Malaysian Food

Ayam Masak Lemak Putih

A common perception of Malay food is that it is an invariably spicy affair; for the most part it’s absolutely true – we do love our chilies and we certainly aren’t shy about using them in eye-watering quantities.

Nevertheless, Malay food is a diverse cuisine and there are, in fact, a number of delectable dishes for those of us looking for something a little less “pedas” (hot). Despite bearing all the hallmarks of a classic Malaysian curry, Ayam Masak Lemak Putih (Coconut Milk White Cooked Chicken) is, in fact, perhaps one of our mildest offerings, and is a great option for introducing your non-Malaysian friends to our incredible flavours. Of course, mild in no way means meek, and this wonderful dish is every bit as alluring as beef rendang and kari kapitan.

Brimming with nuance, on the face of it Ayam Masak Lemak Putih resembles a traditional Indian korma. Both mild and comforting, despite their inherent similarities what really sets these dishes apart is their flavour. Unlike its more famous doppelgänger, instead of cream or yogurt, Ayam Masak Lemak Putih is braised in a fragrant brew of coconut milk and classic South East Asian aromatics such as galangal, lemongrass and lime.

Another distinction between the two is the consistency of the sauce.

Unlike a korma, which is typically thick, Ayam Masak Lemak Putih‘s rich and moreish sauce is both looser and lighter; making it perfect for either drowning your rice in it, or as I love to do, moping up it with good white bread or, better still, some flaky roti canai.

Admittedly, despite its name my version of Ayam Masak Lemak Putih tends to err on the side of gray as apposed to actually being white; please don’t get hung up on the colour, or its name – especially when it’s something that tastes as good as this! The “white” is a product of using a copious amount of lemak (coconut milk) in the sauce, but outside Malaysia this can be an extravagance too far, and frankly it’s unnecessary. Of course if you do happen to have a glut of coconut milk available, by all means increse the quantity for a truly authentic look.

Note: Like most Malaysian curries, this dish will benefit from a rest before serving. As there is little or no chili in the sauce, a couple of hours resting time should suffice, though overnight is, of course, always ideal.

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Mamak Mee Goreng (Malaysian Indian Fried Mee)

A veritable melting-pot of cuisines, Malaysian food is almost quite entirely a product of fusion. Indeed, like most other confederacies of mostly-migrants, much of modern Malaysia’s food has evolved from the crucible of colonially-induced diversity.

Incubated in the minglings of ethnically-polar groups, Malaysia’s unique schism-cuisines ultimately emerged from these culturally blended kitchens. Chinese noodles discovered Indian spices, whilst Malay ingredients found Western sensibilities; each evolving into their own distinct cultural identities, and ultimately resulting in some of our most acclaimed and cherished dishes. Unfortunately, most of the world has yet to discover the delights of these culinary culminations, but thanks to heritage ambassadors such as Pearly Kee that is beginning to change, with Nyonya flavours (at least) gaining international acclaim. By contrast, however, Mamak food remains relatively unknown outside Malaysia. A marriage of Tamil and Muslim heritage, Mamak food is a heady halal blend of “exotic” spices and local ingredients, and is mostly associated both with the wildly popular Nasi Kandar, Murtabak and, of course, Mamak Mee Goreng.

One of my late father’s favourite roadside treats, Mamak Mee Goreng is a powerhouse of fusion flavour. Consisting of thick yellow noodles fried in a spicy sauce with egg and potato, then lightened with lime – this is a true thug of a dish!

Indeed, this humble meal has it all…quite literally; this is kitchen-sink cooking at its best! With such a dizzying list of ingredients, it is easy to be intimidated, but don’t be. No one version of mamak mee goreng is ever the same, so variations are perfectly acceptable. As long as you stick to a few key ingredients, and nail the sauce, I guarantee you’ll still be tucking into a decent plate of noodles come makan-time.

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Marmite Chicken 妈蜜鸡

I’m not sure why, but recently I’ve been in a distinctly Marmite state of mind.

Perhaps its the riots and lockdowns talking, but I think we can all agree these are dark and polarising times. Indeed, seen from that perspective 2020 is turning out to be the most “Marmite” year of them all! Dividing more than it unites, this dark concoction of Brewer’s Yeast claims no middle-ground; making it the pantry poster-child of this “love it or loathe it” culture we seem to find ourselves living in. Alas I adore Marmite, but as a Year, it can go straight to the back of the shelf…but not before I drone on about one of my favourite recipes: Marmite Chicken!

