The Malaysian population, as we know, is an amalgamation of different ethnic cultures. The Chinese form the second largest ethnic group, comprising nearly a quarter of the Malaysian population, after the Malays.
Today there is a significant presence of Malaysian Chinese in the country’s commerce and business sectors. Unlike many other Chinese communities outside China, Malaysia’s Chinese communities aren’t found in Chinatown areas but have assimilated into the local communities around the country.
To understand just how did the Chinese manage to form a significant and influential part of the population, one needs to know the origin and history of Chinese Malaysian culture.
Tracing the roots of the Chinese Malaysian:
Malaysia has long been influenced by travelling cultures and neighboring nations. However, unlike the merchants who traded at Malacca, the emigration of the Chinese to Malaysia was thanks to Malacca’s relationship with the then regional superpower, China.
Image: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library used under the Creative Commons Licence
During the 15th century, the Malacca Sultanate had a friendly diplomatic relationship with China. This relationship was highlighted by the marriage of a Chinese princess known as Hang Li Po to Sultan Mansur Shah, the ruler of Malacca. It was said that a host of 500 followers accompanied the princess to Malacca. As a gesture to his new wife, Sultan Mansur gave her a cluster of three hills that was renamed “Bukit Cina”, or “Chinese Hill”, for her entourage to settle down. While historians are still in disagreement over the existence of Hang Li Po, Bukit Cina today is the largest and oldest Chinese cemetery outside of China with over 12,000 gravesites, the oldest of which dates back to the 17th century. The descendants of these people, from Fujian province, became known as Peranakan, who assimilated themselves into the local Malay culture. They are also known as Baba-Nyonya, which refers to the men (Baba) and women (Nyonya) of the Peranakan community.
During the late 19th century, Malaysia was colonised by the British for its tin reserves and soil, which was ideal for growing rubber trees - a vital commodity in those days. To meet the labour needs of these industries, the colonists brought immigrants from China and India into Malaysia.
While the Peranakan had managed to establish deep roots in Malaysian society, the Malaysian Chinese community was about to get more varied with the arrival of many ethnic southern Chinese groups who were fleeing the rapidly destabilising Qing Dynasty in the late-19th to early-20th century. These new migrants began to settle in major cities around the country, with the Fujianese drawn to the port cities of Penang, Malacca, and Singapore, whereas the Hakka and Guangdong, who were willing to work in the tin mines, settled in Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur.
The confluence of different Chinese communities in various industries contributed to their rapid growth in Malaysia, and in spreading the Chinese cultures and sub-cultures like Min people, Hokkien, Fuzhou from Fujian province in China, Hakka, Hainanese, Cantonese, Guangfu, Peranakan, Baba Nyonya, and the Wu people.
Dialects of the Malaysian Chinese people:
While most Malaysian Chinese are able to converse in the two main languages of Malaysia, Bahasa Malaysia and English, they are also able to speak in their native Chinese language. However, unlike the Chinese from China, the Malaysian Chinese still use their native dialects rather than the standardised Mandarin that is practiced in China today.
The Min people form the largest dialect group in Malaysia and speak the Min language. Their ancestors came from Fujian province, followed by the Hokkien who settled in Penang and Malacca, Kelantan and Terengganu.
Other Chinese dialects commonly used in Chinese Malaysian communities include Teochew, Hakka, Mandarin, and Cantonese.
Influence of Chinese culture on Malaysia
The Chinese population in Malaysia has preserved its unique cultural identity by practicing Chinese customs and traditions. The Chinese follow their rituals and rites religiously and uphold their cultural values. For example, the town of Penang, where most of the Chinese are found, still celebrates the harvest festival.
Daniel Dionne used under the Creative Commons Licence
There is great pomp in Malaysia when it comes to the two biggest Chinese festivals, Chinese New Year and the Moon festival. In fact, a lot of new practices and cultures were formed in Malaysia after the influx of Chinese.
Influence of Chinese culture on Cuisine
Malaysian Chinese consume all types of food, including Chinese, Indian, and Malay. Malaysian Chinese is primarily derived from Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, and Teochew cuisines.
A number of traditional Chinese dishes have been developed using local ingredients and also thorough local inventions. Bak Kut Teh, Loh Mee, and street food such as char kway teow and Hainanese chicken rice originate from Malaysia. During Chinese New Year, Malaysian Chinese will celebrate the ocassion with Yusheng which became an annual tradition mainly in Kuala Lumpur.
Image: Charles Haynes used under the Creative Commons Licence
The confluence of different cultures in Malaysia has been instrumental in producing food with different elements from the different communities. The Malay-Chinese fusion cuisine is the food of the Nonya or Peranakan which can be found in dishes such as Laksa and Mee Siam.
FOOD IN MALAYSIA
Malaysia is a gastronomic delight with a wide variety of foods and dishes. With citizens from three large ethnic groups— namely Malay, Chinese and Indian, each with their own cuisine—the availability and mix of flavours and recipes are astounding. There are fusions or blends of these foods. An example of this is the "Nyonya" food which is a mix of Malay and Chinese ingredients.
Malay Food, Chinese Food, Indian Food and Thai food are all common in Malaysia. Each ethnic group tends to eat foods associated with their group. Malays tend to favor things like spicy rice and curry, the Chinese like noodle and rice dishes and the Indians eat their curries as well as things like mutton stew. Eurasian food is also available.
On the tourist trail Chinese food is often easier to get than Malay because many hotels and restaurants are run by Chinese. Pork, beer and alcohol are not served at restaurants run by Muslim Malays but they are served at restaurants run by Chinese. Vegetarian meals, and beef and seafood dishes are widely available. Sometimes the beef comes from water buffalo. Fish often comes with the head attached and the chicken often has a lot of bones. Seafood such shrimp, prawns, crab, lobster, clams, dried fish, squid, flounder, eels, and jellyfish, are most widely available in the coastal areas.
