We Denverites may be landlocked, but our mouths are free to set sail. Whisk them off to Jaya Asian Grill for a whirlwind cruise of Southeast Asia’s island nations—namely Malaysia, Indonesia, & Singapore, complete with a northward detour into Thailand & the southern tip of China—and you’ll see what I mean. Then do it again. And again.
After all, there’s a lot of ground (& sea) to cover here: stews & stirfries, curries & noodles, fish & poultry dishes. A mishmash of Chinese & Indian as well as indigenous influences, the fairly similar, seafood-heavy cuisines of Southeast Asia are distinguished by the prevalence of coconut milk & shrimp paste, fish sauce & lemongrass, ginger, garlic, chilies, & tamarind, as well as other tropical fruits & nuts. With one bite, you can almost picture those tastebuds of yours wandering the streets of Kuala Lumpur, smoke rising from the hawker stalls.
Me, I discovered this strip-mall oasis on South Colorado shortly after moving here from Boston three years ago, when I found myself with a raging jones for the assam ikan bilis—tiny anchovies fried with onions, chilies, and tamarind—I used to cure the late-winter blues with back east. I didn’t find it at Jaya, but I couldn’t & can’t get enough of the stuff I did encounter courtesy of native Singaporean chef David Yea. What follows is an itinerary for your first tasting tour.
Malaysia. Revel in roti canai, featuring wedges of flatbread not unlike naan, only thinner (& denser, due to the inclusion of clarified butter, or ghee, in the dough). They’re commonly served with a side of chicken or lentil curry, though here the dip is a rich chicken broth gently jazzed up with ginger & chilies.
Singapore. Try the aromatic but not-too-spicy curry laksa, a coconut milk–based soup chock-full of spaghetti-sized rice noodles & mixed seafood—scallops, shrimp, mussels—as well as chopped hard-cooked egg. (Laksa essentially means “lots and lots,” alluding to the multitude of ingredients the dish contains—although Yea dispenses with the traditional tofu puffs.)
Indonesia. Bone-in, crispy-skinned, deep, dark and luscious, bebek panggang is Indonesia’s answer to Peking duck—and it’s a snappy one, punctuated by a garnish of chili-flecked cabbage.
Hainan. Eschew the menu’s Cantonese compromises—you can settle for those anywhere—in favor of Hainanese chicken, named for China’s southernmost island province. Its pleasures are purely combinatory: the tender chunks of poached white meat serve primarily as vehicles for two vibrant, extremely fresh dipping sauces—green ginger-scallion & orange ginger-chile—while their juices infuse a mound of fragrant coconut rice.
Of course, alternative routes abound. For instance, you could go on a tear through the islands’ greatest hits, sampling gado gado (a cooked vegetable salad with tofu, egg, & peanut sauce), beef rendang (a gravy-like curry), & nasi goreng (fried rice with bits of salted fish) along the way.
And so on. In short, just let your gullet be your intrepid travel guide.