For many of Malaysia’s citizens, to define oneself as a Malaysian is more a claim of a national identity than it is of ethnicity. Malaysia represents a vast diversity of cultures, resulting in a fascinating food culture, beautifully joined.
Labor shortages brought a significant influx of Chinese and Indian workers during Malaysia’s colonial period. Today more than half the country is Muslim. Prior to the 1600s the Malay were primarily Hindu, influenced by 2,000 years of trade with India. Historically, intermarriage in the northern provinces with the Thai has been common, and so it has been on the Archipelago with Indians. Provinces on Malaysia’s east coast still bear heavy trace of the Javanese culture, and the Bugis from Celebes and the Sumatrans have all made their distinct marks on the land. Additionally, there are many indigenous tribal subgroups of Borneo with their own gifts to share. So it won’t surprise anyone that the food culture of this ethnically rich country is equally diverse and exciting.
There are five basic styles of food in Malay, all of them influenced to some extent by the others, and by the necessity imposed by the availability of ingredients. They are the native Malay cuisine, Indian, Chinese, Eurasian and what is called Nyonya or Nonya cooking.
The island-dwelling Malay have always been a seafaring people. Fish logically plays a large part in their diet and, after rice, is the main staple of their cuisine. Shrimp, prawns, squid and locally caught fresh fish dominate their meals, but beef and chicken are also served. Most Malay are Muslim and eschew the consumption of pork.
Traditional spices and herbs common in Malay cuisine include native basils, turmeric, coriander, screwpine, wild ginger, fennel, lemongrass and kaffir lime. Hot chilies, both fresh and dried, are used extensively and most often ground into the familiar sambal.
Spices are typically ground together into a paste and then fried to marry and accentuate flavors. Coconut milk is used to add richness and tamarind is used to provide a sour, dusky fruitiness.
But the primary seasoning ingredient is shrimp paste, called Belacan. Belacan is made from tiny dried shrimp that have been cured with salt, ground and formed into small dense cakes. Belacan (pronounced blah-chan), is used sparingly as a little goes a long way, and provides a savory complex tone to the foods it graces.
The signature dish of celebrations amongst the Malay is Beef Rendang, which is vibrantly flavored tender beef simmered with coconut cream and served with turmeric perfumed rice. (See recipe.)
During the Ming Dynasty, the Emperor of China arranged a marriage between his daughter, the princess Hang Li Po, to the Sultan of Malacca. Malacca was a particularly rich and strategic Malaysian port, and the Emperor was no fool. With the princess came her entourage of 500 Chinese who promptly intermarried and assimilated themselves in the Malay culture. In time, their children, now Malay-Chinese, married amongst themselves and formed a hybrid subculture known as Peranakan. In this culture, the men were known as Baba and the women as Nyonya. Nyonya cooking, then, is the home cooking of this subculture.
Nyonya food uses chilies, shrimp paste and coconut milk, and spices of the Malaysian/Indonesian cultures. But it also has retained the use of pork and noodles dominant in Chinese cooking. It composes hot and sour flavors and leans toward the use of tamarind over the more subtle lemongrass. The shrimp paste so essential in Malay cooking is also a key flavoring ingredient in Nyonya food, and is used is practically everything.
The port of Malacca, matrimonially linked to the Chinese, was soon coveted and taken over by the Portuguese and 130 years later was coveted and taken over by the Dutch, and eventually the English took it over in<