Last month, a curious bit of terror and mystery landed in my email inbox. The subject line read "Mom's Malaysian Meals," and like a Vietnam vet suffering posttraumatic stress disorder, I flashed back to one of the most harrowing meals I ever ate.
During the early days of courting my fiancée, I treated her to a Malaysian feast at Chinatown's Skyway. The restaurant came recommended by my friend Jason, a man who's never met a fish head he didn't suck dry. "Really complex flavors," he enthused. By complex, I think he meant "rank." My fiery beef rendang was as subtle as sticking your tongue into a flame and gnawing soggy leather, while my fiancée's shrimp with eggplant tasted as if it were seasoned with decomposing fish. "This is certainly… interesting," she said, leaving her food as untouched as a virgin. I do not recall receiving a kiss that night.
From that day forth, I avoided Malaysian food like I do the Jehovah's Witnesses that ring my doorbell every Saturday morn. Why subject myself to such culinary torture? But out of curiosity and procrastination, I opened the email. "My husband and I are avid readers of your column," the missive began. I perked up. As a freelancer, I have scant contact with you fine readers. Most days, I feel as if my words are only seen by birds defecating in their cages. Thus, these notes are rays of sunshine that brighten my pants-less, unshaven world.
The note continued: "My name is Auria Abraham, and I was born and raised in a tiny town in Malaysia called Seremban, where, according to Lonely Planet, there is nothing to see or do. So wrong—there is plenty of good food that they did not get to experience," she wrote. "Every day at 5 p.m., my dad would come to the yard, point a finger at me and say, 'You! In the kitchen with your mother!' I resented that my brothers got to play while I was in the kitchen, but now I see his plan.
"My mom's cooking was colored by the fact that we lived in Malaysia—Chinese, Malay and Portuguese food concepts crept into our home-cooked meals. We love our seafood. We love our fresh veggies. We use coconut milk, lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal, fenugreek, whole cinnamon sticks, curry leaves, shredded coconut, cardamom and so on. This style of cooking is rarely experienced outside the home."
She proposed preparing a Malaysian meal in her Midwood, Brooklyn, house. Would I be interested? I paused. I'd built a mental block to Malaysian food, a cuisine that nearly waylaid my burgeoning love. My cursor hovered over the delete button. But that was the weakling's way out. It was time to face my culinary fear. I hit reply. Over the ensuing weeks, Abraham and I sussed out details: I'd corral about 15 adventurous eaters. She and her friend Elizabeth Jarvis would cook a family-style feast. We'd bring beer and wine. Then we'd stuff ourselves silly.
On a recent Saturday, my ragtag gang of adventurous diners—including my fiancée, whom I cajoled into coming along—descended upon a stately Victorian home bearing these instructions: "Walk through the wooden gate to the back of the house and look for the basement door." Like burglars, we crept across the driveway and slunk downstairs, my heart hammering my chest. "Welcome to the Cardamom Club," Abraham said, greeting us with hugs and smiles—I can't recall the last time a chef welcomed me with either. "Make yourselves at home," she said, sweeping her arms across the woodpaneled room outfitted with a bar and ceiling-scraping speakers: her husband, Jeremy Mushlin, is a reggae and ska trombonist, music producer and DJ.
We settled into tables and glasses of crisp, bitter Penn Kaiser Pils, my liquid contribution to the eve. The night began with plates of peanuts mixed with fried shallots and fish, a salty-crunchy drinking snack of the finest sort. "I wasn't sure if that was too strange to serve," Abraham confessed to me later. "I think anyone traveling here for dinner expects offbeat eats," I joked.
Dinner didn't disappoint. Tender collard greens spiked with mustard seeds and fenugreek snuggled beside yellow lentils freighted with carrots and potatoes, as well as cooling cucumber-and-tomato raita. Fragrant rice spiced with ghee and cinnamon sticks served as a fluffy bed for the night's star: shrimp sambal sautéed in red chiles with lemongrass and coconut milk. The shellfish were plump and aromatic, sweetly incendiary and savory—finger food that left me sucking my fingers. I considered tongue-kissing my plate clean, but instead I saved space for dessert: steamed lepat pisang, a concoction of bananas, shredded coconut and cane sugar. It was the love child of banana bread and pudding, something as unexpectedly wonderful as the Cardamom Club itself.