I have a terrible confession to make. I only discovered Malaysian food about a year ago. I know, I know, I was obviously spending too much time eating sashimi (if in doubt, go for Japanese being my motto)
Turns out Malaysian food is a lot like Burmese food, insofar as there's an emphasis on rich curries and noodles with salads thrown in for luck. And it's bleeding gorgeous - so much so that it now ranks a close second after my beloved Nippon cuisine in the eating out stakes.
Kiasu is a Nyonya Malay place specialising in food from the Straits and surrounding areas. I've wanted to go for a good while, having heard great things about it. But when you consider it's in Bayswater, it's far too easy to pop into Royal China for dimsum instead.
Thankfully the lovely girls at Sauce invited me to an event at Kiasu to launch the Malaysian Dining Card - a free scheme (yes, free) which entitles you to special offers at a whole range of Malaysian restaurants.
I wasn't going to say no, was I?
Kiasu is a rather peculiar name - its website explains it thus:
"Kiasu is London's new restaurant on Queensway, with an owner afraid of being second best ... in the Chinese Hokkien dialect, the word Kiasu means, 'afraid to lose' ie 'afraid to be second best', this fear is alleviated by the spectacular food you'll find at Kiasu"Said owner Elise is a lively, friendly lady, so full of joie de vivre it's hard to imagine her afraid of anything.
After a few drinks (freshly carrot juice for me) we started our feast with several small(ish) dishes. First up was Chye Tow Kway - steamed white radish and rice cake stir-fried with eggs, pickled radish and beansprouts. This was deliciously pungent and you could taste the hand-minced daikon. I was scooping it up long after everyone else had moved on.
Next was Kueh Pai Tee - crisp little pastry cups hand-made from three different types of flour, crammed to the brim with pork, bamboo shoot and prawn. These tiny "Top Hats" came with a special chilli sauce which you drizzled on top before cramming the whole thing in your mouth. Let's just say I ate far more of these than my fair share (look - you snooze, you lose).
After those two beautiful starters, the beef and chicken satay was a bit of a disappointment in comparison. The peanut sauce was good and gooey (and again home-made), but the meat was chewy and dry.
I appreciated the chunks of raw onion to crunch on the side though - and no Double Mint for anti-social little me. My husband understands.
The Ngoh Hiang (Pork and Prawn Beancurd Roll - a Hokkien/Teocheow dish) was a little flabby - I wanted the beancurd wrap to have more of a bite - but at least the minced meat inside was nicely savoury, very similar to the Vietnamese sausage giò lụa and I enjoyed the fried bouncy fish balls on the side even if no-one else seemed to.
The Kiasu Special Calamari was a real belter of a dish - gorgeous, thin and crunchy batter, tender squid and a delicious topping of deep-fried shallots and curry leaves.
Equally fantastic was the first of our main courses - the renowned Singapore Chilli Crab. This came with various implements which turned out to be unnecessary as they'd kindly cracked all the shell for us to enable easy access.
The sauce was spicily intense and thankfully they'd provided what can only be described as shiny-sweet deep-fried buns to mop it all up. These buns were like savoury doughnuts - this is a very good thing.
The Honey Glazed Ribs were a bit too saucy for me however - gloopy and over-sweet with claggy meat, I nibbled one and pushed the dish away.
To accompany our feast, we'd asked for some belacan and Elise had kindly obliged. Belacan is a shrimp paste dip which is very similar to the Burmese ngapi daung (pounded fish/shrimp paste) and I absolutely adore it.
The Kiasu version of Sambal Belacan was magnificent without being over-powering, and I dipped pretty much everything into it. In fact, Kiasu apparently makes all its own sauces apart from soy and hoisin sauce, which is incredible considering we were treated to at least five different types of chilli sauce alone.
God, I love chilli sauce.
Next up we had Hainanese Chicken Rice, a seminal dish which I've heard much about but had never got round to sampling.
The poached chicken came with fragrant rice, a bowl of chicken consomme and three dipping sauces - a garlic, a soy and a sweet chilli. This was messy but fun to eat, and I would come back just for that chicken which was impressively moist for breast meat.
I think by now Elise knew we were reaching our gustatory limits. I'm not sure she cared though, as out came bowl after bowl of Nonya Laksa.
Each bowl was about a third of the size of a normal portion and Elise pointed out that they were "only little", but as palate cleansers go, this was fairly robust.
The rice noodles were perfect in texture with just enough give, the prawns were plumptious and the garnishes of cucumber and coriander soothing. However, the broth itself felt one-dimensional - sanitised, with none of the fishy, spicy punch that I've come to expect from a good laksa.
Last up was Char Kway Teow. Now this stir-fried dish of flat rice noodles is a classic in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia - some might even say iconic.
And this version looked the business with lots of veg, generous chunks of meat, seafood and prawns, and noodles that hadn't snapped into shreds.
Even more excitingly, there were cubes of crisped pork fat dotted all over the top like meaty croutons.
I wish I could say I wolfed it down, but my objecting waistband only allowed me a forkful or two. What I had was good though, if a little dry for my liking, but such is the way of char kway teow.
But there was more. They weren't going to release us till we'd sampled their desserts.
First up we were each presented with a tall glass of Chendol - shaved ice with green chendol "droplets", coconut milk, azuki beans and coconut palm syrup.
As a whole it was surprisingly refreshing and not over-sweet due to the omission of dreaded condensed milk, but the droplets themselves were actively unpleasant - like wallpaper paste that had been left to set.
I like my chendol in its usual slippery, translucent jelly worm state and so sadly I had to give this a miss.
The straw that broke this camel's back was durian ice cream.
Don't get me wrong - I can't abide the fruit itself and agree wholeheartedly with Richard Sterling's verdict that:
"... its odor is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It can be smelled from yards away. Despite its great local popularity, the raw fruit is forbidden from some establishments such as hotels, subways and airports, including public transportation in Southeast Asia."But for some unfathomable reason, I'm rather fond of durian in its ice cream incarnation and so I couldn't help myself gorging on Kiasu's home-made version.
It was creamy and luscious and had just the right amount of durian-ness to make me happy rather than desperately sad (a challenging tightrope to walk).
And so I stumbled out of Kiasu, defeated yet smiling. And I totally forgot to pick up my Malaysian Dining Card.
It's okay, I'm going to get one here - and you can too. It's free and it gets you 20% off at participating restaurants till December 2010, so why wouldn't you?
London W2 3RY
020 7727 8810
Many thanks to Kiasu and Sauce PR