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Sunday, July 8, 2001

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Hot on the trail of spicy laksa


How can it be that laksa, one of the classic dishes of Southeast Asia, still has not achieved recognition in Japan? You would think a nation that worships the noodle in any shape or form -- and is no longer afraid to flirt with "ethnic" (that is to say, Asian and hot) flavors -- would have embraced laksa, if only as an exotic version of that perennial homegrown favorite, curry udon.

It is not a complicated idea -- just a bowlful of hot rice noodles, mixed with some sliced age-dofu (thin, deep-fried tofu pouches), bathed in a lavish, chili-driven, coconut-based sauce and topped with a few morsels of fish, meat or vegetable for extra flavor. But the beguiling balance of sweet, sour, spicy and pungent is totally addictive. That is why laksa has become a mainstay of menus not only in Malaysian eateries around the world but at cutting-edge fusion restaurants in Sydney, Soho and SoHo. Here in Tokyo, though, it's not even on the radar.

If you call the Malaysian Embassy, they'll direct you to Rasa Malaysia in Kabukicho, where both the cooking and the ambience are delicate enough for local (Japanese) sensitivities. But if you are craving the kind of pull-no-punches flavors you'd expect in K.L. or Penang, then head further north a few blocks to the heart of Little Asia. There, on Okubo high street, Mahathir will take good care of you.

This cheerful basement diner, with its glittery decor of woven textiles, tourist baubles and twinkling fairy lights, encompasses the whole diversity of cultures that make the Malay Peninsula such a fascinating place for anyone with an interest in eating well. The battered, plastic-bound menu lists some 300 different dishes -- many of them illustrated with photos -- ranging from the classic fish-head curry, featuring the whole head of a young snapper, to simple but satisfying stir-fries of okra or bitter goya gourd.

All the influences are represented here: Malay, Chinese, Indian, Thai and, best of all, the wonderful hybrid Baba-Nonya cuisine of the Perakanan Straits Chinese. You can start with some sticks of chicken satay or a plate of gyoza. Try the sweet-and-sour spareribs of pork, well-tempered with whole chilies, dark and fat, and fistfuls of garlic. There are crisp runner beans or garlic greens flavored with spicy sambal sauce; battered deep-fried fish or chicken marinated in pungent tomato sauces. They even have a chef of Indian descent who is expert in roti chanai pancakes.

Do not miss the wonderful creamy-red chicken curry here, it is as good as any you will encounter at Thai restaurants. Infused with the full array of tropical herbs, it is thickened with coconut milk and spiced with just enough chili to bring beads of sweat to your brow but without causing outright distress.

And, of course, there is the laksa -- not one but two different kinds. From the south of the peninsula (roughly Malacca down to Singapore) comes laksa lemak ("rich" laksa). Swimming in that addictive coconut curry sauce, this is the style that has caught on internationally. At Mahathir, there is a choice of 12 toppings -- of which we gave the cleavered slices of duck our unqualified approval.

Penang laksa, on the other hand, is served with finely chopped vegetables in a clear sour soup reminiscent of Thai tom yum, in which the dominant flavors are tamarind and fermented shrimp paste. It's less immediately compelling, but has a light, refreshing character well-suited to steamy summer weather -- in Tokyo no less than Georgetown.

These are the authentic foods never served at the tourist beach resorts but that you find in the cooking pans of the night markets and street hawkers at a fraction of the price. Here, obviously, you pay more for the privilege -- but not by a whole lot, especially at lunchtime.

Every midday except Sunday, Mahathir sets out an ample buffet, its counter groaning with a dozen different cooked dishes, plus laksa, fried noodles, rice (white or fried), soup and coffee. At just 680 yen, this has to be one of the least-known, best-value bargains in the city. That's the reason why you are likely to find Mahathir packed in the middle of the day with Malaysian tourists, students and workers. They go there to stoke up, treating it as their main meal of the day, not because it's cheap but because it's the authentic taste of their homeland.

Restaurant Mahathir Malaysia S.T. Bldg. B1F, 1-17-10 Hyakunin-cho, Shinjuku-ku; tel: (03) 3367-3125
Open:11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily (buffet lunch until 2:30 p.m., except Sunday and holidays)
Nearest stations:Shin-Okubo or Okubo (JR line)
How to get there: Leaving Shin-Okubo Station, turn left and walk down the left side of Okubo-dori. You will see the sign for Mahathir after the fifth small side street (one block after Wendy's). From Okubo Station, it's on the right after KFC and the Wesleyan Church.
What works: Is this not the best lunch deal in town?
What doesn't: It's not haute cuisine . . .
Number of seats:90
BGM: Just the smacking of lips in several languages
Price per head:3,000 yen (without drinks); buffet lunch 680 yen
Drinks:Beer from 600 yen
Credit cards:Cash only
Language:Multilingual picture menu; Chinese/Malay/Japanese/English spoken
Reservations:Advisable in the early evening

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