Malay food is similar to Indonesian food and is not as diverse as Vietnamese food or spicy as Thai food, but it is still pretty good and it can be spicy. Malaysians rely on cayenne, a red-hot pepper, to make their food spicy. In the early 2000s there was a major crisis when a shortage of cayenne developed because so much of it was smuggled out of the country to Singapore where it sells for double the price.
Food is plentiful, cheap and easily available in Malaysia. A two kilogram bag of the fruit often costs less than 50 cents. Night markets and hawkers on bicycles serve fast-food meals, while 24-hour eateries offer Indian chapati bread and ginger tea for anyone feeling peckish at three in the morning. Malays celebrate important events with rice. Rice balls and fish balls are served in banana leaves. Dried fish is often used in mousetraps rather than cheese.
A survey by A.C, Nielsen found that 59 percent of people interviewed eat at a fast food restaurant at least once a week, compared to 35 percent in the United States..
Ketchup comes from the Malay word kechap, which described a fish sauce made with pickled fish or shellfish and sauces. British seamen discovered it but were unable to find the original ingredients and added ingredients familiar to them. The resulting sauce, called "ketchup", was popularized with the help of a popular cookbook. In 1790, tomatoes were added.
High-Fat Malaysian Cuisine Food and Unhealthy Malaysians
In 2007, Reuters reported: “With ingredients such as high cholesterol coconut milk, clarified butter and sugar cane, the traditional Malaysian diet may be among the most unhealthy cuisines in the world. From fine dining lobster veloute to rice flour noodles fried in lard from street hawkers, food in Malaysia is often high in cholesterol and fat, with copious amounts of sugar and salt. In a country where eating is a national pastime, Malaysians routinely drive miles in search of deep-fried dim sum in the northern town of Ipoh or curried offal rice in the island state of Penang. [Source: Reuters, December 18, 2007 /+\]
“Malaysia has one of the highest rates of diabetes, strokes and heart disease in Southeast Asia. In 2000, 7.6 percent of Malaysians over the age of 20, or 1.82 million people, were diabetic in a country of nearly 24 million people, according to the World Health Organisation. At around the same time, 6.7 percent of the population of Indonesia and 3.8 percent of the population of Thailand had diabetes. /+\
“Experts blame rising affluence, a sedentary lifestyle and a growing trend of working mothers for the rise in health problems. "Generally people are eating more and eating higher-caloried food," said Tan Yoke Hwa, President of the Malaysian Dieticians' Association. "We need to have more aggressive education and to impart information to the community, getting them to make the change." /+\
“More than two-thirds of Malaysians over 18 do not exercise, government statistics show. The number of overweight Malaysian adults rose to 29.1 percent last year from 16.6 percent in 1996, while obesity increased from 4.4 percent to 14 percent during the same period. At the same time, public healthcare costs rose from 1 billion ringgit ($A348 million) in 1983 to 6.3 billion ringgit in 2003. Health spending is expected to exceed 10 billion ringgit by 2010. To deter the consumption of unhealthy foods, the government has banned fast food eateries from advertising during children's television programmes. Fast food chains are also required to detail the cholesterol, fat and sugar content of their items.” /+\
Obesity - adult prevalence rate: 14 percent (2008), country comparison to the world: 123
Malaysian Food Gets Healthier
In 2007, Reuters reported: “ But chefs in food-mad Malaysia, which touts itself as an Asian gastronomic heaven, are reinventing local cuisine due to a sharp jump in cases of obesity, diabetes and strokes in the Southeast Asian Muslim country. Fattening coconut milk, an essential ingredient in Malaysia's spicy curries, is being shunted aside for nutritious soy milk. White rice is being replaced by brown rice and greens are playing a more dominant role on the menus of local restaurants. [Source: Reuters, December 18, 2007 /+\]
“Malaysian celebrity chef Ismail Ahmad has changed the menu of his restaurant Rebung in an old bungalow in Kuala Lumpur to include more vegetables and less meat "People want to look good, they want to look healthy," said the 47-year old who has added braised tofu, ferns and beansprouts in chili paste to his menu. "Before, 70 percent of my buffet dishes was meat. Now I use more roots and vegetables," added Ismail, who said he cut sugar and rice from his diet after a battle with gout. /+\
“But healthy eating is catching on. Diets to lose weight and get healthy are popular, ranging from the classic low-carbohydrates, high-protein diets to fad diets of eating certain foods or adding herbal medicines to dishes. At Purple Cane, an eatery in the Malaysian capital, tea is an ingredient in all its dishes ranging from fish to prawns. "Our customers like something that's not oily," said K C Tan, a manager with the restaurant. "Tea is good for health, it brings down cholesterol and fat." /+\
“Chef Bong Jun Choi has noticed a change in eating patterns, with diners requesting less meat. "Now people are more concerned about being healthy," said Bong who serves up Cantonese food at a five-star hotel in the Malaysian capital. But not everyone is ready to give up traditional Malaysian comfort foods. "Of course not," said S.C. Wong, a 34-year old lawyer, scoffing at the idea of trading oily fried noodles for a salad. "I love food. I'm going to die anyway so I might as well eat hearty." /+\
Ingredients in Malaysian Cuisine
Common ingredients found in Malaysian dishes as well as other Southeast Asian cuisines include chili paste, coconut milk, curry, lemon grass and dried fish. Other essential ingredients in Malaysian dishes include ground peanuts, palm sugar, honey, sweet soy sauce, vinegar, tamarind, garlic, shallots, coriander, lime leaves, galangal (similar to ginger), scallions, sugar, turmeric, bamboo shoots, watercress, carrots, and onions.
