Where: Sarawak Kitchen Express, 85 Franklin Street Melbourne
What: What Malaysians know as ‘economy rice’
Bloat score: 2 – The belt had to be completely removed
There are plenty of Malaysian dishes that Australians are well acquainted with. Whether it’s laksa, nasi lemak, Hainanese chicken rice or roti canai, Malaysian food exports have well and truly cemented themselves in the lexicon of Australians who regularly dine out. But I’d be hard pressed to find anyone who isn’t from Southeast Asia who knows what economy rice is, perhaps because it doesn’t refer to just one thing.
Plainly stated, economy rice refers to rice (either steamed or fried, and sometimes even noodles) served with a selection of Chinese-Malaysian dishes. It is a popular lunchtime choice for many Malaysians and Singaporeans, with its name denoting a low price-point and convenience that is prized by hordes of time-pressed office drones.
Which is why I was overjoyed when I heard from my well-informed Malaysian friend that Sarawak Kitchen had opened up an offshoot restaurant specialising in economy rice. With my recent discovery of a banana leaf place on Bourke Street, 2017 is shaping up to be an exciting year for Malaysian food in Melbourne.
Google sleuthing revealed that this restaurant was so new it wasn’t even on Zomato yet. If there’s one thing I love more than a good Malaysian find, it’s being the first person to know about it.
Except I wasn’t. As I waltzed into what I thought would be an empty restaurant, I was greeted by tables of happy Malaysian students who were chowing down on what looked like heaven on a plate.
Up to yesterday, Sarawak Kitchen Express had a promotional discount that meant you could get three dishes with steamed rice (fried rice or noodles cost an extra $2) and a complimentary soft drink for $9. It is now still a highly affordable $9 for two dishes on rice and $11 for three dishes on rice; a far cry from the likes of every salad bar in the Emporium food court that charges you upwards of $14 to be self-righteous and hungry for the rest of your afternoon.
The restaurant takes a no-frills approach to dining. You order your food and pay for it at the counter – table service doesn’t make sense with economy rice – and you collect your cutlery on a side table that has every type of condiment available.
I could barely contain myself as I approached the bain-marie. There were 10–15 different dishes competing for my attention – braised pork knuckles in soy sauce and chicken in oyster sauce sat alongside dry-fried green beans and fried chicken. The titles of the dishes were perfunctory, at best, and wouldn’t have gone far in educating a non-Malaysian on the nuances of Chinese-Malaysian food, so appearances are everything at Sarawak Kitchen Express.
After umming and ahhing to the chagrin of the person who was serving me, I went with: kung pao chicken (not actually a Malaysian dish, but it looked so good), stewed eggplant and minced pork, and braised tofu and hard boiled egg in soy sauce. Cockily recounting all those times that I hadn’t been challenged by spice, I ladled a giant dollop of sambal on to my rice.
What I got was Malaysian food as I’d never had it in Melbourne. Though it doesn’t make for a pretty photo, everything on my plate transported me back to the hawker centre opposite my school where I’d while away leisurely, hot afternoons with friends who loved eating just as much as I did.
The kung pao chicken had been double fried, which lent it a crisp coating, and the sauce was spicy without being too sweet, with a consistency that was a far cry from the gelatinous gloop that kung pao chicken occasionally comes doused in. It was an A+ rendition of a typically Sichuan dish.
The stewed eggplant and minced pork had the simple yet striking flavours of the home-cooked dishes of my childhood, while the braised tofu and egg came in a wonderfully rich sauce that was spooned all over my steamed rice.
The sambal was so fiery and true to its Malaysian roots that my eyes watered with pride…and actual pain. I had met my match in this humble sambal and I will never forget it. I faced a particularly difficult decision when I discovered a little piece of kung pao chicken had fallen into the sambal, but I brushed the sambal off and ingested the little morsel because it deserved to be eaten. I paid for this later.
My friend who went up to the counter a minute after I did had the privilege of being there when a clam curry was unveiled – he didn’t think twice and ordered it alongside the braised pork knuckles and the same eggplant and minced pork dish that I had. I sampled a clam and it was incredibly flavoursome, having absorbed the salty broth that it had been cooked in.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that I had no intention of following my intolerances, and paid for it somewhat with a two-bloat score. Malaysian food is laden with onion and garlic, and these dishes were no different.
Sarawak Kitchen Express changes its selection of dishes on a daily basis, so who knows what will be there the next time I visit. All I know is that in the hour I was away from my desk, I felt like I was in a bustling hawker stall back home in Kuala Lumpur instead of a stone’s throw away from Melbourne Central.
Sarawak Kitchen Express is open every day from 11.30am to 9.30pm.