From sprawling food markets to hawker stands, giant Durian fruit, skewers of tender grilled meats, spicy curries and stir-fried noodles, Malaysian cuisine represents a variety of local cultures and traditions. I had a chance to cook with some wonderful women chefs in Kuala Lumpur, to learn about some of their complex food first hand.
By CINDA CHAVICH
(Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) – Wearing her lacy kebaya, flashy baubles and beaded shoes, celebrity chef Florence Tan is every bit a Nyonya – the term used here to describe women of mixed Chinese and Malay heritage.
Tan tosses together a wok full of fiery Penang chicken curry, while next to her in the kitchen, Muslim chef Normah Mustafa makes an aromatic skate stew with pandan scented coconut rice. The aromas mingling in their shared kitchen aptly illustrate the country’s cultural diversity in a single meal.
Malaysia recently celebrated 50 years of independence from British colonial rule, and there may be no better way to experience the country’s famed multi-ethnic history than a romp through the literally hundreds of local noshes found on almost every street corner, in fresh food markets, bakeries, and from the back of carts pedaled by bicycle vendors down the storied food streets of Penang or in the markets of KL.
“When I was six years old, I saw my mother cooking, starting with so many spices and pounding them – it would smell soooo aromatic!” enthuses Tan, a local cookbook author and celebrity chef, stirring the pungent fermented shrimp paste called belacan into her spicy chicken dish.
Like her elegant dress, Tan’s Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine is unique to this culturally diverse corner of southeast Asia, where for hundreds of years, settlers from India, Portugal, Holland, China and Britain have fused their food traditions with those of the local Malays. It makes for a wildly-diverse melting pot of tastes for the culinary tourist and a place where nonstop grazing through the city’s famed hawker stalls, white coffee shops (kedai kopi), Indian banana leaf or nasi kandar haunts, and Chinese steamboat stops, can keep you happily sated, on very little cash, for weeks.
ON THE SPICE ROUTE
It’s not surprising that food and flavour are so integral to daily life in Malaysia since it was spices - the nutmeg, pepper, cinnamon and ginger that are still staples – which first drew traders to these coastal communities along the Asian spice route.
Spice traders and merchants from India, Britain and China all left their culinary, social and political marks. The earliest arrivals, from India, brought curries and the Islamic religion, which still dominates the country and the system of sultans or kings which remains intact alongside the country’s constitutional democracy, a legacy of British colonialists, along with toast, marmalade and HP Sauce. From the Chinese traders and merchants, who arrived in the late 18th century, came the powerful clans, still represented in elaborate clan houses, and the Nyonya and Baba culture, along with it’s steamy bowls of laksa and strange glutinous rice desserts. And today, Shariah law, which exacts strict penalties (including jail terms) for infractions like alcohol or pork consumption, also governs the majority Muslim population.
While ethnic and religious disparities do exist - religious pluralism remains a cornerstone here, and it’s easy for a visitor to explore the unique melting pot of the country’s many cultures.
Mosques, Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist temples, and Christian churches sit side by side on city streets, individuals of many faiths work and socialize together, and many restaurants, whether Chinese, Indian or Eurasian, are certified halal. So while the Muslims must self-segregate, everyone else eats everywhere, noshing nonstop on a delightful mélange of Asian flavours.
HAWKER STALLS AND MARKETS
Penang’s capital, Georgetown, is hawker central, where the legendary strip of stalls lining the waterfront along Gurney Drive have recently been centralized in a kind of mega-hawker-world, and diners line up at portable stainless steel stalls selling char quay teow (flat rice noodles stir-fried with spicy sauces), rojak (a cucumber and pineapple salad seasoned with shrimp paste) and steaming bowls of laksa, the city’s famous hot and sour fish soup.
Food vendors – or hawkers – have a long history here, a history you can explore at the local museum. In the early 1900s, hawkers plied their trade in Penang streets day and night, calling at homes with breakfast, lunch and tea treats piled on their bicycles and push carts. You’ll still see the odd bicycle vendor, laden with bags of sweets, but the hawker plaza on Gurney Drive has dozens of vendors and outdoor seating for many diners in one convenient spot.
Whether you find vendors here, in the daily “wet markets” among the fresh fish and fruit sellers downtown, or at a Muslim night street market - searing satay over glowing charcoal, dishing out bags of warm curried chickpeas and pickled nutmeg pods, or frying egg-filled murtabak packets on flat blackened grills – street dining is a reminder that delicious food is about fresh ingredients, not fancy equipment.
Still, for the newcomer, the range of food choices can be strange and overwhelming. There are a multitude of tastes beyond the well-known Malaysian dishes like satay, nasi goring and beef rendang. From spicy bowls of breakfast noodles (Hokkien prawn mee) and steamed packets of glutinous rice and sweet coconut wrapped in banana leaves in the Pasar Pulau Tikus Market, or a steamboat lok-lok dinner (cooking your own selection of fish and vegetable balls, squid, black mushrooms and bok choy, in a communal pot of savoury broth), eating in Penang is always inexpensive.
