Let's be honest, food courts don't exactly set a high bar for culinary finds. However, if you've spent any time in Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia and Singapore, you know that open-air hawker centers and food markets tend to buck this trend. Some are even home to Michelin-rated stalls.
So when a new shop like SingMaTei Curry Laksa opens in a place like Ala Moana's Makai Market food court, you take note. First, because there are like two other restaurants that serve curry laksa in Hawaii, and second, oh-em-gee, Malay food!!!
I have been craving the tastes of hawker center dishes ever since I visited Kuala Lumpur. Although I knew SingMaTei was on the horizon, I wasn't sure if the effects of the pandemic had put it on pause. I made my way to Makai Market almost as soon as I heard it had opened.
See also: First timers guide to Kuala Lumpur
Curry laksa or curry mee is a Peranakan specialty — made by the Chinese who settled in Malaysia and the Indonesian archipelago. The soup is a pork- or seafood-based broth made with coconut milk and a curry paste of shrimp, herbs, chilis and spices. Traditional toppings vary from boiled shrimp ($14.95) to sliced chicken breast ($11.95) with fish balls, tofu, bean sprouts and long beans over rice vermicelli and egg noodles. Each bowl is a complete meal. SingMaTei takes it further with toppings that include more seafood ($16.45), lemongrass pork chops ($12.95), fried chicken wings ($11.95), and sukiyaki beef ($13.95). The house specialty is the prominently featured shrimp laksa.
Expertly packed for takeout, the shrimp laksa isn't a hard choice for a first visit, even if you've never tried Peranakan cooking. The vibrant orange broth of coconut milk, fermented shrimp, turmeric, galangal and lemongrass would be gluggable if it weren't so hot. I reserved about one-third of my broth to sip as leftovers and still had more than enough in my bowl. Spice is very mild considering its origins but you can amp it up with the sambal (ground chili sauce) that's doled out in tiny containers.
Like a proper bowl of noodle soup, there's no shortage of toppings to keep you interested. Even without replating it at home, I'd have trouble identifying this as something from a food court.
SingMaTei also has rice plates that draw inspiration from nasi lemak, the national dish of Malaysia that's found prominently in the region. Nasi lemak is fragrant coconut rice served with fried peanuts, dried anchovies, sambal, cucumbers and a hard-boiled or fried egg all wrapped neatly in a little banana leaf or newsprint pyramid, often for less than $2.
Sadly, these are not wrapped up into neat little banana leaf pyramids, nor are they less than $2. I opt for the curried beef with coconut rice ($13.95), which reminds me of the beef rendang often served as a nasi lemak accompaniment. Alternatives include curry pineapple shrimp ($14.95), lemongrass chicken or pork chop ($12.95 or $13.95), and fried chicken wings ($12.95). The tantalizing blue coconut rice is colored using butterfly pea flowers but isn't as fragrant as I've experienced before.
The curried beef uses thinly shaven strips of sukiyaki beef in lieu of cubed beef with a curry sauce not unlike the laksa broth, just a bit thicker and spicier. While it's not close to beef rendang in the traditional sense, it satisfies my craving. With nasi lemak the main feature is the rice; SingMaTei's is a generous bowl-shaped portion surrounded by its accoutrements. Traditionally eaten with your hands, each plate includes a crispy shrimp chip to assist with shoveling bites into your mouth.
The ikan bilis (dried anchovies) and toasted peanuts add a depth of umami and serious crunch while the crunchy cucumber is a good foil to the fatty coconut rice. The curried beef is delicious if a bit sweet and will lure me back. The only thing I regret is not asking for more sambal, whose smoky, garlicky heat is so good. Don't get me started on the shallots.
Other menu items that pique my interest include the Malay curry spice fried chicken wings and the lemongrass pork chop, which are available in both nasi lemak and laksa formats. There is also a colorful selection of specialty drinks like a matcha latte and a butterfly pea lemonade, which changes the tea from blue to purple-magenta with the addition of lemon juice.
Makai Market had remained largely unchanged until recent years with the addition of popular Asian chains including Totti Candy Factory, Myungrang Hot Dog, Steak Teppei and Ramen Bario. Sadly, Taiwan's ChiChop ginormous fried chicken, now replaced by SingMaTei, shuttered after a year. I have to admire Ala Moana Center for stepping up their food court game. Jejubing Dessert Bar, specializing in Korean shaved ice (bingsu), The Alley boba, and Sxy Szechuan are all slated to open in the near future.
SingMaTei Curry Laksa
Ala Moana Center Makai Market food court
1450 Ala Moana Blvd.
Mon-Sat 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
Sunday 12-7 p.m.