I take my Malaysian food pretty seriously. As a daughter to Malaysian-Chinese parents and someone fortunate to have spent a portion of my childhood in Penang, finding somewhere outside of the mother country that satisfies my cravings is more often than not, a total non-starter. Call me a snob but honestly, I didn’t even bother visiting any of the establishments lin HK as I knew, deep in my heart, (sob), that it wouldn’t pass muster. Why try when I can make trips back to Malaysia? And what about my Penang Assam Laksa cravings? Oh how I lust after the sour taste of the soup and kick of the chilli, but alas, this seems to be the one dish that is missing from many a Malaysian establishment, most of them opting for the normal curry laksa. Having said that, I have been oddly relieved as I fear that cataclysmic disappointment would overwhelm me should the laksa not be executed correctly.
So imagine my surprise when I learnt the Traders Hotel’s Malaysian and Singapore restaurant, Cafe Malacca was making a few waves on the food scene and actually seems to be tentatively given the green light amongst fellow Malaysians. Interesting. And even more interesting is their menu, with none other than a Penang Assam Laksa making an appearance.
They didn’t make it easy for me- the Traders Hotel is as far west as you can get on HK Island and by the time I arrived my stomach was downright whimpering.
So named after the Strait of Malacca, a channel of huge economic importance that links the major Asian economies, the restaurants aims to reflect the multicultural cuisine that one finds in Malaysia and Singapore- a lovely mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Peranakan. To those unfamiliar to the cuisine, the menu has a helpful photo guide to the dishes. The restaurant itself is spacious, minimalistic and rather indistinct, with no real indication of it being a Malaysian restaurant other than a few framed black and white photos of hawker stalls.
But the food injects life into the place and Rach and I immediately got stuck in, with me prattling away about my childhood favourites and explaining the finer details of each dish. First up was the fried carrot cake- cubes of turnip fried with bean sprouts, prawns and the must-have preserved turnips to give it that all important crunch. It was good. Fresh out and hot, the cubes were plump and deliciously fragrant.
Of course, you can’t have Malaysian food without Char Koay Teow. Expectations were high, especially as it is labelled as Penang Char Koay Teow (nothing beats the Penang version) and it came on a banana leaf. It had the chives, the Chinese sausage, the only thing that was missing were the sea cockles but otherwise, it was pretty authentic in terms of colour (not too dark) and texture. The aroma triggered my senses and it looked like the real McCoy. Not overly oily, the flat noodles and sausage were delicious and had that little bit of charring round the edges that I love.
The one I had been waiting for, Penang Assam Laksa, arrived. The signature dish of Penang, this wonderful bowl of noodles is either your cup of tea or not. A spot-on assam laksa needs to be tart, sour and aromatic and the spice should pack a wallop. The tartness comes from the tamarind and the addition of the ginger flower gives off a slightly sweet accent that helps to dampen the fishiness of the broth. Both ingredients, I was happy to find out, had made it into Cafe Malacca’s version. No laksa is complete without the hae ko (thick, sweet prawn paste), which came on the side and I was delighted to find out that they had imported the Penang brand that the hawker stalls use. Did it pass the test? The broth had a good balance of flavours, was decently tart and had a generous amount of mackerel but was lacking in spicy punch. All the ingredients were there but the taste seemed a little pared down and the presentation was not as vibrant as the traditional version. I did however enjoy the sourness and as a beta version, it will do enough to satisfy homesick Malaysians.
Other dishes we tried were the Nasi Lemak- the fried anchovies were fantastic and the chicken succulent, and the Beef Rendang, which was quite tender and had its aromatic flavours enhanced by a rather excellent side of roti. The only real disappointment was the Sambal Belachan Kangkong, which despite its generous portion was distinctly lacking the belachan and the sambal kick that makes this normally so moreish.
Onto desserts and here we were greedy. The Sago pudding was lovely, not too sweet nor heavy and the Bubur Hitam (black glutinous rice pudding with coconut cream) was very authentic. The warm glutinous rice was soothing and had texture and bite. Some of you will wrinkle your noses, Rach moved her chair away from me, but Cafe Malacca do a rather stupendous durian pudding which is made from D24 Malaysian durians. Sublime.
And if you like to keep things simple, indulge in the Kaya toast. Their freshly toasted buttered bread with pandan coconut jam beats Toast Box’s version by a mile.
So my verdict is, if you are craving Malaysian food and can’t get on a plane, definitely try out Cafe Malacca, as it is as close to authentic that you can get in Hong Kong. The chefs have been carefully trained and have done the research and travel to know what it takes to recreate these dishes and Penang chefs have been brought on as consultants, so they have certainly gone through a lot of effort. Prices are very affordable for a hotel, with the noodles averaging $85 (just don’t think about how much it costs in Penang) and the staff are friendly and unassuming. The laksa may not be a hundred percent yet, but it is close enough to bring a smile to my face.
Chopstixfix rating: 4/5 (for as authentic as you can get in Hong Kong!)
Cafe Malacca, Traders Hotel, 508 Queen’s Road West, Western District, Hong Kong. Tel: 2213 6613.
This was by kind invitation by Trader’s Hotel. This review can also be seen on Sassy Hong Kong.