Penang Malaysian and Thai Cuisine: Lodi, NJ


The food of Malaysia is one of the few SE Asian cuisines that I've never warmed up to. I think this had something to do with a Malaysian restaurant taking the place of my beloved Good 'n Plenty bar in Hoboken some years back. Damn them.

More realistically, my indifference was probably because the combination of Thai and Chinese and Indian never really did anything for me. Flavors and dishes seemed watered down, to my mind, with no real identity. That, of course, is some ignorant shit. Malaysian cuisine isn't hindered by its many influences. It is elevated by its many influences. I'm finally coming around.

This boring story starts about a year ago when we, on a whim, stopped at Penang in Lodi on the way back from a miserable dinner somewhere. Just for a drink. We figured it would be horrible and we'd get a story out of it. As it turned out, the bartender was an interesting character, the bar was well-stocked, the menu looked very appealing, and we had a grand ol' time. We knew we'd be back. But then we totally forgot about the place. Until this week.

We started with achat (pictured above), which is a pickled vegetable dish with a slightly sweet peanut gravy. Holy cow. This dish is right up my alley. Crisp, bright vegetables, crunchy pieces of peanut, spices, a bit of heat, acid. This dish hits all the marks. We cleaned the plate and I wanted more. Which is a good thing, because another dish we ordered included more.

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Ayada Thai: Elmhurst, Queens, NY

Ayada thai sausage

Easter Sunday is a fine day to go out to brunch. Not to a carving station/bottomless mimosa/Easter egg hunt affair--any of those things is enough to keep me from getting out of bed. But rather, a proper brunch. A Thai meal, for example. 

After checking out the hundreds of dead fish floating in the lake at the Celery Farm (victims of winterkill), we headed out to Queens. Queens, as you might know, is home to one of the largest Chinatowns in New York. It's dizzying, with its array of markets and restaurants. Well worth a trip one sunny afternoon. Pack a cooler for any goodies you buy.

We didn't buy any goodies, but did go directly to Ayada Thai, on the recommendation by an old college friend who, based on what I see on Facebook, associates only with Asians, and eats Asian meals three times a day. He knows his stuff.

Fully expecting to walk into a hole-in-the-wall dive of a place, we were a bit surprised to see a very nice little restaurant, with a full bar no less. The cocktail list had pictures, which of course was a sign to stay well away from them.

The menu was certainly more extensive than the typical Thai menu, which largely consist of the same exact dishes restaurant to restaurant. We were looking for unique and interesting dishes, but to some extent ended up falling back on known entities. No soup made with blood, for example.

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Spicy: Thai Beef Salad

Thai beef salad2

Thai salads come together quickly, often require no special ingredients beyond what your supermarket carries, and pack a wallop of palate punching flavor. And for cheap. Grilled Thai beef salad illustrates this perfectly.

It was a hot, lazy, sunny day yesterday. Perfect weather for cooking and eating something bright and and spicy and fresh. We ran out to the store to pick up the few ingredients that we didn't have on hand for this salad. Just the beef, actually.

The rest of the stuff came from the garden or are staples. On this particular day at least.

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Spicy Thai Basil Beef: Pad Gra Prow?

Thai beef basil chili

Is it called pad graprow? Possibly. Either way, what I was going for was that dish that's on every Thai menu in the US. Generally called "beef/chicken/shrimp with basil and pepper and chili," or something like that.

The description of the dish on these menus pretty much sums it up: "onion, basil, pepper, garlic, hot pepper, chili paste." All self-explanatory, other than that chili paste. Well I'm here to tell you it could very well be nam prik pao.

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Shrimp: Prik Khing

File under: absurdly simple and quick.

Prik Khing could be my favorite Thai curry. The lack of coconut milk lets the curry shine. It's a deeply flavored curry, a bit spicy, a bit sweet, and the kaffir lime leaves. My goodness, the kaffir lime leaves.

Thankfully, someone has already cooked 90% of this dish for you, in the form of the little tin of Prik Khing curry paste. I'm relatively certain that most Thai restaurants use the same exact stuff.

You can find these little tins or tubs at any number of Asian markets, and of course on Mae Ploy and Maesri are the brands that I've been using for longer than I care to admit. Here in New Jersey, you can try these sources for your ingredients:

Terri Lee Oriental Grocery: Maywood, NJ (you can get fresh kaffir lime leaf here)
Asian Food Markets: Middletown/North Plainfield/Plainsboro/Cherry Hill/Piscataway/Marlboro, NJ
Kam Man Food: East Hanover, NJ

Long-beansChinese long bean

You can google for some recipes, but there really isn't a recipe. It's just a matter of cooking the stuff:

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