Malaysia - A World of Flavour
Written by Mark Eveleigh
Like a well-spiced and perfectly blended chicken masala, Malaysia is made up of a tangy and colourful melange of many complementary ingredients. Far from being a recent occurrence, this cultural melting pot dates back two millennia. Oryx talks to Malaysia Tourism’s Culinary Ambassador Chef Wan about his world of delicious diversity.
At a time when Europe was still a land of barbarian villages, Chinese sailors were already setting up trading stations along the Melaka coast, and Indian nobles were establishing Hindu kingdoms up jungle rivers that were said to be laden with gold. The trade winds brought Arab dhows and schooners from Sumatra, Java, Thailand, and Burma. In later centuries, the Portuguese, Dutch, and British also drifted in looking for the key to the coveted ‘Spice Islands’.
“To understand Malay cooking you must understand the tangled history of our country and the nationalities that have made it what it is,” Chef Wan tells me when I catch up with him during a typically frantic stopover at Auckland Airport. “Unlike the traditions of other countries you simply can’t separate history and cookery here. It is partly old Malay, partly Indonesian, partly Chinese, and partly Indian. Then there are smatterings of Portuguese, British, Middle Eastern, Turkish, Japanese...”
Born Redzuawan bin Ismail, Chef Wan rose from relatively humble beginnings – catering at Kuala Lumpur’s Air Force base – to become Asia’s premier celebrity chef and a Malaysian icon as a TV personality, author, and actor. The man who has cooked for heads of state such as the Sultan of Brunei and Bill Clinton recently had the title of Datuk (the Malay equivalent of a Western knighthood) bestowed on him. As Malaysia Tourism’s ‘Culinary Ambassador’ he is as tireless in his enthusiasm for his country’s gastronomic wealth as he is down-to-earth about his spectacular rise to fame.
“My family background is almost as varied as the history of Malaysia,” he says. “I am part Malay, part Javanese, part Peranakan (Malaysians of Chinese descent), and part Japanese. Maybe these tangled roots gave me a head-start in getting to grips with the diversity of Malaysian cookery.”
Malaysian cuisine evolved when local food was combined with gastronomic techniques and ingredients brought by traders, settlers, and colonists. ‘Nyonya’ cookery is a Malaysian adaptation of the specialities brought by Chinese immigrants, ‘Christang’ cuisine is a fusion of Malakan cooking with a Portuguese/Dutch influence, and the local mamak dishes (literally ‘uncle’ in Tamil) were originally imported by Indian Muslims.
One of the unmissable Nyonya delicacies is surely the utterly delicious spicy laksa (coconut milk and seafood soup), and you should not visit any part of Malaysia without trying a mamak breakfast of roti canai (unleavened bread ‘pancakes’ served with hot curry sauce). Chef Wan has travelled much of the world during the course of his career, but claims that he never tires of touring the 13 states of his own country. In October he is participating in the 11th annual Malaysia International Gourmet Festival, and November will see him officiating at the ASEAN Food Heritage Trail.
“You find wonderful variety as you travel through the country,” he says. “Around the border areas we share a lot in common with our neighbours: spicy Thai-style to the north and Straits Chinese to the south. The specialities of Penang, just across the water from Sumatra, have little in common with the traditional Portuguese fish dishes of Melaka. The variety is phenomenal...and this is before we even start to take into account Sarawak and Sabah in Malaysian Borneo. The cooking style there is simpler and relies heavily on basic staples such as sago and rice, but the Dayak communities have ingredients that we barely know of in the rest of the world. The jungle is one immense supermarket to them.”
Of course adventurous use of spices is common to all regions. Chef Wan’s recipes make lavish use of well-known spices and herbs such as lemongrass, ginger, garlic, turmeric, cardamom, fenugreek, cinnamon, and fresh chillies. But for the real culinary adventurer there are plenty of tantalising new experiences to be found in the likes of daun kemangi (a type of basil), laksa leaf, tamarind, wild torch ginger, galangal, pandanus, candlenut, kaffir limes, and belacan (fermented shrimp paste).
Durian has been called the king of fruits, and the experience of eating these large, spiky ‘cannonballs’ with their deliciously sweet (and intensely smelly) flesh has best been described, by English novelist Kingsley Amis, as ‘like eating strawberry blancmange on the toilet.’ Even this notorious fruit (illegal on public transport and in most hotels throughout Southeast Asia) can, when cooked with coconut milk and palm sugar, be turned into a delicious dessert called pengat durian.
Whether you dine in some of the world’s finest restaurants in Kuala Lumpur’s Golden Triangle, in the simple backstreet kedai kopi (coffee shops) of Little India, or the open-air hawker centres of Penang, you will find that this country is home to some of the most tantalisingly exotic dishes on the planet. Malaysia offers haute cuisine at its most accessible.
In his new book The Best of Chef Wan: A Taste of Malaysia, Chef Wan sings the praises of popular street food, which he says are “an important part of the country’s food culture and part and parcel of our daily lives.”
He admits that his favourite Malay speciality still remains the humble chicken satay; typically, pieces of marinated chicken barbecued on a sliver of palm spine and served with peanut sauce, fresh cucumber, and onion slices. Many of Chef Wan’s favourite recipes are home- cooked dishes that were specialities of the Peranakan side of his family. His grandmother had a major influence on his early cooking, and he says that his octogenarian mother is still one of the greatest sources of motivation in his life.
“She still rules the kitchen at home,” he admits. “When she is around I am no longer Chef Wan...then I am quite definitely relegated to Chef Two!”
Chef Wan’s new book The Best of Chef Wan: A Taste of Malaysia features 138 of his favourite recipes. For more information visit www.mychefwan.com.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
The Chinese cookery that originally arrived in Malaysia was already incredibly diverse. Cantonese, Hokkien, Hainanese, Teochew, and Hakka specialities were literally ‘spiced up’ over generations to appeal to more fiery local tastes so that today Chinese food in Malaysia is unlike any found elsewhere. Most dishes were adapted to the Muslim population, but among Peranakan communities (frequently Buddhists) pork remains an important ingredient in many specialities, as it does for traditional Dayak communities in Malaysian Borneo. Muslim visitors will have no problem finding halal restaurants serving wonderful Chinese food but, if in doubt, avoid anything with the word ‘babi’ (pig) on the menu, and don’t hesitate to ask for local recommendations.
Grab a bargain
Malaysia Year-End Sale(M-YES 2011) takes place all over the country from November 15. Anybody who imagines that Malaysia is suffering from economic crises should just visit one of Kuala Lumpur’s main shopping malls (such as KLCC, Lot 10, or Pavilion Mall) and witness the crowds of young Malaysians queuing at cash dispensers with all the single-minded dedication of slot-machine junkies. Next to eating, shopping is almost a national obsession in fashion-conscious KL. This annual event – organised by Malaysia Tourism – is not restricted just to the plushest malls; discount fever regularly sweeps through the entire city, down to the most offbeat and original of indie designer boutiques, and even to the bustling markets.