As we find ourselves in yet another lockdown, I will be reviewing restaurants I visited way back when but who are still doing pickup and/or delivery during this time. Please support them by ordering whatever you can from them – whether it’s food, merch or fresh produce – to help them stay afloat in these difficult times.
Where: Mr Lee Malaysian Cuisine, 58 Lygon Street Brunswick East
What: One of few Malaysian places in Melbourne where you can find a legit yam basket
Who: Resident Photographer, Conflicted Pescatarian
Bloat score: 2 – The belt had to be completely removed
People rarely ask me what my top three favourite cuisines are, but it doesn’t matter because I’ve pondered the matter extensively just in case they do. If they did ask me, I’d say: south Indian, Malaysian Chinese and Japanese. What makes Malaysian Chinese cuisine different to the numerous regional variations of Chinese food, you may ask? And I’ve got an answer to that too.
Malaysian Chinese food has roots in Cantonese, Hakka, Teochew and Fujian cuisines due to the wave of mass migration from the south of China to Malaya and Borneo during the English occupation. It’s got flourishes of Indian, Malay and Peranakan influences, whether it’s the kangkung (water spinach) that’s cooked with belacan (shrimp paste) or the Hainanese chicken rice that’s flavoured with tropical pandan leaves and served with garlic chilli sauce. There are numerous other Chinese Malaysian dishes that came to exist only through the melding of various cultural and socio-political influences. Bak kut teh is a herbal pork rib broth dish that was historically eaten by Chinese labourers working on the wharfs at Port Klang. Curry mee (known as curry laksa to Australians) combines the Chinese ingredients of thin yellow noodles, tofu skin and tofu puffs with local spices, herbs and chilli. The Malaysian kam heong sauce is a unique amalgamation of Chinese stir-fry techniques and Malay cooking ingredients, which sees aromatics tempered with bird’s eye chilies, curry leaves, crushed dried shrimp and curry powder to yield a versatile accompaniment to chicken and seafood that you’ll find on any Chinese Malaysian restaurant’s menu. Dishes like Hokkien mee, wonton mee and yong tau foo have roots in Chinese cuisine but have morphed into something distinct, with even more particularities in the regional variations found across Malaysia. TL;DR Malaysian Chinese food is multifaceted, historically rich and most importantly, extremely delicious.
You can find some of these individual dishes on the menus of Malaysian restaurants in Melbourne, but what I really miss is ordering a medley of Malaysian Chinese dishes to enjoy with rice, and that’s much harder to find. Jade Kingdom in Heidelberg, M Yong Tofu in Flemington, KL Bunga Raya in North Melbourne and Old Raffles Place in Collingwood are a few places off the top of my head that do it, but until I found out about Mr Lee, none of them were particularly proximate to me. (To be precise, my incredibly discerning mum discovered Mr Lee, which was the only review I needed to convince me I had to try it.)
Mr Lee is unassuming and no-frills. On the exceedingly windy and overcast day Resident Photographer, Conflicted Pescatarian and I visited, the front door kept inching open, cloaking us all in a cold breeze, but it was all worth it for the food.
Resident Photographer and Conflicted Pescatarian were only familiar with stock standard Malaysian dishes, but I knew from previous dining experiences that a) Resident Photographer would eat anything as long as he had his beloved roti as an entrée and b) Conflicted Pescatarian would be too eager to try new meat dishes to stick to his pescatarianism. Above all, they are adventurous eaters with voracious appetites – the only two prerequisites to enjoying an array of dishes with rice.
We started with the roti with curry sauce ($7.50) – Resident Photographer branched from his usual peanut sauce and was rewarded with a light chicken curry with potatoes. I’m about to describe the curry as ‘oily’, which sounds like an insult, but this illuminating passage from this Food52 recipe expertly breaks down why the oiliness is so key to a Malaysian chicken curry.
“But for all the traffic-light hues and variations they come in, there is one common feature that Malaysian curries share – they’re flecked with specks of oil, gleaming on their surface, separated from the bulk of the curry below. Because to make a great Malaysian curry, you have to split the sauce.
“In much of Western cooking, a split or broken sauce is a sign of a dish gone bad, or at best, a lack of technique. Split mayonnaises, chocolate ganaches, and textures resembling curdled milk are vilified. Even a trace amount of fat pooled on top of a soup would incite a revolt…But now that I’m back in Malaysia, broken sauces are everywhere. Our curries, rendangs, and gulais (the collective Malay word for stews) are never completely smooth. Whether it’s in an opulent crab dish, a chile-forward fish head stew, or a classic Malaysian chicken curry, splitting the sauce is such a key step in the process that we even have a culinary term for it: pecah minyak, literally meaning ‘breaking the oil’.
