Feb 22, 2009

::Malay Food::



The Malays are the people who inhabit the Malayan Peninsula and some of the nearby islands, including the east coast of Sumatra, the coast of Borneo and smaller islands that lie between the area. These tribal proto-Malays were a seafaring people. Present day Malays of the Peninsula and coasts of the Malay Archipelago are "anthropologically described as deutero-Malays" and are the descendants of the tribal proto-Malays mixed with modern Indian, Thai, Arab and Chinese ancestry. Malay culture itself has been strongly influenced by that of people of neighboring lands, including Siamese, Javanese, Sumatran and Indians. The influence of Hindu India was historically very great, and the Malay people were largely Hinduized before they were converted to Islam in the 15th century. For 2000 years, the traffic of traders between the Malayan Archipelago and India resulted in frequent intermarriages especially Tamils and Gujeratis. Some Hindu rituals survive in Malay culture, as in the second part of the marriage ceremony and in various ceremonies of State. Malays have also preserved some of their more ancient beliefs in spirits of the soil and jungle, often having recourse to medicine men called bomohs [shamans] for the treatment of ailments.

In the northern states of Perlis and Kedah, intermarriages with Thais were commonplace. The east coast state of Kelantan still has traces of Javanese culture that date back to the era of the Majapahit Empire of the 14th century. The Sumatran kingdom of Acheh dominated Perak for over a century. The Bugis from Indonesia's Celebes Islands colonized Selangor and fought for rulers in States along the length of the peninsula - from Kedah to Johor. The Minangkabaus from Sumatra had their own independent chiefdoms in what is today the state of Negri Sembilan. This mix of different ethnic groups form what is the modern Malay and can be clearly seen in the lineage of, for example, Malacca's royalty. Sultan Muhammad Shah married a Tamil from South India. Sultan Mansur Shah married a Javanese, a Chinese and a Siamese; the Siamese wife bore two future Sultans of Pahang. It was this diversity of races, cultures and influences that has the given the modern Malay race the rich and unique historical heritage it has today.

This rich historical heritage has evidently resulted in it's exotic cuisine. In Malay cuisine fresh aromatic herbs and roots are used, some familiar, such as lemongrass, ginger, garlic, shallots, kaffir limes and fresh chilies. Both fresh and dried chilies are used, usually ground into a sambal or chili paste to add hotness to dishes. There are however, less commonly known herbs and roots that are essential in Malay cooking; such as daun kemangi [a type of basil], daun kesum[polygonum, commonly called laksa leaf], bunga kantan [wild ginger flower buds or torch ginger], kunyit basah [turmeric root], lengkuas [galangal] and pandan or pandanus[screwpine leave]. Dried spices frequently used in Malay cooking are jintan manis [fennel], jintan putih [cumin] andketumbar [coriander]; Other dried spices used are cloves, cardamom, star anise, mustard seeds, fenugreek, cinnamon and nutmeg. Both fresh and dried ingredients are frequently used together, usually ground into a rempah ['spice paste]. The rempah is then sautéed in oil to bring out it's flavorful aroma and toasted goodness. Santan [coconut milk] is the basis of Malay lemak dishes. Lemak dishes are typically not hot to taste; it is aromatically spiced and coconut milk is added for a creamy richness [lemak]. Assam Jawa, or tamarind paste is a key element in many Malay assam dishes for adding a sour or tangy taste; especially for fish and seafood dishes. What is tamarind paste? Tamarind paste is the pulp extracted from tamarind pods commonly used as a souring ingredient in Latin America, India, Africa and Asia. While the prime taste is sour, the underlying tang is slightly sweet, reminiscent of dried apricots or dried prunes. The pulp or paste is commonly sold in the form of a semi-dry flat block. To use, simply pinch a small lump from the block and soak it in some warm water. Use your fingers to squish it about in the water to separate the seeds and fibers; the resulting paste or tamarind water is used for cooking.

