Malaysian Cuisine: The Best of All Possible Worlds

Sharon Hoge celebrates Malaysian Restaurant Week with a guide to what’s what in Southeast Asian eats.

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Diners who balk at a menu offering Char Kuay Teow, Inche Kabin, Ulam, Pengat Pisang and Teh Tarik don’t know what they are missing. It’s a meal of stir-fried flat noodles with prawns, deep-fried chicken marinated in spices, herb and vegetable salad, topped off with a dessert of banana cooked in coconut milk and palm sugar and frothy “stretched” tea. It’s delicious fare and each dish represents one of the contributing ethnic strains of Malaysian cuisine that is emerging as one of the hot new trends in dining.

The Asian country, made up of the beaches, jungles and highlands of the Malaysian peninsula south of Thailand and the northern section of Borneo, is a meeting place for many peoples. Its three major races, Malays, Chinese and Indians, combined with influences from the colonizing British and Portuguese and contributions from the indigenous Peranakan, have resulted in a diverse culture and a cuisine that is fresh, unusual and full of wonderful surprises.

Some of its distinctive flavors – clove, cinnamon and mint – are familiar to westerners. New to discover are exotic, ginger-like galangal, rich caramel brown palm sugar, pungent petai and minty Laksa leaf polygonum, which give a distinctive Malaysian twist to dishes rooted in the contributory cultures.

Combining influences from Indonesia, India, Thailand, Arabia and China, the Malay component’s distinct and exotic delicacies combine lemongrass, ginger, kaffir lime, dried chilies and basil flavor in an array of dishes. But the three main terms to know are nasi (creamy coconut milk rice served with condiments), laksa (aromatic fish soups) and satay (skewered meat bites served with peanut sauce). The quintessential Malay meal is Nasi Lemak, the creamy rice originally wound into a cone with anchovies, egg, peanuts, a piece of curried chicken and cucumber as a palate freshener. Now, served on a platter, it’s a one-dish meal of multi-flavors eaten any time of day and known as the country’s “national” dish.

From the Chinese, Malaysian cuisine derives dishes that are mild, stir fried and served hot. Recipes brought over from Canton, Szechuan, Hunan are tweaked with local ingredients resulting in bah kut teh (pork bone soup), curry mee (spicy curry noodles, which may be served with fried tofu, shredded chicken, crunchy bean sprouts and mint) and popular popiah (deep-fried spring rolls filled with turnip, bean sprouts, beans, carrots and prawns with lettuce leaf added for crunch).

Familiar clay oven tandoori, chapatti and nan breads, and long-grain biryani rice from India, introduced during the centuries of trading with India, are enhanced with Malaysian touches. One variation of flatbread, murtabak, is layered and folded with spiced minced meat and eggs or sardines. Sweet, spicy, savory mee goreng Mamak is a stir-fry of yellow noodles with black soy sauce, eggs, tomatoes, chili, potatoes and vegetable fritter.

The ethnic Peranakan, or Chinese Strait people, date from more than 600 years ago when an alliance between a Chinese admiral and the founder of the Melaka region resulted in a race assimilating their two cultures. These men are called Baba and the cuisine named for the women is Nyonya, a marriage of Chinese cooking style with Malay ingredients and condiments. Ayam pongteh (chicken cooked with preserved soybean paste, dark soy sauce, palm sugar and potatoes) and assam curry garoupa, with a tangy, spicy, sweet-to-sour gravy are two highlights. Nyonya’s curry chicken kapitan is probably the forerunner of the 1980s favorite hostess entrée, Chicken Country Captain.

The Portuguese strain is detected in European foods with Malay names: acar is pickle, kobis gulung is rolled cabbage. These seafaring people favor ocean-based foods. Tuna mornay is a baked tuna-and-cheese casserole. Devil’s curry is so loaded with chilies that it’s not considered a success until the person eating it breaks out into a sweat.

While many Westerners are familiar with satay and spring rolls, they may not realize they have been enjoying Malaysian food all along. Many familiar foods are Malaysian in character. “People have been eating it every day,” notes Luckyrice founder Danielle Chang. “It’s found in menus but just not marketed as Malaysian food.” Chef Simpson Wong, who grew up near Kuala Lumpur, has observed an evolving taste during the ten years he’s been running his popular New York City restaurant, Café Asean, noting that that the light, healthy, fresh food appeals to sophisticated diners who find it spicy and sumptuous. “In the beginning it was strange. Now people bring their friends and brag about it.”

Restaurants are taking steps to promote the colorful, exotic and enticing flavors, and June 14 – 20 has been named Malaysian Restaurant Week. Exploratory gourmets can seek Malaysian fare listed on MalaysianKitchen4theWorld.com.

Editor’s Note: Sharon King Hoge specializes in consumer and travel journalism both in print and on radio and television. The former Consumer Reporter at WBZ-TV and producer/host of “The Sharon King Show” in Boston, she reported on ABC network news, hosted “The Cookbook Kitchen” on the Food Channel and participated in the launch of CNBC.  A Contributing Editor at Condé Nast Traveler and Global Traveler magazines, her writing has appeared in Forbes FYI and Forbes Executive Woman, SELF, Ladies Home Journal,  National Review.  A former columnist for both AOL and the New York Daily News, she was Calendar Editor for the Martha Stewart Living website and is Editor at Large of the three regional Cottages and Gardens shelter magazines.

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