Malaysian cuisine – spice mission

19 August 2010 by
Malaysian cuisine – spice mission

While Malaysian cuisine is one of the most exquisite and diverse in the world, compared with neighbour Thailand its cooking is still relatively unknown. But that could be about to change, says James Stagg.

It is known as the crossroads of Asia but in culinary terms Malaysia is more the melting pot of the continent. The country has been a centre of trade for centuries, facilitated by the Strait of Malacca, one of the main arteries of the spice trade.

When the British East India Company established a colony on the Malay Peninsula in 1786 it brought in Chinese and Indians to work the mines and plantations. They offered both professional expertise and a culinary and cultural diversity that is still evident today. As many of these workers settled permanently in Malaysia, their influence on the depth and variety of cuisine remains strong.

But while Indian and Thai food is well established back on these shores, Malay cuisine remains largely unappreciated in the UK. There are just 70 Malaysian restaurants across the country, compared to more than 300 Thai restaurants in London alone.

"I can't understand why it hasn't been embraced," says Rick Stein, a vocal fan of Malay cuisine and ambassador for Malaysia Kitchen. "Thai food is everywhere but we have a greater connection with Malaysia as it was a colony at one stage. Malaysian food is one of the most fascinating and varied of the world's cuisines, and is as yet relatively unknown here in the UK.

"Perhaps Malaysians haven't travelled as much as the Thai's but in terms of the attractiveness of the cuisine they're on a par. There is endless variety and I think anyone that's new to it has much to discover."


The tropical country is extraordinarily fertile and home to a great variety of fruit and vegetables, most of which can also be sourced in the UK. Fresh, vibrant sweet and sour flavours dominate the cuisine, and it's the freedom with which sweet flavours are combined with delicate spice that characterise the cooking.

One of the dominant forms of cooking, particularly along the western coast of Malaysia, is nonya. This is a blend of Chinese ingredients and wok cooking with spices traditionally used in Malay cuisine. It has been refined by the descendants of Chinese migrants who settled along the strait of Malacca and married local Malays. Key ingredients include coconut milk, galangal, tamarind, shrimp paste, lemon grass, chillies and shallots.

Demonstrating nonya cuisine at the colonial Majestic Hotel in Melaka, local chef Kenny Chan believes it's only a matter of time before the cuisine is enjoyed in the UK. "They're the kind of flavours that would be enjoyed there, but there hasn't been the opening for the country to experience them," he says. "Guests have come to my restaurants in Malaysia, enjoyed the food and even invited me to open a franchise in the UK."

His repertoire includes a delicately flavoured chicken stew called chicken pongteh. It's a relatively straightforward dish bursting with umami. Garlic, shallots and Chan's chilli sauce is fried off until fragrant, to which are added chunks of chicken which are then covered in water. Chinese mushrooms and potatoes are dropped into the broth, which simmers for 30 minutes. Served with Sambal belachan, a traditional spicy sauce comprising fresh chillies pounded together with toasted shrimp paste (belacan) and combined with sugar and lime juice, the dish is surprisingly subtle and rich in flavour.

Malaysian hawker market
Malaysian hawker market

"The combination of flavours has to be perfect to make sure it blends," Chan adds. "The key is the hot, sweet and sour, but not in the same sense as Thai food. This is more subtle due to the Chinese influence."

Further up the coast in Penang - long considered Malaysia's culinary capital - the Chinese influence is just as strong. One of the most celebrated dishes here is assam laksa. There are many styles of laksa (spicy noodle soup), but this is one of the finest and can lay claim to being Penang's signature dish. While it is served in many restaurants, even they struggle to emulate the theatre and freshness served up by the street hawkers that are the feature of Malaysia.

At a small street stall close to Penang's largest Buddhist temple, monks and locals enjoy possibly the finest laksa to be found on the island. It is a complex spicy and sour dish, flavoured with serious amounts of tamarind. Mackerel is used to make the fish broth, which is first poached, de-boned and added to the soup together with lemon grass, tamarind and chillies. Thick rice vermicelli noodles are placed in a bowl, alongside Chinese lettuce, cucumber, onion, pineapple and - importantly - mint leaves. The hot broth is then poured over the ingredients in the bowl and the dish is garnished with chopped ginger buds, a sprig of mint and a swirl of shrimp paste. The spicy, sour, pungent soup has a bold, exciting smell and taste, with tamarind providing a punch of sourness that is tempered by the refreshing mint leaves.