According to malaysia-klcookingclass.com: “A hallmark of Southeast Asian cuisine, the Lemon Grass, with its distinctive lemony fragrance is related to citronella. Lemon Grass, together with Pandan Leaves, are commonly found in most kitchen gardens in Malaysia. The coarse, long flat leaves are usually discarded and only the bulbous base is used. It can be added whole to curry dishes or sliced and made into paste. They can be trimmed and made into excellent skewers for prawns or seafood satay. Long blade-like leaves that give a distinctive flavour and aroma to dishes A leaf or two is usually added to rice before cooking for fragrance. It also gives colour and flavour to desserts and cakes. The fragrance is usually realised by raking the leaves with a fork or pounded to extract green juice. [Source: malaysia-klcookingclass.com ***]
“The curry leaf tree, a native to India, is cultivated in Malaysia. Sprigs from the curry leaf contain small leaves which have a distinctive fragrance, especially when fried. The chilli is very important to Malaysian cooking. There are more than two thousand varieties found in Southeast Asia. The most common are the finger-length chillies which have only medium intensity and the small Cili Padi which is hot. Chillies come in green and red colours and their fragrance differs slightly. Dried dark reddish brown chillies are commonly used in Malaysian dishes as they add a deep red colour to the dish. ***
“The small round fruits of asam gelugor, which does not have an English name, are very sour and not eaten fresh. They are usually sliced thinly and dried until shrivelled and brownish black. It is used primarily in fish curries. It is a member of the ginger family and is cultivated for its flavour and vivid yellow colour. In Southeast Asia, the fresh rhizome is usually preferred. Being rather intense, it is used in small quantities and if not careful, fresh turmeric can stain clothes and utensils. This member of the ginger family has a pungency and tang which is unlike the common ginger. Too spicy to be eaten raw, the Galangal is used in slices, chunks or pounded to a paste for curries and side dishes.” ***
Key Ingredients in Malaysian Cuisine
Chichi Wang wrote in seriouseats.com: “Sweet soybean paste: Falling somewhere between the consistency of a paste and a sauce, this condiment of fermented soybeans, rice flour, sugar, and salt has the winey complexity of miso, but with a much sweeter undertone. Halved soybeans are suspended throughout the sauce; the nubby texture and beany flavor pair well with many stir-fried noodle dishes and stews. [Source: Chichi Wang, seriouseats.com March 19, 2010 ||||]
“Indonesian Sweet Soy Sauce: Though it's mostly used in Indonesian dishes, Malaysian cooks will employ the sweet, smoky syrup known as kecap manis, or sweet soy sauce, in various sambals and simmering dishes. Thick and syrupy, this dark-brown mixture of palm sugar and soy sauce has an addictive sweet-savory, honeyed taste. It's complex enough to be drizzled over rice and noodle dishes, but it's also an important addition to pastes. ||||
“Candlenuts: Native to Indonesia, candlenuts are distantly related to macadamia nuts, though they're larger with a rougher exterior. Ground up, candlenuts thicken pastes and coconut-milk based curries. (Candlenuts are also mildly toxic when raw, inducing just a friendly warning level of nausea.) ||||
“Palm sugar, made from the boiled-down sap of the tree, is sold in either large cylindrical tubes or smaller, rounded disks. Brown sugar can be substituted in a pinch, but it lacks the complexity of palm sugar, which adds a caramel-like, toasted taste to both sweet desserts as well as savory dishes. ||||
“Tamarind Paste: The fruit of the tall tamarind tree, native to east Africa, is a smallish curved pod with a brittle shell that encases a sticky, brown pulp. Sweet and sour, the pulp is usually mixed with warm water to extract the juice—a fruity, sour liquid that's used in soups and curries, as well as stir-fried dishes. The rigid blocks of pulp contain little bits of seed and pod that should be strained out prior to use. (Don't use the whole tamarind pods, also commonly sold in Asian markets, which are meant to be eaten as fruit.)” ||||
The tamarind tree is very tall and graceful with sprays of fine leaves. The long pods of the fruit contain a number of pulp covered seeds. Juice is made from the pulp of the fruit by adding water and is used in a lot of Malaysian dishes to add a fragrant, fruity sourness to dishes.
Chichi Wang wrote in seriouseats.com: “Belacan (pronounced buh-LAH-chan) is one of the most important, and by far, the most pungent ingredient in Malaysian cookery. Unlike the oily, garlicky shrimp paste used in Thai curries, belacan is a hardened block of shrimp paste, made from tiny shrimp mixed with salt and fermented. The fermented paste is then ground into a smoother paste, then sun dried, shaped into blocks, and allowed to ferment again. The resulting blocks are chalky and only slightly moist. Powerful in both smell and taste, belacan is always toasted and used in small quantities, providing a savory depth to curries and pastes. (Play around with the amount of belacan you prefer in your sambals. If, like me, you always add more than the recommended number of anchovies to your Caesar salad dressings, you may just want to add an extra half teaspoon or so of belacan to your sambals!) [Source: Chichi Wang, seriouseats.com March 19, 2010 ||||]
“Though many have described belacan as pungent, I'd go so far as to describe its smell as stinky, like a gym bag, a sneaker, or whatever other foot-related image comes to mind. Belacan's malodorous quality only intensifies when browned. To toast belacan, used your palm to compress a tablespoon or so of the paste wrapped in a small packet of foil. Place the foil over a gas stove burner and toast over low heat for 30 seconds to a minute on each side, until the edges of the disk of belacan are lightly browned and crisp. The belacan will emit an alarmingly smoky, burning smell, which is an indication that it is toasting up nicely. ||||
“A word of warning: The first time I toasted just a teaspoon of the block over a small gas flame, the belacan emitted such smoky, funky smells that even with the windows open and the exhaust fan turned on, the entire apartment became a petri dish for its insidious odors. Not having fully realized this until I left my apartment, I (and my neighboring classmates) spent the entirety of a yoga class inhaling the residual smell of belacan that had works its way into the fibers of my clothes.” ||||
Malaysian Eating Habits
Most Malaysian meals consist or rice eaten with beef or fish curry, accompanied by vegetables such as cabbage, spinach or cucumbers. Sometimes meals are served with a pancake-like bread that is used to mop up the food. Dishes are often served together rather than one after the other. They are often seasoned with chili paste, coconut milk, curry, lemon grass or dried fish.