Arguably one of the last ingredients you’d associate with Asian food, Marmite Chicken is a surprisingly popular dish in the Chinese restaurants of Malaysia. Robust, and un-apologetically marmity, this dish isn’t for the fainthearted – but then again neither is Marmite! Much like Horlicks Chicken, there is naturally an element of the novel in play here, but don’t let that put you off. Of course it goes without saying that non-Marmite lovers beware: this may not be the dish for you!

This surprisingly easy dish is, in fact, a triumph of crispy deep-fried chicken morsels, contrasted with, and smothered in, an addictive umami sauce. Balancing both sweet and salty, this certainly isn’t the dubious fusion hash you’d expect it to be. As with similar dishes, Marmite chicken is best plated on  some fresh lettuce, sliced cucumber, and even tomato – anything that will absorb that wonderfully sticky sauce!

Serve with: plain rice, mapo tofu and something “neutral” like Sichuan Cabbage, or egg foo young,

To discover other delicious Malaysian recipes from The Muddled Pantry, please click here

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Sayur Lodeh (Vegetables in Coconut Milk)

Ah, the classic conundrum of Malaysian vegetable dishes. 

A perennial quirk of the cuisine, the vegetable dishes of Malaysia are rarely actually vegetarian, with the omnipresent threat of the odd bit of dried shrimp turning up in your plate of veggies. To many Malaysians, a dish’s vegetarian credentials are entirely a matter of meat to vegetable ratio – making dinner a meaty-minefield for those of a vegetarian persuasion!

Unfortunately, Sayur Lodeh (Vegetables in Coconut Milk) is no different.

Popular in both Malaysia and Indonesia, Sayur Lodeh is often  considered a “safe” vegetable option as it is mild enough not to inflame younger, or foreign, palates. Simply flavoured with galangal, turmeric, and (unsurprisingly) a sprinkling of prawns, this coconut milk sauce works well with almost any other Malay dish. 

Traditionally eaten with lontong (banana leaf rice cake), sayur lodeh also works well with regular rice. As it is very mild, it is best to pair it with something spicy like Ayam Lada Hitam (Pepper Chicken) and, of course, some sambal belacan

To discover other delicious Malaysian recipes from The Muddled Pantry, please click here

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Ayam Lada Hitam (Malaysian Pepper Chicken)

For better or worse, sometimes you can smell your dinner a mile away, as is certainly the case with Ayam Lada Hitam (Malaysian Pepper Chicken)!

Fragrant, fiery, and flavoured to the extreme, Asian pepper dishes are often divisive; with most of us either loving or loathing it. Deployed sparingly as a form of seasoning, the use of pepper in Western cooking is actually quite limited – perhaps a relic of the days when the spice was highly valued, and its use judicious. At its abundant source, however, pepper can be added with abandon and is often used to add heat to a dish, instead of just being a seasoning to enhance flavour. Unlike the heat produced from chilies, pepper’s burn is slower, deeper, and more aromatic – adding a pervasive undertone to a dish that chili does not. Personally I’m an avid fan, but I have to admit that when it comes to pepper, you can easily have too much of a good thing. Like most things in life and cooking, balance is key and in this recipe that is somewhere in-between the toasted spiced oil and the heat of the pepper.

Adapted from an early recipe from my Aunt, the acclaimed food writer Rohani Jelani, Ayam Lada Hitam is old-school Malaysian cooking at its best. Packed with flavour and simple to make, this dish doesn’t require any specialist Asian ingredients – making it a great option for those of us with limited access to such.

Ayam Lada Hitam remains a home-cooking classic, albeit one that is rarely mentioned in the culinary lexicon of modern Malaysia. It’s a shame really, as this spicy dish is worthy of its place at the table, and easily holds its own against stalwarts such as beef rendang and curry kapitan. Best served alongside a mild vegetable dish like sayur lodeh, or something sweet like kari nenas (Pineapple Curry), Ayam Lada Hitam makes a great addition to any Malaysian meal.

A word of warning though: come makan-time, just be prepared for a knock at the door, as your whole neighbourhood will have smelt what’s cooking for dinner!

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Lai Yao Kei 奶油鸡 (Malaysian Butter Chicken)

Butter Chicken, but not as most of us know it!

