Updated: Jul 9, 2019
It’s hard to start writing a blog.
After the sacrificial pancake of an entry last week, there feels a certain pressure to up the ante for my first “proper” post.
Identify a topic of substance, comprehensively address it and get to the crux of why I am undertaking this adventure.
That said, I’m also aware that no-one is here to read an academic review on all the intricacies and specifics of Malaysian cuisine. Not to mention that attempting such a feat is likely beyond my ability, as someone who’s been eating and cooking this food for just over 9 months (albeit greedily).
This exercise is meant to document a journey. Joining me as I eat, cook and learn all I can to develop as a better cook. Thinking of it as such, it’s probably helpful to start with a brief on my new raison d'être -Malaysian food.
Gun to my head.
I must choose one country’s food to eat for the rest of my life. What’s it going to be?
Easy. Malaysian food.
Well not easy… but it’s a bloody good shout.
The cynical amongst us might be right to doubt this statement. After all it’s highly improbably that I would just happen to move to a country with the perfect food culture. Even if you ignore my obvious bias, there are almost 200 countries on this earth. The odds just don’t stack up.
So, let me try to convince you!
Put superficially the reason for this is singular - variety.
Nothing is more gruellingly homogenous than the Malaysian weather: 32°C to 33°C and 70-80% humidity every day. However, besides that variation permeates everything in Malaysia. People, cultures, history, but nowhere more than its food.
So, here are 3 ways in which that leads to what I think is a world beating cuisine:
Some say variety is the spice of life.
Screw that! Spice is the spice of life.
When spices first arrived in Europe they started a level of mass-delirium more recently associated with the US crack-cocaine epidemic of the 80s and early 90s. Imagine being a northern European, subsiding on diet of meat and 2 veg (if you were lucky), and suddenly your palate is exposed to a kaleidoscopic orgy of nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, even black pepper. It’s little wonder that from the 15th century a war (The Spice War) was fought for 200 years between the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish and Brits for control over the East Indian trading routes… This stuff was worth it!
With its position at the crux of that trade route, Malaysians still keep all these spices (and many, many more) right at the centre of their kitchen. However, when it comes to spice however there is one king. Chilli pepper, one of the most addictive substances known to man.
Anyone who’s spent time in a British Curry House has seen the havoc that a Capsicum addiction can wreak. The menu is practically designed to encourage your self-destructive degeneration from someone with a mild taste for Korma (the equivalent of a sherry at Christmas) to dangerous a Vindaloo dependence (more like a crack/heroin speed-ball a la Antony Kiedis under a bridge).
It’s easy to forget that before Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas, chilli only existed in a relatively minor portion of the world. Yet look at the culinary world today and you’ll see it pretty much dominates every cuisine where the plant can take root – from West Africa to Korea, India through to Vietnam, and of course Malaysia. A whole world of addicts. If you don’t “get it”, the problem is most definitely you.
Malaysia has chilli in spades. Importantly, unlike some cuisines e.g. Thai, it does so in a wide variety of intensity. In the same cuisine you have dishes like Rendang (with just enough kick to warm the cockles) and things like Nasi Kukus (Fried chicken and rice) served with Sambal Cili Padi a birds-eye chilli sauce that which will slap you round the face, begging for more (or water).
Variety is further assured by the tendency to include spice as an added extra, or sambal. A nation of serious eaters, many dishes respect this and give you the option to add little or as much as you please (see. Chilli Pan Mee and Laksa). This allows even a strung-out out chilli fiend, chasing the spicy-dragon, to still be able to enjoy a meal with their mates.
Really the possibilities are endless.
Beyond just spice, Malaysia (and Asia in general) really smashes it when it comes to variation within a dish.
My cooking mentor Ana, from the top-drawer Lazat Cooking school in KL (link at the bottom), says Malaysia has 8 core elements.
There are the 4 classical western tastes: Sweet, Salty, Bitter & Sour. Then Japan went as far as to include Umami (though it’s of paramount importance). Malaysia goes further to include: Spice, Fragrance and Lemak (fat or cream).
