Through the ages, the close link between Indian cuisine and spices has been well documented by gourmands the world over. Malaysian-Indian food is no different. With roots in South Indian cooking, and bearing influences from North India, Indian food in Malaysia relies heavily on the use of spices. The most popular of these, are dry spices, like cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, coriander, cumin, turmeric, mace, pepper, and of course, that all-important spice blend – garam masala.
Malaysian-Indian cuisine, as we know it today, has evolved to suit the palette of the nation’s multicultural community, and yet has retained much of its authenticity. This is particularly apparent when enjoying banana leaf, whereby white rice is served on a fresh banana leaf, alongside curried meat, fish and vegetables, as well as chutneys, pickles and papadams (fried lentil crackers). At the end of a banana leaf meal, you are to indicate your satisfaction and appreciation by folding the banana leaf inwards, towards you. Folding the banana leaf away from yourself, would indicate the opposite, and insult your host or the cook.
Besides rice, different types of flat breads form an essential part of Malaysian-Indian cuisine. The most popular perhaps, is roti canai, which is made of wheat flour, ghee and water. There are many variations to the humble roti canai, such as roti tisu (very thin), roti telur (with egg), roti pisang (with banana), roti bawang (with onion) and much more. These are usually eaten with a fish or meat curry, dhal (vegetable curry) and sambal (fried chilli paste). Almost equally famous, is thosai, which is a rice and lentil pancake, served with coconut chutney and sambar (curried vegetable stew).
Naan, which is a leavened flatbread, baked in a circular clay oven, is also a firm favourite, with variations that include cheese naan, butter naan, garlic naan and more. Naan is usually served with dhal and oven-roasted tandoori chicken. Chapati, made of atta flour (wholegrain durum wheat), idli (steamed rice and lentil patties), as well as poori (unleavened bread) are also enjoyed in pretty much the same way. Meanwhile, murtabak, a roti canai-like bread stuffed with onion, garlic, spices and minced meat, is served with curry and pickled red onion.
Food by the Indian-Muslim community, also called “Mamak,” is particularly popular throughout Malaysia. They are so well-loved, in fact, that Mamak stalls and restaurants can be found just about everywhere in the country, and most are open 24-hours a day! Serving an assortment of rotis, they also specialise in nasi kandar, which is white rice or biryani (long-grained rice cooked with ghee and spices) eaten with an assortment of meat and vegetable dishes. If you don’t feel like having rice, you could order a plate of piping hot mee goreng Mamak (stir-fried yellow noodles).
Most Mamak restaurants also serve very rich and spice-laden soups, consisting of chicken, mutton or beef. These are usually eaten with slices of white bread. While beef is prohibited in Hindu homes and restaurants, as the cow is a sacred animal to them, you can find beef dishes at Mamak eateries. The food they prepare is also halal, meaning it is prepared in the Islamic way. Another favourite Mamak dish is pasembur, which is a salad of sorts. It consists of bean sprouts; shredded cucumber; potato, fried tofu and prawn fritter cubes; a boiled egg; and fried crab or octopus, topped off with a thick and sweet peanut sauce.
Last, but not least, is the piece-de-resistance of Mamak cuisine – kari kepala ikan (fish head curry). It features the head of a red snapper, stewed in a coconut milk-based curry, punctuated by tamarind juice and completed by vegetables like lady’s fingers, brinjal and tomatoes. Whatever your threshold for spices, there is a Malaysian-Indian dish just right for you; so go ahead and dive right in for a taste to remember!
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