Every aspect of Malaysian culture is defined by a huge mix of influences. The population can be mostly split into three self-identifying groups: Malays, Chinese and Indian, with a minority of indigenous groups remaining. Of course, the reality is that most people are descendants of mixed cultural heritage, and the majority of customs and recipes are so entangled in this ancient merger of influences that it is difficult to single out any one. Complicating things further are influences from neighbouring countries and past colonial powers, meaning that elements of Indonesian, Singaporean, Thai, Dutch, British and Portuguese cuisines, to name a few, are also inextricably woven through the culinary traditions. Some staples of the cuisine that form the foundation of many meals are chillies, often ground into a paste, or “sambal”, belacan, which is a dried shrimp paste, coconut, soy sauce, lemongrass, tamarind, pandan leaves, tropical fruits, rice, noodles, local seafood, often dried to enhance flavour, meats that predominantly conform to Islamic practices, as it is the dominant religion, and soy products such as tofu. I have very fond memories of Malaysian cuisine from when I was a kid. My dad travelled through the region in his youth, and has always adored this and all other cuisines – to this day he is always the first to volunteer to try new exotic foods. On occasions when primary cook mum was out and dad was in charge of my sustenance for the day, we would therefore often conspire go to a little Malaysian restaurant in an East Asian district of Brisbane. I was familiar by this stage with somewhat westernised Chinese, Indian and Thai food, but the sheer authenticity of this restaurant meant it was particularly exotic to me. My dad liked to order any drink containing coconut and red beans, while I developed an early appreciation for the salty dried anchovies and aromatic spices of nasi lemak. Of particular note, no matter how “mild” I ordered anything, the cook would still unblinkingly serve a 7 year old child tear-inducing amounts of chilli. In retrospect these experiments were instrumental in building my spice-tolerance, as well as my love of international cuisine. While I was cooking this week I thought frequently of the Malaysian practice of “open house”, where festive seasons or a celebratory occasion is held in a host’s home, which is open throughout entire days for anybody to pop by, and help themselves to the wide array of food available. Sometimes I end up with huge amounts of leftovers that I am tasked with somehow fitting into my tiny freezer, so perhaps putting on an open house could be a useful strategy for the future?
Nasi lemak is frequently touted as Malaysia’s national dish, thought to be Malay in origin. This is a much more impressive feat than you might initially think, because Malaysia is especially diverse in terms of its cultural subpopulations, and therefore in its cuisines. The indisputable balance of deliciousness of the dish, however, somehow manages to unite the whole country, as well as being greatly enjoyed by the surrounding countries of Brunei, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia. One origin legend of nasi lemak is that it was invented by the daughter of a widow, tasked with cooking while her mother was out earning money. One day, the daughter clumsily spilled coconut milk into a pot of cooking rice, and upon tasting the rice, the mother exclaimed “What did you cook!?” To which she defensively replied “nasi le, mak!” (rice, mother!). However, its name also seems to mean “rich/creamy rice”, referring to the literal central component: jasmine rice steamed with coconut milk and aromatics such as pandan leaf, lemongrass and ginger. This is then served with traditional accompaniments, including hard-boiled egg, ikan bilis (fried anchovies), sambal (a spicy and slightly-sweet chilli sauce), sliced cucumber and roasted peanuts. This combination can be served alone, or, for a more substantial meal, along with another accompaniment, such as chicken curry, rendang curry, grilled or steamed seafood, or a simple piece of fried chicken (ayam goreng), as I have prepared. There are numerous close siblings of nasi lemak depending on the chef and region of Malaysia you happen to be in, including nasi ayam, nasi dagang and nasi kerabu, the latter of which includes startlingly blue-coloured rice from the petals of butterfly-pea flowers. I’m completely in love with the periwinkle blue of this rice dish, but alas, do not possess the requisite flowers to make it, plus I wouldn’t feel quite right about just using food colouring (and it likely wouldn’t achieve the same outcome). Besides, nasi lemak is undoubtedly the most generally popular and famous of these rice-with-accompaniments dishes, and deserved top priority. It is predominantly considered a breakfast dish, although it can be eaten at any point in the day, and is commonly sold by street hawkers, sometimes with all the ingredients packaged into convenient little triangular bundles wrapped in banana leaves. The dish rose to popularity with farmers needing a filling and balanced meal to begin their day, and I must say, I quite agree; I can’t imagine a more perfectly designed breakfast.
