Review: Proper Malaysian food comes to Ireland
Dinner at this northside Dublin restaurant is as much a food tour of Malaysia as a meal
- 53 Capel Street
- (01) 8734650
- Thai/South-East Asian
- € € € €
How far have tastebuds travelled? Let’s time leap back to the west of Ireland in the sweltering summer of 1995. A hostel owner has managed to persuade the local shop to stock tins of tomatoes for the tourists. The shopkeeper shows him the new stock with a proud flourish. There they sit, those exotic tins, on a shelf in the fridge.
Diversity is delicious. People who talk about being overwhelmed by waves of immigrants forget how stagnant food can be without the flavours and influences of others. Multicultural Ireland is maturing and there’s a new generation of restaurants serving more real food than first wave westernised versions. That secret menu with the chicken’s feet and the cheaper prices is going mainstream.
We’re in Kopitiam in Capel Street on as much a food tour of Malaysia as a dinner in Dublin 1. It helps that my friend has brought her Malaysian friend as a tour guide. For him this place, which means Coffee Shop in Malay dialect, is a real taste of home. It’s quiet because it’s early and also it’s the first night of Ramadan. There are many hours of daylight before fasting ends. Kopitiam is a halal restaurant but by the time we finish the place has filled up, showing its broad appeal.
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The restaurant was, until recently, on more touristy Dame Street. It’s painted black outside with a small easily missed logo. Inside the walls are milk chocolate brown with identical bowls neatly lined up on high shelves. We settle into a high backed booth around a generous marble-topped table and begin.
Ethan explains that the sambal on the Kankong Sambal Sotong dish is rarely made at home in Malaysia because its prawn paste component is such a stinky ingredient. Sambal is a chilli paste, a concoction loved by so many food cultures. Think Mexican adobo paste, Moroccan harissa, Thai sriracha. Sambal is heat and sweet but with the extra oomph of that stinky paste whose funk has translated into an umami growl under the sweeter notes. There are shards of peanuts here too and it’s all stirred into nubbly pieces of squid and tender shoots of “morning glory” which Ethan knows as water spinach.
It’s one of a series of plates that arrive together for the best kind of feast, diving on one thing for a taste before rambling to pick from other plates and back again for more.
The Roti Canai is a crispy pancake that reminds me of the Indian malabar paratha I wolfed in London’s Gymkhana restaurant. The two pancakes look like dropped handkerchiefs of pale buttery bread like the petal soft innards of the best croissant. There are butter king prawns in their shells covered with a blizzard of yellow shards of egg flayed on a wok until crisp enough for sprinkling. The Nasi Lemak is three generous chunks of fried chicken served on the bone. There’s an upturned bowl of rice cooked in coconut milk on the plate and more sambal on top of the chicken, a sweeter milder version. Here the salt umami funk comes from a fiendishly tasty side of fried anchovies and peanuts, those fried anchovies crunchy as fish scratchings.
The Singapore Chilli Crab is a riot of claws and crab shell coated in a fiery sauce that makes grappling with the claw crackers a messy business, not helped by flimsy claw crackers.
Phrasing it more diplomatically I broach the “why are Asian desserts so weird?” question with Ethan. He explains the joy of a shaved ice with condensed milk, palm sugar and beans eaten on the street on a sweltering day. His Irish friends don’t get how sweetcorn can be a dessert ingredient, likewise sweet potato, much less red beans. We get two desserts from each end of the spectrum, the pandan flavoured pancakes and the Kopitiam ABC which to my western-wired brain is short for Absolutely Bizarre Concoction.
It’s like a massive knickerbocker glory with three spoons of freshly shaved ice drenched in rose syrup and condensed milk with sweetcorn, slippery noodles of grass jelly, red beans and sago. They also bring some warm purple sweet coconut soup with chunks of sweet potato (both orange and purple) and yams with those slippery as frogspawn tapioca pearls. Clamber over the cultural gap about definitions of sweet and savoury and the purple soup is strangely comforting. The bright green pandan pancakes are the entry level dessert, warm and filled with chewy coconut laced brown with palm sugar. It’s a selection that looks like it was designed by a three year old using all the colours in her new marker set.
We’ve had a great meal. Kopitiam is that best of both worlds, a restaurant where the food Malaysians love is laid out as a feast with an invitation for the rest of us to come and share the fun.
Kopitiam, 53 Capel Street, Dublin 1 (01) 8734650
Dinner for three with a bottle of wine and desserts came to €85.80
Verdict: 8/10 Haven’t discovered Malaysian food? Come here for a delicious tour.
Wheelchair access: Yes
Food provenance: None
Vegetarian options: Fair
The team at Terenure’s Mayfield restaurant are holding a fundraising family barbecue tomorrow evening (June 18th) at 7.30pm. Your €20 ticket will cover food and drink and there will be a raffle and auction on the night. All money raised will go to Alex’s Adventure, a trust set up by the parents of Alex Donnelly, their little girl who was born with brain damage. The money will go towards treatment at the Intensive Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Buy a ticket on the door or email email@example.com