ADMIT IT: when it comes to Asian food, you’re a little bored. That fresh young thing who nervously anticipated her first plate of pad thai is now a tired old pro (sorry) who can’t crack a Chinese, Thai, or Vietnamese menu without a little sigh of ennui. Alexander wept when he saw that there were no more worlds to conquer; then he dried his eyes and ordered the usual.
If your tongue is feeling jaded, take it to Peninsula, a Malaysian restaurant in Minneapolis’s Eat Street district—and, more importantly, to a new culinary world. Peninsula is not the first Malaysian restaurant in the Twin Cities, but it may be the one that best showcases how this South Seas island archipelago has blended a diverse range of influences into its cuisine. Cantonese, southern Indian, Thai fare, plus food developed by indigenous peoples all conspire to make Malaysian cooking astonishingly complex. Familiar ingredients (curry, coconut milk) combine with less familiar ones (belecan, tamarind) into a pastiche of flavors that always manages to surprise.
You can almost play a game with the menu at Peninsula: which cuisine will dominate any given dish? The roti canai appetizer, for example, is a happy collision of Indian and Thai, the roti a dunce cap of chewy, puffy bread borrowed from India, the canai a curry dipping sauce with chicken and potato that is reminiscent of Thai Muslim curry.
Other Peninsula curries aren’t saucy at all, but more stew-like, as you would expect from an Indian curry. The beef rendang—my nominee for Malaysia’s national dish—is made with lemon grass, chili paste, coconut milk, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and red curry, but the liquid reduces away, leaving the beef with deep notes of spice, and almost no sauce, like Malaysian brisket.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are dishes like the Buddhist Yam Pot, which plays out like the classic Cantonese dish Moo Goo Gai Pan, except that it’s nestled in a bowl made of mashed and deep-fried taro root, the South Seas potato. It’s a simple dish—the sauce so light and clean as to be almost a suggestion—with the taro providing hints of sweetness and creaminess that a traditional base of rice or noodles can’t offer.
But not everything is for everyone at Peninsula. Belecan, a fermented shrimp paste, is reminiscent of nam pla, the fish sauce that gives pad thai its distinctive sour undertones. And like nam pla, belecan is dangerously strong—depending on the dish, it was either a welcome new taste or a deal breaker. Still, other dishes such as the nasi lemak—coconut rice, stewed chicken, hard-boiled egg, and a slaw that tastes of peanuts but contains no nuts—managed to be both puzzling and completely satisfying. (Nasi lemak is the national breakfast of Malaysia and makes bacon and eggs look embarrassingly unimaginative.) In the end, Peninsula offers diners no guarantees—but if it did, a visit wouldn’t be an adventure, would it? MM
Peninsula Malaysian Cuisine
2608 Nicollet Avenue South