This Week's Cafe Review: The Sweet Stuff at Mamak Malaysian Restaurant
In my experience, you don't really go to an Asian restaurant with dreams of magnificent desserts at the end of your meal.
Photo from rubberduckee Ais Kakang is a popular dessert in Malaysia and at Malaysian restaurants here in Houston.
I happen to love fortune cookies, so I'm always pleased to find those at Chinese restaurants. In Korea, I ate a lot of jelly candy and sweet rice cakes, but they didn't satisfy me the way a slice of pie or an ice cream sundae might. At Japanese restaurants, desserts often mean sweet iterations of rice and beans or variations on dumplings. Some restaurants even claim to make authentic fried ice cream, though the authenticity of fried ice cream in Asian cuisine is debatable.
The desserts at Mamak Malaysian Restaurant, the subject of this week's cafe review, are an interesting mix of sweet sensibilities from all over southeast Asia, much like the rest of the food at Mamak. Malaysian food in general is informed by the cultures and cuisines that surround the country, and the influence of Thai, Chinese and Indian food is evident in even a brief glance at the menu.
I wasn't surprised to see Thai-style curries or Chinese stir-fries at Mamak, though. It was the desserts that really surprised me.
"I would never have ordered this," my friend said to me while scooping up spoonfuls of neon red shaved ice topped with condensed milk. "But now I can't stop eating it ... even the beans!"
Photo by Andrew Bogott This is another version of ais kacang, to give you an impression of the many varieties it comes in.
Yes, there were red beans underneath all that Kool-Aid flavored ice. And kernels of sweet corn. And grass jelly, and jelly in other vibrant colors and flavors. It was like a fruit cocktail, only without any actual slices of fruit.
In Malaysia, this dish is called ais kacang, and though Mamak presents one version of it for dessert, there are dozens of variations on the ice, liquid flavor and condensed milk treat. The ais kacang at Mamak is doused in red rose syrup (which tastes a lot like cherry) and sprinkled with the odd combination of jellied fruit and legumes listed above. Other iterations of the dessert feature peanuts or palm seeds or durian ice cream on top. Still others make use of giant tapioca pearls, coconut milk and bright food coloring.
I liked the simple ais kacang at Mamak. I had to remind myself a few times that beans can be dessert (red beans and rice kept flashing through my head), but the play of textures and flavors was an interesting one, and oddly refreshing even after a big meal.
Mamak also offers fried bananas to finish your meal. Though that may sound simple, Mamak does fried bananas better than anywhere else I know of. The bananas are sliced into rounds before being battered and deep-fried, and they arrive at the table still steaming in their little pockets of light-as-air, never greasy fried dough. The batter has just a hint of sweetness to it and a crunchiness that goes well with the mushy banana enveloped within it.
One final recommendation, if you still have room for dessert: Coconut ice cream. Order it with the fried bananas. Bask in the delicious glow of fresh coconut meat dotting the ice cream. Relish its subtle sweetness and decadent creaminess. Ponder the coconut, and its use all over southeast Asia in everything from curries to drinks to desserts.
That's the beauty of Malaysian desserts. Sure, beans and corn are usually savory, and bananas are generally reserved for breakfast. And coconut, in my opinion, is best consumed in curry. But here are all these things on the sweets menu, and with just a little extra sugar, their uses are transformed.