Breakfast is generally eaten between 6:30am and 8:00am and generally consists of rice, spicy stew, dim sum, meat, or nasi lemak (rice and spices cooked with coconut milk) and tea. Most people eat breakfast at home. It's hard to find a restaurant that serves breakfast.
Lunch is generally eaten between 12:00noon and 1:30pm. It is often the big meal of the day. It typically consists of a main dish served with four or more side dishes. Dinner is generally eaten between 7:00pm and 8:00pm. It is often made up of lunch leftovers. Fresh fruit is a common dessert.
Eating Customs in Malaysia
Malays and Indians often eat food with their hands. Some restaurants don't have any utensils at all to give their patrons. Instead each table comes with a water pitcher that is used to clean the hands after the meal. Most meals come with pancake-like bread that is used to scoop up the food which is usually something that resembles stew.
Malays eat with only the first two of their fingers, not their entire hands. Muslim Malays have traditionally used their left "dirty" hand to take care of wiping their dirty and other "unclean" bodily functions. As a result, Muslim Malays never eat or touch someone with their left hand.
People are generally served a plate with rice on it. Using a serving spoon they dish themselves food from serving bowls at the middle of the table. Don't touch the serving spoon to your plate and pass dishes by holding them with your left hand and supporting them with your right hand palm down.
Westerners are often offer ed forks, spoons and knives. When Malaysians eat with Western utensils they usually hold their spoon in their right and hand and fork in their left hand and push food with the fork onto the spoon and eat with their right hand using the spoon.
People often sit on the floor when they eat and wash their hands from a bowling before starting to eat. Don't blow your nose, clear your throat loudly. Refusing food is considered bad manners. Chinese in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia have the custom eating any time they feel like it.
Etiquette at the dining table of a royal family members: 1) Do not eat or drink before His Majesty has done so; 2) Avoid opening your mouth widely when putting food into your mouth. When chewing your food, your mouth should be closed. Do not talk when your mouth is full; 3) Make sure that the cutlery is used correctly and do not make too much noise. Leftovers should not be left on the tablecloth; 5) After eating, the cutlery should be arranged neatly and not scattered about; 6) If food is stuck in your teeth, avoid picking at it with your fingers. Use a napkin to cover your mouth when you remove it; 7) Cover your mouth with a napkin when you are coughing or sneezing; 8) Avoid yawning or belching loudly; 9) Do not pick your ears, scratch your body, stretch yourself, and crack your knuckle, during the dinner; 10) Do not raise your head or rest both elbows on the table; 11) For women, when seated at the dining table, the handbag should be hanged using a handbag holder and not placed on the table even if it is a small handbag. [Source: malaysianmonarchy.org ]
Halal in Malaysia
According to the Malaysian Government: “Halal Certification is a recognition that the products are permissible under Islamic law. These products are thus edible, drinkable or usable by Muslims. The Department of the Advancement of Islam Malaysia (JAKIM) has the authority to inspect and verify that a company meets the criteria in producing halal products. A Halal Certificate will only be issued by the Department if the production of the business’s products meets these criteria. [Source: Malaysian Government]
Halal is an Arabic word meaning lawful. It refers to things or actions permitted by Shariah law without punishment imposed on the doer. It is usually used to describe something that a Muslim is permitted to engage in, e.g. eat, drink or use. The opposite of halal is haram, which is Arabic for unlawful or prohibited.
Guideline on Halal Foods and Drinks: All kinds of food are considered halal except the following, which are haram: 1) Swine/pork and its by-products; 2) Animals improperly slaughtered or dead before slaughtering; 3) Animals not slaughtered in the name of Allah; 4) Alcohol and all forms of intoxicating and hazardous drinks; 5) Carnivorous animals, birds of prey, and land animals without external ears; 6) Pests such as rats, centipedes, scorpions and other similar animals; 7) Animals forbidden to be killed in Islam e.g. ants, bees, spider and woodpecker birds; 8) Animals which are considered repulsive generally like lice, flies, maggots and other similar animals; 9) Animals that live both on land and in water such as frogs, crocodiles and other similar animals; 10 ) Blood and by-products of blood; 11) Foods and drinks which contain any of the above haram ingredients or contaminated through contact with any of the above products.
