5 Fabulous Malaysian Dishes You Must Try
In temperate countries during a break in play, people often discuss the weather as it is variable and any changes can impact their lives. While the weather also affects those who live in the tropics, when it’s hot, hotter, and hottest every day, it’s pointless in discussing the inevitable. One of Malaysia’s greatest attributes is that small talk will sooner than later get to the all important topics of food and dining. Sudah makan? or “Have you eaten?” is one of the most frequently asked questions. Food is vastly more interesting than discussing the weather so here are five fabulous dishes (assuming a cup of tea can be considered a dish) that have placed Malaysia on the world’s culinary map. (Any number of 25 other dishes could have made the list, and that’s even without one mention of durian!)
The jury is still out as to whether satay is from Malaysia or any number of other Asian countries. If you were Indonesian, sate would be claimed as a home-grown product, but we’re not here to split hairs over such a fine dish. Small cubes of meat seasoned in turmeric and coconut milk are threaded onto bamboo skewers and then barbecued over sizzling charcoal coals. The fire is fanned manually or automatically (miniature electric fan) to maintain the intensity of the flames. In Malaysia, chicken and beef are mostly used but there are variations on the theme both in the country and the region. Almost any meat or seafood gets into the act somewhere in the region. Satay sticks are then served with a spicy peanut sauce, slivers of onion, and chunks of cucumber. Rice cubes are an accompaniment in some locations. Malaysians used to swear by the satay from Kajang situated just south of KL, but it’s no longer a rite of passage to make the journey there. It’s just as easy to book a seat at the pointy end of a Malaysia Airlines aircraft and enjoy their signature satay.
Originally nasi lemak (or fatty rice) was eaten for breakfast, and while small green pyramid-shaped packets are still popular as a kick start to the morning, other forms of the dish keep Malaysians fueled throughout the day. The secret ingredient is that the rice is soaked in coconut milk before being steamed and then this is often done with a few slivers of pandan leaves to provide some additional fragrance. The rice is then served with spicy sambal, slices of hard-boiled egg, cucumber slices, roasted peanuts and small dried anchovies called ikan bilis. Diners mix it all up with many eating the rice with the fingers of their right hand. More substantial versions may have fried chicken, spicy squid, beef rendang or stir-fried greens as accompaniments.
Fried mee (noodles) or mee goreng is another popular dish eaten around the clock and served in hawker stalls through to five-star hotels. This dish is thought to have originated in China but is now as local as can be. Garlic and onions are fried with some sambal to which yellow noodles are added along with shallots, prawns, chicken pieces, cabbage, and bean sprouts. Lime is usually offered on the side as is more sambal. Nasi goreng is the rice equivalent of this dish.
While teh tarik is not a dish, it well could be as it contains a lot of nutrients (and calories) from the generous addition of condensed milk. Tarik means to pull so it literally translates as pulled tea and this is done by the skilful restaurant staff who pass the thick tea from one cup to another to create Malaysia’s own ‘tea-a-cchino’ with a nice frothy head. First timers will find the tea incredibly sweet and if it is too sweet it maybe best to ask for less sugar when it is next ordered (kurang manis). A breakfast of teh tarik and roti canai is a staple for many Malaysians. Teh-o is black tea (translated as tea with zero milk). Kopi tarik is coffee made in a similar pulling fashion to teh tarik. Ordering hot beverages in Malaysia can be as confusing as ordering at Starbucks.
There are several versions of this popular dish with many parts of Malaysia having ‘famous’ recipes so in Sarawak, don’t ask for anything but Sarawak laksa and the same goes for Johor. While many Malaysians will argue the toss, the dish supposedly originates in Thailand, but does it really matter (Malaysia’s own Nyonya laksa is a blend of Chinese and local Malay spices and cooking styles)? The laksa is essentially a spicy broth made from various spices prepared with coconut milk in the case of curry laksa. Vermicelli noodles are added as are pieces of chicken, tofu, fish balls, shrimp, and cockles. Spicy sambal and lime are served on the side for diners to spice up their dish if need be. Assam laksa is not a soup from India, but rather a sour fish broth from Malaysia.
First published August, 2013