Spicy curries with rice, crispy pork with noodles, the aromas of coconut, lemongrass and coriander… there are few other places where the elements of three great culinary traditions – those of China, India and the Malay Archipelago – are so deliciously intertwined. Here are the staples.
Rice & Noodles: Malay locals would be hard-pressed to choose between nasi (rice) and mee (noodles) – one or the other figures in almost every meal. Nasi lemak, the unofficial ‘national dish’, is rice steamed with coconut milk and cream, and topped with ikan bilis (dried anchovies deep fried till crispy), peanuts, cucumber, sweet-hot sambal and half a hard-boiled egg (curry optional).
Many varieties of noodle are made from rice flour. Wide, flat kway teow are stir-fried with prawns, cockles, egg and bean sprouts for Malaysia’s other ‘national dish’: char kway teow. Meehoon (or beehoon, rice vermicelli) are the noodle of choice for pork noodle soup. Round yellow noodles are served in soup and stir-fried with curry leaves, bean sprouts and chilli sauce for the Muslim-Indian speciality mee mamak.
Poultry & Meat: Chicken (ayam) regularly turns up in curries, on skewers, grilled and served with peanut sauce for satay. Another oft-enjoyed fowl is itik (duck), roasted and served over rice, simmered in star anise-scented broth and eaten with yellow mee, or stewed with aromatics for an Indian- Muslim curry.
Tough local beef (daging) is best cooked long and slowly, for dishes like coconut milk-based rendang. Chinese-style beef noodles feature tender chunks of beef and meatballs in a rich, mildly spiced broth.
Pork (babi) is the king of meats for Chinese. Try it roasted till crispy-skinned (char yoke) or marinated and barbecued till sweetly charred (char siew).
Fish & Seafood: Lengthy coastlines and abundant rivers mean that seafood forms much of the diet for many locals. Fresh fish (ikan) is left whole, slathered and stuffed with rempah (a paste of chillies, spices, garlic, lemongrass and turmeric). It may be cooked on the grill (often wrapped in banana leaves) or rubbed with turmeric and deep-fried to accompany rice meals.
Vegetables & Fruit: Every rice-based Malay meal includes ulam, a selection of vegetables and fresh herbs to eat on their own or dip into sambal. Indians cook cauliflower, cabbage and spinach with coconut milk and turmeric. Tahu (soy beans) are consumed in many forms including soy milk, doufu (soft bean curd) and tempeh, fermented soy bean cake. In fruits, look for papaya, pineapple, watermelon, and guava.
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