If Malay food is to be described in just a few words, the most appropriate may be – “A festival of flavours”. Having absorbed various cultural influences through the centuries, particularly Chinese, Indian, Arab, Thai and Indonesian, Malay cuisine has evolved into its very own. What gives Malay food its main and unmistakable characteristic is the expert use of rempah, which is a mixture of wet and dry herbs and spices. Indeed, many popular Malay dishes begin with a ground paste consisting of red onion or shallots, garlic, ginger, galangal, fresh turmeric and lemongrass. In addition to this, is the famed dry spice combo of star anise, cinnamon sticks, cardamom and cloves.
Often mixed with chilli paste, these herbs and spices are sautéed in oil to bring out rich flavours and aroma. Other crucial flavour enhancers that are must-haves in the Malay kitchen are tamarind paste, belacan (dry shrimp paste) and coconut milk. A typical Malay meal comprises of white rice, eaten with an assortment of lauk or dishes. Chicken, beef or fish, is often cooked as asam pedas (spicy, tangy gravy); curry; sambal (fried chilli paste); or lemak (coconut milk gravy). The vegetables, on the other hand, are usually flavoured with belacan or dry shrimp; cooked with coconut milk; or eaten raw or blanched as ulam, which is typically dipped into the ubiquitous sambal belacan.
Made of finely-ground fresh chillies, belacan and other ingredients, sambal belacan is a hot and pungent paste that is well-loved by Malays. It is such an integral part of Malay cuisine that recipes vary from state to state, village to village, and family to family, with each one having its own special blend. Not quite content with all the flavours mentioned above, Malays often enhance their meals further with the use of strong-tasting condiments, such as budu (fermented fish sauce), pekasam (salted and fermented fish), cencaluk (salted krill) and tempoyak (fermented durian).
While white rice is a daily staple, it is not uncommon for Malays to add flavour to the rice itself. Take nasi lemak, for example, which is particularly popular at breakfast. It consists of rice cooked in coconut milk, and served with sambal, fried anchovies, toasted peanuts, a fried or boiled egg and a few slices of cucumber. Then, there is nasi kerabu from Kelantan and Terengganu, which is served with toasted grated coconut, thinly-chopped raw vegetables, a paste made of fresh chillies, budu and a salted duck egg. Another favourite from the East Coast, is nasi dagang, which is rice cooked with coconut milk and fenugreek, served with tuna curry and acar jelatah (pickled cucumber, carrots and pineapple).
As Malays are Muslim, they eat only halal foods, which are foods deemed permissible under Islamic law. For example, Malays cannot consume pork and alcohol, and the meat and poultry used in Malay cooking must be slaughtered and prepared by a Muslim butcher in the Islamic way During important Islamic festivals, such as Hari Raya Aidilfitri and Hari Raya Aidiladha, the Malays prepare a range of special dishes, such as rendang (spicy meat stew), ketupat (rice cake cooked in coconut leaves), lemang (glutinous rice cake cooked in bamboo), satay (marinated meat on skewers, grilled over charcoal), kuah kacang (peanut sauce), sayur lodeh (vegetable stew in coconut milk) and serunding (dry meat floss), among other festive delicacies.. At Malay weddings, the main feature is nasi minyak, which is long-grained rice cooked with ghee and spices. It is usually served with ayam masak merah (chicken in spicy tomato sauce), daging masak hitam (beef in dark gravy), dalca sayur (mild vegetable curry) and acar jelatah.
While rice takes centre stage, there are also a number of Malay noodle dishes. Consisting mainly of wheat of rice noodles, served in different types of gravy or broth, such as mee soto, mee Bandung, mee rebus (thick, sweet gravy) and mee goreng (fried noodles). Other popular Malay one-dish meals are lontong and soto, which are rice cakes served in coconut milk and broth, respectively. Be it a humble meal cooked at home, or a lavish feast presented at a fancy restaurant, all forms of Malay food are united by the same elements – rich flavours, delightful tastes and striking aromas!
Editor’s Pick – Top Malay Food in Malaysia