I remember as if it were yesterday the first time I ate real Malaysian food. A housemate from Singapore led me down a narrow alley, to a little joint where everyone ate with their right hand, using the fingers in a pincer action. No cutlery. I did badly with the finger stuff, but the flavours knocked my Anglo-Celtic socks off.
Everything was hot or sweet or profoundly savoury, there were stark contrasts, the soy-black-saltiness of wafer-thin beef on sticks with the richness of thick, hot peanut sauce balanced with rice enriched with coconut and the spritzy aroma and crunch of coriander. It was like someone had turned the culinary heat lamps on.
I'd had a sniff of the real thing at my parent's 1970s dinner parties, where Don Dunstan's Cookbook helped us produce decent satays, and excellent chicken curry but this was the real deal, the full monty. Nothing every quite replaces that first starling experience of a totally new way of eating, but that doesn't stop you searching, and getting pretty excited when you get close. Malaysian Chapter in Belconnen is close, very close.
The restaurant is a family-run establishment, with an unassuming frontage up behind Belconnen Mall, in one of those U-shaped streets housing an increasing number of good places to eat. It is close to full on week night, with regulars and others reliving their overseas travels adding to the convivial feel. We are welcomed and seated immediately and settle in to peruse the long and exciting menu of favourites and special dishes. Slightly strangely, there is a also scattering of traditional Chinese dishes, such as bok choi in oyster sauce. Children have a menu of smaller dishes ($8.50-$10.50) and a really wide array of food they'd like anyway. This clearly a place where family is important, children are expected and welcome, not just catered for.
With this in mind we start with a combination of fried crackers ($6.50) prawn, chilli and the more substantial cassava cracker. All have been fried to order, and the contrasting types and fresh preparation is a nice change from the standard cardboard offering. Satay skewers (for a child) come with a dish of proper peanut sauce, thick and textured, with good juicy chicken, rice and cucumber to cool the heat.
Choosing is difficult. The lemon-grass tofu balls and gado-gado salad have to be left for another time, along with the curry laksa and calamari curry. A full range of sweet, sticky Malaysian drinks are available, along with fresh lime juice. The wine list is relatively basic but covers most bases, with six wines by the glass ($7) a little nod to the local and a big one to value for money.
The main event is a trio of dishes: assam fish ($19.50), nasi lemak with beef rendang ($19.50) and a green bean and vegetable "belachan fry" ($14.50). Nasi lemak, the tapas of the Malaysian world, was great with its little mounds of just about everything to love about this cuisine. Centred on a smooth mound of rice with satellites including rich, fall-apart beef rendang, the standard half boiled egg, roasted peanuts, and crunchy hot anchovy sambal. This dish can be bad when carelessly prepared, here it is an everyday joy.
More unusual is the assam fish, a lovely clean dish of ling, fresh tomato, pineapple and okra, all pulled together in a tangy tamarind broth with a serious chili punch. The "belachan fry" is a lovely, relatively dry stir fry of green beans and other bits, in the classic, addictive shrimp paste – "belachan" - that makes everything taste better. Roti bread is crisp and pull-apart delicious, and helps mop up sauces and interrupt the heat a little.
Dotted around the walls are Malaysian pictures and palm leaves decorated by hand with the restaurant name. This is another nice touch that makes the place feel good. Run by the family who own it, Malaysian Chapter is the polar opposite of the fashionable factories that continue to clog up culinary scene.
Dessert is a classic pandan sago ($5.50) the transparent balls drenched in coconut and palm syrup, making a lovely cool sweet end to a very satisfying meal. Malaysian Chapter would be an ideal place to bring a groups, with a range of set menus at very good prices – from $25.90 a head or $23.90 (vegetarian). But I would take a group to sample on the of the 48-hour-notice, five-people-specials, fish head curry or black pepper crab.
Many locals have clearly marked this place out as a favorite haunt, and the service, quality of food and value make it well worth a drive as well.
Address: 8 Weedon Close, Belconnen
Phone: 6251 5670
Owner: Siva Vasudevan and Vila Sini
Chef: Siva Vasudevan
Hours: Tuesday to Saturday, noon-2pm, 5.30pm-9pm. Monday dinners.
Licensed: Yes, BYO wine only $3 a person
Vegetarian: a wide range of options
Wheelchair access: No.
To pay: Visa, MasterCard, Eftpos, American Express, cash
Summary: A great family restaurant, with vibrant, fresh, assertive food, great value for money and a lovely feel.
Wine list ★★★
Value for money ★★★★
Noise levels: Moderate to low