What Makes Malaysian Food So Malaysian

BY: Aimee Algas Alker |Jun 22, 2018

With foodies looking to expand their palates beyond the now-typical Thai and Chinese, more restaurants are turning to lesser-known Asian cuisines for culinary inspiration. 

Malaysian food draws from the influences of neighboring countries, such as Indonesia, China, and Vietnam, according to John Petry, formerly of New York's Fatty Crab, which centered around Malaysian dishes. “The key components are sweet, sour, salty, and spicy,” Petry said. “ … It’s a different profile than European-style food.” All those flavors hitting you at once—in equal measure—packs quite a punch. We asked Petry for some tips on navigating them.

The Most Malaysian

No other dish is as Malaysian as nasi lemak (pictured above), which many have dubbed the country’s national dish. Its base is rice, steamed in coconut milk and pandan leaves, which are culled from the screw pine palm and impart a sweet, piney fragrance to the rice.

Traditionally, the rice is topped with sambal ikan bilisSambal, much like curry in India, simply means sauce. It’s usually a thicker one with a paste-like consistency. Ikan bilis are tiny dried or fried anchovies, which add salt to the dish. Also essential to the sambal is tamarind paste (for the sour flavor), chilies (spice), and belacan.

Belacan, another essential Malaysian ingredient, is derived from a paste made from sun-fermented shrimp. “It adds a funky flavor to food,” Petry said. “It also has an aroma that some [Westerners] might find off-putting.” When cooked, that “funkiness” mellows somewhat and adds an incomparable depth of flavor. “If done right, it comes out perfect,” he said.

Accompanying the rice and sambal are usually hard-boiled eggssardines, and cucumber, though this can vary. At Fatty Crab, the rice and sambal were surrounded by some pickled veggies, chicken curry, and a poached egg. Since it’s a breakfast dish, it’s often paired with leftovers from the night before—most deliciously with another traditional Malaysian dish, rendang.

Other Classic Dishes

  • Rendang: A rich meat dish, usually beef, that is slow-cooked over hours with coconut milk and aromatic spices. Fatty Crab amps this dish up by using tender short ribs.
  • Chili crab: Though its origins are in Singapore, this is a popular dish in Malaysia, where the crabs are cooked in a sweet-and-spicy sauce made from tomatoes and chilies. According to Petry, this is one dish where his restaurant sticks to tradition.

Other Terms to Know

  • Asam jawa: Tamarind, used for color as well as flavor 
  • Gula jawa: An unrefined palm sugar, dark in color with the consistency of molasses 
  • Kicap (pronounced “ketchup”) manis: What Malaysians call dark sweet soy sauce, a thicker, headier version of the familiar Asian sauce


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