Now obviously I’m a tad biased, but when I fancy some Butter Chicken it typically isn’t the Indian variety I’m hankering after. More often than not, what I’m really craving is actually something altogether different.

Indeed, Lai Yao Kei (Malaysian Butter Chicken) is about a million miles away from what most of us imagine when we think of Butter Chicken. In fact, I’d go so far as arguing this wonderful Malaysian dish, is in a league of its own. Unlike the oft mangled classic that is Indian butter chicken, the Malaysian version is an altogether different beast.

Unlike the Indian alliteration, there are no overnight or penetrative marinates here. Instead, flavoured morsels of chicken are ready for the deep-fryer in less than an hour, and smothered in a super quick creamy aromatic sauce. Infused with the unmistakable aroma of fresh curry leaves, and spiked with the heat from fresh chilies, the sauce itself is actually very simple and comes together in minutes.

Though you’d think the butter would be the star of the show here, it is actually the evaporated milk that steals the limelight. Admittedly, evaporated milk is probably the last ingredient you’d expect to find in a savoury sauce, but trust me, it works a treat and will blow your mind!

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Sambal Goreng (Fried Chili Sambal)

An everyday sambal with a myriad of uses, sambal goreng is as common in Malaysia as ketchup is in the West. From nasi lemak to Penang Hokkien Mee, this essential sambal adorns and flavours many of our favourite meals, and is the ideal condiment to a wealth of dishes.

Simple to make, adaptable and easily replicated at home, this handy sambal can also be used as a marinate for any meat destined for the grill. It can also be used as a stir-fry sauce for just about anything – simply add a splash of water and you’ll be good to go.

With a shelf-life of a couple of weeks, this tangy classic is bound to become a pantry favourite!

To discover other delicious Malaysian recipes from The Muddled Pantry, please click here

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Ayam Goreng Berempah (Spicy Malaysian Fried Chicken)

 

For better or worse, I have recently found myself an avid fan of deep frying.

In the space of a Lockdown I have gone from fretting about the obvious detriments of cooking this way, to deep frying with rather worrying abandon! Battered sausages, onion rings, and of course, an attempt at D.I.Y. KFC – all have found their way into my sizzling cauldron…and onto my ever expanding hips. Of course, the best part about my newfound love of fried foods is that I can finally bring myself to make some of my favourite dishes at home – specifically, Ayam Goreng Berempah.

Often served alongside nasi lemak and drenched with sambal goreng, this spicy deep fried chicken dish is a crispy and irresistible delight. Marinated overnight in a heady blend of spices and fragrant curry leaves, the chicken is literally bursting with flavour. Unlike many other deep fried chicken recipes, ayam goreng berempah‘s marinate actually doubles up as the batter, meaning less mess!

The “secret” to getting the chicken’s crust crispy is the addition of cornflour into the mix. It’s important to get the ratio between the wet and dry ingredients correct – too wet and the batter/marinate may not remain adhered to the chicken when fried. Personally I like to give my marinated pieces a second dredging of cornflour, a couple of minutes before cooking – just in case! Remember to add a few fresh curry leaves to the sizzling oil beforehand to infuse it with extra aroma and flavour.

Simply irresistible!

Note: it is absolutely vital that the oil not be too hot, as it will burn the crispy coating long before the chicken pieces are cooked through. Ideally you want the temperature to be around 165 to 175°c. It is also important that the meat is at room temperature before cooking.

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Nasi Lemak (Malaysian Coconut Rice)

 

It perhaps goes without saying, but we Asians do love our rice. From fried to steamed, fermented to ground; we work everyday miracles from this most humble grain.

Naturally my native Malaysia is no exception; in fact, in addition to an array of odes to rice, we have even concocted rice dishes of every colour and hue, covering the spectrum from a mellow yellow all the way to an alarming blue. The variety and choice are, frankly, dizzying. Nevertheless, ask a Malaysian what their favourite rice dish is and the most likely answer would be – nasi lemak!

Most commonly associated with breakfast, nasi lemak is arguably the nation’s favourite way to start the day. Fragrant with heady aromatics such as pandan leaf, this coconut enriched rice is the perfect soothing foil to the spicy condiments which are traditionally served alongside it.

