Malaysian Rasa Sayang
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.
Downtown 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.
It's 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.
There's 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.
Malaysian 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.
I'll 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.
Malaysian Rasa Sayang, 75-19 Broadway (betw. 75th & 76th Sts.), Queens, 718-424-9054. Closed Tuesdays.
Op-Ed: How the U.E.S. Dies
Scrapbook: Imaging at Lenox Hill
Op-Ed: How the U.E.S. Dies
Scrapbook: Imaging at Lenox Hill
Summer in the City