See Muslim Customs article factsanddetails.com
Pungent Fermented Food from Malaysia
Melissa Clark wrote in New York Times, New York City chef “Zak Pelaccio was cooking some of his favorite Malaysian dishes.” He “opened a container and lifted the lid. Out slithered the reek of summer in the city. He smiled. ''Salted mackerel -- it's an integral ingredient in Malaysian cooking,” he said. 'Every country with a coast has a tradition of using some kind of preserved fish of course, not all smell like this.'' The salted mackerel was to give the dish he was making, otak-otak, its characteristic fermented complexity, the ''funk''. While eating in Kuala Lumpur food stalls, Mr. Pelaccio developed a craving for anything that had either undergone a controlled rot (salted mackerel, dried shrimp paste), or tasted like it had (durian). The stalls were also where he first tried otak-otak, the intense, spicy mackerel paste he was about to make. [Source: Melissa Clark, New York Times, August 30, 2006 ==]
''Fried fish balls are much easier for people drinking martinis to understand than some weird, funky fish cake thing steamed in a banana leaf,'' he said as he pulled the skin off the mackerel. He puréed the flesh in a food processor with fresh cod and eggs. Next, he gathered chilies, herbs and spices and piled them into his mother's stone mortar, placing it on a dish towel so as not to chip the marble counter (''here's how not to get in trouble with Mom,'' he said). After much pounding -- scent of spice commingling with the mackerel's perfume -- I asked if the food processor was an option. He frowned: ''You get a much more integrated paste using a mortar and pestle because you're pounding everything together. The food processor chops each ingredient separately.'' Still, he confessed to using the food processor sometimes to save time. ==
“He mixed the spices into the fish paste, adding just enough rice flour to bind it. The paste could rest until he was ready to fry. But first, there was black bass to poach. Into a large pot went the black bass skeletons and heads, thoroughly rinsed, and seasoned with much of the familiar (chilies, kaffir lime, Vietnamese coriander stems and garlic) and a bit of the exotic (tiny pungent dried fish called ikan bilis, and the wrinkled skin of assam, a dried Malaysian fruit). He simmered it all in coconut milk. As it bubbled, Mr. Pelaccio made the sauce for the fish balls. He held up a bottle of pink liquid and read the label: ''Chinchalok is a delicious sauce that's slightly saltish and pungent and considered to be a gourmet's delight by local fisher folk.'' ''It's krill that are salted and bottled,'' he said as he flicked off the bottle cap. ''They ferment. Check it out.'' A malodorous pink geyser erupted, spraying the counter. Mr. Pelaccio stanched the flow with his thumb and laughed. ''It always does that because of the pressure from the fermentation,'' he said. He mixed it with minced chilies and shallot and lime juice. ==
“At his restaurant “he adds tomatoes to ''disguise the fact that you're eating whole krill shrimp.'' He added, ''It hides their little black eyes.'' But no such masquerade was necessary at Mom's. Mr. Pelaccio fried some fish balls. The intensity of the mackerel mellowed, becoming deliciously complex, like aged runny cheese. When dunked in the tart sauce, the balls were positively addictive. One batch of crispy balls quickly dispatched, we turned to the bass, which he had poached in the spiced coconut milk, and garnished with chilies and pink petals of torch ginger. The fish was sweet from coconut, herbaceous, fiery and a little musky from the torch ginger. It was a delightful dish, at once nuanced, rich and quite beautiful. But we ate only a few bites. We were hooked on the fish balls and their sauce. ''It's all about the funky and the fermented,'' he said, frying up just one more batch.” ==
Common Malaysian dishes according to malaysia-klcookingclass.com: 1) Nasi Lemak - rice cooked in coconut milk (santan) served with sliced boiled egg, peanuts, cucumber and sambal sauce. Regarded as the national dish by all Malaysians. 2) Char Koay Teow - fresh rice noodles fried with prawns, egg and bean sprouts. A favourite dish of all Malaysians. 3) Rendang - a spicy meat or chicken stew prepared with chillies, onions and other condiments, sweetened with coconut milk and served with rice. There are dry and wet versions. A Festival dish. 4) San Chou Bau - minced chicken with spring onions, ginger, red pepper, water chestnut rolled up in a lettuce leaf. 5) Roti Jala - made from a batter mixture, seasoned with tumeric and poured using a special cup to make a lacy pancake effect. 6) Sambal - chilli paste mixed with shallots, garlic and added to prawns and other ingredients eg anchovies (ikan bilis). 7) Dhall curry - a vegetarian curry made from dhall (lentils), vegetables, tumeric and chillies. 8) Gula Malacca - palm sugar obtained from the sap of coconut palms, boiled until it crystallizes then moulded into cylindrical cakes. [Source: malaysia-klcookingclass.com ]
Malaysian-Indonesian dishes include satay (skewered and marinated beef, chicken or mutton cooked over an open fire, and served with a delicious peanut sauce), nasi goreng (fried rice with vegetables and spices), gado gado (vegetables and rice with the delicious peanut butter sauce), soto ayam (soup with chicken, bean sprouts, onions and celery), laksa (spicy fish and noodle soup), Sarawak-style laksa in coconut sauce, nasi padeng (steamed rices served with side dishes like vegetable or spiced fish) and nasi ulam (an eastern Malaysia herbed-rice dish).
Westerners like rojak (fruit and vegetables stir fried in shrimp-based sweat and sour sauce), panggang golek (spiced duck with cashews and coconut cream), chili crabs in a spicy sauce, dodeng (ginger beef), mee siam (spicy Thai-style noodles), otak otak (fish mousse in lemon grass and banana leaves), chilies prawns, deep-fried chicken, stewed water buffalo. and mee rebus (noodles in beef gravy).
Chinese food, Thai food and curry dishes are also widely available. Chinese restaurants serve mainly fired rice, fried noodles, noodles soups and Cantonese and southern-Chinese-style dishes. Widely available Indian dishes include roti chanai (a crispy pancake with a chick pea sauce) and murtabak (pastry filled with egg, vegetables and meat).
Recipes for Pungent Fermented Food from Malaysia
Essential kitchen implements for Malaysian cooking: 1) Lesung batu - stone mortar and pestle; 2) Kukur Niyur - coconut scraper; 3) Wok or Kuali - steel or brass pot for stir frying.
