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.