Taste and Flavours of Malaysia
Malaysia’s culinary tradition reflects the waves of immigration, settlement and assimilation that brought uniquely delicious flavours from its multicultural Malay, Indian, Chinese and Eurasian population.
For centuries, Malaysia was a major hub of the spice trade in South East Asia. As seafarers, merchant traders and immigrant workers from many nations descended on the country they brought new culinary traditions, including Malay, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Indonesian, Arab, Dutch, Portuguese and British influences and these blended beautifully to create the melange of cultures and intensely vibrant flavours that represents Malaysian cuisine today.
Primarily consisting of Malay, Chinese and Indian food, Malaysian cuisine also has its hybrids derived from cross cultural influences such as Mamak (Indian-Muslim) and Nyonya (the Malay-Chinese mix).
Hawker stalls are a favourite haunt for Malaysians from all walks of life. All over the country you can find them along the roadside or in hawker centres serving inexpensive and nutritious food.
A Malay meal always revolves around rice, accompanied with assorted curries, fried chicken or fish, vegetable dishes, and small portions of condiments, called sambal. Some of these condiments can be harsh to the Western palate, particularly sambal belacan, which is made with extremely pungent fermented shrimp paste. As all Malays are Muslim, you won't find pork on the menu and most restaurants are halal. Where mutton is listed, most times it is goat, which is preferred over lamb for its less musty taste and aroma.
Probably one of the most famous Malay dishes is satay; delicious barbecued skewers of marinated chicken, beef, or mutton dipped in a peanut sauce. Another culinary favourite is ikan bakar, which is fish covered in chilli sauce and grilled in foil over an open flame.
Nasi lemak is a mainstay on the menu and is made with rice cooked in coconut milk and served with fried chicken, prawn crackers, dried anchovies, egg and a dark, sweet chilli sauce. Curry-based dishes, such as kari ayam, a mellow, almost creamy golden curry with chunks of chicken meat and potatoes; and rending, stewing beef with a dry curry that has a combination of sweet and savoury tastes, are prominent in every restaurant.
An interesting local variation for tourists to try is Malay food influenced by Indian Muslim cooking. Mamak, or Indian Muslim stalls specialize in a dish called roti canai, which is fried bread, then dipped in chicken curry or dhal cha (vegetarian curry); as well as murtabak, which is bread fried with egg, onion, and meat and also dipped in a curry sauce. These dishes are best enjoyed with a cup of refreshing teh tarik (frothy tea made with sweetened condensed milk).
Regional variations are also notable, particularly when it comes to Penang, which is famous for its regional cuisine. A perfect example of how a region affects a dish can be found in laksa, a seafood noodle soup created by the Peranakans. Laksa has a rich, spicy coconut-based broth, which is almost like gravy. In contrast, Penang laksa is not coconut-based, but is served with a fish-based broth that has a tangy and fiery flavour from the sour tamarind and spicy bird’s-eye chilli. Yet another variation, Sarawak laksa also forgoes coconut milk and instead uses a base of sambal belacan, or fermented shrimp paste. There are as many variations of laksa as there are towns!
Malaysian Indian cuisine
Malaysia Indian cuisine of the ethnic Indians in Malaysia is similar to its roots in India and was brought to Malaysia by Indian migrants in the 19th Century who came as labourers to work in rubber estates and on the railways. Indian cuisine can be divided into two mainstreams, Northern and Southern Indian cuisine.
North Indian cuisine boasts a diet rich in meat and uses spices and ingredients such as yogurt and ghee in dishes that are elaborate without being overly spicy. Bread and chapati (wheat-flour pancakes) replace rice, which is the mainstay of most South Indian meals. Coconut milk, mustard seeds and chillies are also widely used in the South.
Spices are the heart and soul of Indian cooking. But the quantity and proportions vary with the geographical boundaries. Spices are freshly grounded and added in many different combinations and the most commonly used are coriander, turmeric, cumin, chillies, fennel and fenugreek.
Indian food is traditionally served on a thali, a circular metal tray on which a number of small bowls called katori are placed. Eaten with the fingers, rice or bread is placed directly on the thali while curries and other dishes are served in bowls.
