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What Makes it Unique?

Discovering the secrets of Malaysian cuisine.

Discovering the secrets of Malaysian cuisine.Ask anyone who has visited Malaysia and they’ll come back talking about the food - the amazing Indian restaurants, the incredible variety of vegetarian Chinese dishes, and the...

And that is essentially what makes Malaysian cuisine so unique. It’s a showcase of the multi ethnicity of the country itself, the population being basically made up of three groups: the Malays, Chinese and Indians. Then there are also influences from other cultures, such as the British, the Portuguese and the Dutch, all of whom at one time or other colonised parts of the country. What you get when you try Malaysian food is a symphony of many different flavours.

There are also many different meals. Malaysians take great pride in the fact they eat can eat up to six of them a day. First is breakfast and given the multi-ethnicity of the population, a Western style breakfast is becoming increasingly popular, although traditionalists still stick with a bowl of noodles or a rice dish to start the day. Eating continues at intervals right up till it’s time for bed.

For lunch and dinner there’s maybe a dish for each diner plus vegetable or rice dishes for everyone around the table to share. When dining in a restaurant there is usually no distinction in Malaysian cuisine between an appetizer and a main course, and all dishes are brought to the table when they are ready in no particular order. In more traditionally-run places, customers start with a plate of rice and simply help themselves to some of the pre-cooked food that is on offer in a buffet-style layout. If you ever visit Penang you will see Chinese-style vegetarian and Indian restaurants employing this system.

So what of the dishes that make Malaysian cuisine truly unique? Nasi lemak is often described as the national dish of Malaysia. It’s a fragrant rice dish where the rice is cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf. The rice is served with a hot chilli sauce known as sambal. The other ingredients are fried peanuts, fried anchovies, sliced cucumber, and hardboiled egg. Malaysians consider rice to be the main feature of the dish and all the other food is complementary to the rice.

A British-influenced popular food that is enjoyed by many throughout the day is kaya toast bread, which is served with coconut jam, sugar, coconut milk, eggs and pandan served on toast or sometimes crackers. There are now restaurants throughout Malaysia that serve this popular snack all day.

What is extremely interesting and unique about Malaysian cuisine is how everyone has adapted. You’ll find Chinese restaurants that are Halal certified. And while Chinese restaurants serve a lot of pork dishes, they offer chicken alternatives for the Muslim community. There are also lots of cross cultural adaptations in the food, so the Chinese have taken the Indian curry and dropped some of the spiciness and made the soup more watery and made it essentially their own. While the Indians and the Malays take the Chinese noodles and spice them up so you end up with Indian and Malay fried noodles.

Hainanese chicken is a very famous dish in Malaysia, but it is very different to the original dish from the Chinese province of Hainan. In Malaysia the tropical flavour comes through with the use of pandan leaves in the cooking of the rice, and the spiciness of flavour is added when it is served with chilli sauce. As you’ve guessed by now, Malaysians do in general like their food on the spicy side.

Travelling around Malaysia you’ll also notice that certain places are famous for their own adaptations of dishes. Penang’s famous specialty is Hokkien char, which is a yellow noodle soup with prawns and pork or chicken in halal style. The dish is garnished with a hardboiled egg, sambal and a sprinkling of poached prawns.

Satay is one of Malaysia’s most popular foods. You may think that it’s an Indonesian food, and indeed the origins of the dish are hotly contended by both countries. You will often find it written ‘sate’ in Malay and it’s comprised of marinated grilled meat most usually beef or chicken on skewers, served with sliced cucumber and onions as well as compressed rice and a spicy peanut dipping sauce. The town of Kajang is famous for its sate where the dish is known as sate Kajang. The meat chunks are bigger than normal and are served with a sweet peanut sauce and a portion of fried chilli paste.

Another famous dish that has been taken and adapted from its neighbours is Malaysia’s take on the Thai dish of tom yam. In Malaysia the soup is much thicker and the taste sweet, spicy and sour. The soup is thickened with pounded chilli paste which gives it a unique bright orange-red colour. Dried chillies are used instead of fresh ones giving the soup an extra kick, and the lime of the original Thai dish is replaced with tamarind. And the Malaysian variety is also heavily seafood based.

Desserts are also an example of the diversity of the population. However a common feature of Malaysian desserts is the use of coconut milk, pandan leaves and palm sugar. For example there’s ais kacang - also known as air batu campur, which consists of a base of shaved ice, coloured syrup, and evaporated or condensed milk with a variety of toppings. These may include ice-cream, sweet corn, peanuts, and red kidney beans. Other desserts include mooncakes, sago puddings, rotis and pandan cakes.

When it comes to Malaysian food there is so much on offer and so much variety that you’re sure to find not just one dish that you can call your favourite but instead a whole list of them.


Natalie Hughes


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