Situated for centuries at the crossroads of the ancient spice trade route linking the east and west, Malay cuisine has had time to soak up the influences of India, Portugal, Indonesia, China and Thailand. It has fused these diverse influences together and created its own perfect cuisines from them.
Here are some quick tips to help you perfect your own Malay cooking and some suggestions for where to go to sample the best aromatic foods that typify Malay dishes.
Essential herbs and spices
Most budding cooks will be familiar with some of the herbs and spices used in Malay cuisine but there are many that will be unfamiliar. Here are the store cupboard standbys you are likely to be called on to use to recreate those intense flavours:
- Ginger (or better still lengkuas which is also known as galangal)
- Kaffir lime leaves
- Chillies (both fresh and dried chilies are used and ground into a sambal (chilli paste) that is added to dishes)
- Daun kemangi (a type of basil)
- Daun kesum (polygonum or laksa leaf)
- Bunga kantan (the buds of the wild ginger flower, sometimes called torch ginger)
- Kunyit basah (the turmeric root with a different flavour altogether than the dried, powdered turmeric we are familiar with)
- Pandan (screwpine leaves)
- Dried spices frequently used include fennel, cumin, coriander, cloves, cardamom, star anise, mustard seeds, fenugreek, cinnamon and nutmeg
The rempah (or spice paste) is similar to the Indian masala and forms the basis of many dishes. The rempah consists of a carefully selected blend of fresh and dried ingredients that are ground together to unleash their flavours and then sautéed in oil to release the aromas further.
The base of all lemak dishes is a rempah that is cooled by adding coconut milk. This rich, creamy milk helps to cool the inherent heat of the rempah and to mellow the flavours while retaining their complex tastes and aromas.
That tangy taste that comes to the fore in many assam dishes is not lemon or limes. Assam is Malay for tamarind and this is used to achieve this unique flavour that characterises so many Malay fish and seafood dishes.
Tamarind is sour but it has an essential hint of the sort of sweetness associated with dried fruits like apricots or prunes. You buy tamarind as a block and break a piece off which can be soaked in hot water and squeezed to produce the paste for cooking with.
Belacan is to Malay cooking what anchovies are to Italian in that only a little is used to make a big difference. Belacan is fermented baby shrimp that have been cured with salt and dried in the sun.
Some great places to try Malay food
If you are looking to taste how all these flavours can be combined then you need do nothing more than try any of these restaurants. Restaurant vouchers for places in Johor Bahru, KL, Penang and other Malaysian cities offer quality but highly affordable dining. Here are the best places to spend them at:
- Mee Rebus Haji Wahid (Johor Bahru) for the best mee rebus in town.
- Songket Restaurant (KL) for delicious Malay food and great entertainment.
- Papa Dins Bamboo (Penang) for authentic Malay dishes prepared lovingly by an elderly medicine man.
- Dragon King (Penang) for the Chinese-Malay fusion that is Nyonya cuisine.
- Best Mamak restaurants (KL) for this Indian-Muslim/Malay classic cuisine at its finest.
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