From fancy restaurants serving Chinese, Indian and Malay cuisines you’ll find a great representation of why humans have taste buds. But you’ll have to take to the street stalls if you really want to find the traditional Malay dishes.
Chicken, fish, noodles and curries will entice you with delicious affordable delights. The seafood is always an excellent choice, but why not save the seas and enjoy some rendang (beef, lamb and chicken in coconut milk), pulut (a sticky-rice concoction cooked inside a banana leaf, there are literally hundreds of kinds, each one is like opening a present), ikan bilis (tiny sun dried anchovies, fried up in a sauce and mixed with rice) and murtabak (crepes stuffed with egg, meat and vegetables).
A staple for breakfast is roti canai (crepes) with your choice of a curry sauce or dahl (a sauce made from lentils). Most Malaysians enjoy delicious tropical fruits in the morning, and as snacks throughout the day. Try the fuzzy rambutan (related to the lychee), mangosteen (the Queen of fruits, the world’s best-tasting fruit) and her consort, the banned-on-public-transport durian, which some say taste much better than it smells, but I haven’t gotten close enough to verify!
Malaysian food is spicy and coconut milk is the most common ingredient, perhaps a result of being a stopping point for sea-faring traders from the earliest of ages. It natural that the meals of Malaysia have been very much influenced by trade from countries like India, Indonesia, Arabia and China, resulting is a spicy hodgepodge of unique flavors and textures.
Incorporated into these foreign influences are local ingredients like pandan leaves, lemon grass and the ever popular leaves from the kaffir lime tree, where we get those tiny zesty limes from. Native herbs like nutmeg, laksa leaf, turmeric and wild ginger play a big role, as do traditional spices.
The Chinese and Indian spice rack (notably cardamom and anise) fuses well with such staples as cumin and coriander, playing off each other to create a uniquely Malaysian flavor. Being the tropics, you’re more likely to use fresh ingredients, not the dried spices you’ll find on western grocery store shelves. It makes all the difference when you pound together in the ubiquitous mortar and pestle fresh chili pastes with garlic, turmeric, basil, onions and oil; a very sensual cooking experience indeed.
Eaten any time of the day, Malay meals are traditionally taken with rice, and eaten with the fingers of the right hand (the left hand is used for the restroom, so be sure not to offend). There are no courses on the Malay table, the dishes are all served at once, usually accompanied with a cold pitcher of water or calamansi lime juice. With so many islands and their cultures making up the Malay identity, seafood, such as fish, shrimps, squid and cuttlefish predominate. Chicken is the regular white meat, as Islam forbids pork, while mutton and beef are eaten with heavier meals.
Roti (bread pancake) is served with almost every dish where curry is served, and a unique Malay treat is a lacy pancake called roti jala. It actually looks more like hashed potatoes, and it goes perfectly with gravy. It is made by mixing flour and eggs, with a dash of fine turmeric powder and butter and dripping it on a hot griddle.
Desserts are the perfect punctuation when eating a spicy Malay meal, and you can find them everywhere. Malays prefer their desserts to be very sweet, a result of ingredients like coconuts and palm sugar.
And don’t forget to enjoy some lovely satay!
Three worthy Malay outlets in Singapore:Mizzy’s Corner, #01-55 Changi Village Market & Food Centre, Blk 2 Changi Village Road, (S) 500002, Open 24 hours.
Sri Bistari Golden Mile, #B1-31 Golden Mile Food Centre, 505 Beach Road, (S) 199583 (basement level)
Shukor Stall, Stall 30 Serangoon Garden Market, 49A Serangoon Garden Way, (S) 555945
Text by Jeffree Benet for The American Club Singapore. Photos courtesy of the Fairmont Hotel