In fact, unless you eat in hotels (where a good breakfast buffet can cost RM50 or about $16 Cdn), or order alcohol (a mixed drink or beer is around RM20 or $6 Cdn) the food is dead cheap, fresh and delicious. In summer fruit season, you’re better to sip a freshly-squeezed fruit juice, a fresh aromatic lemongrass, lime or tamarind soda, an iced coffee or creamy, sweet “pulled tea”.
CHINESE, NYONYA AND TAMIL TASTES
Chinatown is noisy and crowded, the old shop houses open to the street and offering dried and salted fish, lotus moon cakes, steamed packets of sticky rice, and sips of restorative herbal broth.
In Georgetown’s Little India, the influence of the Tamil workers who arrived in the 19th century is still evident – with southern Indian specialties including masala dosa and roti on restaurant menus, and vendors cooking deep fried treats like samosas, sweet banana fritters and crispy pakoras on the street, while Hindi pop music blares from storefronts. At Restoran Kaliamman’s, one of the city’s famous banana leaf restaurants, waiters scurry through the crowded room with aromatic biriyani, butter masala paneer and eggplant bartha to pile on banana leaf “plates”. It’s a hearty, and somewhat messy, lunch that must be scooped up with your fingers – a technique which locals claim “aids digestion”.
You can even visit Liaquat Alikhan, the neighborhood paan vendor, and watch him wrap his secret combination of fennel, cloves, nutmeg, saffron honey and rose syrup in a betel leaf for a refreshing post-meal chew.
Mamak (Indian Muslim) cuisine ranges from murtabak and nasi kandar, to wok-fried noodles and steamed Sri Lankan sweets like putu mayong, rice noodle pancakes rolled with a sweet palm sugar and coconut paste.
In Chinese restaurants, dim sum chefs like Alex Yong create halal versions of popular pork dishes using chicken – juicy Shanghai-style dumplings and even barbecue chicken steamed buns - plus exotic pastries tinted pale green with pandan leaves and filled with rich egg custard.
Famous Penang bakeries include the historic Ismalia Bakery, where generations of the same family have made the tall white loaves of Roti Benggali (sic), doubtless inspired by British expats, and now considered one of Georgetown’s “traditional foods”, along with white buns stuffed with a dense, sweet paste of ground coconut and dark brown sugar. Or you can visit a traditional Nyona bakery, where brightly-coloured coconut milk cakes are steamed over massive woks, then slathered with sweet egg jam.
In fruit season, when the local durian is fresh, people jostle for the best of the smelly specimens in the markets, and you can sample sweet juicy exotics, like spiky red rambutans, fuchsia dragon fruit and the creamy white sections of bulbuous purple mangosteens.
In Penang, it’s difficult to stop at just a few tastes.
The selection of street food is so diverse, and with sticks of savoury satay hot off the grill costing a mere RM.60 (less than 20 cents) and bowls of sweet soupy cendol only RM1.50 (45 cents), you can’t afford not stand on the street with the locals, noshing noisily between meals.
Back in the modern demonstration kitchen at the chic Rebung Restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, Tan and Mustafa serve their specialties while Malay restaurant manager Lina Ali bustles about pouring tea and setting tables.
Here in the kitchen, halal rules may forbid the consumption of pork and alcohol, but friends can still cook, entertain and dine across cultures.
IF YOU GO:
You can hire one of the country’s tour operators and a freelance guide to introduce you to the culinary pleasures of Penang, or just walk out the door and start tasting.
The Malaysian tourist office advertises culinary tours but you will have to make advance arrangements directly with chef schools or hotels to participate in cooking classes. In Kuala Lumpur, Chefs like Florence Tan will arrange lessons for groups (contact the International School of Home Cooking at 2247-1571) and large hotels (including the Mandarin Oriental, Equatorial and Shangri-La properties) offer cooking classes, or book an 11-day culinary tour through Pacific Holidays (www.pacificholidaysinc.com).
To taste spices and fruits at the source, take a day trip into the country to Teluk Bahang to walk the tranquil forest trails of the Tropical Spice Garden (www.tropicalspicegarden.com) or the visit the nearby Tropical Fruit Farm (www.tropicalfruitfarm.com), where you can tour the farm to see dragon fruit, rabutan, mangosteen and durian growing, then enjoy generous samples of several exotic fruits.
Cathay Pacific has daily non-stop service from Toronto to Hong Kong, and 17 nonstop flights every week from Vancouver to Hong Kong, with connections to Kuala Lumpur and Penang via Malaysian Airlines. Business class travelers will appreciate Cathay’s massive and well-appointed airport lounge in the recently expanded Hong Kong International Airport, recently named the world’s best airport. www.cathaypacific.ca
(This story is based on my travel and reporting in 2007)
copyright Cinda Chavich