Here In My Home - Malaysian Artistes For Unity

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Malay Cuisine According to CPA Media

Continuing my occasional postings of articles of interest to me, in this case originating from CPA Media.

The Malay Kitchen

Malaysians of all ethnic backgrounds consider the kitchen to be the very heart of the house. Here women gather to chat and cook amidst piles of herbs, spices, green vegetables, fresh meat and dried fish. The odour of charcoal mingles with the mouth-watering aromas of frying garlic, throat-catching, seared chilli peppers and pungent belacan shrimp paste. For Malaysians, it's the smell of home.

Kampung Cuisine

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.

The traditional Malay kampung comprises a single-storey wooden house set in a cleanly-swept yard. Shaded by coconut palms, mango, banana, jackfruit and other fruit-bearing trees, chickens peck their way between rows of vegetables and herbs planted for the use of the family. In a Malay kampung are no pigs and no dogs-if such animals are visible, then the house belongs to non-Muslims, generally Chinese or, in the north of the country, Thai Buddhists.

The heady aroma of herbs and spices, mingled with the rhythmic beating of pestle and mortar, points the way to the Malay kitchen or rumah dapur. This is a single room, usually located at the back of the house, or sometimes in a detached outhouse to minimise the risk of fire. Roofed with atap thatch, corrugated iron or simple tiles, a large window spaces permit the smell of smoke and cooking to waft away on the wind.

A typical Malay kitchen has shelves and cupboards piled high with dry goods and spices of all sorts. In times past a meat safe was indispensable for preserving fresh meat, but today refrigerators have taken over this role. Wooden or metal food cabinets with wire-mesh sides protect prepared foods, while rice is stored in sealed jars and large earthenware vessels hold rainwater. Dried foodstuffs hang from hooks in the ceiling, while drying chillies lie on rattan sieves known as nyiru.

The kitchen is very much a female domain, so much so that the term orang dapur or "person of the kitchen" also functions as a polite epithet for women and girls. Here, from dawn to dusk, the women of the family gather--not just to prepare meals, but to teach and to learn the art of kampung cuisine. Girls assist in the kitchen from a young age, helping their mother grind spices and stir pots, while grandmother squats to watch and offer words of advice. In this way recipes pass from one generation to the next within the family, and as a result dishes vary from household to household, the distinctive family rempah often remaining both a carefully-guarded secret and a source of pride.

Men do not usually participate in cooking, though they may assist with heavier work such as lugging firewood and charcoal for the tungku lekar or stove. This is the heart of the kitchen and deeply symbolic of the female domain, so that in the traditional Malay heartland of Trengganu the term tungku lekar remains a polite epithet for "wife". In rural areas men are responsible for slaughtering goats, chickens and other livestock according to Islamic dietary law. Malays also believe that some dishes, notably satay and barbecued meats, taste better when men prepare them.

David Henley / CPA
Chicken satay and peanut sauce

Healthy Eating

Malays--like most Malaysians--divide food into four types: heating, cooling, neutral and clarifying. Good health depends on maintaining a natural balance between these categories. Heating foods include meats such as beef, mutton and goat, as well as fried foods like banana and plantain, curry puffs, curries and stews. Cooling foods, by contrast, include most fruits and leafy vegetables--especially Chinese pears, okra (lady's fingers) and cucumber; tea, barley water and sago. Neutral foods include chicken and most fish, while clarifying foods such as herbal tea should be eaten twice monthly to purify the blood.

Dining Etiquette

It is sometimes said that Malays are always eating. In fact they don't eat more than other peoples, but they do tend to eat smaller quantities and more frequently than Westerners. This means that, in addition to eating the three main meals, Malays often take a break for snacks mid-morning, mid-afternoon and late at night--indeed whenever the initial pangs of hunger may be felt. Dishes are served by the women, who in times past ate separately from, and after the men--a custom which today has all but disappeared except in the most traditional of communities.

Women are also responsible for preparing kenduri, or feasts on special occasions--most notably during the fasting month of Ramadan, and especially at hari raya, the great celebration held to mark the end of the fast. The women of the kampung take out their largest cooking pots and work through the night, cutting and scraping, pounding and stirring, to create a huge array of dishes from curries and sambal to cakes and desserts.

Eating is a serious business, and meals are usually consumed quietly, if not in complete silence--there is plenty of time to talk after the food has been consumed, perhaps over tea, coffee, or cigarettes. Generally speaking plain water or iced syrup drinks are the liquid accompaniment to a meal, although fruit juices or bottled soft drinks are also acceptable. Beer, wine or other alcoholic beverages are forbidden by Islamic law, and are never taken with food or otherwise openly consumed.

Traditionally, Malay food is eaten with the fingers of the right hand, the left being reserved for personal ablutions. At table, the left hand may be used for drinking, passing dishes and handling implements such as serving spoons. Before any meal Malays will wash, then cleanse their fingers once again in a finger bowl at table. Rice--as elsewhere in Southeast Asia revered as the very staff of life--is then taken delicately in the right hand and compressed into a small ball and pushed into the mouth with the thumb.

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.


Traditionally, firewood and charcoal were the only fuels available for cooking, and this remains the case in most remote rural communities today. In towns and larger villages, however, gas stoves have become the norm, while electric rice cookers are considered indispensable. Today the average middle class, urban Malay household may boast a whole range of modern appliances from refrigerators and food blenders to toasters and microwave ovens. Yet the traditional utensils of Malay cuisine will still be found in tens of thousands of kitchens from the remotest kampung in Kota Bahru to the heart of downtown Kuala Lumpur.

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.

Cooking: Nowadays, even in the remotest kampung, stainless steel periuk or cooking pots have become commonplace. The traditional cooking implements of a Malay kitchen are still everywhere to be seen, however. These include the essential wok, known throughout Malaysia by its Malay name, kuali. These are chiefly used for stir-frying, but with the addition of a perforated steel plate can also be used for steaming. The bamboo steamer or kukusan is also widely employed. Curries are simmered for hours in clay pots called belanga, the cook stirring from time to time with a senduk or ladle, once made from a coconut shell, now generally of stainless steel. A further indispensable instrument is the spatula, or sudip, used in stir-frying.

Halal and Haram

The Malays of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore are overwhelmingly Muslim, and adhere closely to Islamic dietary laws. Muslims should eat only halal or permitted foodstuffs, such as meat that has been slaughtered in the manner prescribed in the Qur'an, fish, grains, vegetables and fruits. Certain foodstuffs are considered haram or forbidden and must be avoided. Prominent amongst these are pork (babi), frogs (katak), amphibians in general, and shellfish.
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.

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.

Forbidden Fruit?

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.

Text copyright © Andrew Forbes / CPA 2002.

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