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Hẻm Gems: A Nasi Lemak in Saigon That Evokes Memories of Hawker Centers

As I gaze at the glorious eight-dish Malaysian banquet on our table at Makiucha, perfectly spaced by our photographer, popping with colors and wafting off aromas of rich spices, it becomes apparent to me how much I’ve missed hawker centers.

The immersive, sensory experience of squatting on a pavement while waiting to wolf down a bodacious bún or bag of bánh tráng trộn is something that I wouldn’t change for the world, but at times I daydream of the food paradises within hawker centers where I could eat as diverse and far-reaching a diet as my heart desires. In Vietnam, an iteration of the concept exists in the form of food courts, though these are more often than not sheltered inside sterile and uninspired shopping malls. It’s usually where you grab a quick bite after a movie or shopping spree and where, instead of heartily prepared comfort food, the likes of Lotteria or McDonald’s languish. Hawker centers, a staple in Singapore and Malaysia, are much more affordable, communal and harbor some of the best food that the countries have to offer.

A sumptuous banquet of Malaysian dishes that might bring you to the hawker centers of Malaysia and Singapore.

Makiucha appeared on the Saigon food map just over a year ago in late March while Vietnam was suffering from the first wave of COVID-19 infections. For those who’ve spent time in our Southeast Asian neighbors, the eatery’s menu is a familiar sight, with a number of hawker center classics: nasi lemak, char kway teow and nasi goreng in the savory section; and teh tarik, bandung and Milo Dinosaur in the beverage. Living in Singapore as a student, one of my favorite breakfasts was packets of nasi lemak wrapped in banana leaf washed down with a refreshing glass of teh tarik. Accompanied by the usual hawker food is the cutthroat hawker sport of “seat-choping” — reserving a place at tables using a single almighty packet of tissue or umbrella. Are Malaysian hawker centers less competitive?

The shopfront of Makiucha inside a hẻm on Pasteur Street.

There’s no need to whip out a tissue packet at Makiucha, as a single phone call or Zalo message will suffice, but I highly recommend making a reservation during peak hours because of the place’s limited number of tables. Still, the current location, with its cozy but small dining area, is already a great step up compared to Makiucha’s early days, according to its Malaysian founder, Nigel.

Penang-inspired graffiti and posters of Malay movies as decor.

A marketer by trade, he came to Vietnam four years ago during a vacation. That was also when a connection was sparked with his current Vietnamese girlfriend, Giang. The pair decided to wade into the business realm together with a hospitality enterprise in Saigon providing tours and accommodation for tourists from Malaysia and beyond. When the pandemic hit and devastated the business, much like the rest of the country’s international tourism sector, the pair pivoted to food as a survivalist move, trying to make the best of the situation. The eatery was born first as mainly a takeaway place with scant seating options, though it turned out to be a hit among the Malaysian community in town.

You can smell this image.

Makiucha’s signature dish is no other than Malaysia’s national dish, nasi lemak, a rice platter served alongside cucumber slices, crispy anchovies (ikan bilis), roasted peanuts, fried chicken, a hard-boiled egg, and of course, a dollop of velvety sambal. When asked which dish in the menu he was most surprised that Vietnamese customers enjoy, Nigel immediately named nasi lemak, as he thought that combining rice with a paste like sambal would be foreign to the local palate. If anything, the paste is a great component helping nasi lemak assimilate to Vietnam, the land of a thousand mắm — all of which go incredibly well with rice. Of course it does help that Makiucha’s nasi lemak is a well-crafted creation in itself: aromatic coconut rice and crunchy toppings bolstered by a flavorful homemade sambal. I have never encountered a sambal that I don’t like, the version here included, but I don’t know if that’s more indicative of my immense luck or my shameless easiness when it comes to sambal.

Soft, flavorful chunks of meat make a pleasant rendang (not crispy!)

Another star offering here is the beef rendang, served with roti. Compared to nasi lemak, it is decidedly less familiar to the Vietnamese culinary repertoire. Beef stews in Vietnam generally lean western with a touch of Chinese spices — think bò kho, ragoût, or bò sốt vang. Rendang is much less soupy and much more spice-forward. To make their rendang, the chefs at Makiucha cook Australian sirloin for six hours with a broad combination of spices, including onion, galangal and kerisik, a Nyonya condiment made of caramelized coconut. The result is a thick, golden gravy and soft beef chunks that fall apart with minimal force. There isn’t much heat by way of chilies, but the spices are very present in each bite and linger on in your mouth.

From left to right, up to down: char kway teow, "volcano" nasi goreng (fried rice with ikan bilis and extra spiciness), kari kapitan Nyonya (Peranakan chicken curry), and Pattaya rice.

Much of the cooking at Makiucha is handled by a head chef who’s from Sarawak, a region in northwest Borneo. He used to be a tour guide for the now-suspended tourism business with a strong passion for food and cooking, having used to work for his family’s restaurant back in Malaysia. When the restaurant was conceptualized, it was natural for Nigel and Giang to ask him to step in to handle the cooking operation.

From left to right (unfortunately with slightly melted ice): teh tarik, Milo Dinosaur (less-sweet Milo with Milo powder), and bandung (rose-flavored milk).

More than just a beef stew, rendang is a key cornerstone of Peranakan culture and a culinary mainstay in ceremonial occasions. The term Peranakan refers to people of mixed Chinese and Malay/Indonesian heritage. Academic sources suggest that they are descendants of Chinese traders who married local women in maritime Southeast Asia back in the 15th century. Nigel himself is Peranakan, and he hopes that the existence of Makiucha will help to improve the standing of Malaysian cuisine in the local food scene.

“In Vietnam, there is Singaporean food and Thai food, but Malaysian food is not [popular], so we want to get Malaysian food to the same level of popularity,” he says.

Makiucha is open from 10am to 9pm. 

To sum up:

Taste: 4.5/5

Price: 4/5

Atmosphere: 4/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 3/5

Khoi loves fried rice, is a raging millennial and will write for food.

Malaysian food

1/4 Pasteur, Nguyen Thai Binh Ward, D1

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