Until the 15th century, the cornerstone of Malay flavour was a paste made with mainly roots —— lemon grass, small red shallots, garlic, fresh turmeric and galangal. Spices and chillies were added later when the spice trade began. —— There is a main street food area called Jalan Alor. Here the entire neighbourhood is dotted with stalls, selling everything from fish head curry to sambal and satay. Malays can easily tuck into up to six meals a day.
Normally, the day starts with breakfast, then a mid-morning snack, followed by lunch. A light bowl of noodles fills any gaps between 4pm and 5pm, and dinner is the main meal of the day. To cater to this non-stop nosh, the hawker culture works around the clock to feed the hungry with platefuls of delicacies like satay, laksa, redang and roti jala.
Rendang made with tempeh (soya bean cake) is quite delicious. Curries, mainly made with coconut milk, have their roots in Indian cuisine. Malay culture is a smorgasbord of modern Indian, Thai, Arab and Chinese influences and has been strongly influenced by people of neighbouring lands, including the Siamese, Javanese, Sumatran and Indians. The influence of Hinduism was significant and the Malay were primarily Hindus before converting to Islam in the 15th century, For 2,000 years, the traffic of traders between the Malayan Archipelago and India resulted in frequent inter-marriages, especially from Tamil Nadu and Gujarat.
A wave of Indian and Chinese immigration occurred again 200 years ago when the country needed labour. A Malaysian meal is influenced by all these communities and usually consists of a curry, fried, grilled or steamed fish in a banana leaf, sambal, ulam and a dessert made with coconut, jiggery and rice powder.
For a bird’s eye view of Malaysian food it’s best to go from one ethnic plate to another. For a travelling foodie, Ramadan is the best time to experience Indian Muslim style food ——– a culinary assimilation of Indian and Malay cooking styles at Mamak stalls. ” Malay-Muslim” dishes are basically a range of curries, the most prominent one being the Malaysian chicken curry. Every street stall has a secret recipe for curry. While the curries have a distinct Indian element, they are prepared using a varied spice mix called “rempah” ——- a complex paste of spices and aromatics roasted and cooked together forming the base even as coconut milk adds body.
Another coconut infused dish is the noodle soup called Laksa. This is a Nonya dish (Nonyas are a community of Malay and Chinese descent where Malay men mostly took Chinese wives) Their cuisine is popularly known as “Straits Chinese” and is represented by popular dishes such as Char Kuey Teow (stir-fried noodles with bean sprouts, prawns, eggs — duck or chicken, chives and thin slices of preserved Chinese sausages and the ubiquitous Hainanese chicken rice of poached chicken in a bland but fragrant broth. Of course, trust the Malays to re-jig the recipe, so go easy on the dipping sauce laced with chillies, garlic and ginger, which gives it a spicy kick that will make your tongue twist and taste buds salivate.
——— Fareeda Kanga