On a recent trip through Malaysia and Singapore, New York–based but South Pacific cuisine–obsessed Brad Farmerie crammed as much eating as possible into six days. The chef-owner of Public and Chris Rendell, his chef de cuisine at Double Crown and Madam Geneva, were on a food fact-finding mission, and ate their way through stalls, markets, restaurants, and carts until they were woozy. If sleep deprivation from the 17-hour flight and 12-hour time difference and sensory overload weren’t enough, there was so much food and so little time.
“Visiting Malaysia is disorienting in every good way possible,” muses Farmerie. “The streets smell like star anise, cinnamon, and steamed jasmine rice.”
It wasn’t Farmerie’s first visit to Southeast Asia, but that didn’t stop him from eating what he describes as “disgusting amounts of food.” Everywhere you go in Penang, Malacca, and Kuala Lumpur, there are stalls and food hawkers, and outdoor markets. Food plays an important part in Malaysian culture and social life. Instead of barhopping, young Malaysians (many of whom are Muslim and don’t drink alcohol or eat pork) go stall hopping, driving from hawker stall to seafood palaces with a competitive zeal, to see who can hit the most spots in one night.
“Younger chefs think you travel to pick up new recipes,” Farmerie says, but what you actually go for, “Is to get the flavor of life there.” It’s impossible not to be altered by what you taste in Southeast Asia. “If you are not being influenced you are probably half dead.” That said, some actual recipes from his travels make it back to his restaurants.
One dish that attracts visitors to Malacca is chicken rice balls, silky poached chicken served with rounds of rice infused with chicken stock and ginger.
Back in New York, Farmerie makes his own version of the slow poached chicken, pulling it out of stock and shocking it in water so it gelatinizes. Then he uses “that amazing supple broth” to cook the rice.
Like most Southeast Asian cuisines, Malaysian food is a combination of local ingredients and traditions with influences from Chinese, British, Dutch, and Portuguese colonists, who not only brought business and trade to Malaysia but also stayed and married local women — creating unique branches of cuisine like Nonya, a blending of Chinese and Malay traditions.
Farmerie and Rendell were intrigued enough by the Nonya to create weekly “Sunday Nonya Dinners” at Double Crown, where they serve Nonya–inspired dishes like apple, lotus, and lily bulb salad with chili miso dressing, and sweetbread satay with pickled cucumber, peanut brittle, and lime. “We adopted the attitude if not the exact recipes,” explains Farmerie.
And that attitude is often intense. “People talk about food so much, it’s more than just sustenance,” says Farmerie. Curry laksa, tender noodles in spicy coconut milk broth is a big seller at Double Crown, but is an example of one dish that can cause a debate among Malaysians as to what exactly should be in it. One of the joys of spending time in Malaysia is that you can eat soup for breakfast — noodle soups with dumplings and vegetables or curry laksa. A fight — or at least a heated discussion — can break out about which is the best hawker stall for a specific dish. “Everyone has a secret place they love that they don’t want anyone to know about, a place they’ll talk about, and their guy for one special dish. But everyone in Malaysia agrees about one aspect of the sweet and spicy food with surprising layers of flavor. You can’t stop eating it.”