelming scent of fish paste—and she was home.
A collection of islands in the South Asia Sea south of Thailand, Malaysia is a melting pot of people and cultures. Three cuisines blend under the heading of Malaysian food, creating a heady compilation in which the spicy brightness of Thai, sticky sweetness of Chinese, and rich comfort of Indian flavors all find a melodious home.
Located at 212 12th Avenue South in the International District, Malay Satay owns a corner on the market as Seattle’s single authentic Malaysian restaurant. A fire some ten years ago led to a remodel and the opening of a larger second location in Redmond.
And to a traveler on the seemingly rough seas of new cuisine, they offer a surprisingly calm—and delicious—maiden voyage. We began with the Malaysian staple roti canai, impossibly thin sheets of pastry layered with butter and fried so the outside is flaky and crispy, the inside chewy and soft.
In the Malaysian street markets where it’s sold, vendors compete over who can toss the pancake-like discs the highest, but the real talent lies in the infinitesimally slender layers. Served piping hot with a hearty potato curry sauce—think curried gravy—this traditional Indian bread flakes with savory luxury in the mouth and in the hands.
Next was pineapple fried rice, a relatively safe option that still manages to combine more flavors than I could name. Fried with chicken, shrimp and egg and topped with a heavy fringe of turmeric and pork floss, it takes on an eerily iridescent color and a deep earthy texture that lingers on the tongue.
Thanks to the native, we also ventured to try penang chow kueh teow, a deservedly famous stir fry of fried flat noodles, shrimp, squid, eggs, chives and bean sprouts in a slick black soy chili sauce. A favorite of her father’s and specific to her island, this spritely dish is a euphoric marriage of soft fishy noodles and crisp popping vegetables.
Almost all Malaysian dishes are cooked in fish sauce or paste, lending everything a decidedly fleshy tang. The pungent harbor aroma wafting from Malay Satay’s bamboo-enclosed kitchen is a resounding mark of authenticity.
Vibrant and glossy prints of island culture hang from the restaurant’s close brick walls, including the stretching profile of a tea merchant pouring from a loftily poised pot into the waiting cup below.
The adventuresome flavors of Malaysian main dishes are often best complemented by the cool smooth sweetness of fruit. Malay Satay offers frothy mango or avocado smoothies—initially intimidating, their crisp and creamy texture actually uplifts and freshens a fiery palate.
And no Malaysian experience is complete without the shaved ice delicacy they call ais kacang. Pinto beans, sweet corn, red bean cubes and coconut jellies are mounded in the bottom of a bowl, topped with a snowy mountain of ice shavings and doused in coconut milk and brown sugar. It’s a puzzlingly irresistible take on a sno-cone that had my friend tearing up over her memories of street fairs and sunshine.
When a meal takes us back, when the pungent perfection of its flavors spark moments of joy both past and present, we know it’s good food. By this token, Malay Satay has my expert’s stamp of approval, and it also has mine—not only for dispelling my culinary fears, but for opening the world, and the wealth of memories, of someone dear to my heart.
Published 8 May 2013 in The Falcon as “Malay Satay: a unique culinary treat”