2327 Hastings Street East
Vancouver, BC V5L 1V6
When eating at an ethnic restaurant anywhere in town, I often ponder the authenticity of the food being served. Vancouver diners often get shortchanged in this department – certain cuisines (think sushi) being served by untrained “chefs”, unsuccessful re-interpretations of regionalized cooking (think “Szechuan”), classics of a cuisine automatically “dumbed down” with prejudice for fear of offending unadventurous tastes…I could go on.
In order judge the “authenticity” of a restaurant, I often have to rely on my experience in that particular cuisine gained from my travels, or from my attempts at cooking it, or sometimes through some sort of intuitive gustatory extrapolation. Still – on cuisines where I have little experience, I wonder whether a dish I am currently enjoying is an exemplary example….and I reassure myself that if I’m liking what I’m eating, that’s all that really matters. The food of Southeast Asia is something I know quite a lot about – experience I gained when lived in that part of the world….so I know almost instantly whether a dish is hitting its target in terms of authenticity.
Seri Malaysia is a non-descript Halal Malaysian restaurant on Vancouver’s East Hastings St. The restaurant, like its Hastings St environs, is a little run down. It could use a paint job, the awning needs a wash, and the decor needs some re-thinking. The ambiance, however, is not why I keep returning here – I come for the food.
I know a little about this place from my casual chats with the chef/owner Jamal. Chef Jamal used to co-own the original Kedah House…which, at one time, was the only Malaysian restaurant in Vancouver with honest-to-goodness Malaysian cooks. Having a Malaysian cook is still a rare occurrence here in town – the most popular Malaysian restaurants in Vancouver are known to have Chinese cooks. (Sometimes, it really does make a difference.)
Much of Malaysian food is bold in flavour – often pungent and unsubtle. It uses a lot of curry spices, strongly flavoured and scented botanicals (lemongrass, galangal, and so forth) and fermented seafood (for example: belacan – a dried fermented shrimp paste, and ikan bilis – dried anchovies). Seri Malaysia serves what I believe to be the most authentic examples of some of the classic Malay dishes here in town (with a disclaimer that like most countries in the Straits – the cuisine is highly regional and does vary significantly).
As if to validate my assessment of the food here – on my most recent visit here a couple of days ago, none other than the Consul General of Malaysia came in to dine with some compatriots a couple of tables away. I had a quick chat with these gentlemen on my way out. I understand that the Consulate regularly orders the Rendang and other items here from here in bulk whenever they have official banquets.
The Beef Rendang (a dish of Indonesian origins) is delicious – tender beef with strong hints of lemongrass (you can see the lemon grass fibers in the sauce). I’m not sure what cut of beef was used to prepare this one – probably chuck or something similar. A more celebratory rendition would use the meat from short ribs or shank. Rendang takes hours to cook properly…and it gets better with age.
I also ordered the Chicken Curry which is traditionally prepared in coconut milk. It was well seasoned and tender, though perhaps a little toned down in chili heat today. You can always order one of the three or four kinds Chili Sambal to adjust the heat. The curry wasn’t an exemplary dish, but it was still very good. The Roti Canai (the Malaysian rendition of an Indian flatbread) was nice and flakey (almost croissant-like) and not at all oily ( a common misstep in its preparation). The Roti was perhaps not the best one I have had in town, nonetheless, it was a perfect vehicle for the curry sauce.
Chefs who serve me food “the way it should taste”…whatever that means to them…have my admiration. It is an indication to me that they have respect for their diners – they make no assumptions and they will ask you questions about your preferences. Vancouver is a town full of adventurous diners…yet I fear for this place and other restaurants like it. Chef Jamal has indicated to me that it is a struggle for him at this location (he often runs the entire show by himself- he is the waiter, cook, dishwasher, and host – it really shows when the place is busy). He has, in fact, considered throwing in the towel on occasion (I sure hope he doesn’t any time soon) and he is on the lookout for a better location.
If you are on East Hastings Sunrise area and you are a little peckish, check this place out. They have inexpensive lunch specials (under $7), but I think it is worth it to order from the full menu.