Malaysia’s amalgamated cuisine

| June 28, 2012 | 0 Comments


Fried Flat Rice Noodles with Shrimp

Fried Flat Rice Noodles with Shrimp

Food holds a privileged place in the lives of Malaysians. They love to eat and view food as an important (indeed serious) expression of hospitality. In fact, Malaysian High Commissioner Dato’ Hayati Ismail insists that “guests must be fed regardless of the time of day — no questions asked.”
Many may automatically assume Malaysian cuisine is like that of Thailand or Indonesia. After all, it shares borders with those countries.
In reality, Malaysia has a uniquely amalgamated food culture deeply steeped in centuries of history, external influences, assimilation and religious taboos. As far back as 200 AD, Malaysia has been a crossroads of cultures which, over the years, has continuously diversified Malaysian cuisine. The most significant period was in the 19th and 20th Centuries when a large number of workers from China and India came to Malaysia seeking employment in the tin mines and rubber plantations. Still others came as civil servants in the British administration until Malaysia’s independence in 1957.
So it’s no mystery why Malaysian cuisine is an exotic gastronomic adventure with Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine taking centre stage. Each of these cuisines has its own distinctive flavours, style of cooking and service.
As the majority of Malays are Muslim, the high commissioner explains that virtually all food sold in Malaysia is assumed to be halal (that means there’s no pork, and other animals are slaughtered according to Muslim rites). If non-halal food is sold, it is in a completely separate area of a shop or a supermarket.
In general, Malay cuisine tends to be spicy and pungent with the counter-balancing richness of coconut milk or grated coconut and the sweetness of sugar. The heat in Malay cuisine comes from chiles. Both dry and wet spices are used. Dry spices include the traditional native varieties (e.g., cumin, coriander, cloves and cinnamon) as well as Indian, Chinese and Arabic spices (e.g., pepper, fenugreek, cardamon). Wet spices, meanwhile, include such ingredients as ginger, garlic, shallots, onions, fresh chiles and fresh turmeric, which are pounded into a paste using a mortar and pestle. Malay cooking also incorporates lemongrass, kaffir lime and pandan leaves, fresh herbs and fish paste.
Rice is featured in virtually all Malay meals — breakfast, lunch, dinner. Fish, shrimp, cuttlefish, beef, mutton, chicken and vegetables are popular and are usually served with a side dish of spicy sambal sauce. A variety of the country’s exotic array of tropical fruit — from mango to the infamous durian, which “tastes like heaven but smells like hell” — is served at the end of a meal. Sweet desserts prepared with ingredients such as palm sugar, coconut milk and flour, are reserved for afternoon tea.
All dishes, including dessert, go on the table at once and food is eaten with the tips of the fingers of the right hand and with a bowl of water to rinse one’s fingers.
Of course, the best known Malay dish is satay. But the most original of Malay dishes is the rotie jala, a large lacy pancake. A spicy curry rotie jala is served at breakfast or tea time, and a sweet version with durian sauce for dessert.
In contrast to Malay, the widely popular Chinese cuisine is characterized by a delicate blend of herbs, sauces and spices, where fresh ingredients are a must and cooking styles vary according to the origin of the dish — Hokkien, Hakka, Hainanese, Cantonese, Szechwan or Teochew. Again rice is the staple grain — but noodles feature prominently as well. The oh-so-popular dim sum is served for breakfast, brunch or as a course in a meal. At meals, dishes come either in a course-type procedure (always for formal occasions) or they could be presented all at once which is usually done in homes or in restaurants. In the latter, damp towels replace the West’s customary napkins.
When it comes to the Indian component of Malaysia’s food culture, the most important feature is the imaginative use of spices and herbs. Hot, mild, pungent, bland — there is a combination to suit every palate. Where Westerners may happily use pre-made curry powder, Indian cooks understand that cardamom and cloves will make a mutton dish remarkable, and fenugreek will do wonders in a fish curry. Although Indian cuisine is known for its curries, accompanied by rice, side dishes, chutneys and yogurt, exciting too are the grilled meats, clay oven-baked tandoori chicken, a wide variety of unleavened breads (including naan), rice dishes (e.g., biryani, banana leaf, nasi kinder), noodle dishes (mee goreng memik) and vegetarian choices.
Significant too is Nyonya cuisine, a result of Chinese intermarrying with Malays and a unique blending of the two cuisines. Rich cakes made with sweet potato, glutinous rice and coconut milk are the preferred dessert. The eating implement? Chopsticks and finger tips.
In spite of all this cultural influence, the high commissioner says Malaysians do not think about seeking out a particular ethic food. “It is all Malaysian cuisine with a preference for a certain recipe that one feels the desire to eat at the moment, be it flat noodles made with rice flour, a spicy curry or perhaps Portuguese fish, marinated, put in foil and grilled.” Extraordinary street food is also available all day and well into the night, making it a perfect supper stop for night clubbers, night workers, students and tourists.
Now, I invite you to try my version of a favourite Malaysian dish, fried flat rice noodles with shrimp. It is indeed quick and easy to prepare, as well as delicious. Bon appétit!

Fried Flat Rice Noodles with Shrimp
Makes 4 servings
1 lb (450 g) jumbo shrimp (21-30 count), unpeeled
14 oz (400 g) flat rice noodles
3 tbsp (45 mL) olive oil (preferably garlic infused), divided
1 tbsp (15 mL) minced fresh garlic
2 to 3 tsp (10 to 15 mL) Asian hot chili paste (such as Sambal Oelek)
3 tbsp (45 mL) sweet dark soya sauce
3 tbsp (45 mL) oyster sauce
1 1/3 tbsp (20 mL) fish sauce
3/4 cup (180 mL) chopped fresh chives
3/4 cup (180 mL) fresh bean sprouts
3 tbsp (45 mL) water

1. Peel shrimp, keeping tails attached.
2. Cook noodles in salted boiling water until just tender. Drain, rinse with cold water and toss with 1 tsp (5 mL) olive oil.
3. Heat remainder of oil in a wok or very large non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté until golden brown.
4. Add chili paste, sweet soya, oyster and fish sauces; combine well.
5. Quickly add shrimp and sauté for about one minute before adding the cooked noodles. Stirring constantly, sauté a few minutes until shrimp are almost cooked.
6. Add chives, bean sprouts and water, toss and cook for another minute or two. Season to taste with salt. Serve promptly.

Margaret Dickenson wrote the award-winning cookbook, Margaret’s Table — Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining, and she hosts the Rogers TV series, Margaret’s Table (

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Category: Delights

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Margaret Dickenson wrote the awardwinning cookbook, Margaret’s Table — Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining (

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