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Malaysian Cuisine

Malaysia is situated in south east Asia and is rather unusual in that one part lies south of Thailand on the south east Asian peninsular, with Singapore at its tip. This is where the capital, Kuala Lumpur, is to be found. The other part lies across the South China Sea and forms the northern one third of the island of Borneo, surrounding the Sultanate of Brunei.

Malaysia has a mixed history which reflects in today’s cuisine.

In the 15th Century, the southwest (April to October) and northeast (October to February) monsoons brought the ships of the Arabs, Indians and Chinese who traded in spices, silk and precious stones. Many of the traders remained behind and married local women. A slow conversion to Islam began, which meant that pork was excluded from the Malay diet.

The 16th Century saw the arrival of the Portuguese, who brought chillies with them, the Dutch and the British, all of whom remained for some time to rule the country.

During the late 18th and 19th centuries, Great Britain established colonies and protectorates in the area and brought in more Indians and Chinese to work in the tin mines and rubber plantations. Many of these Asians stayed too and from all these influences, current day Malay cuisine evolved.

Originally, Malay cooking consisted of fish flavoured with shrimp paste, pepper, ginger, turmeric, lemon grass or tamarind. Rice was always a staple in this area and being a major part of Indian and Chinese food too, remained as central to the diet. Muslim Malays excluded pork and Indian Hindus excluded beef but delicate Chinese flavourings, Indian spices and herbs from South East Asian made an appearance.

Nasi means cooked rice in Malay and Nasi Goreng, that well known Indonesian dish, is cooked rice, usually fried with flavourings for breakfast. For special occasions it has a fried egg on top. But I digress, Malay Nasi dishes include Nasi Kander, much influenced by Indian cuisine and consisting of both fish and meat curry, rice and hard boiled eggs. This dish used to be bought from an itinerant salesman who carried his wares in baskets suspended from a pole over his shoulder (kinder means shoulder in an Indian dialect). A bit of everything would be placed on a banana leaf and the sauce dripped over the hard boiled eggs.

The Malays adopted some Indian recipes and in return the Indians started to add galangal, lemon grass and coconut to their food. Then came the food of the Nonyas which resulted from the marriage of Malay men to Chinese women which introduced Chinese seasonings such as star anise and salty soy sauce.

The resultant cuisine is a pleasant mix of hot and spicy with mild and perfumed.