The name’s somewhat misleading. When it first opened, Sinma was close to being a laksa house, serving just a few Malaysian classics: laksa, char kway teow, fried rice. Then the chefs started doing research trips to Malaysia.
“When we go back to Malaysia we eat the hawker food. We come back and try what we like here,” says chef Thomas Nah, the owner’s nephew. “Every time we try five dishes. We see which ones the customers like. Maybe they like one or two and then the rest we take off.” The many customer favourites mean that, ten years after opening with its basic dishes, the restaurant offers all the mainstream Chinese-Malaysian dishes and a fair group of Indian and Malay specialties as well (Chinese, Indian and Malay are Malaysia’s three main cultural groups).
Somewhat confusingly, though, the menu is not a single document; rather, it’s separated into random listings pasted on the walls, shuffled underneath plastic table covers and scrawled across several unrelated specials menus. The haphazardness of it all, combined with bright-patterned tablecloths, an open tank of live crabs and a scattering of seemingly random trinkets, makes it visually pretty close to what you’d find in Malaysia. The difficulty is deciphering it all to work out what to order.
Most of Sinma’s Malaysian customers will tell you the classics are some of the best in Sydney, but few customers will be able to spot the regional dishes. “We are from Johor, near Singapore,” says Nah. One of the specialties of that city is lontong curry, a laksa-like soup with rice cakes, shrimp, tofu, cabbage and sambal. The other is a lemongrass-heavy dry chicken curry. “It’s not in the menu but it’s one of the most famous ones [we serve] here,” says the chef.
That’s not to say the dishes from Penang or Kuala Lumpur should be ignored, either. Probably the best example of these are the butter prawns, a rather technical dish not often seen in Sydney’s Malaysian restaurants. The difficulty comes in the keeping the egg-yolk, butter and coconut-based batter crisp, which Nah and his team do with aplomb. For those unacquainted with the dish, or Malaysian food generally, you eat the whole prawn. The head, softened from the fry, is the most prized part.
Another Malaysian staple that may feel bewildering to the unacquainted can be found on the drinks list. Along with the regular teh tarik (milky frothed tea), Malaysians are also particularly fond of fruit juices. You’ll notice if you order one, whether it’s apple, watermelon, orange or carrot, it’ll be sweeter than expected. That’s from the sweetened condensed milk, an essential ingredient in almost every Malaysian drink.