(Sunset from my office window.)
The new posting schedule seems to be shaping up. I'm not sure how well I'll be able to keep to it. We'll see. I'm starting to get used to the commute.
New Year's day was surprisingly temperate in NorCal, given the freezing weather of the previous week. We'd been invited for osechi at the Oni's yearly feast of awesomeness. Sadly, an early afternoon flight back to Orange County meant we had to miss out on some truly epic gorging. Shigata ga nakatta (There was no helping it). I had to start my new job, and my new commute, the next day. Instead, Cat, my sister, and I decided to usher in the New Year with lunch at Layang Layang.
A quirky little shack located on a bustling boulevard, Layang Layang is part of the relatively new crop of Singapore/Malaysian restaurants sprouting up throughout Silicon Valley. This is a trend I wholeheartedly support. Brimming with Chinese, Malay, Indonesian, Indian, and Thai culinary influences, Malaysian cooking is one of the world's ultimate fusion cuisines. With awareness at an all-time high, thanks to episodes on Tony Bourdain's No Reservations and a Cook's Tour, as well as the influence of popular food blogs like Chubby Hubby, Rasa Malaysia, and Jaden's Steamy Kitchen, it's no wonder enterprising restaurateurs are attempting to tap the growing interest. Sadly, the food many of these trendy new joints are dishing up is a far cry from what the food in Singapore or Malaysia actually tastes like.
Enter Layang Layang, a shockingly authentic Malaysian eatery with refreshingly vivid flavors. Since it opened in late 2004, it's earned rave reviews and garnered a huge fan base. There are 123 comments for it on Yelp alone, most of them highly positive. It's also one of my sister's favorite restaurants.
Still regretting having to miss the truly prodigious amount of food normally supplied at the Oni's New Year's bash, I decided to take the ladies on a grand tour of Malaysian cuisine. We started with juicy skewers of Chicken Satay influenced by Thailand, Malaysia's neighbor to the north. Marinated in savory spices and grilled over an open flame, they were truly excellent. The little bits of flavorful char were a testament to the chef's skill, as was the rich peanut sauce served on the side.
Next up was a plate of Roti Canai, one of my sister's regular orders. A dish introduced from Northern India by immigrants who flocked to affluent cities like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, the flaky, crisp, chewy flatbread is made with flour, eggs, and ghee (rendered butter). This was, by far, the lightest and most delicate Roti Canai I've ever had the pleasure of eating. Like animals, we tore into the billowing folds of this starchy treat with our bare hands, soaking each tender morsel in the unearthly coconut milk curry sauce provided before rapturously consuming them.
My sister also recommended the Princess Tofu, an item almost purely Chinese in preparation. The Chinese have been immigrating to Malaysia since in the 15th century, intermarrying with the native Malays and assimilating into this Southeast Asian melting pot. While, the Chinese comprise 60% of the population in the city-state of Singapore (once part of Malaysia) and 24% of the population in Malaysia, they hold a disproportionate percentage of the area's wealth and power. Their influence on both the county's food and culture is deeply felt.
The Princess Tofu is a fairly straightforward dish of deep fried tofu served with seafood and vegetable stir-fried in a sweet soy sauce. The key to its success is the skill with which the tofu is fried. Each golden brick is crunchy on the outside, yet moist on the inside with a delicate, custard-like texture. The tofu is really what it's about. Everything else is just window dressing.
We also got a few orders of Hainanese Rice, by-product of the wildly popular Hainan Chicken, to eat with our tofu. Invented in Malaysia by immigrants from Hainan, China, Hainan Chicken is made by carefully stewing whole chickens is a rich stock of pork and chicken bones. The stock is used over and over, becoming more concentrated in flavor with each batch of chicken made. Malaysian cooks also use this powerful liquid to make Hainanese Rice, which infuses each grain with the pure essence of chicken. Our waiter, who took a shine to us due to our enthusiasm, subtly warned us away from Layang Layang's Hainan Chicken. After tasting the somewhat bland rice, I was thankful he had. It was pretty good for soaking up sauce from the tofu, though.
Eager to move on with our tasting tour, we continued with a helping of the Beef Rendang, a sticky stew of beef, coconut milk, and spices brought from Indonesia, Malaysia's neighbor to the south. The tender beef, intensely flavored from its long cooking process, fell apart at the touch of our chopsticks. The rich flavor imparted through the slow reduction of spices and coconut milk captured our hearts while it captivated our tongues.
Barely able to move after all the food we'd eaten, we were almost ready to raise our napkins in surrender. But, there was one more dish to sample. While Malaysian cuisine is heavily influenced by immigrants and trade, there's a crucial underlying thread that binds together the diverse elements that make up this truly kaleidoscopic country. The influence of the native Malays can be found throughout the food. To help me understand it, I ordered Layang Layang's Asam Laksa, a pungent hellbroth that was unabashedly Malay.
Thick rice noodles frolicked with shreds of fish in a murky lake seasoned with tamarind, chilies, pineapple, herbs, and the infamous belacan (Malaysian fermented shrimp paste). The strength of the miasma pouring from the bowl was incredible. My eyes teared when I went in to examine the dish more closely. When I looked up, both my sister and my wife had their chairs pushed far back from the table. I knew then that I'd be making this part of the journey alone. Gingerly, I stirred the soup, trying to get an even distribution of noodles and vegetables. To my surprise, the more I stirred, the better it smelled. Emboldened, I sipped a little of the liquid.
With a rush like I'd suddenly taken one of those red pills from the Matrix, I felt my gastronomic world expanding before me, the complex, entwined flavors flooding my mouth in a choreographed dance of deliciousness. Faster and faster, I slurped up noodles and broth. For a moment, I experienced synesthesia as what I was tasting exploded orgiastically in front of my belacan befuddled pupils. I was finally getting it. Hidden somewhere in that bowl were the secrets to all that was good and Malaysian. I just had to find them.
Impressed with the vigor with which I was attacking my laksa, our waiter brought me a container of petis udang (sweetened prawn paste), a condiment normally only offered to Malaysian diners who used it to kick up the flavor quotient even more. In the midst of my frenzied journey of discovery, I used all of it. With a blinding burst of hot, sour, sweet, salty, savory, and pungent, I finally understood. The universe was still. Perfect harmony filled my soul.
Layang Layang - For as good a taste of Malaysia as you're likely to find in the States. Explore the hidden depths of this colorful cuisine.
Roti Canai - 2.95
Chicken Satay - 6.95
Princess Tofu - 8.95
Beef Rendang - 7.95
Asam Laksa - 6.95
Hainanese Rice (per person) - 1.50
1480 South De Anza Blvd.
San Jose, CA 95129
Layang Layang (Netherlands)
Leenderweg 42 Eindhoven