"Lemongrass and shrimp paste are two of the most iconic flavours of Malaysia," says Stein. "Of all the dishes in particular I love the laksa. There are just so many different styles. And the great thing is that these days it's not hard to find the raw materials. Other than ginger bud there are few ingredients that can't be sourced."


But it's not only the Chinese that have made a lasting impression on Malaysian cuisine. Indians, too have lent their own particular style. In a hawker market next to Fort Cornwallis in Penang - built by Sir Francis Light after he landed on the island in 1786 - Shahul Hameed, a Tamil Indian cooks mee goring just the way his father, who began selling the dish from a stall in 1942, taught him.

What sets the spicy noodle dish apart is the way the ingredients are prepared. The noodles are first blanched with bean sprouts before being fried with soy sauce, shrimp paste, garlic, shallots, squid, soy bean cake cubes, sliced green and red chillies and puffy flour fritters. A gravy of chilli and tomato puree is added to the mix to moisten the noodles, which are garnished with chopped lettuce, ground peanuts and a large squeeze of lime.

It is hot, fresh and an assault on the senses with crispy chilli enrobed squid providing a contrast to the soft, more subtle noodles infused with wok char. Derived from Chinese chow mein, the dish has been adapted by Indian migrants to include Malay ingredients and represents the fusion of bold, hot, sweet and sour flavours that characterise Malay cuisine.


At the casual beachfront pavilion, built in the style of a limas (traditional Malaysian home) chef Shukor serves local seafood from the Andaman Sea in a variety of styles.
Though some of the heat is tempered for western palettes and the presentation has been perfected, the composition and depth of flavour is truly traditional.
"We do have western food in the other restaurants, but guests like to experience well prepared local food too," Shukor says.

Among the dishes he prepares is pasambole, an immaculately presented salad of local herb ulam raja combined with carrot, swede, turnip, tofu and boiled egg. Small pieces of tender, gently spiced fried chicken are worked into the sweet and crunchy salad to make an aromatic and refreshing dish.

This is followed by a fish soup, typical of northern Malaysia. "It's a traditional pindang soup boiled together with fish meat to make the stock. But in this one we include prawn and scallop," Shokur adds. The broth is lightly flavoured with turmeric and chilli, making it as sweet, spicy and sour as you would expect, while yam stem adds an unexpected crunch and freshness.

No Malay meal is complete without a creamy curry dish. Here Shukor prepares masak lemak, a typical coconut and lemongrass infused sauce served with chicken. "We braise the chicken together with turmeric and coconut cream, a little chilli, shallot, garlic and ginger are also in there," he adds.
"It's garnished with turmeric leaf. It's a little bit spicy, but we don't make it as hot as we could."


Recognising that the country has lost a march on its Thai neighbours when it comes to exporting its food, the Malaysia Export Trade Development Corporation - Matrade - is currently busy raising awareness of the country's cuisine.

"Compared to Thai food we are nowhere," explains Matrade product section director Wan Norma Wan Daud. "There are only 500 restaurants around the world, most of which are in Australia."

To redress the balance it has launched a campaign to highlight the variety and potential of Malaysian food, and is willing to support overseas ventures.
"We can offer financial packages and provide attractive rates to those who wish to open businesses overseas," Wan Daud adds. "There is a long tradition with the UK so it can happen very quickly."

Alongside support for recipe development, the organisation says it is looking into the possibility of taking British chefs to Malaysia for training.

