It’s always funny asking people what they want for lunch. When you spend copious hours mulling over restaurants experiences, you get a reputation as the go-to guy. Here is an excerpt from a typical discussion with a friend or colleague:
Me: Where do you want to go for lunch?
Them: I don’t know. You’re the foodie. You pick.
Me: Well, tell me what you like.
Them: I’ll eat almost anything.
Me (with slight look of annoyance on my face): Do you like Malaysian?
Them (with “I have no idea what Malaysian is” look on face): Ya, sounds great.
Me: It’s kind of like Thai.
Them (with look of relief on face): Oh! I like Thai.
Now that that was decided, I trekked a few blocks from the hotel with a couple of colleagues for lunch at the Banana Leaf, a small Vancouver chain featuring fare from the South Asian country. Geographically located along the spice route, Malaysia has a rich food history, influenced by near neighbours China, India and Thailand with a touch of input from the numerous other European countries which touched it’s soil during world expansion. They rely on local ingredients but also import wheat and other staples.
The Banana Leaf is a small Vancouver chain which focuses on Malaysian cuisine. The menu is quite expansive, reflecting the aforementioned diversity of the country’s offerings. I went twice during a recent trip to Vancouver; once for lunch and once for dinner. For lunch, we opted for the safe newbie option of the tasting menu consisting of some of the more popular dishes. Here’s the summary…
Green Asian salad
This sizable starter was a pleasant mix of tropical flavours including pineapple, papaya and coconut dressed in lemongrass vinaigrette. Very fresh and delicious.
Spring Rolls and Roti Canai
Appetizers with the neighbour’s influence of Malaysia fills this plate. The crispy spring rolls and the delightfully chewy roti were served hot and served with sweet chili and coconut curry sauce respectively.
Rendang Beef Curry
Considered a festive dish, it’s a celebration of coconut and curry gravy surrounding tender beef. It was very well balanced with a nice kick of spice.
The vibrant stew with fusion flavours mixing turmeric with classic South Asian staples including ginger, galangal, lemongrass and tamarind. The abundant proteins were cooked delicately, leaving the fish and shrimp tender and delicious.
Sambal Green Beans
Chili and shrimp paste provide the base to this classic Asian dish. Garnished with tomato and peppers, it was attractive and tasty.
Fried banana and ice cream was served atop an absolutely delicious gula melaka (coconut palm sugar) sauce which had a sweet and bitter taste reminiscent of a good creme brule or a Mexican flan.
Perhaps the craziest thing was the fact that all of this food was $18 a person. I’m accustomed to tiny, expensive portions in a tasting menu but the sizes of these meals were far from “tasting”. For the value, it’s arguably one of the better meals you can buy.
A few nights later I went for dinner…..
Green Papaya and Mango Kerabu ($8)
Another delicious salad consisting of a cornucopia of Asian flavours including the title fruits with cucumber, carrot and jicama combined with sweet, sour and salty flavours of the dressing and fish sauce respectively.
Malaysian Spicy Papaya Seafood Soup ($6)
Hinted of Tom Yum but with bursts of sweetness from papaya right in the soup with a nice level of heat.
Pineapple Fried Rice with Seafood & Chicken ($15)
Visually appealing dish that didn’t quite match in taste. It could have used a few more of the promised accessories (sunflower seeds, raisins, shrimp etc.) but it sure is pretty.
Sticky Rice with Grated Coconut & Gula Melaka ($7)
Having already experienced the deliciousness of gula melaka (see above), I was keen to try it combined with coconut rice. The toasted coconut was a great addition from a taste and texture perspective. Once again, it was reminder that Gula Melaka is like nectar from the gods.
It is evident that Malaysian food is a mosaic of ingredients with ingredients heavily influenced by neighbours and past travelers looking for the same spices which filled many of the dishes served here. The $18 for the “tasting menu” lunch was ridiculous (in a good way) and included mountains of delicious food. The dinner dishes were also reasonably priced. My colleagues, each with a different capacity to consume copious amounts of food, seemed impressed. For the most part, the service was prompt (although a little slow and confused at dinner although I think one of our waitresses was in training) and courteous and the decor was simple but classy. Banana leaf is a small Vancouver chain offering a lesson in the diverse and delicious fare of Malaysian, a cuisine often overshadowed by its more popular neighbours. I’m just spreading the word.