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An up-close look at Malaysian food | Insight Guides Blog

An up-close look at Malaysian food

Malaysian food: Chicken Skewer with Satay Sauce
Malaysian food: Chicken Skewer with Satay Sauce


Malaysian food is deliciously diverse. For centuries, Malays lived in kampung (villages) close to rivers and coasts, enjoying the natural abundance of food. Traditional meals consisted of rice, fish, vegetables and chilli sauces (sambal), while fresh herbs and coconut milk added fragrance and richness. However, until the 20th century, travel across the jungle-covered country was limited and regional styles of cooking prevailed. The northern peninsular states of Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Terengganu, for instance, have incorporated sour tamarind (asam), limes and fiery chillies in their cuisine because of the influence of neighbouring Thailand. One of the best-known northern dishes is nasi ulam, a dish consisting of rice, finely sliced raw herbs and vegetables, a spicy chilli-coconut sauce, grilled fish and other cooked side dishes.

Indonesian and Arab influences are evident in other states. In Johor in the south, Javanese, Bugis and Arab styles were assimilated into Malaysian food over the past few centuries. In the central state of Negeri Sembilan, Minangkabau settlers from west Sumatra brought with them their rich, spicy dishes cooked in coconut milk. A perfect example is rendang – a semi-dry coconut-based curry that needs hours of gentle simmering, melding beef with fresh herbs like lemongrass, turmeric and ginger, and spices such as coriander, nutmeg and cloves. The result is pure ambrosia.

The delicious Malay rendang curry. Photo: Shutterstock

Satay is possibly the world’s most popular Malaysian food, but whatever else you’ve tasted in your own country, nothing can prepare you for the real thing. Marinated bite-sized pieces of beef, mutton or chicken (and pork if sold by Chinese) are barbecued over a charcoal fire on thin bamboo skewers. The sizzling satay is served with thick, spicy peanut gravy; raw onion and cucumber; and ketupat – compressed squares of rice. For the adventurous, there are even satay variations of tripe, intestines or crispy chicken skin. The most famous satay is that of Haji Samuri in Kajang, Selangor, whose recipe has spread throughout the town.

Despite differing regional styles, Malay food is, in general, heavily seasoned. Chillies are an everyday pick-me-up, either in dishes or as a blended sambal side dish. The key to almost any Malay dish, however, is the rempah – a pounded paste of onions, garlic, chillies, fresh turmeric and galangal (langkuas). The rempah is stir-fried in hot oil in a kuali (wok) and patiently stirred to prevent sticking and to release its tantalising aromas. A subtle seafood flavour is often added in the form of dried shrimps, dried anchovies (ikan bilis) or a pungent shrimp paste (belacan).

Malay nasi ulam, a popular dish in Malaysia. Photo: Shutterstock


Get Cooking with this Malaysian trip: Uniquely Rustic Malaysia

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