Many Malay signature dishes require a key ingredient calledBelacan [also spelt Belachan, Blacan, Blachan], pronouncedblah-chan. Tiny baby shrimp or brine are allowed to ferment, cured with salt, sun-dried and formed into a small brick or cake. Similar to how anchovy paste is used in Italian cooking,belacan is used much the same way, that is, sparingly. Not overly 'fishy', a tiny amount of belacan adds 'sweetness' to meats and intensity to fish & seafood. It adds a 'kick' to vegetable dishes, such as the famed Malaysian dish Kangkong Belacan. Belacan is also the basis of a well-loved Malay condiment - Sambal Belacan. It's made by first roasting a small lump of belacan, which is then pounded with fresh chilies and lime juice is added. This appetizing condiment is almost always present in any typical Malay meal. Belacan also makes a flavorful base for sauces and gravy, adding depth and an intriguing taste that you can't quite decipher. When uncooked, the pressed cake has a powerful scent like "stinky cheese". But don't be put off; it mellows out and harmonizes in the cooking leaving behind an understated richness that simply cannot be reproduced. Best described as all 'natural' flavor enhancer, belacan is what gives many of the foods from Southeast Asia - Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam - that authentic flavor and zest!

As in most countries of Southeast Asia, rice is staple. It is served for lunch, dinner and often breakfast. Originally eaten as a hearty breakfast Nasi Lemak is a meal of rice cooked insantan [coconut milk] served with a side of Sambal Ikan Bilis[dried anchovies cooked in a sambal], cucumber slices, hard boiled egg and peanuts, and traditionally packaged in a fresh banana leaf. Most meals are eaten with fingers and utensils are kept to a minimum. All dishes are served at the same time, usually accompanied by a refreshing drink such as air sirap [rose syrup] or air limau [lime juice]. Seafood such as shrimp or rather prawn [which is the general term commonly used in Malaysia for all types/sizes of this crustacean], squid and fish in particular, are popular in Malay cuisine. Fish caught from local waters such as ikan kembong [chubb or Indian mackerel], ikan tenggiri [wolf herring] and ikan tongkol, also called ikan kayu [tuna], are seasoned very simply with salt, pepper, a sprinkling of turmeric powder and quickly deep fried. Often the fish is stuffed with sambal belacan before frying or grilling. Grilling or barbequing is another favorite way of cooking fish; fish is typically kept whole, seasoned, wrapped in banana leaves and grilled over hot charcoals. Many local Malay hawker stalls specialize in Ikan Panggang[Grilled fish] or Ikan Bakar [Barbecued Fish].

Depending on the main basic 'flavoring' ingredient; Malay dishes can be more or less, distinguished into several 'styles' of cooking: Masak Lemak [coconut], Masak Pedas [sambal, hot chilies], Masak Assam [tamarind], Masak Merah [tomato sauce], Masak Hitam [dark-sweet soy sauce] and Masak Assam Pedas [tamarind & sambal, hot chilies]. These basic styles of cooking can be applied to a variety of food, from meats, poultry and vegetables to all kinds of seafood and fish. Popular dishes are Ayam Masak Merah; chicken cooked in a spicy tomato sauce, goes great with nasi tomato [tomato rice]. Udang Masak Pedas; prawns cooked in a hot chili sauce,Ikan Masak Assam Pedas; fish cooked with tamarind and sambal or hot chilies and Nangka Masak Lemak; young jackfruit cooked in coconut milk. There are innumerable renowned and distinguished Malay dishes; many of which can only be had at home. The best way to experience typical Malay food is to be invited for makan [meaning 'to eat', in Malay] in a Malay home. There are also regional dishes which are specialties of different parts of the country. One of the most celebrated Malaysian dish worldwide is Beef Rendang; a must-have for celebrations and special occasions! Soup is not necessarily prevalent in Malay cuisine; however there is a soup or stew that is particularly popular Sup Kambing [mutton soup], made of mutton bones, shanks or ribs slow simmered with aromatic herbs and spices. Pork however is forbidden in Malay cooking as it is against religious beliefs to consume pork. Another famous Malay classic is the 'meat-on-a-stick'Satay. Chicken, beef or mutton satays are cooked over hot charcoals and served with fresh cucumber, onion and a spicy peanut dipping sauce. The spicy peanut dipping sauce is what makes satay special, and great for dipping ketupat, a Malay rice cake.

