It is a fact that Asia is known for its food: spicy, sweet, noodles, rice – Asia has it all (well, it doesn’t have diary, so slight minus points there).
What we generally think of as “Asian” comes from a strip mall restaurant called “Asian Fusion” and contains all manners of what could be considered gastronomic horrors (although, here, sweet and sour chicken is, I’m assured, “real”).
I have always loved Malaysian food, but really, I knew nothing about it except for going to a restaurant a couple of times and coveting a steaming bowl of laska. Did I even know that there were other types of Laksa? No.
And so, here is a post on some of what I learned about Malaysian food – the ultimate fusion of Malay, Indian and Chinese cuisine.
Words to know:
- Nasi: rice
- Lemak: fat (usually used when the dish calls for coconut milk)
- Mee: noodles, usually the wheat/spaghetti looking kind
- Goreng: fried, so fried rice is Nasi Goreng and friend noodles are Mee Goreng
- Nyonya: fusion cuisine created when the Chinese immigrated to Malaysia centuries ago.
- Mamak: Indian flavouring (basically adding a yellow curry packet into something)
- Asam: sour, usually made with tamarind and vinegar
- Pedas: spicy
- Sambal: a spicy-sweet paste made from chilies and dried anchoives or dried shrimp – everyone should eat this on everything.
- Banana Leaf: the reason a lot of rice dishes get served on banana leaves? Apparently hot rice releases the oils in the leaf, making everything tastier – and I always thought it was just a disposable plate.
- Pandan: Pandan leaves are used for a lot of flavouring, usually paired with coconut
- Kaya: a jam made of coconut, pandan and eggs
The start of the day is usually celebrated with rice.
- Nasi Lemak: a mound of rice surrounded by roasted peanuts, dried anchoives, sambal and a hard boiled egg. Sometimes served with a curry.
- Roti Canai (pronounced “Chanai”): what Americans would order as an appetizer for dinner is here only served for breakfast – a roti with a mild curry.
- Kaya Toast: the “sweet” option, toast or steamed bread with a slab of butter and kaya jam – the saltiness of the butter cuts the jam perfectly, with a cup of tea this can be heaven.
Lunch and Dinner
Sandwiches are for people who don’t have time to eat.
- Char Kway Teow: rice noodles stir fried with dark soy sauce, little bit of chili, prawns, bean sprouts etc. Need lunch in a pinch? There is always a hawker stalls selling this, at all times.
- Nasi Kandar: rice with a bunch of curries
- Rendang Curry: a meat and coconut based “dry” curry, that apparently if cooked correctly can last for a month. The paste is made from ginger, lemongrass, turmeric, etc – it does not look appetizing, but if available, I choose it everytime (the inside is where it all counts)
- Asam Pedas: literally “sour spicey”, this is sort of a seafood/ broth dish. The tamarind and the lemongrass make a refreshingly tart and fulfilling soup.
- Asam Laksa: tamarind broth with rice noodles, lettuce, mint leaves and onions, and fish. On a hot day it replenishes both your liquids (that you sweat out an at Olympian rate) and your salts.
- Nyonya Laksa: also called “curry laksa”, a spicy coconut broth filled with noodles, seafood or meat, fried tofu, fish balls – a whole bunch of stuff and topped with sambal. This is the kind that is ubiquitous – what Ramen is to Japan, Nyonya Laksa is to Malaysia. This is food that makes you want to wear a bib all day, just in case you happen upon the delicious slurpfest.
Here is what you learn in Asia: everything can be turned into something sweet, and when in doubt, add some condensed milk.
I haven’t sampled nearly enough desserts, mainly cause after bowls or laksa or mounds of curry, I’m too full….
- Red Bean Sweet Rice and Black Bean Sweet Rice: these are my favourite cause they are like rice pudding but with crack added
- Iced Kacang: shaved ice topped with beans, corn, grass jelly, liquid flavouring and then topped with condensed milk.
Hopefully this helpful! Just whatever you do, if you are on this side of the Prime Meridian, don’t go to a restaurant called “Western Restaurant”, unless you want to pretend to be Gordon Ramsay and be horrified at the way a burger is cooked – if you feel like Western food, just get some chicken tandoori – it’s basically barbecue.