Roti jala, ayam kapitan and sambal udang
Roti jala literally means “net bread”, consisting of an intricate lace of fried batter forming a flat pancake. Given the large proportion of coastline in Malaysia, there is a long history of fishing. The fishing nets are thought to have been the inspiration to the original Malays who invented the roti jala, which is most often eaten alongside curries in place of rice. The runny batter is made with flour, eggs, milk and some turmeric, which is then dribbled in the lace pattern, traditionally using a tool such as a can of condensed milk with holes poked in the bottom, although custom-built tools are available for purchase nowadays. I took many photos of the roti jala, and was incredibly torn about which one to display here. When viewed flat, the roti look like beautifully fine chaotic lace doilies, but can also be folded into halves or quarters to increase the complexity of their patterns. In the end I settled on tightly rolled roti jala, which is one of the most common ways of presenting it that I’ve seen, and which a Malaysian friend of mine informed me looked the most recognisable. The curries I made along with my roti jala were ayam kapitan and sambal udang. Chicken curries are hugely popular in Malaysia, with many varieties calling for slightly different spices or varied combinations of spices and other ingredients, predominantly depending on the cultural group making them. The chicken curry I made (ayam kapitan) is an example of Peranakan/Nyonya cuisine, which arose from the intermingling of cultures from the early Chinese settlers and their descendants. Ayam kapitan is rumoured to have arisen from the Chinese chef of a British ship visiting Malaysia during colonial times. The chef, eager to learn from Malaysian cuisine, saw a local woman preparing a chicken dish that gave off an intoxicating aroma, and asked her to teach him how to make it. The chef then modified the dish to be a little less spicy, and therefore more palatable for the British ship captain, as well as adding a few Chinese ingredients to his own taste. The meal was met with great enthusiasm by the captain and crew, who asked him what the name was, to which he replied “ayam kapitan”, meaning “captain’s chicken” in Malay. Common flavours forming the paste for ayam kapitan include lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, chillies, garlic, ginger, shallots, soybean paste, star anise, cinnamon, cloves, kaffir lime leaves, candlenuts and tamarind. This paste is usually combined with coconut milk to form a thick gravy with the stewed pieces of chicken. Although more common in other types of chicken curries, I also included some pieces of potato in my ayam kapitan, because I love how the starchy nuggets combine with the thick gravy. Sambal udang (meaning hot sauce prawn) is a curry that is also likely from Nyonya origins, although possibly also originally more Malay. The spice paste is formed with red chillies, shallots, lemongrass, garlic, tamarind, kaffir lime leaves and belacan (dried shrimp paste), which is combined with water and prawns to make a rich red curry.
Satay and rojak
I, perhaps ignorantly, have always associated the term “satay” with rich peanut and coconut flavourings. However, this turns out to be wrong. In fact, satay refers to a preparation of seasoned meat or protein (beef, lamb, pork, chicken, seafood, tofu etc) threaded onto wooden skewers, then grilled and served with a sauce. This sauce is often flavoured with peanuts, labelled “satay sauce” i.e. “sauce served with satay” hence the common association with the name. The dish is thought to have been inspired by Indian kebabs, and is particularly popular with the Muslim population of Malaysia in recent times. I made a fairly traditional marinade for my satay, combining oil, lemongrass, garlic, salt, sugar, ginger, shallots, turmeric, cumin, coriander powder and a little chilli. I made the peanut sauce with chillies, garlic, galangal, tamarind, palm sugar, ginger, lemongrass, coconut milk and, of course, peanut butter. I’ve made this sort of peanut sauce before, however, every time I make it I am surprised anew by how immensely delicious it is. It’s all I can do not to eat it directly out of the pot as it cooks. Anyone who is scrutinising my blog to find out my weaknesses: this is a big one. Rojak has come to colloquially mean an eclectic mix, although I’m unclear whether this term lent its name to the dish or vice versa. Regardless, it’s clear that the two are inherently connected, as the dish is indeed an eclectic and variable mix of fruit and vegetables, combined with a spicy dressing. Rojak is found in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, and takes on wildly different forms between and within these countries. In my rojak, I included fruits such as pineapple, mango, apple and papaya, as well as baby spinach, radish, cucumber, bean sprouts and fried tofu. I topped off my rojak with a sprinkling of peanut pieces, as well as a dressing made of sambal oelek, kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), shrimp paste, lemon and grated palm sugar. In Indonesia, rojak is said to be craved by pregnant women, and takes centre stage as a predictor of the sex of the unborn baby: if the dish tastes sweeter than usual to the expectant mother, it will be a girl, but if it tastes spicier than usual, it will be a boy. This theme is continued with the red hibiscus, the national flower of Malaysia, as well a symbol of the Indian goddess Kali, Mother of the universe. This symbolism, however, is contraindicated by modern research showing that the consumption of hibiscus can result in contraceptive effects and sometimes even miscarriage. This is a shame, given that hibiscus tea is known to be rich in vitamin C, as well as other substances known to decrease cholesterol and lower blood pressure. So, ladies of the world be warned, if expecting, partake freely in rojak, but refuse the side of hibiscus!
Mee rebus literally means “boiled noodles” and describes a dish of yellow egg noodles in a thick and slightly sweet curry gravy. To make the gravy, I began with a paste of belacan, shallots, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaf and fermented soy bean sauce then combined it with boiled and mashed sweet potato, adding stock until it reached a thick consistency. The addition of boiled and mashed sweet potato instead of other thickening agents, such as dairy or coconut, is a stroke of genius in my opinion, and a wonderful way to get a sweet, thick and rich result for a fraction of the calories (and guilt). The accompaniments to mee rebus are famously varied and numerous, including limes, hard boiled eggs, local herbs, chillies, tofu and bean sprouts. The noodle dish is commonly sold by street hawkers, carrying two baskets hanging from either end of a pole, one carrying the components of the dish, and the other holding a stove and pot full of boiling water to cook the elements fresh for the hungry patrons. The dish is thought to originate from Indian-Muslim vendors from the West Peninsular of Malaysia, and subsequently spread across the country, picking up influences and ingredients as it went, in a familiar pattern of Malaysian cuisine evolution. However, there are also stories primarily crediting native Malays, the Chinese-influenced Nyonyas and even Indonesians from Java with its invention. Whatever the case, it’s clear that this dish belongs in part to all Malaysians, and, more importantly, it’s delicious!