Malays are the people who inhabit the Malayan Peninsula and some of the nearby islands, including the east coast of Sumatra, the coast of Borneo and smaller islands that lie between the area. These tribal proto-Malays were a seafaring people. Present day Malays of the Peninsula and coasts of the Malay Archipelago are "anthropologically described as deutero-Malays" and are the descendants of the tribal proto-Malays mixed with modern Indian, Thai, Arab and Chinese ancestry. Malay culture itself has been strongly influenced by that of people of neighboring lands, including Siamese, Javanese, Sumatran and Indians. The influence of Hindu India was historically very great, and the Malay people were largely Hinduized before they were converted to Islam in the 15th century. For 2000 years, the traffic of traders between the Malayan Archipelago and India resulted in frequent intermarriages especially Tamils and Gujeratis. Some Hindu rituals survive in Malay culture, as in the second part of the marriage ceremony and in various ceremonies of State. Malays have also preserved some of their more ancient beliefs in spirits of the soil and jungle, often having recourse to medicine men called bomohs [shamans] for the treatment of ailments.
In the northern states of Perlis and Kedah, intermarriages with Thais were commonplace. The east coast state of Kelantan still has traces of Javanese culture that date back to the era of the Majapahit Empire of the 14th century. The Sumatran kingdom of Acheh dominated Perak for over a century. The Bugis from Indonesia's Celebes Islands colonized Selangor and fought for rulers in States along the length of the peninsula - from Kedah to Johor. The Minangkabaus from Sumatra had their own independent chiefdoms in what is today the state of Negri Sembilan. This mix of different ethnic groups form what is the modern Malay and can be clearly seen in the lineage of, for example, Malacca's royalty. Sultan Muhammad Shah married a Tamil from South India. Sultan Mansur Shah married a Javanese, a Chinese and a Siamese; the Siamese wife bore two future Sultans of Pahang. It was this diversity of races, cultures and influences that has the given the modern Malay race the rich and unique historical heritage it has today.
This rich historical heritage has evidently resulted in it's exotic cuisine. In Malay cuisine fresh aromatic herbs and roots are used, some familiar, such as lemongrass, ginger, garlic, shallots, kaffir limes and fresh chilies. Both fresh and dried chilies are used, usually ground into a sambal or chili paste to add hotness to dishes. There are however, less commonly known herbs and roots that are essential in Malay cooking; such as daun kemangi [a type of basil], daun kesum [polygonum, commonly called laksa leaf], bunga kantan [wild ginger flower buds or torch ginger], kunyit basah [turmeric root], lengkuas [galangal] and pandan or pandanus [screwpine leave]. Dried spices frequently used in Malay cooking are jintan manis [fennel], jintan putih [cumin] and ketumbar [coriander]; Other dried spices used are cloves, cardamom, star anise, mustard seeds, fenugreek, cinnamon and nutmeg. Both fresh and dried ingredients are frequently used together, usually ground into a rempah ['spice paste]. The rempah is then sautéed in oil to bring out it's flavorful aroma and toasted goodness. Santan [coconut milk] is the basis of Malay lemak dishes. Lemak dishes are typically not hot to taste; it is aromatically spiced and coconut milk is added for a creamy richness [lemak]. Assam Jawa, or tamarind paste is a key element in many Malay assam dishes for adding a sour or tangy taste; especially for fish and seafood dishes. What is tamarind paste? Tamarind paste is the pulp extracted from tamarind pods commonly used as a souring ingredient in Latin America, India, Africa and Asia. While the prime taste is sour, the underlying tang is slightly sweet, reminiscent of dried apricots or dried prunes. The pulp or paste is commonly sold in the form of a semi-dry flat block. To use, simply pinch a small lump from the block and soak it in some warm water. Use your fingers to squish it about in the water to separate the seeds and fibers; the resulting paste or tamarind water is used for cooking.