Coconut Poached Black Bass (Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes): Ingredients: 1) 4 whole black bass, about 1½ pounds each, cleaned and filleted, heads and bones reserved; 2) 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil; 3) 8 shallots, sliced; 4) 10 Thai chilies, 6 sliced, 4 halved lengthwise; 5) 5 garlic cloves, sliced; 6) 2 lemon grass stalks, outer stems removed, cores halved and pounded; 7) 1 cup ikan bilis; 8) 6 pieces assam skin, rinsed well in cold water; 9) 6 kaffir lime leaves; 10 ) 5 Thai basil stems, leaves reserved for garnish; 11) 5 Vietnamese coriander (rau ram) stems, leaves reserved for garnish; 12) 4 cilantro roots, cleaned and trimmed; 13) 3 tablespoons coriander seeds; 14) 6 13.5-ounce cans coconut milk; 15) 2 teaspoons salt, plus additional, to taste; 15) Freshly squeezed juice and grated zest of 1 lime, plus additional juice and zest to taste; 16) 2 torch ginger petals, julienned, for garnish. [Source: Melissa Clark, New York Times, August 30, 2006 ==]
Instructions: 1) Rinse fillets, fish heads and fish bones well (there should be no blood) and pat dry. Refrigerate fillets until ready to use. 2) In stock pot or Dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat. Add shallots, sliced chilies, garlic and lemon grass, and cook, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add fish heads and bones, ikan bilis, assam skins, 4 lime leaves, Thai basil stems, Vietnamese coriander stems, cilantro roots and coriander seeds and cook 2 to 3 minutes more. Stir in coconut milk and salt. Simmer, covered, for 1 hour. 3) Strain liquid into a bowl, wiping out pot. Add lime juice and zest to coconut mixture; taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. 4) Arrange fillets back in the pot and cover with coconut milk mixture. Cook, covered, over low heat, until fish is opaque and just cooked through, 5 to 7 minutes. Meanwhile, remove stem and spine from remaining lime leaves and discard. Julienne leaves. Tear up reserved basil and coriander leaves. Divide fish among shallow bowls and ladle some coconut mixture on top. Garnish with halved chilies, julienned lime leaves, torn herbs and ginger, if desired. Yield: 6 to 8 servings. Spicy ==
Fried Fish Balls (Otak-Otak) (Time: 50 minutes): For the fish balls: 1) 4 shallots, sliced; 2) 4 Thai chilies, sliced; 3) 4 kaffir lime leaves, stems and spines removed; 4) 1 2-inch length of fresh or frozen (and thawed) turmeric, peeled and trimmed; 5) 1/2 lemon grass stalk, outer layers removed, core thinly sliced; 6) 1 tablespoon ground coriander; 7) 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper; 8) 1 pound cod filets, cut into 1-inch cubes; 9) 4 ounces salted mackerel, boned and skinned, cut into 1-inch cubes, or 4 ounces anchovies; 10 ) 2 eggs; 10 ) 2/3 cup coconut milk; 11) 4 to 5 tablespoons rice flour. For the dipping sauce: 1) 2 Thai chilies, minced; 2) 1 garlic clove, minced; 3) 1 shallot, minced; 4) Freshly squeezed juice of 1/2 lime; 5) 1 tablespoon chinchalok; 6) Canola oil or peanut oil for frying; 7) 2 cups panko breadcrumbs. ==
Instructions: 1) To make fish balls, pound shallots, chilies, lime leaves, turmeric, lemon grass, ground coriander and pepper to a paste in a mortar and pestle, or use a food processor. Transfer to bowl. 2) In food processor, blend cod and mackerel to a smooth paste. Add eggs. Gradually pulse in aromatics and coconut milk, alternating ingredients, until incorporated. Pulse in rice flour until you can form paste into a ball. 3) To make sauce, whisk remaining ingredients, other than oil and panko, in a bowl. 4) In a saucepan or wok, heat 3 inches oil to 375 degrees. Meanwhile, grind panko in a food processor or mortar and pestle. Using wet hands, roll fish paste into 2-inch balls. Dip balls into panko and coat evenly. Fry, turning frequently, until golden brown all over, 3 to 4 minutes. Drain on a paper-towel-lined plate. Serve with dipping sauce. Yield: About 40 fish balls. ==
Fruit in Malaysia
Tasty fruits found in Malaysia according to wongeats: “Duku Langsat - the flesh is sweet and fleshy with a bitter tiny seed in the middle, making it a challenge to eat the fruit without biting it. But the sweet flesh makes it worthwhile and all attempts are usually made to avoid the center. The outer skin is quite distinct by its leathery quality that peels easily to reveal the semi-translucent flesh. [Source: wongeats, September 2, 2012]
Chiku - This fruit is also known as Sapote in the Spanish-speaking world. The sweet flesh is very soft but a bit rough in texture. Like most fruits in this part of the world, it is seasonal and thus available only at a certain time of the year. I was glad that it was available when I made my visit back recently.
Chempedak – this fruit is related to the Jackfruit and Breadfruit, but it grows only in the Southeast Asian region. The flesh is a rich and sweet soft flesh, much like the texture of a ripe mango, but much sweeter and strong heady notes to accompany it. The seeds are usually saved and boiled, tasting much like a richer water chestnut. As a child, I would eat this fruit that has been battered and deep-fried, which made the seeds edible when well-cooked. It is definitely missed due to its unavailability outside Southeast Asia.
Starfruit - most homes in this tropical country would grow this fruit tree since they do well without much care. When in season, the tree bears many fruits that need to be wrapped in paper to prevent the birds from ingesting them, as was in the case at my auntie’s home. the skin is a a thin skin that protects a juicy insides, much like a soft apple. However, it is slightly tart and sweet at the same time, providing a light crunch in each bite. Strangely, Malaysians love to eat it by dipping it into a pool of salt.
