Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Forget The Decor, We Don't Eat Wallpaper



When you have a hankering you have a hankering and sometimes I hanker for the rich, sweet, meaty comfort of Malaysian food. Yeah sure I can cook it at home. I can slave away, face buried in a cookbook, beads of sweat building on the brow and feet aching on the hard tiles as I grind my curry pastes by hand but sometimes I just want someone else to make it for me so I can eat the food, enjoy a drink and get back to Netflix sans the pile of dishes.

With the freedom of choice I could go find some hipster food truck serving modern twists on Malaysian classics or a new hole in the wall restaurant surrounded by graffiti style murals of arty Laksa's and slurpy noodles but sometimes you can't beat the old school charm of a relic left in time, a classic restaurant standing strong against the creep of change.

Rasa Sayang in Canberra's Chinatown, Dickson is exactly that. A Canberra institution from that's food speaks louder than it's decor and whilst you are oohing and aahhing over the juicy pork or the fragrant satay you will forget all about the rattan walls, hanging plants and faded promotional travel pictures. I secretly love the decor. I am not old enough to have seen what the restaurant looked like on opening day in 1979 but my guess is that minus some of the faded patina it looked very similar to today. The thatched roof bar huddled in the front corner of the restaurant screams Tiki Time at the Oasis. The faded graying travel pictures adorning all four walls hark of destinations clearly close to the owners hearts and serve a double purpose of hiding some of the busy wallpaper underneath. It's like having dinner at your grandmother's house and with the average age of the patrons being those who lived through World War Two (pardon the hyperbole) you will feel like you are dining with your Grandmother's gaggle of friends.

Forgetting about the decor because we don't eat wallpaper, the menu is extensive and enticing. My hot tip is to stick with the Malaysian menu and forget about the Chinese menu, not that the dishes aren't good it's just that in Dickson good Chinese restaurants are like pimples on a teenager, ubiquitous. Their Malaysian dishes are from the heart, full of flavour and texture. When they use words like fragrant, spices and tender they really mean it. Dishes are accented with tart tamarind and crunchy Ikan Bilis. The Satay sticks Singapura style are cooked over coals adding that smoky aroma. The Pork Baba is sweet but not cloying with an underlying layer of spices that dance on your tongue and the oven baked Ayan Siob (chicken) is tender and juicy, soft in the mouth. I haven't yet tried the entire menu but I'm working on it and I haven't yet found a dish that I didn't enjoy.

On our most recent visit the owner seemed happy to see us. Asking us questions about where we were from and had we been there before. It was apparent we were not his usual clientele despite the fact that we used to live in the area and have been a number of times. Looking around the room the pension set was firmly ensconced and have likely been coming for decades, that's what happens when you serve good food for nearly 40 years.

Sadly this type of restaurant is becoming harder to find, a topic I explored in my article about the gentrification of Chinatown. The older buildings around Canberra are being knocked down and replaced with apartment buildings, the shops beneath the rent is too high for a small establishments with a dwindling clientele. I don't normally do restaurant reviews and this article did not start out as one. I was aiming at the point that despite the fading glory of these places there is great food to be found. Don't be put off by the more dated establishments. It is often the quality of the food that means the place has had the chance to become dated. The daggy decor is a sign that they have stood the test of time and not been burned and churned in the race led by the trendsetters. So I will wrap it up on that note and hope that Rasa Sayang is one of the lucky ones and can hang in there for another 40 years.


Originally posted on Tuesday, 11 April 2017 by