Many Malay restaurants and stalls serve what is called Nasi Padang; the name originated from Padang, a district in West Sumatra. It is not one particular dish but rather a meal of rice served with any number of meat, fish, poultry and vegetable dishes. The rice can be plain [nasi kosong] or lightly flavored such as nasi kunyit [turmeric rice]; rice spiced with turmeric, or nasi minyak [ghee rice]; rice cooked with ghee [clarified butter]. A wide array of dishes are available for you to choose to eat with your choice of rice; from highly spiced and tongue-burning hot dishes, to mild, aromatically spiced stews and sauced dishes, and delicious deep-fried foods. Some of the popular dishes are Sambal Udang or Sambal Sotong; prawns or squid in a spicy chili belacan sauce. Ayam Panggang;grilled chicken Malay-style, Otak Otak [fish mousse]; a mildly spiced coconut milk fish mousse steamed or grilled in banana leaves. Other popular dishes are Sambal Tahu Goreng; deep-fried tofu topped with sambal sauce, Daging Masak Kicap;beef cooked in a dark-sweet soy sauce and Ayam Kampung Masak Lemak Cili Padi; free-range [village] chicken cooked insantan [coconut milk] and cili padi [Thai bird chilies]. The all-time everyday favorites and quick-fix's are Nasi Goreng [fried rice] and Mee Goreng [fried noodles] cooked Malay style. Another everyday favorite is a delicious, satisfying noodle dish called Laksa; fresh rice noodles, garnished with fresh cucumbers, onions, lettuce and served in a savory and tangy fish soup or gravy.

Nasi Kerabu or Nasi Ulam, is a regional specialty from the state of Kelantan on the east coast of Malaysia. Traditionally, the rice is tinted bright blue from petals of flowers calledbunga telang [clitoria in English]. For a family size serving of rice, hundreds of these petals have to be sun-dried and boiled in water. There are several varieties of local herbs; daun kentutdaun kuducekur, seven types of daun larak andkucing seduduk, which is used to tint the rice in different colors; red, black or blue. The most used variety for Nasi Kerabu is the 'blue color' variety of petals. This naturally tinted 'blue rice' is served with Ulam. Ulam is combination of fresh aromatic herbs; local mint, basil, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric leaves and raw vegetables; bean sprouts, long green beans, shallots, cucumber, are combined together with strong flavored ingredients such as salted fish, dried prawns, fish crackers, kerisik [fried grated coconut] and other savory garnishing.

One of the most unique Malay culinary creation is Roti Jala['net' bread] which is a sort of crepe or thin pancake. It is made from a crepe-like batter of plain flour, eggs, butter and coconut milk with a dash of turmeric for coloring. A special mould or cup with small holes is used to make a 'lacy' crepe, cooked briefly over a hot greased griddle. Roti Jala is an ideal accompaniment to dishes with lots of rich curry sauces or gravy, and is usually served during special occasions. Desserts are often served after a meal or an an afternoon snack; many are home-made although most are easily available from local hawker stalls and restaurants especially during Ramadan, the religious fasting period. Malay desserts are quite exceptional, using ingredients such as Santan[coconut milk], fresh grated coconut, palm sugar and a unique plant leave called pandan or pandanus [screwpine]. This locally grown plant leave is used often in dessert making. It lends essence rather than a taste, much like the ubiquitous vanilla bean. During the Malay New Year [Hari Raya or Eid], the variety of cakes and dessert are endless; many are unique creations made by home chefs, not found anywhere in the culinary circle of the dessert world!