Evolution, part 1

23:20, Nov 18 2012

Adapt or die seems to be the mantra in the restaurant biz at the moment. Feed the people what they want to eat, when and how they want to eat it, and we might just let you live to fight another day.

I first visited Little Penang, a little Malaysian restaurant in Dixon Street, Wellington back in May of this year. I sort of half-wrote about it in a post about the "Pan-Asian" restaurant phenomena - I thought it was very good; delicious hawker style Malaysian cuisine, and flavours that were probably a lot truer to the flavours of Malaysia than that I had come to get enjoy in any of Wellington's cheap and plentiful Malaysian restaurants.

I gave them a qualified endorsement - while I loved it, I wasn't entirely convinced that Wellington's Malaysian-loving diners would take to these slightly alien flavours, and I didn't want to feel like I was heaping any pressure onto this neat, authentic little eatery by singing its praises too vociferously, and insisting that everyone forswears off their current Malaysian fave, and start eating there.

Well, since then, Little Penang has really blossomed - they took out best Malaysian, best Asian and third best curry in the Capital Times best of Wellington awards. And they've gotten busier. Like, really busy.

The thing about being busy, though, is that it allows you to churn through more food, and to make that food ultra-fresh, ultra-tasty, and ultra-authentic. Little Penang has a relatively small menu, but what they do have is a daily menu of specials that alternates some pretty unique dishes. And while their day-to-day menu is very good, I reckon their specials are off the chart...

Take, for example, Friday's special - Claypot Rice (see pic, above). It arrives in a scorchingly hot clay pot on a metal stand, and is enormous and packed with salty-savoury-sweet rice, tender chicken and slices of spicy pork sausage. It is served with a spoon filled with sambal and some chopsticks (I like eating with chopsticks. It helps regulate the speed at which I am able to eat, but even so, I am still pretty efficient) - the spoon, owner Tee tells me, is to scrape up the crunchy burnt bits of rice from the bottom of the pot - O God, they are delicious. If I weren't so greedy/ hungry/ portly, I would have probably asked for a takeaway container and polished it off for dinner. But I am, so I just wolfed the whole damn thing at lunchtime.


I also had designs on their Assam Laksa (see pic, right), but as this only appears a couple of days a week (Tuesday, maybe? Tuesday is pizza day, I'm afraid - and the other of which is Saturday), so I did what any slightly Malaysian hawker food-crazed non-denominational eater would do - I went back and had it on Saturday. The next day (a bit stalker-y, I know, but they didn't seem that worried).

O boy. The Assam Laksa. It has fresh pineapple on it, and ginger flower, and LOADS of chilli, and noodles, and mullet fish, and fresh mint, and a rich, dark, savoury, slightly fishy broth, and plenty more besides, I'd say. It tastes virtually nothing like the sweet, coconutty laksas I am used to.

It is quite different. It is better, I think. It is a riot of colours and textures and flavours. It picks you up, shakes you down, gives you a bit of a tickle, makes you start giggling like a loon, then deposits you gently in a freshly mown field, where kittens lick your face and make tiny, gleeful, purring sounds. It could actually be a bit overwhelming, were it not all just so unspeakably delectable. It is find of the year. It even trumps fried green tomatoes. I know - that good.

I have a good talk afterwards with owner-operators Keith and Tee about their food philosophy, and about the way they run their business, and make this delicious, special, unique food. They are both very modest and humble, but also very proud of the food they serve - they know how good it is (they eat it too, and they're not silly). They have many friends and relatives coming and going between Malaysia and New Zealand, so they get them to bring the special ingredients that comprise their food with them - notably, the ginger flower, which must be chopped and frozen to make it past MAF and our stringent importing laws.

They are genuinely committed to their restaurant, and their customers, and, critically, the food they serve. There is no effort to preach the virtues of "authentic" Malaysian food; this is merely an offer for you to enjoy some excellent food - an offer that an impressive number of people are taking up if the table turnover on Saturday was anything to go by - packed, and as soon as a table was vacated, more hungry diners arrived to fill it.

This is great to see, really heartening. I am thoroughly impressed to see so many people taking up on Little Penang's offerings - I am happy to conclude that I was, in fact, quite wrong, and that people are obviously a lot more open-minded and well-informed than I might have imagined. Evolution - adapt or die; provide food that people want to eat, make it authentic, and delicious; "book the bands and they will come", etc.

As I rise to leave, Keith shares with me a story of a friend visiting Malaysia and being somewhat aghast - "you eat six meals a day!" - breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, supper. "Not really", Keith countered; "more like just one, that starts when you wake and ends when you fall asleep".

And, with food this delicious, can you really blame them?

Happy birthday, Little Penang - a year old! It gets my vote for the best Malaysian food I have eaten in New Zealand. But where is your favourite Malaysian eatery? Do you prefer an "authentic" Asian meal, or something tailored more to Kiwi tastes? What are your favourite dishes? And, for anyone fortunate enough to have been to Malaysia; how does the Kiwi version of the food stack up?

Please join The Omnivore on Facebook - and Little Penang, too, while you're at it...