Papaya – another commonly grown fruit tree in most homes is the papaya. Like the starfruit, it is commonly vulnerable to birds that sense when the fruits are ripe and sweet, thus the common practice of wrapping them in paper as they ripen. I really enjoy this soft and sweet fruit that exude a unique fructose flavor that is unmatchable. It is one of my favorite breakfast fruits that is paired with a squeeze of lime.
Mata Kuching – A long time favorite of mine. It is a slightly leathery flesh that is very sweet, coating a hard black seed. It bears the name of “cat’s eye” due to its similar appearance. This fruit is very sweet and makes it completely irresistible, making heavy consumption of it possible. However, the common warning is that consuming too much can over-tax the system.
Dragon Fruit – this fruit was not common more than 10 years ago. This fruit is indigenous to Vietnam and it made its way to this part of the world. It bears such name due to the leaves that emanate from the body of the fruit, looking like dragon scales. But inside bears a richly colored fruit that is soft and sweet. It has become a well sought-after fruit by the locals due to its wonderful flavor and exotic looks.
Durian - I saved the King of Southeast Asian Fruits for last among the fruits. How can I explain its flavor? It is unique and extremely strong, yet illusive at the same time. Some have described it as rotting garbage which does not make it exactly attractive to the novice. But once you can get pass its strong odors, you will taste a flavor that is rich, custard-like, very heady, complex, slightly fermented, sweet, and mineral-like. It is this mix of flavors that make it totally irresistible to many, much like an addict looking for a fix. I have watched many locals sitting at stalls indulging in these fruits with glazed eyes – and I know why.
Jambu is a pink peach-tasting fruit with the texture of pepper. Rambutan is a red egg-size fruit with soft spikes around the outside. It is sweet and similar to lychees.
See FRUITS AND VEGETABLES IN ASIA factsanddetails.com
Malaysian Desserts and Snacks
Common desserts include gula malaaca (sago pudding made with sago palm sugar), kueb (cakes made with rice flour, coconut milk and fragrant spices), kuih bahalu (sponge cake), putu beras (glutinous rice cookies), pulut pagi (glutinous rice with grated coconut), kuih putu halba (steamed mash tapioca with sweet filling), kuih tepung boko beras (steam rice flour cookies with coconut milk) and cakar ayam sarang burung (sweetened deep fried sweet potato). A popular refresher is Ais kacang, a combination of crushed ice, syrup, jelly and crushed fruit.
Tau Foo Fah: According to wongeats: One of my pleasures of going back to my childhood home is going to the morning market like I used to do so with my grandmother and later with my mother. It was always a delight to see fresh ingredients among the array of spices and dry goods. Among them are prepared foods that are readily available for consumption, including this Tofu dish which I came across a vendor selling this item. Although it is a sweet dish, it is usually eaten as a snack or at any time of the day. It is fresh soft silken tofu that is paired up with palm sugar spiked with fresh ginger. This is indeed a healthy snack and has a cooling effect on the body even when consumed hot, as it is customarily done so. [Source: wongeats, September 2, 2012]
Kueh Lapis are made of layers of rice flour dough that has been enriched with coconut milk, each layer steamed separately thus its name meaning “layer cake”. Each layer is contrasted with a different colored layer to create such effect. Eating this delight reminded me of my grandmother who was a master Nyonya cake maker, and I was glad to be the recipient of her wonderful gift. They are usually eaten for afternoon tea rather than dessert after a meal.
Ais kacang is a Malaysian dessert which is also common in Singapore and Brunei. Traditionally a special ice machine is used to churn out the shaved ice used in the dessert, originally hand cranked but now more often motorized. Many Southeast Asian coffee shops, hawker centres, and food courts offer this dessert. Nowadays, ais kacang is mostly known as 'ABC' (acronym for Ais Batu Campur, literally meaning "mixed Ice"). [Source: Wikipedia]
Formerly, it was made of only shaved ice and red beans, though the number and diversity of ingredients has since expanded. Today, ais kacang generally comes in bright colours, and with different fruit cocktails and dressings. In Malaysia, almost all variants now contain a large serving of attap chee (palm seed), red beans, sweet corn, grass jelly and cubes of agar agar as common ingredients. Other less-common ingredients include aloe vera, cendol, nata de coco, or ice cream. A final topping of evaporated milk, condensed milk, or coconut milk is drizzled over the mountain of ice along with red rose syrup and sarsi syrup. Some stalls have even introduced novelty toppings such as durian, chocolate syrup and ice cream. There are also versions that shun the multi-coloured syrup and are served with just a drizzling of gula Malacca syrup instead.
According to wongeats: Ais Batu Campur (ABC) is dessert/snack that is a definite favorite among nearly all Malaysians. It is basically shaved ice that is sitting on top of a melange of cooked red beans, cooked fresh corn kernels, different forms of jelly, and nuts. The shaved ice is usually flavored with a sugar syrup, rose petal syrup and evaporated milk. As a child, this was a frequent order during my school recess time as a way to cool down from the heat and the non air-conditioned classrooms. I had this rendition with my parents and their friends in a Malaysian restaurant in Melbourne, even in the midst of their winter season. I guess, for some, habits are hard to die as we were digging into it with gusto even after a big meal, much like little kids at the school canteen, albeit in cold weather.
Bird’s Nest Soup
Sabah has traditionally been a major edible bird nest collecting area.