“So yes, while splitting a sauce might seem like a counterintuitive step in cooking – and possibly an unfamiliar one to those who’ve never ventured into curry territory – it certainly makes for better, bolder dishes. And without it, curries wouldn’t be able to reach their headiest heights.”
A timely reminder for us to refrain from elevating Western (particularly French, the so-called golden standard of fine dining) cooking techniques and applying them to every cuisine, many of which have complex, time-honoured traditions that serve them best.
One dish I spotted on Mr Lee’s menu that is commonplace on Malaysian Chinese restaurant menus is the golden yam ring with kung bao chicken ($26.50). In one of my favourite dishes ever (!!), mashed yam is shaped into a ring, deep-fried, topped with stir-fried slivers of chicken, seafood and/or vegetables – in this case, the popular accompaniment of kung bao chicken which has a pleasantly soy-rich sauce tinged with heat from dried chillies – and surrounded by fine, crisp mung bean noodles. The result is a pleasing contrast of textures and flavours – the yam is fluffy and soft, its exteriors are golden brown and crisp, and the savoury toppings are umami and ever so slightly spicy. It’s not a dish you see on many Australian menus, but I was so heartened that Conflicted Pescatarian and Resident Photographer loved it.
Yam rings, or yam baskets as they’re also known, is a staple during Chinese New Year. The dish was invented by Chef Hooi Kok Wai in Singapore, supposedly while trying to impress his mother-in-law at the time, who was a nun. He shaped the yam into a ring to resemble a nun’s alms bowl and used only vegetables like carrot, celery, capsicum, mushroom and baby corn because his mother-in-law was vegetarian. The dish became so popular it started appearing on the menus of tze char restaurants across Singapore and Malaysia. The yam ring is a Cantonese-style dish, but one that wasn’t invented in China.
Salted egg yolk golden prawns ($24.50) is another Chinese New Year favourite that we ordered to eat alongside our rice. Resident Photographer was already a big fan of salted egg dishes after our visit to contemporary Indonesian restaurant YOI where he’d tried the salted egg chicken, so I knew it was a safe choice.
I grew up in Malaysia eating everything – from pork and prawns to squid – coated in the decadent, rich, salty creaminess of salted egg yolk. Salted eggs – or telur asin – is popular throughout the Malay archipelago, from Brunei to Indonesia, but as Selina Altomonte writes on SBS, its roots lie in China.
“The salted egg, of course, is nothing new – for centuries, the Chinese have been preserving duck eggs by brining them in a salt solution. Classic congee without salted egg is almost unthinkable. Zi Char food stalls use salted egg sauce as the perfect foil for fried pork and squid. Liu sha bao – fluffy steamed buns with an explosion of salted egg custard – is a dim sum favourite. And don’t get us started on the mooncakes.”
For a quick home version, food blogger Wok & Kin recommends covering egg yolks in salt with a touch of alcohol and leaving them to sit undisturbed overnight.
In the dish we ordered, prawns are coated in a starch of some sort (tapioca, potato and corn are all commonly used), fried and then slathered in a buttery salted egg yolk concoction. A final Malaysian twist is the addition of red chillies and fried curry leaves, imbuing the dish with an incredible fragrance.
The third and final dish we ordered, and my very definition of comfort food, was the sizzling tofu and minced pork on a hot plate ($21.50). In this dish, tofu (often silky Japanese egg tofu, but Mr Lee used a firmer one which I much prefer) and minced pork is simmered in a thick savoury sauce atop a beaten egg on a sizzling hot plate. The base of this dish is a makeshift omelette that forms from the egg that gets cooked on the hot plate, and it’s a delight to eat this with the tofu, minced pork, some steamed rice and a healthy dollop of sambal, which is exactly what I did.
Mr Lee hit the ball out of the park with every dish we ordered, and I can’t wait to revisit for a sweet taste of home away from home.
Mr Lee is open from 11am to 3pm and 5pm to 9pm Tuesday to Saturday and from 11am to 3pm and 5pm to 8.30pm on Sunday. At the moment, it is doing pick-up and delivery through Uber Eats, Menulog, DoorDash and Deliveroo.