Many years ago, on a long stopover en route to India, I thought I'd made an important discovery: Chinese food was somehow amazing in Singapore. The food seemed to blend the spice traditions of Indonesia and Malaysia with Chinese techniques to form something wholly new—pickled, pungent, spicy and bitter-tart with tamarind. It almost made up for the scary police presence.
But while I later told anybody who would listen about the Chinese food there, no one I mentioned it to had quite the same results.
Though I didn't know it at the time, what I'd actually stumbled into was a Straits Chinese restaurant—otherwise known as Baba-Nyonya or Peranakan. It's a distinct and lovely cuisine, a cultural and culinary hybrid resulting from centuries of Chinese immigrants in Malaysia dating to the 1500s.
Well, finally, Portland has its very first Baba-Nyonya food cart. Straits Kitchen has set up shop in Sellwood's new Christmas Village of a food-cart pod, Piknik Park, with Straits-heritage chef Angeline Ong making the food while partner Jessica Wells runs the window.
The cart's signature dish is probably already the laksa lemak noodle bowl ($10)—a curry made by blending a whole mess of spices, then frying the spice blend and mixing it with coconut milk and chicken broth. Though heavy on the sweet and warm comforts of coconut milk, the hint of tartness and spicy edge keeps the flavor of the chicken and tofu lively in the broth.
But my favorite dish so far is arguably the junk food on the menu—inche kabin, a dark-meat take on popcorn chicken that is spiced with perhaps the perfect balance of soy, lime, jalapeño, onion and cilantro. The fried chicken has no thick breading, but rather a crisped edge of spice-crusted meat around a juicy marinated center, all bright heat washed in a burst of lime. The bites are almost frustratingly addictive—frustrating because it's difficult to get all the way home without shotgunning them in the car.
The pong teh rice bowl ($8) on the other hand, is far more subdued, with an almost Continental mildness mixed with a bit of shrimp paste for a fermented bite. Among the cart's many dishes, only a complex kiam chye soup special (salted, fermented mustard greens—not to be confused with kimchi) had a flavor profile that was a little too intense, with the pickled greens ultimately distracting from more than balancing the natural richness of duck and chicken in the broth.
But otherwise, delight in the fact you no longer have to fly to Malacca or Singapore to encounter these flavors—and that even in fast-gentrifying Sellwood, they won't beat you up for chewing bubblegum after your meal.
Order this: Laksa lemak noodle bowl ($10), inche kabin appetizer ($6).
EAT: Straits Kitchen, 1112 SE Tacoma St., 971-325-7323, straitskitchenpdx.com. 11 am-7 pm Thursday-Tuesday.