At its most basic, nasi lemak bungkus (take-away) comes portioned into small mounds of rice, which are then topped with either a prawn, egg, or ikan bilis (dried anchovy), sambal. Each portion is then expertly wrapped up in a banana leaf and magicked into a three-sided dome – making for the ultimate Malaysian breakfast on-the-go. Aside from its simplistic bungkus variety, nasi lemak can also be an altogether extravagant affair. Served up each morning to queues of customers, a good nasi lemak place comes with a multitude of side dishes, from the classic beef rendang to assam prawns, and almost everything else in-between!

Regardless of the side dishes available, nasi lemak is almost always served with half a boiled egg, sliced cucumber, crunchy peanuts and a generous dollop of sambal goreng.

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Nasi Lemak with the basics: sambal goreng, peanuts, boiled egg & sliced cucumber

Substitutes: Pandan is scarce outside Asia, and although it can be found in some major cities around the world, it is still not widely available to most of us. In the absence of fresh pandan, there are “essences” you can use instead – at a push these are actually fine, though fresh is always best. Unfortunately there is no substitute for pandan, so if you can’t source either, but still want to make nasi lemak, please do. Just omit the pandan altogether and use the galangal and lemongrass instead.

Note: In this post I’m focusing solely on the basic nasi lemak recipe, but if you would like to know more about what else to serve nasi lemak with, please follow the links to my recommendations at the end of the recipe.

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Sambal Kacang Goreng (Malaysian Spicy Fried Green Beans) 

It never ceases to amaze me how our tastes can change over time and through circumstance. What was once maligned becomes much loved, and benevolence finds itself curing into something of an obsession. Though it is embarrassing to admit now, this was very much the case with this recipe.

It’s fair to say that I haven’t always been a fan of this wonderful Nyonya dish. It’s not that I’ve ever actually disliked Sambal Kacang Goreng (green bean sambal). It is, after all, a true Malaysian classic, and justifiably so. But growing up in Penang meant never having to settle for anything less than what you actually wanted to eat, and for me there was only ever two sambal dishes worth ordering – Sambal Kangkong and the almighty Sambal Petai. Blinkered by such delights, I never really even considered many of the other amazing sambal goreng dishes out there…until, that was, I left Malaysia and her bounty of fresh ingredients.

Culinarily speaking, it was a calamitous time in my relationship with Malaysian food, a make or break moment that ultimately culminated in starting The Muddled Pantry. Indeed, the availability of fresh Asian ingredients has always been, and continues to be, the greatest challenge for many Asian expats the world over. And though access to fresh exotic ingredients has improved considerably, supply remains frustratingly erratic. Even if you do find a source of fresh produce, it is often short-lived . If there’s anything my 30’odd years as a Malaysian expat has taught me, is that you have to learn to make the most of what’s available. Admittedly I am blessed to call South Africa home, so I have no shortage of great local produce all year-round; and one thing we do certainly have a bounty of are green beans! Affordable and (more importantly) freely available, green beans were naturally on the top of my list of substitutes. It didn’t take me long to buy a bag of beans and give them the sambal treatment.

Oh what a foolish child I’d been. At first bite I knew I was tasting a delicious slice of humble-pie. I had to look no further, I had found a worthy contender. By the second mouthful, King Kangkong was off its perch. Come the third, I was completely sold! What a revelation. Heady, spicy, and evocative, the dish was everything I had hoped it to be. Cooked through just enough to retain an essential bite, the beans more than held their own against the spiciness of the robust sambal – something that is key to the dish.

Though it is a remarkably easy dish to make, and is ready in just 15 minutes, just be mindful not to add too much water. It is important to only add splashes of water around the sides of the hot wok. This gradually steams the beans in the sauce and will help retain their bite – if you add too much too quickly, you’ll dilute the sambal and risk boiling the beans instead.

Undoubtedly at peak crispness straight from the wok, this dish can also be served later at a tropical room temperature; or reheated even (just add another splash of water to loosen the sauce). Resting and reheating will result in a tougher bean, but equally it gives space for the flavours to evolve. Both options are as different as they are delicious; a matter of taste really. Not that I’m trying to sway you either way, but my personal favourite is to have it slightly warm, between two slices of fresh white bread.

For me at least, in South Africa, it’s become the best thing between sliced bread.

Note: Traditionally made with yard beans, and these being considerably harder than the variety many of us are accustomed to, using fine green beans would not be recommended; they lack the robustness of an older bean, and would succumb to the sauce.

To discover other delicious Malaysian recipes from The Muddled Pantry, please click here

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