In the Penang area, a number of people have tried to attract bird nest swiftlets to old buildings and harvest their nest for soup. In some cases they have brought in stereo systems to produces bird calls to attract the swifts and humidifiers that emit mists to imitate the conditions in the caves that swifts usually live. The number of these bird houses increased from 150 in Malaysia in 1999 to 2,000 n 2001. The practice has become so common in some areas, such as Sitiawan in central Perak State, the main “bird” town, it has caused real estate prices to soar.
See SWIFTLETS, BIRD'S NEST SOUP factsanddetails.com
Insects as Food in Malaysia
Many Singaporean Chinese go to Johor Baru, Malaysia for a meal of termites, which they believe will relieve headaches and muscle pain and generally improve health. The termites are served three ways—live, dripped in alcohol or preserved in rice wine—and sell for as much as $7 for individual termite ( a plump, juicy two-inch-long queen). One termite eater said they "were tough and firm on the outside, cool and creamy on the inside—absolutely tasteless.” The Chinese reportedly have considered termites a delicacy for 3,000 years. [Source: Reuters, 1996]
The larva of Hoplocerambyx spinicornis, a kind of Cerambycidae (long-horned beetles) is commonly eaten in Sarawak. It is a borer in dipterocarp trees and logs (Mercer 1993). It is often eaten raw but is more commonly roasted over a fire. It can be a bit "fiddly" unless given time to expel the wood particles from its gut.
The sago grub, known as Ulat Sagu in Malay, is commonly eaten in Sarawak, often raw but more commonly after roasting over a fire (Mercer 1993). The beetle, Megasoma actaeon Linn., is consumed in Malaysia. Bodenheimer (1951, p. 209) states that many melolonthid beetles are eaten in Malaysia.
Hoffmann (1947) reports that in Singapore a specially flavored salt is sold with the giant waterbug, Lethocerus indicus. The salt, known as Kwai Fa Shim Im, is fragrant and has probably had henna flowers added to it. The giant cicada, Pomponia imperatoria (Westwood), 3 inches long and with an 8 in. wing span, is used as food (Essig 1942, p. 315).
Favre (1865, p. 61) states of the Jakuns: "One of their most prized dishes is a honey comb. The time when the honey is in the comb is not considered the proper moment to take the hive. They wait until the small bees are well formed in the cells, and a few days before they are ready to fly away the honey-comb is taken with great care and wrapped in a plantain leaf, is put upon the fire for a few minutes, and then wax and insects are devoured together and considered as an uncommon treat." Irvine (1957, p. 124) also says that bee brood is commonly eaten in the comb.
Bragg (1990: 157; vide Kevan 1991) mentioned that in Sarawak the eggs of the walkingstick, Haaniella grayi grayi, are eaten as a delicacy by the local people. Kevan (1991) cites earlier literature that Malaysians ate a certain large species of stick-insect after removing legs and wings. Kevan believes the identity of the species to be, despite previous taxonomic confusion, Platycrana viridana Olivier. Regarding E. versifasciata, Nadchattram (1963: 35-36) states that Malayan Chinese believe in the healing powers of the droppings of this insect and for this reason they rear them. "They claim that dried excreta mixed with herbs will cure a number of ailments, such as asthma, stomach upsets, muscular pains. A brew is also made from the droppings and drunk like tea. This they claim will cleanse the body."
Chu et al (1977) and Sullivan et al (1977) discussed the public health implications of beetle-eating involving the dermestid, Palembus (= Martianus ?) dermestoides, among Chinese and Malays in Malaysia. These beetles are not used as food but as an aphrodisiac or as a medicinal treatment for a variety of ailments. Both the swallowing of live beetles and of detritus consisting of the insect's feces and chewed herb fragments have been reported. The main public health hazard is that the beetles can serve as a host for the human-infecting tapeworm, Hymenolepis diminuta. The practice is apparently not common, but neither is it extremely rare.
McDonald's Loses Trademark Fight Against Malaysia's McCurry
In September 2009, Julia Zappei of AP wrote: “The ruling by a three-member panel of the Federal Court ends all legal avenues for McDonald's to protect its name from what it said was a trademark infringement. "On the basis of unanimous decision, our view is that" McDonald's plea to carry the case forward has no merit, said chief judge Arifin Zakaria. "It is unfortunate that we have to dismiss the application with costs," he said. McDonald's began operations in Malaysia in 1982 and has 137 outlets in the Southeast Asian country.[Source: Julia Zappei, AP, September 8, 2009]
McDonald's will have to pay 10,000 ringgit ($2,900) to McCurry, a popular eatery in Jalan Ipoh on the edge of Kuala Lumpur's downtown. McDonald's lawyers refused to comment, except to say the company will abide by the judgment. McCurry lawyer Sri Devi Nair said the ruling means McDonald's does not have a monopoly on the prefix 'Mc,' and that other restaurants could also use it as long as they distinguish their food from McDonald's. "This is a precedent for everyone to follow," he said.
A three-member Appeal Court panel had ruled in favor of McCurry Restaurant in April this year when it overturned a 2006 high court ruling that had upheld McDonald's contention. Arifin said McDonald's lawyers were unable to point out faults in the Appeal Court judgment, which had said there was no evidence to show that McCurry was passing off McDonald's business as its own. The Appeals Court also said McDonald's cannot claim an exclusive right to the 'Mc' prefix in the country.
"We are very much relieved. We hope to expand. This is what we wanted to do from the beginning and we were stalled for eight years," said A.M.S.P. Suppiah, the owner of McCurry. "I am so happy ... we have nothing in similarity with them at all. That's how we have felt all this while," said his wife, Kanageswary Suppiah. The Appeal Court said McCurry's signboard has white and gray letters against a red background with a picture of a smiling chicken giving a double thumbs-up, in contrast to McDonald's red and yellow "M" logo. McCurry also serves only Indian food, not competing with McDonald's Western menu, the court said.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015