Malaysia’s position in the trade routes between Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Spice Islands in what is now Indonesia has been its destiny. The country straddles the South China Sea, with the west region occupying a peninsula it shares with Thailand and Singapore, and the east portion on the island of Borneo, which it shares with Indonesia and Brunei. As a result, Malaysian cooks fashioned a cuisine of Chinese, Indonesian, Thai, and Indian influences, which blend naturally in the curries, steamed rice, noodle stir-fries, and fresh salads that now characterize Malaysian dishes.
The greatest culinary influence may have come from Chinese settlers, who brought techniques such as stir-frying. The blend of Chinese cooking with Malay ingredients created nonya cuisine. An example of this is Stir-Fried Water Spinach, which combines the Chinese technique of stir-frying with the Malaysian green. As they are in many parts of China, rice noodles are common in the Malaysian kitchen, and the fried egg noodle dish bakmie goreng is popular.
Other travelers, settlers, and traders influenced Malaysian fare, as well. Northern neighbor Thailand offered the use of fragrant kaffir lime leaves and sour tamarind. The Indonesians contributed coconut, fiery chiles, delicate coriander, zesty galangal, turmeric root, and ginger. Other dishes have a pronounced Indian flair, thanks to that country’s many immigrants. Curries and the dried spices used in Indian cookery are prominent. The salad known as rojak is perhaps the best example of this melding of the many influences; it utilizes a variety of fruits and vegetables, such as mangoes, pineapple, coconut, chiles, tofu, long beans, cucumbers, and a sweet-hot dressing, incorporating Southeast Asian, Chinese, and local ingredients.
One cornerstone of Malaysian cooking is the spice paste, a blend of Indian-influenced dry spice mixtures with Thai and Indonesian roots, leaves, and fresh herbs that enriches a wide array of vegetable dishes. A southern-style spice paste may start with sautéing pungent ginger, heady garlic, Thai chiles, and perfumy galangal; dried spices like coriander, cinnamon, and turmeric add earthy undertones. A sauce is then made with the addition of sweet-nutty coconut milk. Vegetables, tempeh, or tofu complete the dish and soak up the flavorful sauce.
Malaysian food has adapted over the centuries based on local ingredients, cooks’ preferences, and inspiration from other cultures. Take a cue from Malaysian cooks, and adapt these flavors to your liking. Use a few more unseeded chiles in spice paste if you prefer extra heat, or add other seasonal vegetables of your choosing to a stir-fry for a crunchy texture. There are no right or wrongs in this flexible cuisine.
Most of these ingredients can be found at local Asian grocery stores or specialty produce markets. These products are worth seeking out for the most authentic taste.
Noodles: Fresh round egg noodles resemble spaghetti. Soak or parboil dried varieties before cooking, following the package directions. Broad rice noodles are chewy and may be sold in sheets of pasta, which you will need to cut into flat noodles.
Galangal: Resembles ginger in appearance, but differs in flavor with a distinct peppery, citrus aroma. Fresh or frozen galangal is sold in Asian supermarkets.
Water spinach: Wash these leafy greens thoroughly. With its delicate flavor, water spinach works well in sautés or stir-fries.
Lemongrass: As its name suggests, lemongrass is a grass with a strong citrus note. Always discard the bruised outer leaf and root end.
Kaffir lime leaves: Though more popular in Thailand than Malaysia, these fragrant leaves offer floral and citrus aromas to stir-fries. Look for fresh or frozen options.
Thai chiles: Also referred to as Thai bird peppers, these very hot, small, thin pods measure about one to one-and-a-half inches in length. In a pinch, substitute one-fourth of a Scotch bonnet, which is much hotter, for one whole Thai chile.
Tamarind concentrate: This dark, sour paste is used in Indonesia, India, and Mexico to flavor drinks, curries, and chutneys.
Pandan, or screwpine, leaves: Available fresh or dried, these leaves are about four inches long and are used to add piney flavor to all sorts of savory or sweet dishes.
Soy sauces: A dark soy sauce (may be labeled “black” or “thick”) has a sweet backnote and is used mostly for color in our Stir-Fried Noodles with Green Onions and Eggs. It’s more pungent and less salty than regular soy and is used sparingly. It is typically paired with common, thin soy sauce, which has a salty edge. Additionally, kecap manis, the Indonesian sweet soy sauce, is used in a variety of dishes. Palm sugar adds the sweet element to this. The variety of soy sauces adds complexity that stands in for shrimp paste, a common ingredient in Malaysian dishes.
Tempeh: A cake made of whole or chopped fermented soybeans, tempeh is ideal for stir-frying. Plus, its crunchy, dense texture is a welcome addition to stews and curries.
Tofu and fried tofu slices: Firmer tofu holds up best in stir-fries. Fried tofu slices, which may be labeled as “pockets” or “inari,” make an excellent substitute for fried dough called for in some Malaysian salad recipes.