It’s the gutsy, heart-stirring nature of these dishes that makes them so familiar to Western diners. They’re comfort foods with a twist. Pelaccio’s braised short-rib rendang, laced with sweetness and kaffir lime, has the same effect, if not exactly the same taste, as your mother’s beef stew. And the fluffy "oyster omelet Ashraf," singing with Sriracha chile sauce, isn’t all that different from what you’d find in some rural diner in Louisiana (just swap Sriracha for Tabasco).
As for Fatty Crab’s mesmerizing laksa, well, there isn’t a worthy equivalent in the West. But I swear it’s just like the one my imaginary grandmother in Penang used to make.
Peter Jon Lindberg is a special correspondent for Travel + Leisure.