In Malaysia, hawker food is King.
The best food in Malaysia isn’t found in fine dining restaurants but on the street-side coffee shops, food halls and food carts set up by the roadside. Most of the hawkers are poor, hard workers with little to no education, hence setting up a food stall is the only way to make a living. By selling the same dish over and over again for decades, many hawkers had honed their skills and perfected their own signature dishes. That’s why Malaysians love hawker food and have the nose to sniff out the best ones around town.
When a new Malaysian restaurant named Hawker just popped up in Sydney recently, many of us hoping that this place will be the answer to all our cravings for Malaysian hawker food.
Hawker is the sister restaurant to the forever heaving Mamak restaurant on Goulburn Street. This new restaurant doubled the space of Mamak, situated on Sussex Street where Kofoo Korean Food once lived. There is no highly energetic roti twirling action by the front window, but a more subdue slow pace crepe Apam Balik station.
This restaurant definitely has the vibe of a hawker centre, is loud, is noisy, faux melamine tables (at least is not greasy) and hard wooden chairs that my bum went numb after sitting for so long.
Just like Mamak, the menu is short with a few Malaysian classics and a few rare ones that you don’t normally find in Australia. I am already eyeing a few dishes that I would like to try, and between the two of us, we are ready for a feast.
First to arrive is the Assam Laksa, a spicy and sour tamarind fish soup based laksa that is made famous in Penang in Malaysia. The colour of the soup is a little brighter like a curry than the one that I am used to which is usually a murky dark brown mess filled with mackerel flakes (refer to here). A handful of slippery thick vermicelli noodles (lai fun) swimming in the thick soup is satisfyingly chewy, a soup spoon of diluted shrimp paste (har go) adds pungency to the soup base, however I think many who are not familiar with Assam Laksa will probably not know what to do with it and wondering what on earth is this smelly liquid sitting in my spoon. Approach with caution.
The dishes come out all at once with very short wait. Next up is my all time favourite Malaysian street food, the char koay teow or CKT in short. “Omg, why so greasy?”, my fellow-Malaysian (actually he is half Malaysian but that’s another story) dining companion detests. He just took the words out of my mouth and I have to agree, there is a layer of chilli oil at the bottom of the plate. Good thing is they are generous with the ingredients in the CKT, plenty of big and plump prawns, Chinese sausage (lap cheong) and cockles to be found amongst the rice noodles.
Crazy Malaysians will argue till nose bleed that CKT is not authentic unless there are blood cockles (and pork fat) in it. For me, the cockles sourced in Australia are not the same like the blood cockles in Malaysia which is smaller and a much stronger distinctive flavour. I find the cockles here are meaty but flavourless and doesn’t really add any value to the dish. Hence I think is totally unnecessary to add cockles to the CKT just for the authenticity sake. Don’t blame the restaurant, blame the nitpicking Malaysians.
The drink menu is very similar to the one at Mamak but I noticed the Teh (milk tea) is not written ‘Tarik’ (a traditional pulling technique to froth the milk tea) like the one at Mamak. My Kat Chai Suen Mui is a refreshing concoction of calamansi lime and preserved sour plum on ice to keep the spicy food at bay.
I love popiah, is one of my favourite Malaysian hawker food, but this one is a let down. The filling inside the spring roll is a little bit disappointing, a smear of chilli paste on the wafer thin spring roll skin then jam-packed with shredded omelette, tofu crumbs, cucumber and lots of soggy yam bean (jicama). The yam bean is a little wet and started leaking juice onto the plate and makes the skin goes soggy. This is not the only dish that we find is a little bland and lack of seasoning.
Ikan baker means grilled fish in Malay, but here you will get a cut of the stingray’s wing tip marinated in chilli spice paste then chargrilled until is all caramelised on the skin. The delicate meat of the fish is soft and sweet, but I find the fish needs some seasoning to bring out the flavours of the spices.
Or Chien (fried oyster omelette) is possibly one of the most challenging dish to perfect. Even in Malaysia, it is difficult to find a decent version of it. A perfect or chien should be nice and chewy on the inside with crispy edges from the pan fried. I find the tapioca starch batter is a little undercooked, hence the omelette is still a bit wet on the inside. There are plenty of plump Sydney rock oysters in the omelette which we happily dip them into the addictive sambal chilli dipping sauce.
Apam Balik brings back childhood memories. It is something I would queue for early in the morning at the pasar (wet market) back in Malaysia. Freshly made crepes are the best while it is still hot and crispy straight out from the copper crepe mould. Inside is filled with crushed peanuts, sugar and dollops of creamed corned. It is a sweet delight that I never get sick of eating.
My dining companion has his eye set on the goreng durian. It is $8 a pop for a single golden nugget of deep fried durian pulp (stone removed) served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side. My friend ain’t going to share, so we order two. They used one the best durians imported from Malaysia, a variety called Musang King which is notoriously pungent with deep yellow flesh that is intensely rich and creamy. A waft of that distinctive pungent smell lingers in the air as soon as I cut open the golden fritter, I sense the tables nearby are given us death stares.
There is nothing can save me from the stinky breath, but totally worth it.
Hawker | Malaysian Street Food
Shop G02, 345B-353 Sussex Street,
Tel: +61 (02) 9264 9315