Food for thought: Spotlight on Malaysian Food
Published: Thursday, September 12, 2013
Updated: Thursday, September 12, 2013 00:09
In recent decades, Asian food of all kinds has become popular in the United States. It’s hard to find a town of any significant size that doesn’t have at least one Chinese take-out place, sushi bar and/or Indian restaurant. But what about the myriad of other Asian countries that exist? What about the delicious cuisine that they have to offer? Today, I’m pitching Malaysian food to my readers, what has always been and is likely to always be my favorite kind of food, in large part due to my mother’s prodigious culinary talents.
Malaysia is an island nation in Southeast Asia just north of the equator. The population is a mix of Chinese and Indian immigrants, alongside the native Malay people, and their food reflects that fact. Like many of the countries in that region of the world, the food tends to be on the spicy side, though there are of course non-spicy dishes available.
One well-known Malaysian appetizer is roti canai, which is a flat, crispy, flaky pancake that is served with curry chicken and potatoes. The pancake is similar to Indian dosa, and the curry is mild to medium in hotness- definitely a must-try for people that like just a little zing before the entrée.
Another great dish for spice-lovers is laksa. Laksa is a spicy noodle soup that has many variations in Malaysia and the surrounding regions. Curry laksa (coconut-based curry soup) and asam laksa (sour, fish-based soup) are the two main versions, though many subcategories exist within them. Common ingredients in either include shrimp and other seafood, tofu puffs, bean sprouts and onion.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the national dish, nasi lemak. It is a dish traditionally served for breakfast and on a banana leaf, but today is versatile enough to be eaten for any meal. Rice is soaked in coconut cream and steamed, and then served alongside cucumber slices, small fried anchovies (ikan bilis), roasted peanuts, hardboiled egg and hot spicy sauce (sambal). Other things can be added for additional sustenance, like curry chicken, pickled vegetables or beef rendang (a semi-spicy beef dish).
If you find spicy food a little too hot to handle, there’s plenty of other options. My top three are wat tan hor, bak kut teh and char kuay teow. Wat tan hor is a delicious savory dish that consists of wok-fried flat rice noodles with Chinese vegetables, seafood and meat in a piping hot egg gravy. Bak kut teh is a soup made out of meaty pork ribs simmered in a complex broth of herbs and spices (including star anise, cinnamon, cloves, dang gui, fennel seeds and garlic) for hours. This particular dish has been a fan favorite in my house for a long time. Finally, char kuay teow consists of thin, flat rice noodles stir-fried in a light and dark soy sauce, chilli, a small quantity of belachan (shrimp paste), whole prawns, deshelled cockles, bean sprouts and chopped Chinese chives. The dish is commonly stir-fried with egg, slices of Chinese sausage and fishcake, and less commonly with other ingredients.
If any of my readers are interested in sampling some of the most amazing food on the planet, feel free to e-mail me for a restaurant recommendation. Sadly, this restaurant is in New York City, because Connecticut does not have any authentically Malaysian restaurants (that I know of).