I’m sure I’m not alone in my interest -as a foodie- in the ethnic restaurants of America. The U.S. has always been a melting pot of ethnic foods and tastes right from its earliest western European roots, which it very soon moved to rebel against, as with all things British – but what to choose? Native American Indian? With the exception of the adaption of corn, beans, and squash, which were all morphed into the more usual diet, little of the Indian foods was incorporated into a new American cuisine. No, as much as the newly independent citizens of America would have liked to avoid the foods of their former masters, they really had no choice – and so our earliest American food was essentially a transplanted version of the very conservative English diet. And sadly, it would take hundreds of years before significant changes to this culinary picture would slowly begin to change.
Today, it’s safe to say that a major shift has taken hold, and that there is a very lively interest in the foods of the world among Americans, however, I’m not ready to say that the culinary environment is totally welcoming and supportive of foods and dishes that are different -witness the strength of the “steakhouse”, a direct descendant of the English meat and potatoes diet of old. And regardless of the changing American taste and willingness to try new things, somewhere in that development process, a strong acceptance of the mediocrity of fast food took hold, and shows little evidence of giving up its stranglehold.
I think what is revealed by the emerging pattern of America’s culinary pathway is a slowly shifting willingness to try new tastes – which is usually followed by a new food gaining popularity. There’s plenty of evidence of this – note pizza, tacos, sushi, you name it! Some may even suggest that the world is running out of new tastes to introduce to American taste buds – however, given our short national history, and our intractable dietary habits, I think such a sense is shortsighted. My feeling is that we as a nation are ripe and ready for any number of new ethnic tastes to take hold of our taste buds – the question is, Which?
Well -as a foodie- I’ve got my own assumptions, as do all other foodies. Once most of the populace has a taste for Chinese foods, and they know the difference between Chinese and Indian (not a minor distinction), they may be ready for the food of a land where fusion has been happening for many hundreds of years, like Malaysia – which is, as you may guess, my choice for a natural next step for American tastes.
I think recognizing distinctions in ethnic foods is a bit like recognizing racial distinctions – I can remember when I had trouble recognizing any physical distinctions between Chinese, Japanese, and Korean faces – now, it’s much easier. Foods are like that for most folks – and I’m not sure, even now, how many Americans would be able to confidently determine the difference between a Chinese and Indian dish?
If you have an awareness of Malaysian foods, you know that Malaysia has three distinct ethnic populations: Malay, Chinese and Indian – and while each has stubbornly resisted fusion with the others, they all have subtle incorporations of each others’ foods in their classic dishes – and in this way, what may have been distinctly classic cuisine is slowly emerging into a new national cuisine. The Malays have a long history of absorbing foreign influences: in the early 1500s, the Portuguese established a colony there, only to be followed by the Dutch a century later, and by the British in the 1800s – if these disparate cultures did not result in changing the eating habits of the Malays, they at least softened the environment for the later Chinese and Indian influences.
Just how does Malay food differ from Chinese and Indian? Well, since Malaysia is a Muslim nation, pork does not play a big role in Malay food – but you will find pork being used in local Chinese restaurants – However beef plays a big role in Malay dishes, but is absent in local Indian restaurants! These realities, as well as the difficulties of raising large herd animals in the tropics, combine to make chicken the most popular meat used throughout Malaysia, regardless of the ethnic or religious orientation.
There is a flexibility in Malay cuisine that is not so evident in either Chinese or Indian foods – many of the nation’s most popular dishes are not rigidly held to a singular presentation – for instance, a popular stir fry dish may be usually seen as a “dry” dish (meaning a minimal sauce), but it will also be available as a soup, or as a noodle dish, or both! Most menus will list all of the possible variations. This makes it possible for a Malay street vendor -of which there are many- to offer a menu 3 or 4 times as large as a similar Chinese or Indian hawker stall.
Satays and BBQ are very popular in the Malay cuisine – coconut milk plays a large role, as well as the hot spices, as they do in any tropical climate. And I absolutely love the custom of using a banana leaf as a plate in the most informal of the Malay restaurants, where the usual practice is to forgo any other eating utensils as well – hands (and only the right hand, please), fingers, and a banana leaf – I’d love to see how that plays in America!
My dish of choice to leave with you is Malaysia’s most popular breakfast food, Roti Canai, which is a great example of the Malaysian adoption of a famous Indian food as their own. This recipe comes from my favorite travel/food writer, Copeland Marks, in his wonderful book, “The Exotic Kitchens of Malaysia”. In a land of rice, this is the bread of choice – every morning, millions of Malaysians sit down to their crisp and chewy Roti Canai, and either an accompanying small bowl of dal (spiced Indian lentils) or a curried dipping sauce – and the beverage of choice will most likely be strong tea with milk and sugar – another adoption from the Indian immigrants, via the British. Damn, is nothing sacred?
As always, I’ve taken liberties to adjust this recipe to Americanize it a bit, and to remove some of the mystery surrounding the making of roti (Mark’s instructions are simply ridiculous!) – just don’t try to rush them – the dough needs its rest.
“The Exotic Kitchens of Malaysia”
1 cup water
¼ cup milk
1 tsp sugar
¼ tsp salt
1 egg, beaten
3 ½ cups flour
soft butter at room temperature
(Pay attention – this is a little tricky)
Mix together the water, milk, sugar, salt, and egg in a large bowl. Add the flour and mix well. Knead until you have a soft dough that can be manipulated.
Prepare dough balls by tearing off about 3 oz pieces of dough, rolling it into a ball, flattening it, and rubbing it with soft butter. Line a pan with butter and place the disks of dough into the pan in rows. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and place the pan into the refrigerator for a full day.
The next day, let the dough balls stand at room temperature for a few hours to warm. Take each dough disk and flatten on a board – do not add more flour – you may use a rolling pin or simply stretch the dough, but try not to tear the dough in the process. Try to stretch it as thin as you can to about 12” round – add a little more soft butter to the tops of your stretched dough, and fold the right side over to the middle, and do the same with the left side – now fold down the top to the middle, and do the same with the bottom – you now should have a square of layered dough about 6” square. Do this with all your dough disks.
Heat a flat griddle or large fry pan to low/medium heat (do not get your pan too hot) – put a tablespoon or so of butter in the pan and place as many of your squares into the griddle or pan as will fit and flatten them a bit while they fry – when crispy and brown on one side, flip the Roti over and cook the other side – it should take 4 or 5 minutes to cook them slowly – when done, they should be crispy on the outsides, and chewy inside.
To open the layers, press on two sides of a cooked Roti – you can use any kind of a dipping sauce to serve with the Roti, or you can fill them with anything of your choice as you’re folding them, or even later as you serve them – use your imagination.
Malaysian food has enough distinctions from other Asian foods to hold its own on its own merits – but Roti Canai all by itself has all the elements to make a successful American fast food movement. I predict that within the next five years, we’ll begin to see Roti shops pop up in the urban U.S. – watch for them.