Malaysians love to eat. Just look at the endless array of foods and places to eat. You can easily come across street food stalls or kopitiam (coffee shop) almost everywhere. In fact, foods have become so deep-rooted in our culture that we even greet one another with “Sudah makan tak?” (Have you eaten?) to mean “How are you?”.
As Malaysia is a melting pot of many cultures and races, our foods are truly unique and mostly a fusion of our diverse cultures.
Origin of Foods
Malaysian foods are as rich as the country’s history. The flavours are vibrant, diverse and eclectic. In the 15th century, the Malay kingdom was famed for spice trade and soon, the influx of traders from China, India and the Middle East countries had created an exciting food gastronomy, blending a variety of spices, flavours and cooking techniques.
And when the British brought in Chinese and Indian immigrants in the 19th century, these communities brought along their foods and soon, they assimilated with the local cultures and created a fusion of local cuisines.
Fusion had sparked debates of the food origin. One such example is bah kut teh (meat bone tea). Malaysians claimed it is from Port Klang while Singaporeans claimed the food is from Clarke Quay and River Valley. Likewise, Malaysia and Indonesia claimed satay, a Malay barbecued meat and nasi lemak, a Malay fragrant rice dish as theirs.
Nasi lemak was initially a farmer’s meal. It is conveniently a on-the-go filling dish for a long field day. Traditionally, it is served with anchovies, eggs, beef and chicken. Today, nasi lemak has more variants such as Nasi Lemak Tujuh Benua (Seven Continents Nasi Lemak) with seven coloured rice.
A Modern Variety
The term “mamak” is used to describe the Indian-Muslim community. These mamak stalls normally open until the wee hours of the morning and is a popular place for Malaysians to gather and enjoy watching soccer on the TV there.
Foods served at mamak stalls vary from roti canai, nasi kandar, nasi goreng to mee goreng and murtabak. Roti canai or roti prata is a flatbread with Indian origin and often served with dhal and fish or chicken curry. It has evolved so much that a stall in Wangsa Maju was found serving 30 types of roti canai, including Roti Hawaii, Roti Jepun, Roti Salad, and Roti Saga.
The same has happened to mooncakes. It has more varieties now such as durian, chocolate, pineapple, green tea and others compared to only lotus paste and red bean paste in the past.
I was also taken by surprise recently at the Ramadan Bazaar when I saw Malaysian Chinese pau or dumpling now comes in all shapes and sizes, from chili-shaped, pineapple-shaped to peanut-shaped pau and more.
Next, Nyonya cookings by the Straits Chinese or Peranakan community blend Chinese ingredients with various distinct spices and cooking techniques employed by the Malay community. Hence, Nyonya foods are unique and their interpretations of Malay foods are tangy, aromatic, spicy and herbal.
It is believed that assam laksa is originated from this community. It is a sweet, sour and spicy rice noodles dish with shredded fish, sliced pineapples, cucumbers, onions, lettuce and red chillies. In fact, Penang Assam Laksa is ranked number 7 on the World’s 50 Best Foods by CNN. Now I am hungry!
Text and photos by Francis Yip