Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
The moment I saw the plate of beef rendang, a Southeast Asian-style curried beef that's slow-cooked in coconut milk, I was suspicious.
The plate had landed on our table in New York—Elmhurst, Queens, to be specific. Much too far from the salty island breezes of Singapore, where I had had my first taste of beef rendang as a child. When done well, the beef is so tender from perfect braising that it practically falls apart in your mouth. And the ginger, galangal, turmeric, lemongrass, and other seasonings conspire to create a flavor so complex it'll stay with you for hours.
For the 17 years that I have lived in the United States, I have been on a single-minded quest to find a good version of beef rendang and the foods of my girlhood in my adoptive country. After eating my way through Southeast Asian restaurants in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., I'd come up empty so far. And I didn't see why Taste Good, a miniscule no-frills eatery where the tables are covered with slightly sticky clear plastic, would be any less disappointing.
The Taste Good rendang was almost perfect. My quest, finally, had been fulfilled.
And then I had my first bite. And another. And reached back to scoop up globs of gravy to pour over my rice. The beef didn't disintegrate in my mouth—but it was, indeed, tender. And the taste, just a lovely mosaic of spices. The first thought I had was of my mother calling out to me even before our front door could slam shut, announcing that she was back from a pilgrimage halfway across Singapore to Nasi Padang River Valley, where the rendang is so beautifully done that there is often a massive line snaking out of the small stall long before each lunch hour begins. The Taste Good rendang wasn't as good—nothing could ever live up to that memory, I've come to believe. But it was almost perfect.
My quest, finally, had been fulfilled.
The restaurant had been highly recommended to me for years—Singaporeans in New York often mention it breathlessly, their eyes taking on a glazed look as they describe meals they've had there. And although its operation is tiny, Taste Good has frequently been the go-to caterer for the Singapore Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York. (I take this as a particularly significant vote of confidence given that the restaurant is technically a Malaysian place and we know how tense politics between neighboring countries can get sometimes.)
The Singapore mission, however, has "found its food to be quite authentic to the Singapore food that we can get back home," explains consulate spokesman Mitchel Lee. And we found this to be the case as well. A platter of kangkong belacan, water spinach stir-fried with spicy fermented shrimp paste, was a dead ringer for the versions I've had in Singapore—the spinach was nicely fried to wilted perfection and the chunks of shrimp paste were fiery and fishy. No punches had been withheld in the making of this dish. And assam laksa, a lovely, sour fish soup spiked with fresh tamarind, had the intense flavors of bowls I've had in the steamy tropics.
Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Co-owner K.K. Thong came over to sit for a minute before more food started to arrive. This Malaysian transplant gave me the fish eye, waved his hand, and started to laugh when I asked him where he learned to cook. "In Malaysia, I was a salesman," the spry 65-year-old said. "But I like to eat so I would go everywhere just to eat—then I would learn what is the taste of the dish." When he moved to New York in search of a better life, food became his calling. Fourteen years ago, he opened his restaurant, which is unabashedly Malaysian—the menu includes dishes that are rare in America such as bak kut teh, a garlicky and peppery pork rib soup, and "sting ray," which is skate wing, crisp from grilling, slathered with a generous coating of powerful chili paste.
Thong sat by me when a festive red plate bearing familiar-looking summer rolls arrived. "Popiah," I said, inspecting the rolls filled with fried shrimp, jicama, egg, and bean sprouts. "You know," I told Thong, "I just learned how to make my grandmother's popiah in Singapore. It's the best. There's no way this is better." Thong simply smiled, shrugged, and gestured for me to take a bite.
He and I both know that there is no beating the memory of grandma—but his popiah was pretty amazing. The filling was crunchy and fresh, the melange of vegetables was sliced thinly, and the sweet and spicy sauces drizzled on the rolls were not too cloying, not too hot. And we all ended up capping our meal with a satisfying rendition of pulot hitam, a sweet warm soup of softened black glutinous rice mixed with a generous swirl of sweet coconut milk.
Before I had trekked to Thong's restaurant for this meal, I had met him at an Asian food festival in New York, where we had discovered that we're both Teochews—an ethnic group that hails from a particular area of Southern China. "Kaki-nang!" we had cried out, almost in unison, feeling the immediate kinship of being "own people," which the Teochew phrase means.
As the euphoria had dissipated, I wondered what true kinship I could possibly feel with a stranger I had just met. Over bites of rendang, over sips of assam laksa broth, over salty mouthfuls of crunchy kangkong, the connection was clear, however.
This was truly "own people" food. And after 17 years, the search was over.