My first taste of Malay food was in Beijing, in April, 2006. My host, who is originally from Sweden but who moved to China in the 1980s for the food, treated me to the experience, which I was not sure I’d enjoy. But then out came countless dishes with a mix of exotic and familiar flavorings and unabashed doses of hot spices, centered on seafood and vegetables, washed down with frothily aerated masala tea and finished off with the thinnest crepes folded over warmed slices of mango or banana, and I was sold. Malay cuisine is a mix of Chinese, Indian and native, and that day in Beijing I saw variations of saag paneer, chicken curry, sag aloo and the like on the table. The entire experience made me want to visit Malaysia to browse food markets, hit a few fish dives where you eat shrimp cooked in a sweet sauce in the shell with your fingers, and cool off with tall dewy glasses of durian smoothie while taking in paradisical views of islands in the China Sea.
So I was excited when the Malay Satay Hut opened here in Portland. A bit of my Chinese-Swedish-Malay experience could be relived in my increasingly cosmpolitan home town! So much of what I look for in a restaurant experience is authenticity, and a lack of pretentiousness, and the Hut seems to have much of those. I was especially happy to have the barley “tea”, which is rumored to be an antidote to the stifling heat of the tropics but has other healthful properties so can be enjoyed in any climate. It is just ever so sweet, and goes nicely in balance with the heat of the chilis. We were staggered at the portion size of some the appetizers, e.g. the oyster omelette, which can easily serve as a full meal, so we’ll simplify our choices in the future. The menu is extensive, and also lists several tropical shakes, including my favorite, the avocado, and — so exciting — the banana pancake.
Now, the Hut is not nearly as transporting as was my Beijing-Malay experience, despite the gorgeous, huge photos of islands, markets, costume and cityscape. I think this is simply a matter of choices. The Hut is part of a small chain, with restaurants in Seattle and Redmond, and perhaps for efficiency’s sake they’ve opted not to aim high. The curry sauce is savory, but not exceptional, and the pancake, while tasty and a treat, was not as delicate a confection as I had anticipated. The Hut reminded me of the many different and predictable Indian restaurants I go to regularly just to enjoy some turmeric rice, dal, curry and nan, even if the quality is nothing like what I’ve had in the best restaurants in Delhi. And that is the point, I think: we can’t always have the very best, and sometimes just having something good is quite enough. The Hut is affordable and a congenial place. It is great to now have Malay options on the PDX restaurant scene and we should hope for many more. And if someday we have one that surpasses the Hut in quality, we will still be returning to the Hut to eat as ordinary Malays do.