We’re already talked about the spice, but every dish you have here will aim to balance all 8 of these flavours.
Rich broths, off-set with sour lime or tamarind juice, bitter herbs and sweetened with Gula Melaka, or palm sugar.
Fragrance is added by liberal usage of lemongrass, ginger, garlic, shallots and galangal (which tastes mid-way between ginger and a Christmas tree). An unbelievable array of herbs are also used including coriander, Thai basil, Vietnamese coriander (more commonly daun kesum or laksa leaf) and pandan (aka Asian vanillia. Similar in flavour but a little funkier).
Lemak is most commonly added through coconut milk, cream and flesh, however also available through addition of nuts such as cashew, peanut or most commonly candlenuts (there are so many oils in these that they were literally used as candles!)
As well as flavour-wise the thing that Malaysian food does, as well as anyone, is texture.
No dish is complete without a textural element (or seven).
There are whole genres of food that are dedicated to offering variety of flavours and textures on a plate (see. Nasi Kandar, Nasi Kerabu and Banana Leaf).
This might be as simple as some fresh bean-sprouts, a side of spicy pickles, a fresh herb salad or some keropok (prawn crackers).
Perhaps however, it is most famously is seen in the National dish – Nasi lemak – where fluffy and fragrant coconut rice, is paired with a spicy sambal, crunchy peanuts, fried anchovy and crisp cucumber. Often sided with Ayam Goreng Berempah: spicy fried chicken in a crispy batter that incorporates half the aromatics I’ve mentioned and fried to craggy perfection.
[Just typing this makes me think an Ayam Goreng joint in London would put KFC, maybe even Morley’s, out of business. Anyone who knows me will attest to how seriously I take Morley’s – a South London institution.]
Literally every mouthful here is exciting, delicious and varied.
Finally, what is probably the most important point.
As anyone who’s been to this part of the world will know, point 1 or 2 could just as easily apply to any other cuisine in South East Asia. Further afield, India and China offer this level of variation through pure size alone. However, in Asia, Malaysia has a privileged position to deliver even more culinary variety due to their Culture. More accurately – Cultures.
Understanding Malaysian food takes a bit of a geography/history lesson.
When considering Malaysians many are often thinking of the Bumiputras. These are the “indigenous” peoples, of which Malays are the largest group, and account for about 66% of the population. The remainder are made up of the Chinese Malaysians and Indian Malaysians, which account for 23% and 7% of the populations. However, in many places (particularly urban centres such as Penang and Kuala Lumpur) the ratios can actually be flipped with more that 50% of the population being “non-indigenous”.
Where it gets even more interesting is the history. Both groups actually saw multiple waves of immigration to Malaysia, in the 20th century, British Colonial period and before. Chinese traders have been present since 1200s, and as a result there is a huge range of integration with the local populations. Each bringing their own food, preserving their own cultures, but also merging with the local cuisine. So not only can you get amazing Chinese, Indian and Malay food but you get these interesting amalgamations where the rich demographic backdrop delivers more than the sum of its parts.
A great example of this is Nonya or Peranakan culture which started with Chinese traders marrying local Malay women. Their food merges Chinese noodles, stir-frying and love of pork with local flavours. Leading to dishes that are familiarly Chinese but laden with lemongrass, galangal and spice. Another example is the Mamak – the Malaysian version of a pub (albeit alcohol free). These are establishments run by Muslims of Indian decent. Everyone eats here (Indian, Chinese and Malay) and the serve curries, flatbreads and tandoori chicken alongside fried noodles and rice.
And that’s why, even compared to the rest of South East Asia, I’m so happy to have found a home here. A veritable gastronomic Disney World. One country, pulling culinary inspiration from a 3rd of the world population, resulting in enough variety that it can rival even literal giants like China or India.
So - gun to my head – it’s got to be Malaysian.
Ultimately, it’s a pragmatic choice. But by god it’s a delicious one.
* For anyone looking for their own Malaysian culinary sensei, please I implore you to check out Ana and Lazat Cooking School. I've done 2 already, will do more. Let me know and we'll go together! https://www.lazatcooking.com/