When any visitor comes to Malaysia, the first thing that they will wonder is why there are so many eateries serving different type of cuisines – from hot Indian curry to Chinese noodles, all under one roof. One of the pillars of Malaysian cultural showcase is our diverse cuisine brought in by different ethnic people who immigrated here in the past.
Before we begin an exciting journey of food, let me introduce to you the basic ingredient found in many dishes found in Malaysia. The first to receive honourable mention is none other than the humble coconut milk. Throughout my travel around China and certain parts of the world, many consider coconut milk to be just another delicious sustenance easily bought in the form of canned drinks from shopping malls or at restaurants.
Due to the abundant sunlight, rainfall and right soil condition in many Southeast Asian countries, coconut trees thrive abundantly across the region. In Malaysia, coconut milk is a key ingredient in many dishes across the country. The creaminess of coconut milk brings out the taste of curry and kuih (bite-size local snacks). For the Indian and Malay ethnic group in Malaysia, they are known to use coconut milk in many of their cuisine. Similarly, for the Chinese, they tend to use coconut milk generously as major ingredient for a curry noodle dish.
In Malaysia, a very famous Malay fare is the Nasi Lemak (“Oily Rice” if translated word for word from the Malay language). It is our national dish and widely eaten not only by the Malay ethnic group but also by the various races here in Malaysia. This cuisine is a rice dish cooked in coconut milk together with pandan leaves, and served with several side dishes. Traditional Nasi Lemak usually contains fried anchovies, roasted peanuts, hardboiled egg, slices of fresh cucumber and finally topped with Sambal (Hot chili paste). Due to the simpleness of this national cuisine, many types of side dishes can be served together with this meal.
Nasi Lemak is commonly served wrapped with banana leaves and finally covered with old newspaper. During my schooling days in the 90’s, a decent packet of Nasi Lemak cost only RM 0.50 (around 15 cents) but now, it had ballooned to RM 1.00 or more. However, it remains a very cheap and simple breakfast meal for many ordinary Malaysians. As a person who had lived abroad in South Korea for many years, I can still remember the joy of finding a Malaysian restaurant serving authentic Nasi Lemak there. The spiciness and creaminess of this dish while savouring during a frigid cold Korean winter brought back many sweet memories of Malaysia. Of course, Nasi Lemak served at Malaysian restaurant overseas can easily exceed USD 15 for a simple meal.
Besides Nasi Lemak made from coconut milk, in my hometown of Penang, Malaysia, we have a dish called Curry Mee. Curry Mee is a type of Chinese noodle soup dish serve with tau pok (fried bean curd with wrinkled outer skin and soft spongy interior), beansprouts, cockle clams, prawns and sometimes, congealed pig blood. The soup combines the spiciness of chili paste (to be added separately depending on your preference in the soup) and creaminess of coconut milk to make it one of the famous local dish found in Malaysia.
On the other hand, in Malaysian Indian community, other than ghee and yogurt widely used in their cuisine, coconut milk is sparingly used in many dishes. However, for many curry dishes that require a more solid taste – coconut milk is widely added to enhance the flavour. One of the famous Indian dish usually served during festivals in Malaysia is none other than the Mutton Korma. Indian curry is very generous in using spices, and coconut milk does indeed compliments the taste of this curry.
Generally, Malaysians tend to have sweet tooth and we love to indulge in many desserts. Several Malaysian traditional kuih or desert use a lot of coconut milk. One of them is called Kuih Talam. Kuih talam is a type of bite-size delicacy that has two layers – a bottom green layer has pandan taste with a sweet flavour while the top thin layer is white in colour and has a coconut creamy aroma that is slightly salty. An interesting fact about this sweet snack is that it is also commonly found in Singapore.
Coconut has many uses in Malaysian cuisine. It is the prerequisite in many Malaysian food and without such super ingredient, I am sure many famous Malaysian cuisine will taste very bland. Malaysian food has come a long way from being served only at homes and the traditional recipe was kept secret, passed down only among family members to the cuisine being now internationalized. These days, it is not difficult to find Malaysian restaurant at a quite alley in London to the busy street of Itaewon in Seoul. Bon appétit and wishing all readers a Happy New Year!
By KYLE TAN JIN SOON, ASEAN Correspondent from Malaysia