Malay food is strong, spicy and aromatic, combining the rich tastes of the many herbs and spices commonly found in Southeast Asia. It is one of three major cuisines in Malaysia, and together with Chinese and Indian food, continually delight visitors to the country with its incredible variety and flavors.
The Malays are an easy-going, relaxed and warm people, qualities that inform their cooking. Food preparation can be a communal affair among the Malays and it is not uncommon during major festivals or events to see neighbors in a kampong, or village, gathered around a big pot stirring up a beef rendang or a chicken curry.
Malay food is often eaten with the hands. No implements are needed. Diners simply scoop mouthfuls of rice mixed with curry, vegetables or meat onto their palms and then ladle this into their mouths with the back of their thumbs. It is an art to keep the rice from escaping through the fingers but, with some practice, it can be mastered.
Just as in many other Southeast Asian cuisines, rice is the staple diet in a Malay meal. And just as in many other Southeast Asian countries, it is usually eaten together with meat and vegetable dishes, curries and condiments like the Malay sambal sauce. During a typical Malay lunch or dinner, these dishes are placed in the center of the table to be shared by all the diners.
Originally a sea-faring people, the Malays include a lot of seafood in their diet. Fish, squids, prawns and crabs regularly show up in Malay dishes, as do chicken, beef and mutton. Meats and seafoods are often marinated with special concoctions of herbs and spices before being cooked. Vegetables are usually stir-fried although it is also popular to eat some vegetables raw and dipped in sambal belachan, a spicy chilly condiment.
Many of the fresh herbs and roots that are commonly grown in the Southeast Asian region have found their way into Malay cooking. Lemongrass, shallots, ginger, chilies and garlic are the main ingredients that are blended together and then sautéed to make a sambal sauce or chile paste, a condiment that often accompanies every meal of Malay food.
Other herbs like galangal (lengkuas), turmeric (kunyit), kaffir lime leaves,laksa leaves (daun kesom), wild ginger flower buds or torch ginger (bunga kantan) and screwpine leaves (pandan leaves) add flavor and zest to poultry, meat and seafood.
Dried spices, too, form an important component of Malay cooking. Malacca, a city in Malaysia about 200 km south of capital Kuala Lumpur, was one of the great trading centers of the spice trade in the 15th century. This has benefited Malay cooking, with spices such as fennel, cumin, coriander, cardamom, cloves, star anise, mustard seeds, cinnamon sticks, fenugreek and nutmeg regularly used in various Malay soups and curries.
Coconut is another favorite ingredient of the Malays. This is not surprising as coconut trees thrive in Malaysia’s tropical weather. Coconut milk, or santan, add a creamy richness to curries, called ‘lemak’ in local parlance, giving them their distinctive Malaysian flavor. All the different parts of the coconut are used – nothing is wasted. The juice is drunk and the flesh of old coconuts are grated and eaten with traditional Malay cakes.
There are regional differences to Malay cuisine. The northern parts of Malaysia have integrated a Thai flavor into their food, due largely to the southbound migration of Thai people and their subsequent intermarriage with the locals.
Negri Sembilan, once dominated by the Minangkabaus from Sumatra, features food that is rich in coconut milk and other ingredients commonly produced by West Sumatra such as ox meat, beef, cultivated vegetables and the very spicy bird’s eye chilies, also known as cili padi.
South Indian laborers, brought in by British colonialists to work in the rubber estates of Malaysia, have also contributed their influence in the form of ingredients and cooking techniques such as getting extra flavor by frying spices in oil. Ingredients from southern India like okra and purple eggplants, brown mustard, fenugreek and curry leaves are often used in Malay dishes today.
With so many different influences from around the region, Malay cuisine has become an interesting and varied adventure, something that can be savored and enjoyed with family and friends.