My first true encounter with historical Malaysia was in a book I read when I was fifteen years old. It was called The Gift of Rain.
I remember it like a painting in an art gallery of book covers, the kind that you know is good for the simple fact of your hesitation. The book’s title had this aura about it, an intensity perhaps carried by its monosyllabic vigor, but climaxed in an austere, beautiful image which the words formed in my mind’s eye. It was more than just an image. When I think about the book, my first sensorial recollection is inevitably of rain, but the torrential kind that explodes onto rice fields and upon the hats of farmers bent over in marshy water, knees deep. It is that special sound that affects a sense of tranquility, the white melody that people play in the background when they settle down to study or meditate.
Tan Twan Eng, the Man, Booker Prize winning author of the novel, wrote of a Malaysia – then referred to as Malaya – in the flux of colonialism and war time, presenting confluences of culture and tradition I thought epitomized the Malay experience. With the protagonist being of both Chinese and British heritage, and his growing up through Japanese occupation on the Malay island of Penang, the novel formed for me an identity of Malaysia that was amorphous and enigmatic. The literary descriptions of the region seemed to evoke an orientalist exoticism in me that had not quite dissipated since my reading of The Gift of Rain. Neither had I made an effort to update my initial acuities for, with all due respect, Malaysia had not been relevant point of interest in the context of my own life since.
Until recently, of course.
Having made Malaysian friends after joining university, and being forced to realise, upon their introduction, that I knew next to nothing about their nation besides a hodgepodge of fiction-tainted imagery from several years ago, and the Kuala in the name of their capital, I decided to undertake re-education the best way I knew how: through food.
The mere suggestion of eating Malaysian food demands specificity. The cuisine is diversely inclusive, taking dishes and techniques from China, India, and other parts of South East Asia. The hackneyed melting pot metaphor has never had a more pertinent example for its implication. You begin to realize, sooner rather than later, that a succinct summation of Malaysian cuisine is an impossibility and that even doing the best you can will mean you missing out on a cultural aspect spectacular.
Prior to our visit to Roti King, Calvin, my Malay companion whose bloodline presents to be as colourful as the gastronomy of his nation, gave me an inkling of the kind of the culinary mélange he was accustomed to. He spoke nostalgically of decadently paradoxical bowls of milky and fiery laksas with soft frictionless noodles, delicately spiced fried chicken and rice, and perhaps most fondly of the Hong Kong style Chinese dishes that his mother would prepare for him at home. When he mentioned the names of some popular dishes, each one took me to a different place: sambals reminded me of Sri Lankan sambols, rendang of the Indonesian dish of the same name, and chicken satays ubiquitous now because of the burgeoning popularity of Thai food. All this, however, was intriguingly unproblematic. The flavours in each of these dishes, from the shared textures of coconut and dry fish, the heat of chillis to the fragrance of lemongrass, and the umami of soy, were in harmonious integration when tasted in my mind’s mouth.
Desperate to experience Malaysian cuisine, I turned to Roti King, a restaurant I found by Euston station. I’d also heard whispers of the place amongst the student population, etched with a curious cult-like privacy that put it on my radar before I even met Calvin. It only took me a few passes by Doric Way to understand why: the queues of students leading into the restaurant are long and intimidating, making it understand why regulars would mention eating there in hushed discourse. Unfortunately for them, Roti King was now everyone’s worst kept secret, and one could no longer be justifiably surprised by large quotidian turnouts.
Nevertheless, the establishment is not without its drawbacks. If you do not mind sitting shoulder to shoulder with strangers on backless benches in a dingy looking kitchen-tiled basement restaurant, or do find particular delight at the assurance that you will probably be waiting copious amounts of time, in line, outside, in the ever-capricious London weather, then, and only then, would I be right in recommending Roti King. Though, saying that, even if you do hesitate at the thought of rubbing shoulders with millennials as they pass their social media influencer business cards to one another, this little restaurant that specialises in Malaysian/Singaporean street food is in some ways utterly unmissable. At end of it all, the food is what matters most, and it is for the food, that you shall endure.
