Tasting Malaysia

This article is written by Shantanu Ghosh.

KL can be an exciting place for foodies with its incredible variety of street food and cuisines – brought together by the different ethnic groups that make up this interesting country. I had a chance to sample a selection of foods, some for the very first time. There are three distinct sets of cuisines associated with the major ethnic groups: Malay, Indian and Chinese, but there are also some lesser known ones such as Nyonya (of the Straits Chinese ethnic group) and Sarawak (a community that lives on the island of Borneo).

Madam Kwan’s is a restaurant on the 4th level of KLCC that offers local Malay cuisine. The popularity of this place during lunch was easy to see: there was a long line of people outside waiting for seats. Malay food has a lot of similarity to that of its neighbours, Thailand and Indonesia, but with some unique twists.

Belacan and Assam are probably the most common ingredients you will find in their dishes. Belacan is made from fermented baby shrimp which is then dried and formed into small cakes. A tiny amount is added to most Malay dishes to add that special ‘kick’. Assam is essentially tamarind paste commonly added to fish and vegetable dishes to make them more tangy – probably a practice that came from South India many years back.

We ordered several great dishes: Assam Laksa, an aromatic tamarind broth with lai fun noodles and fish; Sambal Petai, a hot and spicy prawn dish topped with local twisted cluster beans; Belacan kangkong, a variety of local greens stir-fried in the spicy shrimp paste. There was also an interesting fish cake followed by a lovely dessert called Sago Gula Melaka which is made of tapioca (sabodana in India) with palm sugar. Absolutely loved this one!

On another day, we went to Mum’s Place, another delightful eatery here. I ate the tear-inducing Fried Cencaru Fish with Chili Padi Paste and Petai Beans; Fried Jenahak Fish with Mum’s Special Belacan Paste, Beef Rendang – popularized by Malaysian restaurants worldwide; Smoked Chicken with dip and Tom Yum Soup.

Then came Steamed Beancurd with minced chicken meat, Fried Aubergines with Chili Padi paste and finally, Pulut Tekan – glutinous rice served warm with kaya.

As you can see from the pictures, that was a lot of food, but everyone of them delightfully different and exciting for me. There are several more delicacies such as Fish Head Curry that came into Malaysia and Singapore from the Indian immigrants. However, it was the tastes of belacan, petai beans, the Durian fruit, and Assam that made for my most authentic and unique experiences this time around. Incidentally, both Petai and Durian have strong (and to some, offensive) odors in their uncooked form.

For those you interested in the authentic street food experience, there is no better place than Jalan Alor, which comes alive in the late evenings. Watch where the locals are crowded the most and go have a feast!

Shantanu Ghosh

21 Jan 2012

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