Ken Lim surveys the Friday-night crowd at Penang, the Malaysian restaurant his family owns in Chinatown. All the tables are full, and a line stretches outside the front door even though it’s past nine. “That’s a Filipino family,” Lim says, pointing to a table of ten. “The grandparents bring everyone here to taste home cooking. And over there, that couple is Indian–they’re eating our appetizer roti canai, which is an Indian-style pancake you can dip into a curry chicken sauce. We also get Vietnamese, Thais, Indonesians, and Malays. And Chinese, of course. And non-Asians who like very spicy food. Very diverse, like in my hometown of Penang.”
Malaysian dishes, Lim says, have been enriched by tropical spices and waves of colonization and immigration. The southern half of the Malay Peninsula, which makes up the larger portion of Malaysia (the smaller is the northern strip of the island of Borneo), is believed to have been part of a Buddhist kingdom that flourished between the 7th and 14th centuries and occupied much of Indonesia as well. In the early 1400s, what is now the city of Melaka became a center of maritime commerce. Perhaps to court Muslim traders from India and the Middle East, its rulers converted to Islam, which is still Malaysia’s official religion.
For a while the Melakan sultans sought China’s patronage, allowing merchants to establish outposts on the peninsula. “The Hakkas must have settled in Malaya then,” says Lim, referring to people from northern China who migrated south, bringing their dialect, customs, and preference for noodles and preserved meat and vegetables along with them. On Penang, an island off the northwestern coast of the peninsula near the Thai border, a sizable chunk of the population of 1.2 million is of Hakka descent. “They’re the ones who run the noodle stalls, where you can get the most flavorful dishes in all southeast Asia. We serve about 50 in our restaurant,” says Lim, slurping down a bowl of Penang udang mee, a signature soup that burns the tongue with a generous sprinkle of ground red pepper. Lim is not a Hakka; his great-grandparents left for Penang from their village in China’s Fujian province in the early 1930s to escape civil strife. “They had relatives who were distributors of spices and kitchen goods,” he explains, “so they worked in the stores and later started their own chain of coffee shops.” The Fujianese have prospered over the years, but they remain loyal to their Chinese culture and are generally insulated from the Malay population. “Eighty percent of the people in Penang are Chinese, and about half of the families originally came from Fujian,” Lim says, adding that Chinese dialects are spoken more often in public than Malay or English, a holdover from colonial days: “Penang is like Hong Kong and Singapore in that way.”
Tension among Malaysia’s 60 ethnic groups flares up periodically, the severest between the Malay majority and the Chinese, who are a minority in most of the country. “When the economy is doing good, the Chinese get hassled,” sighs Cindy Cheah, Lim’s mother. “When it’s bad, the government welcomes overseas Chinese to invest.” In the mid-70s, when non-Muslim Chinese were barred from Malaysian politics and government jobs, Cheah and her husband left their children with a grandmother to emigrate to Connecticut, where they opened a Szechuan restaurant. “Nobody knew about Malaysian food. They were scared to eat curry and lemongrass,” she recalls. But by the late 80s, Cheah figured American palates were ready for Malaysian cuisine. She and several of her ten siblings opened the first Penang in Flushing, New York, a neighborhood with a large concentration of Indian and Chinese immigrants. It was an immediate hit, and Cindy Cheah got all her children, who had by then arrived in this country, to help out. “She wanted to train us so we each would run a restaurant later,” says Lim. He went away to school, at Pomona College in Los Angeles, but worked at the restaurant during vacations.
The Penang empire grew to encompass five restaurants in the New York area and another in Atlanta. The family decided last year to open a branch in the midwest. “We found out that this space in Chinatown was available,” Lim says. “We signed a lease right away and spent six months renovating. And my mom and uncle put me in charge.” Lim thinks their success is due to the hard-to-find Malay and Hakka fare. He singles out kambing rendang (lamb cooked in a sauce of coconut milk spiced with chili, cinnamon, and cloves), kacang pender belacan (string beans sauteed in a spicy shrimp paste), pangan ikan (barbecued fish baked in banana leaves–ask for stingray), and mango chicken as among his favorites.
Lim has plans to put in a private room upstairs for large parties and open a smaller branch, perhaps in Lincoln Park. For now, he’s happy with the progress of his mission. “People should know that Malaysian food makes peace between Indians, Chinese, and Malays. When we eat from a common pot, we don’t think about our differences.”
Penang, 2201 S. Wentworth, is open every day from 11:30 AM to 1 AM. Reservations are advised; call 312-326-6888. –Ted Shen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.