Many Malay signature dishes require a key ingredient called Belacan [also spelt Belachan, Blacan, Blachan], pronounced blah-chan. Tiny baby shrimp or brine are allowed to ferment, cured with salt, sun-dried and formed into a small brick or cake. Similar to how anchovy paste is used in Italian cooking, belacan is used much the same way, that is, sparingly. Not overly 'fishy', a tiny amount of belacan adds 'sweetness' to meats and intensity to fish & seafood. It adds a 'kick' to vegetable dishes, such as the famed Malaysian dish Kangkong Belacan. Belacan is also the basis of a well-loved Malay condiment - Sambal Belacan. It's made by first roasting a small lump of belacan, which is then pounded with fresh chilies and lime juice is added. This appetizing condiment is almost always present in any typical Malay meal. Belacan also makes a flavorful base for sauces and gravy, adding depth and an intriguing taste that you can't quite decipher. When uncooked, the pressed cake has a powerful scent like "stinky cheese". But don't be put off; it mellows out and harmonizes in the cooking leaving behind an understated richness that simply cannot be reproduced. Best described as all 'natural' flavor enhancer, belacan is what gives many of the foods from Southeast Asia - Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam - that authentic flavor and zest!
As in most countries of Southeast Asia, rice is staple. It is served for lunch, dinner and often breakfast. Originally eaten as a hearty breakfast Nasi Lemak is a meal of rice cooked in santan [coconut milk] served with a side of Sambal Ikan Bilis [dried anchovies cooked in a sambal], cucumber slices, hard boiled egg and peanuts, and traditionally packaged in a fresh banana leaf. Most meals are eaten with fingers and utensils are kept to a minimum. All dishes are served at the same time, usually accompanied by a refreshing drink such as air sirap [rose syrup] or air limau [lime juice]. Seafood such as shrimp or rather prawn [which is the general term commonly used in Malaysia for all types/sizes of this crustacean], squid and fish in particular, are popular in Malay cuisine. Fish caught from local waters such as ikan kembong [chubb or Indian mackerel], ikan tenggiri [wolf herring] and ikan tongkol, also called ikan kayu [tuna], are seasoned very simply with salt, pepper, a sprinkling of turmeric powder and quickly deep fried. Often the fish is stuffed with sambal belacan before frying or grilling. Grilling or barbequing is another favorite way of cooking fish; fish is typically kept whole, seasoned, wrapped in banana leaves and grilled over hot charcoals. Many local Malay hawker stalls specialize in Ikan Panggang [Grilled fish] or Ikan Bakar [Barbecued Fish].
Depending on the main basic 'flavoring' ingredient; Malay dishes can be more or less, distinguished into several 'styles' of cooking: Masak Lemak [coconut], Masak Pedas [sambal, hot chilies], Masak Assam [tamarind], Masak Merah [tomato sauce], Masak Hitam [dark-sweet soy sauce] and Masak Assam Pedas [tamarind & sambal, hot chilies]. These basic styles of cooking can be applied to a variety of food, from meats, poultry and vegetables to all kinds of seafood and fish. Popular dishes are Ayam Masak Merah; chicken cooked in a spicy tomato sauce, goes great with nasi tomato [tomato rice]. Udang Masak Pedas; prawns cooked in a hot chili sauce, Ikan Masak Assam Pedas; fish cooked with tamarind and sambal or hot chilies and Nangka Masak Lemak; young jackfruit cooked in coconut milk. There are innumerable renowned and distinguished Malay dishes; many of which can only be had at home. The best way to experience typical Malay food is to be invited for makan [meaning 'to eat', in Malay] in a Malay home. There are also regional dishes which are specialties of different parts of the country. One of the most celebrated Malaysian dish worldwide is Beef Rendang; a must-have for celebrations and special occasions! Soup is not necessarily prevalent in Malay cuisine; however there is a soup or stew that is particularly popular Sup Kambing [mutton soup], made of mutton bones, shanks or ribs slow simmered with aromatic herbs and spices. Pork however is forbidden in Malay cooking as it is against religious beliefs to consume pork. Another famous Malay classic is the 'meat-on-a-stick' Satay. Chicken, beef or mutton satays are cooked over hot charcoals and served with fresh cucumber, onion and a spicy peanut dipping sauce. The spicy peanut dipping sauce is what makes satay special, and great for dipping ketupat, a Malay rice cake.
