Sarah Cotterill enjoys a fascinating sliced white bread Malaysian experience
For the uninitiated, Chinatown appears almost out of nowhere in a crack between skyscraper hotels and glass fronted office blocks. An arch of golden dragons glistening against the blue sky.
Squashed between a Thai massage spa and BoyleSports Bookmakers, directly underneath the matcha mad dessert house, Tsujiri, Kaya’s sign shines bright and new. This family run restaurant has only been open since the end of June, but their small, homecooked dishes are already drawing a crowd.
The menu descriptions read like an effusive game of Articulate
The restaurant, a few steps below ground level, is encouragingly no frills. A long, thin basement with plain walls and spotlights glinting against lightweight silver metal tables. Floral fabric drapes run down the low ceiling in waves. Music videos playing softly on a TV above the kitchen at the back are interspersed with the odd desktop screensaver.
A square of racking forms a sort of market stall till area at the bottom of the stairs, selling oversized packets of Nestle Milo powdered chocolate malt drink, Malaysia’s leading beverage brand. Perhaps a slice of home for homesick folk.
The dishes are equally as comforting. Childlike in wonder, yet mature in heat and calibre. The menu descriptions read like an effusive game of Articulate. From the speciality drinks, the Malaysian Kopi is prepared by brewing freshly ground coffee in a sock filter (really!), immersed in boiling water. The tea is pulled, frothy and sweet.
We try a glass of Milo Dinosaur, dusted generously with Milo powder, a cheap and cheerful milky hit of sugar gulped through a bright green straw, still warm at the bottom of the glass. The Sirap Limau is ruby red and sharp with lime and rose syrup.
It takes a while for anyone to take our order, but when they do, it’s honest and efficient. The waiter selects our choices on a large iPad before repeating them back to us. A tiny act which can weirdly feel like the most reassuring thing in the world. He apologised for a fifteen-minute wait on a fresh curry broth, but within moments, we are surrounded by patterned plastic plates and bowls.
The Half Boiled Eggs, which were disparagingly billed as 'just egg', wobble white around watery globules of yolk, served with a pepper pot. The holey lid here is so large, a stream of grey spice powder instantly hits the surface. There’s soy sauce for dotting, and slices of toast for dunking. It’s a five year-old’s breakfast dream. Dippy eggs without the shell. Freeform eggs. Eggs released from their ovoid outfit. Barely warm, but rich and buttery.
Bread and butter lovers will rejoice in the Kaya’s namesake Starter, a meagre toasted sandwich slathered with jam, either the coconut original, or the snotty green pandan, which is creamy sweet against slathers of salty butter - so thick, they could be mistaken for cheese. I haven’t eaten so much sliced white since primary school.
Luckily there’s fiery soup to be mopped up with the Laksa, where soft noodles, spongy tofu puffs, and beansprouts bob about heartily. It’s luxuriant with coconut and chilli, a luminous yellow oil marbling on top, staining napkins, as we slurp and share across the table. My dinner date dabs at her brow panting. As if by magic, a giant red thermos picnic flask is plonked between us, full of icy cold water.
No presentational airs and graces are afforded to the Nasi Lemak. Despite the somewhat dry angles of cucumber, and overcooked, (this time), hard boiled egg, the sambal, peanuts and fishy ikan bilis form a perfect crispy crumb for meltingly tender chicken, which falls off the bone in the bowl. I probably wouldn’t call the rice ‘fragrant’, as white rice is white rice, and the mound remains fairly intact as we tuck into the delightfully moreish curries, plunged with the occasional toast soldier. Dribbled now and again with that runny egg.
We leave with the sneeze of white pepper in our nostrils, a hot hum around our lips, and green pandan stains on our trousers. Still, no matter which part of the world you grew up in, Kaya is a must try addition to Chinatown.
Kaya Malaysian Restaurant,Lower Ground Floor, 50 Faulkner St, Manchester M1 4FH
Kaya Toast 7, Half boiled Eggs 6, Nasi Lemak 8, Curry Laksa 9.