Fusion Feasting

Cooking styles mingle in exotic Malaysian fare.

Malaysia's history is complex. You might not even be aware of where Malaysia floats on the map, near Thailand, Indonesia, Borneo and the Philippines. Maybe you haven't experienced the heady and exotic cuisine that has emerged from there, a rare confluence of flavors and cooking styles ethnically mindful of all the cultures that have dominated the land at one time or another. In many ways, what makes Malaysian culture so interesting is the way it defines itself as a survivor.

In a peculiar way, I can think of nothing more American, with our own fascination with fusion, and current trends toward capitalizing on the best of all possible flavors and spices. And of course then there is the big-hearted way in which we serve up whatever we discover with a good deal of pride, a happy shrug to complex and confusing marriages, outright thefts and happy adaptations, because eventually it all comes out in the pot or on the plate.

Here in Tucson, Seri Melaka has been serving up an authentic version of Malaysian food for over a decade. One can find a tumble of different flavors and influences on the menu: Indian-style coconut milk curries, Thai-based noodle dishes, Chinese peanut and chile sauces, noodle soups, chiles, kaffir limes. A swamp of ingredients from different cultural influences floats in and finds its way into Malaysian cooking.

Housed in a large and happy venue right off Broadway, Seri Melaka, graced with a well-trained wait staff, does a brisk business most days and nights. Negotiating the menu can be a pleasurable experience. Be sure to bring hunger to the table with you since portions are plentiful.

At our waiter's suggestion, we began with the Achar ($3.95), a zesty sweet pickle dish that makes either a zippy way to begin a meal or an interesting foil to some of the richer fare on the menu. Pickled zucchini, cabbage and carrot all take on an intense brine that is both sweet and sour. Dusted with peanut, this lively starter certainly got our attention.

Although the restaurant was packed, our appetizers arrived in sequence and without too long of a wait. The Potstickers ($6.95) were fairly typical. We ordered them fried and they were slightly doughy, but still firm and plump. The soft-shell crab salad ($5.95), listed as a new item, was a bit of a disappointment. The fried crab was cold, indicating that it had probably been fried prior to service and was waiting to be plated. The zippy peanut dressing that spiffed up the salad was a welcome surprise, though.

Our server was not only a walking example of grace under pressure; she was quite knowledgeable about the menu as well. She recommended that we order from the section of the menu devoted to Malaysian cuisine and helped each person at the table sift through choices.

Lamb Curry ($18.95) turned out to be an excellent choice. Offered as a special, the savory and earthy curry turned out to be one of the best dishes we sampled. It was served in a large earthen bowl over an open flame, and we were impressed with the dramatic flare. Personally, I'm not a big fan of open fire on the table, especially when dining with younger or simply more impulsive guests. Beyond the unpredictability factor, I find that the flame often scorches the dish or overcooks the food before it can be consumed. We were surprised, then, when the waiter returned to remove the merrily bubbling curry from the flame and place it in a cloth-lined basket. The basket kept the curry warm, and, blessedly, the sterno was gone. Nothing quite repulses like the wafting smell of sterno. The attention to these small details was appreciated, and certainly added to the meal's comforting allure.

And the lamb curry was certainly appealing. Savory and earthy, the lamb had been simmered until tender. Bright bursts of snow pea, creamy golden potato and roasted eggplant carried the lamb's tender smoky flavor. This was a rich dish, to be sure, but the combination of flavors marked it a clear winner.

The Shrimp Lemak ($14.95) was voted a close tie. Lemak is a traditional dish reminiscent of a Thai curry. Lemon grass, turmeric and coconut create a creamy sauce studded with golden potatoes, pineapple chunks and tomatoes. You can have the kitchen turn this out as spicy as you please. The sweet and savory flavors carry the heat well, and the kitchen also has a judicious hand when it comes to breathing life into the food without scorching the mouth.

The Rojak ($12.95) is an interesting salad. Fresh bean sprouts, shredded cucumber, jicama and lettuce are tossed with a tangy peanut sauce, garnished with fried tofu, sliced potato and shrimp. Some elements are hot, while others are chilled. Timing is crucial to the preparation and service of this dish since the hot with the cold, the spicy with the cool, the savory with the sweet is what should entice the diner. In this case, the temperatures weren't quite right, and the salad tasted mostly tepid. But the flavors were bright and appealing.

If you are short on time and want to sample several dishes on one plate, then the Nasi Lemaka ($10.95) is a solid find. Served with coconut rice, the plate offers a spoonful of Beef Rendang, chunks of beef cooked in a light coconut sauce,; Sambal Shrimp, an incendiary and delightful chili paste served with a hardboiled egg; and a cooling spoonful of the pickled achar. This plate offers up a nice balance of the flavors and seasonings that make dining at Seri Melaka so much fun.

Even after plates had been cleared and leftovers packed up, we found ourselves wanting to stay and enjoy the evening. Several simple desserts were available. And though we dutifully tried the green tea ice cream and the curiously strange Bu Bur Cha Cha, a variation on tapioca pudding that defies categorization, it was the red bean ice cream that brought the loudest moans of delight. Creamy in texture, simple in flavor, slightly aromatic, oddly comforting, the red bean ice cream put the perfect cooling touch on an otherwise sumptuous and highly spicy meal.

Despite the current political climate of uncertainty, there are many small blessings to be found in Seri Melaka's diverse menu. Not the least of them is the comfort in indulging in a cuisine that celebrates diversity in the truest of fashions, with a stylish homage to that which survives.