Tale of Two Cities: Shanghai - A taste of home

MALAYSIAN cuisine is gaining popularity among people living in Shanghai. The hot and spicy food that Malaysia is known for raises the country’s profile not only as a beach paradise but also as a food heaven.

Food operators who saw the potential of this unique cuisine have seized the opportunity to open Malaysian-style restaurants in the city centre and neighbourhoods resided by the international community, especially Singaporeans and Malaysians.

Patrons who have visited Malaysia before miss its food and crave for the unique dining experience it offers.

Such, is the reason Malaysian-styled restaurants or those labelled South-East Asian restaurants have become an instant hit with the locals here.

During my visits to these restaurants in this metropolis, I often observe that many Shang-hainese are daring enough to opt for hot dishes such as curry chicken, laksa, sambal belacan and nasi lemak.

However, there are still some “reserved” customers or the non-adventurous type who would rather stick to their usual Chinese dishes, available at many Malay-sian-style restaurants who offer that local touch to those unfamiliar with our cuisine.

It may take a bit longer for those who have never been to Malaysia to enjoy our food, but I am sure more locals will be enticed by Malaysian cuisine because of referrals and recommendations from Malaysians or friends and colleagues who have tried it before.

Most Shanghainese have lesser expectations of Malaysian cuisine, compared with Malaysians living and working in the city.

As a Kuala Lumpur boy, I grew up with an abundance of good food from all parts of Malaysia. Frankly speaking, at first, I was not quite used to the “modified” Malaysian food served at a few Malaysian-style restaurants run by Malaysians.

But, after a while, I have accepted the less perfect food as it needs to be adjusted to suit the taste of the locals who still make up a bigger share of the food operators’ potential market.

One thing is for sure – the Malaysian food served in Shanghai is different from those we get in Kuala Lumpur or other parts of Malaysia.

For instance, the bah kut teh here is less aromatic and pungent than that of Klang’s famous staple, with the use of white mushrooms instead of button or black mushrooms used in Malaysia.

The curry chicken here is sweeter and less spicy while the cendol is a big letdown because of the inadequate supply of fresh coconut milk in Shanghai.

“It’s different,” said Malaysian Ann Koh who followed her husband to China three and a-half years ago. “Back home our satay sauce has chunky peanuts inside and tastes sweet, but over here, it’s very gluey and salty. So, I think the taste here has been adapted to suit the locals.”

She said despite the less authentic Malaysian food here, it is still next to the best a person could get.

Karyne Yeo rated the Malaysian food here as just “so-so”. “We haven’t tried all Malaysian-style restaurants yet, but so far for those I have tried I haven't found very good Malaysian food yet. Maybe I have to explore more,” she said.

The Malaysian chefs working here admitted that the ingredients used are rather different from those back home because it is difficult to obtain such ingredients due to the lack of supply in China.

Rendezvous Restaurant master chef Tong Yeow Nam said: “We still cannot get many ingredients in Shanghai. We have to bring them from Singapore and Malaysia.

“If the Chinese chefs do not know how to make a proper Malaysian dish, I will teach and train them. I will prepare the ingredients and sauce beforehand and all they do is follow my instructions.”

He said he would have to control the food quality as there was bound to be changes to the way of cooking the dishes by the local chefs and if that happens the restaurant would not able to win the hearts of its customers.

“It’s really hard to maintain the most authentic taste of our Malaysian food here. This is because both Chinese and Malay-sians have different ways of cooking their dishes and have distinguished tastes for food,” he said.

Kampung Kitchen master chef Lee Chau Kong pointed out that Shanghainese favour salty food and he had to adjust his way of preparing Malaysian dishes to suit the locals.

He said certain ingredients such as mint and curry leaves were still scarce and expensive in Shanghai and that he would look for ingredients from certain suppliers.

“We can also use other ingredients to substitute the typical Malaysian ingredients,” he said.

Its restaurant manager, Eric Har, said: “We have modified our menu where 80% is authentic Malaysian taste and 20% is modified to suit the taste of the locals.

“But, when serving Singaporean and Malaysian customers, we will ask the chefs to prepare the dishes in a more authentic way.”

The Malaysian food here comes with a higher price tag compared with local food. On average, each dish costs between RM13 and RM25 while a glass of teh tarik may cost as much as RM7.

Apart from Malaysian-style restaurants in Shanghai, several hotels where Malaysian managers are working at also serve some ethnic South-East Asian cuisines.