Charmaine Solomon
33 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Alan Benson


Malaysia is a lush, green country typical of the monsoon lands of South-East Asia. Because of its local produce and various cooking styles it has much to offer in adventurous eating. The cooking styles include Malay, Indonesian, Indian, Chinese and Sri Lankan, for people from all these countries have settled in Malaysia. Malaysian food is very similar to some Indonesian dishes, and in both countries the languages are almost identical.

In predominantly Muslim Malaysia the food is rich and spicy. Many kinds of meat and fish are used, but never pork – it is considered unclean, and it would be a serious faux pas to offer it to anyone of the Muslim faith. Among the Chinese it is used, and is one of their favourite meats. The Hindus do not eat beef, for cattle are sacred to them.

One of the most fascinating meals I had in Malaysia was in Kuala Lumpur, at a makan malam or night food stall. These indoor/outdoor eating places come to life when the sun goes down. Perambulating food shops are set up, each one specialising in a particular dish. I sampled chicken satay skewers that tasted of spices and fresh lemongrass, and were served with a peanut sauce, and ketupat, pressed rice cakes cooked in small woven baskets of coconut palm fronds. The sauce was surprisingly mild, being quite heavily sweetened to balance the spices. I then ordered a spicy noodle soup with cockles; sotong kangkong, a rich, red sauce with squid and fresh greens. Next on the menu was poh pia, a sort of unfried spring roll. All this was followed by a couple of unusual sweets. Ice kacang came in a tall glass packed half full with shaved ice doused in a sweet red syrup with cooked and sweetened corn kernels and red beans added. Evaporated milk was poured over, turning pink as it mixed with the coloured syrup and making a drink rather than a sweet.

Just as intriguing as the food we ate was the method of ordering. As soon as we sat at the table we were surrounded by half a dozen young boys who acted as waiters for the numerous stalls surrounding the dining area. Each represented a different chef. There was no printed menu; instead they chanted the names of the dishes available from the chef they worked for. It is decidedly different from anything a Western city has to offer, but adds greatly to the charm of this friendly land.

Another experience I will not forget was an early-morning visit to an open-air market where the baskets were piled high with fresh, shiny chillies of all shapes and sizes and ranging from bright green through yellow and orange to vivid scarlet; bundles of green and white lemongrass and other herbs; eggplants in amazing variety – green, purple, white, large, small, round or long, and one variety only as large as a pea.

Everything looked so tempting that I had to restrain myself from a mad buying spree. I did succumb, however, to large bunches of fresh rambutan – those bright red, oval fruit the size of a pullet’s egg and covered with fleshy hairs which give them a bizarre appearance. When the skin is removed (it is thin and soft enough to be peeled by a thumb nail) there is a translucent white-fleshed fruit inside looking very much like a lychee. The flavour is refreshingly sweet-sour. It was in Malaysia too that I ate the best star fruit I have ever tasted. After tasting the fruit — so deeply golden and full of flavour — it quite changed my opinion of star fruit as being only a thirst quencher or table decoration.

Serving and eating a Malaysian meal

To save space, I would like to refer you to the Indonesian chapter, for what has been written about Indonesian food applies to true Malay food. In addition, Malaysian cooks take pride in their rich korma and biriani, which the Indian settlers brought with them and which have become part of the local culinary scene. Food is traditionally eaten with the fingers, but nowadays a spoon and fork is considered more refined. However, on family and ceremonial occasions people revert to the old ways.

Unlike many Asian countries where desserts are not often served, Malays love rich, sweet desserts and these are based on sago, mung beans, bean flour or glutinous rice. Palm sugar is added for sweetness, coconut milk for richness and pandanus leaf, the Asian equivalent of the vanilla bean, for flavour. In some recipes the sweet spices such as cardamom, cinnamon and cloves are used.


The Malaysian version of the wok is the kuali — shaped the same, but generally thicker and heavier. In the absence of the clay pots (blangah) which are favoured for cooking curries, stainless-steel or heavy-based saucepans are recommended, especially for dishes using a large proportion of coconut milk, which discolours in an iron kuali. A deep frying pan is useful, and while the grinding stone (batu giling) features largely in preparing Malaysian spices, an electric spice grinder or food processor will do this job in a Western kitchen.

Your Malaysian shelf

This is a list of spices, sauces, sambals and other flavourings which are often used in Malaysian cooking and good to have on hand to make the recipes in this chapter.

—candlenuts or Brazil nuts

—coconut cream and milk

—coconut, desiccated or freshly grated

—coriander, ground

—cumin, ground

—curry leaves

—daun salam leaves

—dried prawn powder

—dried shrimp

—dried shrimp paste

—galangal, fresh or brined

—glutinous rice (pulot)

—kecap manis (sweet dark soy sauce) or use dark soy sauce

—kencur (aromatic ginger) powder

—laos (dried galangal) powder

—palm sugar, or use soft or dark brown sugar

—pandanus leaves

—peanut oil

—salted soy beans (taucheo)

—sambal bajak

—sambal ulek

—sereh powder (dried ground lemongrass)

—sesame oil

—shrimp sauce

—soy sauce

—tamarind pulp

—turmeric, ground


Though fresh galangal may look similar to ginger, this rhizome is infinitely harder to cut. Sliced, it adds flavour simply by simmering in soups and sauces, but for a curry paste, the rhizome will need to be peeled and finely chopped before grinding with a mortar and pestle with other ingredients. If you do not have access to the fresh root, sliced galangal in brine is the next best option. Otherwise, use the dry ground spice, known as laos powder. It will imbue the food with the correct flavour note, though perhaps with a little less of the lively zing delivered by the fresh rhizome.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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