Regarding South Indian cuisine, banana leaves are often used as plates in which rice is served in the centre, followed by various curries and accompaniments. These include dried fish, pappadams (lentil wafers), fresh chutneys made from herbs, coconut, and acid fruits among others.
Malaysian Chinese cuisine
Chinese food was brought to Malaysia by the waves of Chinese traders and workers who relocated and brought the Cantonese style of Chinese cuisine.
Since most of Malaysia’s Chinese communities originate from the south of China, cuisine from the southern regions is prevalent. One of the most popular dishes is Hainanese Chicken Rice. The Hainanese influence is also found in the steamboat, a sort of Oriental variation of the Swiss Fondue, in which a boiling pot is placed in the middle of the table and pieces of meat, seafood and vegetable are cooked.
Malaysian Chinese food is usually shared and from its origins in China, the dishes must have balance: traditionally, all foods are said to be either yin (cooling), such as vegetables, fruits and clear soup; or yang (with heat), such as starchy foods and meat. Therefore, the meal should be a perfect balance of both yin and yang.
Cantonese cuisine can offer real extremes such as expensive delicacies such as bird’s nest soup at one end of the scale, to mee (noodles) and congee (rice porridge) at the other end.
Variety is the spice in Malay food. The traditional culinary style has been greatly influenced by the early traders from other countries, such as Indonesia, India, the Middle East, and China. Malay food is often described as spicy and flavourful as it utilizes a melting pot of spices and herbs.
Malay cooking incorporates ingredients such as lemon grass, pandan (screwpine) leaves, and kaffir lime leaves. Fresh herbs, such as daun kemangi (a type of basil), daun kesum (polygonum or laksa leaf), nutmeg, kunyit (turmeric) and bunga kantan (wild ginger buds) are often used.
Traditional spices such as cumin and coriander are used in conjunction with Indian and Chinese spices such as pepper, cardamom, star anise and fenugreek.
Nyonya food, also referred to as “Straits Chinese food” or Lauk Embok Embok, is an interesting amalgamation of Chinese and Malay dishes thought to have originated from the Peranakan (Straits Chinese) of Malaka over 400 years ago. This was the result of inter-marriages between Chinese immigrants and local Malays, which produced a unique culture.
Nyonya food is also native to Penang and Malacca in Malaysia. However, over the years, distinct differences have evolved in nyonya cooking found in Penang and Singapore than that in Malacca. The proximity of Malacca and Singapore to Indonesia also resulted in an Indonesian influence in nyonya food.
Malacca Nyonyas prepare food that is generally sweeter, richer in coconut milk, and with the addition of more Malay spices such as coriander and cumin. Meanwhile, the Penang Nyonyas drew inspiration from Thai cooking styles, including a preference for sour food, hot chillies, fragrant herbs and pungent belacan (a dried shrimp paste).
Influences aside, nyonya recipes are complicated affairs, often requiring hours upon hours of preparation. Nyonya housewives of the past would spend the better part of their lives in the kitchen, but they were fiercely proud of their unique cuisine.
Essential guide to the country’s most famous dishes
Nasi Lemak: Rice cooked in coconut milk enhanced with aromatic pandan leaves [screwpine leaves]. It is typically served with Sambal Ikan Bilis, fried dried anchovies cooked in a dry sambal sauce and garnished with cucumber slices, hard-boiled egg and roasted peanuts. Traditionally packaged in a banana leaf, it is usually eaten as a hearty breakfast.
Satay: This famous barbecued meat-on-a-stick appears on menus across South East Asia and beyond. The secret of tender, succulent satay is the rich, spicy-sweet marinade. The marinated meat of chicken, beef, or even fish is skewered onto bamboo sticks and grilled over hot charcoals. A fresh salad of cucumbers and onions is served with a spicy-sweet peanut sauce for dipping the meat in.
Beef Rendang: Consisting of Malay spiced coconut beef, this grand dish is made by tenderly simmering meat, balanced with robust, tangy spices. Rendang is served on special occasions such as weddings and during the festivals of Ramadan and Eid and it is often accompanied with nasi kunyit (turmeric rice).
Roti Canai: This is an Indian pastry pancake and has become known as the favourite Malaysian appetizer in Malaysian restaurants worldwide. Roti Canai, which is also called Roti Prata, is served with a side curry for dipping.