Tom enjoys a riot of textures and flavours at a Malaysian restaurant in London’s Chinatown.
Hello darkness, my old friend. OK, so this particular pal sure ain’t a looker. Penang prawn mee, that is, classic hawker food, a dish of Chinese birth that has long made Malaysia its home. God, I love this soup with a passion that borders on the obsessive – dank, muddy brown broth, the colour of monsoon ditch water, with small globules of angry scarlet oil. Whole prawns, boiled egg, slices of pork, deep fried shallots, yellow egg noodles and scraps of green vegetation all jostle for space and attention.
And here, at C&R Café Restaurant in London’s Chinatown, they get it just right. Even my friend and fellow diner Rain, who comes from Kuantan on the east coast of Malaysia, agrees. There used to be a branch of C&R on Westbourne Grove in Notting Hill, and I had an office next door. I slurped this soup most days. As I said, it’s not going to win any beauty contests but when it comes to taste, few things come close.
The broth has a rich, fishy, slightly fetid depth that teeters just on the right side of depraved, thanks to that all-important prawn-head stock (the backbone of the dish), and a hearty dollop of sambal belacan, the chilli and fermented shrimp-paste sauce that flows like lava through the veins of Malaysian cooking. It stars in their kangkung belacan too, stir-fried with morning glory – another Malaysian staple – beautifully pongy with a robust, lingering heat.
For those looking for something a little more soothing, then wat tan ho is all about soft, glutinous comfort, with fat rice noodles, bouncy fish balls, fish cake, squid and prawns all enveloped in a gloriously gloopy embrace. It’s a subdued riot of pleasing textures, although we agree it lacks the all-important wok hei (or ‘breath of the wok’), that essential, slightly charred tang, obtainable only from those restaurant-standard wok burners that burn hotter than Hades.
Five-spice loh bak – fat rolls of minced pork wrapped in bean curd skin – are lustily seasoned and deep fried to a golden brown, while roti canai – gossamer-thin, gently blistered bread, dunked in fragrant curry sauce – is Roti King good.
Rain doesn’t think much of the dried anchovies in our nasi lemak. ‘A bit cheap,’ she says. ‘Inferior quality.’ Not that I would know the difference. But then she comes from a city renowned for the quality of its dried seafood. And if it’s her only complaint, well, that’s fine by me. I nod, in what I hope is a knowing way, and get stuck back into my Penang prawn mee.
About £20 per head. C&R Café Restaurant, 4 Rupert Court, London W1; cnrcaferestaurant.com