Many Malay restaurants and stalls serve what is called Nasi Padang; the name originated from Padang, a district in West Sumatra. It is not one particular dish but rather a meal of rice served with any number of meat, fish, poultry and vegetable dishes. The rice can be plain [nasi kosong] or lightly flavored such as nasi kunyit [turmeric rice]; rice spiced with turmeric, or nasi minyak [ghee rice]; rice cooked with ghee [clarified butter]. A wide array of dishes are available for you to choose to eat with your choice of rice; from highly spiced and tongue-burning hot dishes, to mild, aromatically spiced stews and sauced dishes, and delicious deep-fried foods. Some of the popular dishes are Sambal Udang or Sambal Sotong; prawns or squid in a spicy chili belacan sauce. Ayam Panggang; grilled chicken Malay-style, Otak Otak [fish mousse]; a mildly spiced coconut milk fish mousse steamed or grilled in banana leaves. Other popular dishes are Sambal Tahu Goreng; deep-fried tofu topped with sambal sauce, Daging Masak Kicap; beef cooked in a dark-sweet soy sauce and Ayam Kampung Masak Lemak Cili Padi; free-range [village] chicken cooked in santan [coconut milk] and cili padi [Thai bird chilies]. The all-time everyday favorites and quick-fix's are Nasi Goreng [fried rice] and Mee Goreng [fried noodles] cooked Malay style. Another everyday favorite is a delicious, satisfying noodle dish called Laksa; fresh rice noodles, garnished with fresh cucumbers, onions, lettuce and served in a savory and tangy fish soup or gravy.
Nasi Kerabu or Nasi Ulam, is a regional specialty from the state of Kelantan on the east coast of Malaysia. Traditionally, the rice is tinted bright blue from petals of flowers called bunga telang [clitoria in English]. For a family size serving of rice, hundreds of these petals have to be sun-dried and boiled in water. There are several varieties of local herbs; daun kentut, daun kudu, cekur, seven types of daun larak and kucing seduduk, which is used to tint the rice in different colors; red, black or blue. The most used variety for Nasi Kerabu is the 'blue color' variety of petals. This naturally tinted 'blue rice' is served with Ulam. Ulam is combination of fresh aromatic herbs; local mint, basil, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric leaves and raw vegetables; bean sprouts, long green beans, shallots, cucumber, are combined together with strong flavored ingredients such as salted fish, dried prawns, fish crackers, kerisik [fried grated coconut] and other savory garnishing.
One of the most unique Malay culinary creation is Roti Jala ['net' bread] which is a sort of crepe or thin pancake. It is made from a crepe-like batter of plain flour, eggs, butter and coconut milk with a dash of turmeric for coloring. A special mould or cup with small holes is used to make a 'lacy' crepe, cooked briefly over a hot greased griddle. Roti Jala is an ideal accompaniment to dishes with lots of rich curry sauces or gravy, and is usually served during special occasions. Desserts are often served after a meal or an an afternoon snack; many are home-made although most are easily available from local hawker stalls and restaurants especially during Ramadan, the religious fasting period. Malay desserts are quite exceptional, using ingredients such as Santan [coconut milk], fresh grated coconut, palm sugar and a unique plant leave called pandan or pandanus [screwpine]. This locally grown plant leave is used often in dessert making. It lends essence rather than a taste, much like the ubiquitous vanilla bean. During the Malay New Year [Hari Raya or Eid], the variety of cakes and dessert are endless; many are unique creations made by home chefs, not found anywhere in the culinary circle of the dessert world!
