Malai Kitchen in the West Village has been wildly successful since its opening in spring 2011, but owners Braden and Yasmin Wages aren't the types to merely lay back and bask in the glow of success. In between travels to Thailand and Vietnam for inspiration to keep their menu fresh and working on plans to both brew their own Vietnamese-style beer and make coconut milk in-house, they managed to squeeze in a trip to Mexico for the annual World Forum on Mexican Gastronomy.
What does Mexican cuisine have to do with the Thai and Vietnamese food that Malai's known for? Read on as Braden and Yasmin discuss Mexico, an upcoming fundraiser inspired by their trip, and the lengthy process of acquiring a brewpub license and the equipment to milk their own coconuts.
So you guys just returned from the Foro Mundial De La Gastronomía Mexicana [World Forum of Mexican Cuisine]. Can you talk a little bit about that, and how that opportunity came up?
Braden: Mexico was really great. We were asked to go and speak on the cross-influence between Mexican cuisine and Thai cuisine, which was affected by the spice trade in the 15th and 16th centuries, and then kind of draw similarities between the cuisines to help people understand a little more about Thai food, essentially. We were really excited to go, it was obviously nerve-wracking to get the opportunity and we wanted to do a good job with it. It's the first ever forum they've done like this where they were aiming to unite the cuisine and celebrating its first ever UNESCO recognition. It was a pretty huge conference, over four thousand people attended.
I just got a press release that mentioned a fundraiser you guys were organizing. Can you tell me about that?
B: So we went to Mexico and you know, they just got pummeled by a hurricane there. A lot of people lost their homes, over 100 people died in the storm. It was really shocking just to be in the city — we'd just been there in the summer so we had a pretty clear before and after. The city itself is in pretty good shape but in the outskirts and all the towns you could see where new rivers formed right through the middle of towns and all the houses were gone. It was really sad.
Yasmin: Where the forum was being held, the building right next door to it is where the government line was for storm victims to get help. The entire time we were there the line was just so long. People were waiting literally all day long just trying to get the chance to talk to someone who could help them out.
B: So for lunch and dinner on Tuesday October 22 [tomorrow], we're donating a portion of sales to the Guerrero Red Cross. We know the president of the Red Cross there, she's a great lady and we just want to help out with the efforts.
So in other news, you guys have plans to brew your own Vietnamese beer in-house. Tell me more about the brewpub project.
B: One thing we've been looking for since we opened is the ability to serve this style of beer. We were looking for someone who made it or something similar, or even someone who could make it for us and we really kind of struck out at all those levels. So we decided we'll just do it ourselves. We have one of our teammates that brews beer and [he] got us in the door and got us started with the recipe testing. We feel like the recipe is already really close at this point, we just have to wait for the license so we can legally sell it, which is a painful process.
Y: You have to deal with the federal level of the TABC basically... the TBB [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau]. You have to get a federal license and once they approve you, then you have to go through TABC.
B: Yeah, and I don't know if you know this but they're not really the most efficient people. [laughs] So we're really excited about this and we can't wait to share it with people, but we've got to wait some more.
Y: It typically takes 120 days, so it's pretty absurd. Our application has been in for about two months now so we're just waiting to hear back from them.
Can you talk a little bit about the specifics of the beer you'll be making?
B: It's similar to any other beer making process where you take a grain and you boil it to make a wort, and you add hops and yeast to make it ferment. This is a bit of a faster process because you use a mixture of barley and rice, and the rice ferments quicker. We'll serve it really fresh, that's the whole thing about the style of beer. In Vietnam they release it in the morning and sell it that day, and all the places that sell beer around town will be sold out by the end of the day and they'll move on to a fresh batch the next day. The whole process is about a four to five day brew cycle, and then hopefully it'll be consumed in about one day. I would describe it as somewhere between an American pilsner and a witbier, it's got that kind of cloudy look with a nice aroma to it, and it's super light-bodied and really refreshing. One of the top highlights of going to Hanoi for us is drinking this kind of beer, so we really want to share that experience.
I also hear you guys are embarking on a project to start making your own coconut milk.
Y: We're a little bit more gun-shy on [talking about] this one, we don't need a license but we're trying to find the equipment to do it and the equipment to make coconut milk is really, really hard to find. Typically it comes from Indonesia and it's not designed to work very well in the U.S., and it's not the safest equipment, so we're actually working with a manufacturer out of India to design our own piece of equipment to make the coconut milk and then have it sent over here. So this process is actually much longer, believe it or not, than the beer process! [laughs] We're still working out the logistics of the equipment and working out our design, but we're hoping to have it up and running, I'm going to give it about six months to a year.
Why did you decide to start making your own coconut milk — is it just that you guys use so much of it at Malai, or is it that there's a huge difference in flavor between canned and homemade?
B: It's really a night and day difference, it's so much better if you use fresh coconut milk. It's got a lot more flavor, a lot more body, it cooks down differently. A lot of the coconut milks you get canned have binders in them that keep it from breaking, but it's kind of unnatural in that way. We're obviously really excited about getting it going, we can't do it without a machine because we do go through a lot of coconut milk. The other way that that you can do it is manual, and that works if you're cooking for four people, but not commercially. So we're really excited about it, but the whole machine sourcing business is just more difficult than we'd hoped.
The fundraiser for Red Cross Disaster Relief will take place at Malai from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Tuesday, October 22. Besides the regular menu, Braden and Yasmin will also serve fusion dishes inspired by their trip to the Foro Mundial including mahi mahi tamales, pozole with pork, and braised chicken in Oaxacan-style mole.
[Photo: Claire McCormack]