By nature a rural people, Malaysians have their spiritual roots in the traditions of the kampung, or village compound, even if they are residents of great cities like Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. This comes through in their simple yet sophisticated cooking, which relies on a wide range of herbs and spices. Hot chillies, sour tamarind, tart lime juice, pungent shrimp paste and fragrant coconut milk are common ingredients of Malay dishes. These distinctive flavours combine with various other ingredients--onion, garlic, lemon grass, turmeric, galangal and ginger to name but a few--in a pounded paste called rempah which lies at the very heart of Malay cuisine.
David Henley / CPA
Ideally, curries should not stain the fingers above the first knuckle, while rice should not cling to the fingers. Malays do not use chopsticks, but eat noodle dishes with a fork or a spoon. Nowadays the general use of fork and spoon is increasingly common, especially in cities and at restaurants. In a kampung setting, meals are generally eaten from a low table, the diners sitting cross-legged on the floor. Meals should always begin with a simple bismillah--"in the name of God"--the Muslim grace.
David Henley / CPA
Sweets and desserts.
Preparation: A solid wooden chopping block and sharpened, heavy cleaver are basic essentials. To these must be added various grinders--the lesung batu or pestle and mortar, batu giling or stone roller, and the batu boh or mill--used for preparing spices and pastes. Roots and herbs are diced on a sengkalan or wooden curry board, while a coconut scraper or kukur niyur is indispensable in making both curries and sweets. Pastries are also made for desserts, and for this a torak or rolling pin and papan penorak or pastry board are considered essential.
These dietary laws may be easy enough to observe in an exclusively Muslim society, but present problems in Malaysia where many Chinese are devoted consumers of pork, shellfish and amphibians--frog, for example, can be found on menus as ayam padi or "padi chicken". Then there's the vexing question of alcoholic drink (minuman keras), forbidden by Islam but widely available. Even if you are not a Muslim, it's both polite and sensible to be aware of the dietary sensibilities of your Malay hosts.
Text copyright © Andrew Forbes / CPA 2002.
The Nut of Love
Today the chewing of betel in Malaysia is limited to old ladies in rural settings. Yet not long ago areca nut--taken with the leaf of the betel tree or daun sireh and lime paste--was an essential part of daily life. The nut--pinang in Malay--was chewed from childhood onwards, providing a mild narcotic stimulant. For those who indulged, pinang was almost as important as the daily bowl of rice. Life without betel seemed insupportable, while the preparation, presentation and consumption of the nut was considered a significant social grace.Betel-chewing was inescapably bound up with the mundane and spiritual rituals of birth and death. More particularly, betel was central to Malay rituals of courtship and marriage. It sweetened the breath, relaxed the mind, and was seen as a natural preliminary to the act of making love. Slicing the areca nut, and arranging it together with the lime and other ingredients in a elicately rolled betel leaf was one of the most intimate services a woman could perform for a man. In consequence, it was seen as a symbol of betrothal in some regions, and as an invitation to love-making in others.
It's difficult to remain neutral about the durian--most visitors to Malaysia will either love or hate this smelly, delicious fruit. About the size of a football, and spiked like a mediaeval mace, it is held in high esteem by all Malaysians and is often described as "the king of fruits". The soft, yellow flesh concealed within is prized for its unusual and strangely addictive taste, which combines the flavours of caramel, onion, cream cheese and sherry.According to Malay afficionados: 'It is a terrible thing if a person lives his life without knowing love, and an equally terrible thing to live a life without tasting durian'. It is also believed that the durian is a powerful aphrodisiac, hence the old Malay adage: "When the durians are down, the sarongs are up".
A Selection of Dishes
The following twelve dishes have been selected to be representative not just of Malay cooking traditions, but of Malaysian cuisine as a whole.There are three purely Malay dishes; three Peranakan dishes illustrating the mixed Malay-Chinese culinary tradition of the Straits Settlements (Penang, Melaka and Singapore); one indigenous recipe from Sabah and Sarawak; three Chinese recipes taken from each of the main Overseas Chinese migrant groups (Hainan, Hokkien and Canton); and two South Asian, one of which has Central Asian origins.
1. Sambal Udang (Malay)
2. Beef Rendang (Malay)
3. Udang Sarong (Malay)
4. Chicken Kapitan (Peranakan)
5. Laksa Lemak (Peranakan)
6. Nonya Pancake (Peranakan)
7. Umai /Hinava (Sabah & Sarawak)
8. Hainan Chicken Rice (Chinese/Hainanese)
9. Claypot Rice (Chinese/Cantonese)
10. Mee Hokkien (Chinese/Hokkien)
11. Roti Canai (South Asian)
12. Nasi Bokhari (South Asian/Central Asia)
Malay Recipes: Prawn Sambal or sambal udang is an enduringly popular and idespread Malay dish, as is the justly celebrated Beef Rendang. "Prawns in Sarongs" or udang sarong is tasty and attractive, and also has a somewhat whimsical name, Derived from the pandanus leaf "sarong" wrapped around each prawn.
Peranakan Recipes: Also known as Nonya Cuisine, this Sino-Malay hybrid tradition is extremely sophisticated. Chicken Kapitan is the most famous curry dish in peninsular Malaysia, though Malays claim the best is to be had on Penang Island. Laksa lemak or Noodles in Spicy Coconut Milk comes from Melaka and is just delicious. Nonya Pancakes are a popular dessert combining pandan leaf batter with coconut sauce.
Sabah / Sarawak: Raw fish marinated in fresh lime salad--one of the best known indigenous dishes of Eastern Malaysia, originally linked to the Melanau people of Sarawak.
Chinese: Hainan Chicken Rice is available just about everywhere in Malaysia, and enduringly popular. Claypot Rice is a delicious hotpot dish originating in Canton (Guangdong). Mee Hokkien or Hokkien Fried Noodles is particularly famous in Singapore, where Hokkien migrants make up the majority of Singapore's ethnic Chinese population.
South Asian: Roti canai--flaky, griddle-fried bread eaten with dhal or curry sauce--may have originated in India, but in Malaysia it's everybody's favourite breakfast, regardless of ethnic background. Nasi Bokhari or "Bukhara Rice" is a pure Moghul dish originating in Uzbekistan; sophisticated and delicious.