: Coconut-flavored Rice Meal - is rice cooked in coconut milk made aromatic with pandan leaves [screwpine leaves]. It is typically served with Sambal Ikan Bilis - fried dried anchovies cooked in a dry sambal sauce, and garnished with cucumber slices, hard boiled egg and roasted peanuts. Traditionally packaged in a banana leaf, it is usually eaten as hearty breakfast fare.
BBQ Sticks - This famous meat-on-a-stick appears on menus from New York to Amsterdam. The secret of tender, succulent satay is, of course, in the rich, spicy-sweet marinade. The marinated meat; chicken or beef, are skewered onto bamboo sticks and grilled over hot charcoals. Some satay stalls also serve venison and rabbit satay. A fresh salad of cucumbers & onions are served together with a spicy-sweet peanut sauce for dipping. Ketupat, a Malay rice cake similar to Lontong, is also an accompaniment to satay, great for dipping in satay sauce. Dee'lish!!
: Malay Spiced Coconut Beef - This hot, dry spiced dish of tenderly simmered meat offers the typical Malaysian taste of coconut, balanced with robust, tangy spices. Rendang is a must-have on special occasions such as weddings, ideally served with nasi kunyit [turmeric rice]. During Ramadan & Eid, the Malay New Year, Rendang is sure to take center stage on bountiful tables of feast in homes everywhere. During this festive season, a special rice cake called Lemang is made to eat with Rendang. Lemang is made from glutinous rice and santan [coconut milk], carefully packed into bamboo poles lined with banana leaves and cooked in the traditionally way over low open fires.
: Spicy Prawns - whole prawns or shrimp are cooked in a classic Malay sauce; a spicy robust sauce made with chilies, shallots, garlic, stewed tomatoes, tamarind paste and belacan [also spelt belachan or blacan], a dried shrimp paste paste. Sambal Udang is the perfect accompaniment to the country's un-official national dish - Nasi Lemak.
: Red-Cooked Chicken - is similar to the Italian famous dish Chicken Cacciatore except for it spicy hotness. Pieces of chicken are first pan-fried to a golden brown then slowly simmered in a spicy tomato sauce. This popular Malay dish is especially scrumptious with nasi tomato [tomato rice].
: Noodles in Tangy Fish Soup - Thick rice noodles are served in a tangy fish soup/gravy. Not at all fishy, the soupy gravy is made with mackerel and lots of aromatic herbs. Fresh garnishing of shredded cucumber, lettuce, pineapple, onion and fragrant mint leaves finishes the dish. In general the term Laksa refers to Malay style laksa, sometimes called Malay Laksa. There are slight variations in different parts of the country. The key ingredient is tamarind, used as a souring agent, giving it a tart tangy taste. This version of laksa from the 'hawker food capital' - Penang, is especially famous and well known as Penang Laksa or Penang Assam Laksa.
: Indonesian style Noodles - is a popular Malay noodle dish influenced by the Indonesian island of Java. The soupy gravy is made from fresh prawns and ladled over yellow egg noodles [chow mein]. Slices of potato, tofu [soy bean cake], egg, vegetables and shrimp garnishes the dish.
: 'Net' Bread or Crepe - is a net-like or lacy type of crepe made from a flour batter. A special cup or mould with small holes, is used to form a lacy crepe cooked on a hot griddle. Roti Jala, an alternative to rice, is an ideal accompaniment to curries such as Malaysian Chicken Curry, Mutton Kurma, Chicken Kapitan, Lamb Cashew Korma [also spelt Korma].
: BBQ Fish - or Ikan Panggang is a general term meaning grilled or barbecued fish. A popular local fish for grilling is Ikan Kembong [chubb mackerel, also called Indian mackerel]. The fish, kept whole is marinated in spices, coconut milk, and sometimes stuffed with sambal, then wrapped in fresh banana leaves and grilled over hot charcoals.
