Yes, the pandemic has been devastating for restaurants in Chicago, but for some reason it’s been a very good time for the food of the Malay Archipelago, encompassing the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and more; and by extension, that’s good for everyone. (The awful demise of Lincoln Park’s Rickshaw Republic notwithstanding.)
Filipino food has long been strongly represented in Chicago, but it surged in the time of COVID-19, with pop-ups such as pig & fire, LuzViMinda, and Adobo Loko. And even though they’ve been sparsely represented historically, so have Malaysian and Indonesian cuisine. In the Before it was limited to Arlington Heights stalwart Penang, Chris and Priscilla Reed’s Indo-Cajun Bumbu Roux (formerly the Rice Table), Logan Square’s Malaysian Serai, and more recently the Bingo Tea minichain.
But 2020 saw the rise of nimble Instagram pop-ups with the freedom to explore specific expressions of Malaysian and Indonesian foods, like the vegan Ku Rasa, the regional research of the husband-and-wife duo behind Kedai Tapao, and Minahasa’s deep dive into North Sulawesian food (now ensconced at Politan Row).
But the most audacious and exciting development by far was the December opening of Kapitan, a 5,000-square-foot Lincoln Park brick-and-mortar by the folks behind Serai. When owner Victor Low opened the latter five years ago it was a godsend, specializing in a generalized expression of Malaysian street food that nonetheless tried to lead the uncomfortable or unfamiliar along, with hand-holders like General Tso’s Chicken and pad thai.
But three years ago Low took issue with a passing comment from a customer that Malaysian food would never overcome its association with cheap street food. On a trip back home to Kuala Lumpur, he dined in a Peranakan restaurant serving the food of the Chinese merchant diaspora that spread and intermarried across the islands beginning in the 1400s. Over the centuries a sophisticated cuisine developed, employing Chinese cooking methods with local ingredients.
The culture is famously represented in the movie Crazy Rich Asians and the Netflix series The Ghost Bride, both of which feature Peranakan food. Also known as nyonya cuisine (a term referring to the women who originally cooked it), prominent cameos included showstoppers like chili crab and Hainanese chicken, late-night noodle fixes like Hokkien fried mee and laksa lemak, the civilized breakfast ritual of kaya toast and Kopi-O coffee roasted with black sugar and margarine, and the galaxy of bite-sized sweets known as kuih.
“We started thinking, ‘Why isn’t there a true Peranakan restaurant in the U.S.?’” says Low, noting that Malaysian restaurants in the states feature Peranakan dishes here and there, but none are fully dedicated to it. “We realized the potential to educate people to the heritage.”
Low leased the space nearly a year before the first COVID-19 lockdown, but the opening was first delayed by construction issues. During the first months of the pandemic, he kept busy keeping Serai going, instituting lunch service, offering free food to those in need, and not laying off a single employee. But the opening of Kapitan was never in doubt. Low is looking forward to dine-in restrictions going away—the space is large and features tall windows that open onto Clybourn Avenue—and currently he’s offering private dining for single groups. He definitely isn’t banking on it, however, instead investing his energies into robust carryout capability that preserves the integrity of the dishes, with some assembly required.
Kapitan is open for three squares, notably with distinctly Malaysian breakfast options and smaller, snackier dim-sum-type bites. But the real scope and ambition of the operation is evident in one key category: though Low’s Penang-born chef, Khoon Lew, previously cooked in a handful of suburban Chicago Chinese restaurants, he’s of Peranakan heritage and has taken it upon himself to build a repertoire of some 30 kuih, about two each day made in small batches that Low says sell out regularly. These include kuih talam, a double-layered cake of coconut and vivid-green pandan jellies; onde-onde, glutinous rice balls rolled in salted coconut and loaded with an explosion of liquid palm sugar; pulut tai-tai, a glutinous rice cake laced blue with butterfly pea flower, and topped with the coconut-egg custard kaya; and the storied “red tortoise cake,” ang ku kuih.
Kapitan dabbles in a few non-Peranakan items like the ubiquitous street-cart, omelet-encased Ramly burger seasoned with Maggi and black pepper sauce, as well as notable Muslim dishes like roti and the eggy, beef-stuffed pancake murtabak, each served with a potato-mung bean dal for dredging.
But the majority of the menu is nyonya-focused, as with the dainty pie tee, delicate pastry shells stuffed with carrot, daikon, and jicama slaw, each crowned with a snappy shrimp; or babi pongteh, thick slabs of quivering pork belly and potato cooked with fermented soybean, meant to be sandwiched in steamed buns and a bit sweeter than its Taiwanese counterpart. A variant of Hainanese chicken is served as a whole-roasted bird, while chillied shell-on prawns stand in for the whole crab featured in the storied Singaporean dish. Turmeric coconut rice plates, nasi kuning, are accompanied by one of two chicken curry options; the saucy, milder ayam kapitan and the hotter, dryer gulai ayam stand out among heavier meatier entrées.
The Peranakan version of laksa lemak is a milder curried, coconut-intensive version of the substantial portion at Serai, and though it’s meant to be eaten in multiple tiny bowls it’s still an impressive specimen, loaded with chicken, shrimp, fish balls, and slippery lai fun noodles. Most of the standard, iconic Malaysian noodle dishes are present, from the breakfast vermicelli mee siam, to the tubular chee cheong fun. But the housemade dry pan mee are extraordinary: flat, snappy, hand-pulled noodles bathing in a rich, soy-spiked anchovy broth, a rowdily textured bowl with fish balls, hard-cooked eggs, and Chinese broccoli.
Low says Kapitan is one of only two restaurants in the U.S. serving the strong, black, margarine-and-sugar caramelized Kopi-O coffee (the other is in New York), and he’s promising many more singularities in the months ahead, particularly the spiced chicken dish ayam buah keluak, which employs the notorious poisonous-until-cooked seeds of the kepayang tree.
“We will stretch over time,” he says. “They have over 150 different dishes. The Peranakan cuisine is so huge we couldn’t put everything on there.” v