When Calvin and I got there, at about half one, only about twelve people were in queue. This still meant that we were not quite enough out of the rain to keep from getting wet and neither of us had the presence of mind to bring an umbrella. Fortunately, the wait was not too long, only about ten minutes, for the staff managed to squeeze us in with three other people. It wasn’t comfortable. Considering the tininess of the space, the number of people tucked into it and the heat throbbing from the open kitchen, Roti King can get stuffy and rather irritable. Calvin seemed happy enough. Apparently, Roti King is significantly cleaner and better ventilated than most Malaysian eateries he’d visited. I wasn’t sure as to whether to feel grateful or appalled.
The waiter asked for our order loud enough to interrupt the conversation between those sat alongside us. It was funny to watch in my peripheral vision their collective eyes widen as I thoughtfully enumerated dishes for just the two of us. Usually a dish or two each would do a person in, but we ordered six. I was hungry and the tattered, badly laminated menus got me excited.
I knew it would be a risk bringing someone along, especially when reviewing a place like Roti King where most dishes are either slurped, torn or more comfortably eaten with your hands. Sharing could potentially have been awkward what with my primary rule for accompaniment being that I need to try everything. But thankfully, after being convinced of my cleanliness and hygiene by my possession of hand sanitiser and use of mild Listerine, Calvin didn’t mind ripping soft buttery flatbread with me, nor dipping pieces of mince filled murtabak into gorgeous lentil and fish curries. He happily swapped his crispy chicken Nasi Lemak, a dish with rice, roasted peanuts, dried fish and chilli paste, for my subtly bland Nasi Goreng, a Malaysian fried rice with seafood and bits of tender chicken, and was even able to take turns from one the same bowl of Kari Laksa. It was laidback and fun and I am always grateful for the company. It goes without saying that I much rather hangout over plates of food than pints of lager.
R-r-r-rewind! Back to the Laksa. This dish was pure soupy, ramen-y perfection. It is a dish well-known in both Singapore and Malaysia, a bowl of aromatic coconut milk broth with a gossamer skin of throat tingling chilly oil on top, with tiny islands of seafood and fish balls bobbing on the surface. Placing a spoon into this pool of flavourful loveliness, makes the reddish ingredients swirl in evocative flurries, like a crepuscular mix of paint in water. The broth was full-bodied like tonkotu ramen, but with a resonant warmth that reminded me faintly of Korean gochujang chilli paste and the sultry perfume of lemongrass. The seafood within was perfectly cooked, especially the bouncy and buoyant fish balls, saturated with flavor and just abundant enough to be surprising. The noodles were silken and savory, slithering past your lips with the ease of inhalation. I cannot remember the last time I had broth this good. I looked up to see what Calvin thought and he already had the thumbs up waiting for me. I felt relief in spite of myself. Whenever you invite someone for a meal, especially one they are familiar with, you always somehow feel responsible for their satisfaction.
By god were we full by the end, but I wasn’t going to leave without trying the beef rendang that we were sure our server had forgotten. We waited until it was time to enquire, and when we did our server apologised and finally put the order through. It was fortunate in a way. We probably did need the break. When it finally arrived and the first bite was had, the dish didn’t seem up to scratch. The meat was dry and tough, a bother to chew after all smooth swallowing dishes prior. It was the complexity of the sauce that won me over in the end, delightful with the freshly steamed rice. By the time we wiped the last of it off the dish and picked at every grain of accompanying rice, I was already ranking it up there with the best we’d had that afternoon. I will say, however, that despite Calvin saying the beef was cooked according to tradition, I’ve had better more succulent rendangs made specifically with chuck and even brisket.
Do remember to take cash with you when visiting Roti King. After our meal, we were told that their card machine was acting up and thus were forced to leave our bags hostage while we ran out into the rain to the cash machines by Euston station and back. It was more than inconvenient, but after the meal we’d just had for just about forty quid, I would have forgiven them anything.
Location: 40 Doric Way, Kings Cross, London NW1 1LH
Prices: Roti Canai £3.50-£6.50; Sweet Canai £3.50-£5.00 ; Malaysian Local Dishes £7.00-£7.5; Noodles £7.00-£7.50