: BBQ Stingray or Skate Wings - A popular method of cooking stingray or skate wings is by barbequing. The wings are marinated in spices then wrapped in banana leaves and grilled over hot charcoals. A spicy sambal sauce with fresh shallots is served with it.
: Spicy Squid - fresh squid [calamari] are cooked in a classic Malay sauce; a spicy robust sauce made with chilies, shallots, garlic, stewed tomatoes, tamarind paste and belacan [also spelt belachan or blacan], a dried shrimp paste. Sambal Sotong is also a popular accompaniment to the country's un-official national dish - Nasi Lemak.
: 'Chili-ed' Eggs - an 'egg-cellent' recipe for those days when all you've left in the fridge are eggs.. Hard-boil those eggs, 'chili' them up with sambal, kick it up a notch with a touch of belacan; serve with steamed rice and you've got yourself a meal!
: Malay Fish Mousse - fresh fish fillets are blended with light spices, coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves and other aromatic herbs, into a sort of fish mousse. The fish mousse is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed or grilled. It makes an exotic appetizer or cocktail party bite!
: Mutton Soup - mutton bones, shanks or ribs are slow simmered with aromatic herbs and spices. Garnished with fried shallots and fresh cilantro, it is a hearty meal served with steamed rice. This flavorful soup - surprisingly earthy, satisfyingly meaty, elegant and subtle - will forever change the way you view soup. Oxtails are perfect in this recipe to make Sup Ekor, also called Sup Buntut [Oxtail Soup].
: Coconut Vegetable Stew - Sayur Lodeh means a variety of vegetables in coconut gravy. Vegetables such as cabbage, carrots, green beans and cauliflower, are stewed in a lightly spiced coconut broth. For a complete and hearty meal, the vegetable stew is served with a Malay rice cake called nasi impit more familiarly known as Lontong. A great vegetarian dish!
: Indian Pastry Pancake - Indian in origin, this rich and flaky pastry pancake has now come to be known as a favorite Malaysian 'appetizer' in Malaysian eateries all over the globe. Roti Canai [also called Roti Prata] is served with a side of curry for dipping, usually a Malaysian Chicken Curry.
: or Kari Ayam in Malay, is a typical chicken curry cooked in almost all Malaysian homes. This basic recipe uses a Made in Malaysia Meat Curry Powder. It has just the right blend of spices for an authentic 'Malaysian-tasting' curry! Some ingredients may vary - Malay homes might add serai [lemongrass], lengkuas [galangal], kunyit [fresh turmeric root] or assam jawa [tamarind].
: is a typical fish curry cooked in almost all Malaysian homes. This basic recipe uses a Made in Malaysia Fish Curry Powder. It has just the right blend of spices for an authentic 'Malaysian-tasting' fish curry! Some ingredients vary - Malay homes might cook with lengkuas [galangal], assam gelugor [tamarind skins], cili padi [Thai Bird chilies], serai [lemongrass], assam jawa [tamarind] and belacan [also spelt belachan or blacan] a dried shrimp paste.
: Coconut Poppers - small round balls made from glutinous rice flour with pandan [screwpine] leaves essence, filled with palm sugar and rolled in fresh grated coconut. A delight to eat as it pops in your mouth with a sweet sensation of oozing palm syrup!
: Steamed Coconut Pudding - this 2 layered pudding made of rice flour, sago flour and coconut milk is cooked by steaming. Pandan [screwpine] leaves lends essence and the green color to one layer. A white coconut layer goes on top. A not too sweet and light dessert!
: Glutinous Rice with Coconut Topping - a kind of 'dry' rice pudding made from glutinous rice & coconut milk. It is cooked by steaming. The dessert rice is topped with fresh grated coconut sweetened with palm sugar. It is traditionally wrapped in banana leaves folded into a pyramid shape.
: Black Rice Pudding - a rice pudding made from black glutinous rice sweetened with brown palm sugar. A surrey of creamy coconut milk is swirled over the rice pudding before it is served.