Location: Southeast Asia
Population: 31.9 million
Capital: Kuala Lumpur
Geography: Coastal plains with a forested, mountainous interior
Signature flavours: Rice, coconut, seafood, pineapple, pandan, shallot
Recipes abound for Malaysian cuisine, and so it was a matter of narrowing down my choices (unlike some past assignments that saw me actually emailing tourism boards in the face of a serious lack of resources). When I got down to planning my menu, I was reminded strongly of Timor-Leste, where the coconut is king and seafood is…I don’t know…a postmaster general or something. Like in good old T-L, Malaysians love a rice dish, and if there’s a way to add coconut to a recipe, they’ll do it.
Nasi Lemak: The national dish of Malaysia, this is actually a collection of little dishes around a pandan and coconut rice, including a gravy made from anchovies, red onion, shallots, tamarind, and hot peppers; a hard-boiled egg; fried sardines; and raw cucumber.
Prep and cooking time: 60 min
Pineapple and Shrimp Curry: A coconut-based curry flavoured with hot peppers, shallot, lemongrass, and turmeric, with chunks of juicy pineapple and big, chewy shrimp.
Prep and cooking time: 45 min
Kuih Bengka: Malaysian cooking boasts dozens of kinds of kuih — cakes. I chose one made with grated cassava and coconut, baked in a banana leaf-lined pan. Many kuih are coconut- and pandan-centric, and since I already had the coconut/pandan rice for the nasi lemak, I wanted something a bit different.
Prep and cooking time: 90 min
The Shopping List
Asian supermarket T&T is a wonderland of colours, flavours, and I never know what I’m going to find. That said, it is a maze of products, and sometimes I leave frustrated, sure that the item I’m looking for is there somewhere, packed into a freezer island, or in a pile between produce bins, or hanging on a rack at the end of an aisle I’ve checked three times already. For Malaysia, I needed to find a few items that weren’t going to be at our local market, including dried anchovies and shrimp paste. Eventually we found everything except cassava and pandan leaves. Cassava was found at Freshco, and pandan at a small grocery on Parliament Street.
The two mains I chose to make — nasi lemak and the curry — were labour-intensive, with a gazillion steps. The curry recipe had me make curry paste from scratch, which was an adventure of its own. No single step was overly difficult, however, and dinner was on the table about an hour and a half after I started cooking (sometimes it takes us hours and hours to cook up all the food for an assignment).
The nasi lemak was beautiful to look at, sitting so prettily on a banana leaf. The coconut and pandan rice was delicious, and we scooped it enthusiastically onto everything else. The gravy was very fishy and salty, and while Eric didn’t mind it, I found the anchovy too overpowering for my taste. If I made it again, I would put in more onion and less anchovy.
The curry was my favourite dish on the table. It had a very complex flavour profile (what an annoying phrase, but I really mean it), what with the homemade curry paste (garlic, shallot, cashews, two kinds of hot peppers, and turmeric), lemongrass, coconut, and pineapple. The shrimp were nice and fresh, and for once, I didn’t overcook them!
The kuih was Eric’s favourite. The cassava became very glutinous during the baking process (no wonder they get tapioca from cassava), making the cake sweet, chewy, and sticky. The shredded coconut (yes, this was an exceptionally coconut-y meal) complemented the flavour of the cassava really nicely.
Disclaimer: I’m not a professional chef. I’m just a passionate cook with a curiosity for flavours I’ve never tried. For great recipes from gifted local cooks, follow the links above.