Seriously Asian: Gado Gado


Exactly one week ago I was offered a freelancing project. The objective was to eat at 10 different Malaysian restaurants around the city in six days and write about them. It didn't take too much cajoling for me to take the gig. Malaysian cuisine delights and surprises with all its multicultural influences, easily absorbing elements from Thai, Indonesian, Chinese, Filipino, and other Asian cuisines.

Due to the tight deadline, for an entire week I ate nothing but Malaysian food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In other words, 21 consecutive Malaysian meals. With the exception of those periods in my life when I have lived abroad, I have never been so faithful to the cuisine of one nation for such an extended period of time. It's rare for Americans to be monogamous, food-wise, when so many different cuisines have found a home in this country.

We think nothing of having Italian for lunch and Chinese for dinner, all the while contemplating what country, what continent we'll eat from next time.

"I would wake up craving a bagel with lox and cream cheese, but instead had to go out seeking laksa"

Sticking to just one cuisine for more than, say, ten meals in a row is alternatively easy and difficult. It's difficult because some mornings I would wake up craving a bagel with lox and cream cheese, but instead had to go out seeking laksa (various kinds of curry noodle soup) for breakfast. Then again, eating nothing but Malaysian food for a whole week also forced me to control my promiscuous palate, and little more self-control is never a bad thing. Towards the end I found myself craving belachan, that fermented shrimp paste that adds depth to stir-fries and curries, even though I'd been eating it every day.

I started believing that probably everything tastes better if it involved some part of the coconut, whether toasted and grated (kerisik) or in milk form.

Though most of my meals varied, I almost always ordered gado gado, the classic street-food salad of bean sprouts and other vegetables coated in a savory-sweet Javanese peanut sauce. Let me just say that I don't think gado gado is a perfect dish. It never looks appetizing, for starters. Gado gado means potpourri, which certainly describes the muddy color of the peanut sauce doused all over an assortment of seemingly random items. It's usually served with shrimp chips on top, which seems like overkill given the richness of the peanut sauce—and it's really the peanut dressing that keeps me coming back.

Peanuts are toasted, belachan is toasted, chiles add spice, and the whole sauce is bound together with a dash of vinegar and plenty of coconut milk. In other words, you've got a sauce that's nutty, savory, spicy, sour, and sweet all at once. The beauty of the sauce lies in this complexity, that underneath the direct sweetness of the coconut and the intense peanut flavor you can taste the hint of toasted, fermented shrimp and a bit of heat from the chilies.

Bean sprouts, carrots, and cucumbers are the usual vegetables to use in gado gado, though as you can imagine, just about anything juicy and crunchy would benefit from a slathering of the rich sauce. The peanut sauce is essentially the same one that accompanies Malaysian-style satays (skewers of grilled meat), which tells you something about the sauce's flexibility. Though I forgo shrimp chips when I'm putting together a plate of gado gado, I'll often add slices of apple and jicama, or brown slices of potatoes or firm tofu to have a cooked element in the dish.

Tomorrow I will wake up no longer obligated to eat Malaysian food. Still, I have a feeling that a dollop or two of Javanese peanut sauce will find its way into my bowl of steel-cut oatmeal.