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INGREDIENTS (Serves six)

•1kg boneless, skinned chicken thighs
•2 tbsp vegetable oil
•2 fat lemongrass stalks
•400ml coconut milk
•6 kaffir lime leaves
•2 tsp palm or light muscovado sugar
•Juice ½ lime
•A handful of coriander leaves, roughly chopped, to garnish
For the kapitan curry paste •6 dried red kashmiri chillies
•4 heaped tablespoons desiccated coconut
•250g shallots or onions, roughly chopped
•6 fat garlic cloves
•50g peeled fresh galangal or ginger
•2 tsp turmeric powder
•4 fat lemongrass stalks, outer leaves removed and core roughly chopped
•Â½ tsp shrimp paste
•2 tbsp vegetable oil
•Steamed rice, to serve

For the kapitan curry paste, cover the dried chillies with boiling hot water and leave them to soak for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat a heavy-based frying pan over a medium heat, add the desiccated coconut, and stir it around for a few minutes until lightly golden. Tip on to a plate and leave to cool, then tip into a mini food processor and grind quite finely.

Drain the red chillies, put them into a mini food processor with the remaining ingredients and the toasted coconut and grind everything into a smooth paste.

Cut the chicken thigh fillets into small chunks. Heat the oil in a flameproof casserole or large, deep frying pan over a low heat. Add the chicken and stir-fry for 2 minutes until lightly golden. Lower the heat slightly, add the spice paste and fry gently for 5 minutes, stirring now and then.

Meanwhile, cut away and discard the top two-thirds of each remaining lemongrass stalk. Bruise the bases with the end of a rolling pin.

Add coconut milk, lemongrass stalks, kaffir lime leaves, sugar and 1 teaspoon of salt and simmer for 30 minutes until the chicken is tender and the sauce has reduced and thickened slightly. Add the lime juice and simmer for one more minute. Scatter over the chopped coriander and serve with steamed rice.


(Serves six)

For the toasted coconut ice cream •75g finely grated fresh coconut
•400ml coconut milk
•100ml single cream
•6 large egg yolks
•200g caster sugar
•1 tbsp cornflour
•Â½ tsp pandan essence
For the black rice pudding •200g black glutinous rice
•2 pandan leaves, twisted into a knot (optional)
•175g palm sugar
To serve •1 large, ripe mango
•200ml can coconut milk


For the ice cream
Heat a dry, heavy-based frying pan over a medium heat. Add the coconut and stir until it is nicely golden. The little bits always brown first, so if you can, scoop these out so that they don't burn. Tip on to a plate and leave to cool.

Meanwhile, put the coconut milk, cream and a pinch of salt into a non-stick pan and bring to the boil. While this is happening, mix the egg yolks, sugar and cornflour together in a heatproof bowl. When the coconut milk and cream comes to the boil, slowly whisk it into the egg yolk mixture. Strain the mixture into a clean pan and cook over a low heat, stirring all the time, until the mixture lightly coats the back of a wooden spoon, but don't let it boil. Pour back into the bowl, stir in the pandan essence, cover and put in fridge to chill.

Churn the mixture in an ice cream mixture, which should take approximately 20 minutes, adding the toasted coconut about 5 minutes before the end. Alternatively, pour the mixture into a freezer-proof container, cover and chill until almost firm. Scoop it into a food processor and blend until smooth, then return to the container and re-freeze. Repeat this process another 2-3 times, then fold in the toasted coconut. Transfer the mixture to a rigid plastic container with a lid and leave in the freezer for 4-6 hours or overnight until firm.

For the black rice pudding Rinse the rice thoroughly in cold water. Put into a pan with the pandan leaves (if using) and 2 litres of water, and bring to the boil over a medium heat. Lower the heat slightly and simmer gently, stirring now and then, for 1¼ hours.

Meanwhile, peel the mango and cut the flesh into small bite-sized pieces. Cover and chill in the fridge along with the can of coconut milk.

Add the palm sugar to the rice and continue to cook for 10-15 minutes until the excess liquid has evaporated and the rice is suspended in a thick, dark purple liquid. Remove and discard the pandan leaves if necessary, stir in ¼ teaspoon of salt and leave to cool to room temperature.

To serve, spoon the rice pudding into glass bowls and top with a scoop of toasted coconut ice cream. Scatter over the iced mango, drizzle over a little chilled coconut cream, and serve.

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