The wok, known as “chao guo” 炒锅 in Mandarin, is a true time-tested kitchen tool, having held an important position in Chinese kitchens for over a thousand years and continues to do so today.
For centuries, Chinese families used cast-iron woks which were sometimes passed down over several generations. Uncoated carbon steel, a relative newcomer is gaining popularity, however they tend to warp relatively easily compared to cast-iron.
One of the reasons for carbon steel’s popularity is due to it offering the same advantages as cast-iron, without the heavy weight of a cast-iron wok. However, this advantage is largely applicable against Western-made cast-iron woks which are usually thick and bulky. In contrast, traditional Chinese-made cast-iron woks are considerably thinner and therefore lighter. As a result, the traditional cast-iron wok is still a popular choice among Chinese families and, due to their durability, the cast-iron woks currently used by some families are inheritances from previous generations. My grandmother’s Chinese-made cast-iron wok is made entirely of cast-iron including the handles. After several decades of use, her cast-iron wok is still of great service to the family, well-seasoned and perfectly functional, occupying a central position in the kitchen and used almost every day by her children and grandchildren.
For authentic Chinese cuisine, a good-quality wok is essential for several reasons.
Ability to withstand very high temperatures
A signature technique in Chinese cooking is fast cooking and extremely high temperatures to produce vibrant, crunchy vegetables and firm meat. Extremely high temperatures, ensures that the food does not “sweat”, slow-cook, boil or steam. Achieving “wok hei”, demands extremely high temperatures.
Woks, particularly the classic, traditional cast-iron woks are well suited to withstand the high heat that Chinese cooking demands which other cooking utensils such as modern non-stick skillets are unable to tolerate.
Ability to retain heat
Certain dishes in Chinese cooking call for fast cooking. Towards this end, the cookware should be able to retain heat because if it loses heat midway, say after the addition of some ingredients, then the food ends up slow cooking instead since the cookware would take time to recover the heat it lost. This results in dull, soggy vegetables and meat which are undesirable in Chinese cooking.
For instance, leafy greens cooked typically Chinese style, such as with oyster sauce and garlic oil calls for leaves that are blanched in boiling water – quickly – and then immediately taken out and dunked in cold water to stop cooking (click here for Culinary Connoisseur’s “Chinese style Asian greens with oyster sauce and garlic oil” recipe). This quick cooking process ensures that the leaves retain their vibrant green color and natural crunch. If the temperature of the water drops immediately as the leaves are added (which is a standard characteristic of inferior-quality woks), this results in a slower than acceptable rate of cooking. As a result, the cooked greens lose their color, texture and is no longer “authentic” Chinese cooking.
If the wok is of poor craftsmanship, heat will be unevenly distributed, which in turn results in unevenly cooked food – needless to say, this is undesirable in Chinese cuisine or any cuisine for that matter.
Most modern-day non-stick cooking utensils lose their outer non-stick chemical coatings with time. Cast-iron woks on the other hand (which are crafted with natural materials) retain their non-stick properties for generations (with proper maintenance). Being naturally non-stick and not requiring any artificial coatings, also offers other advantages; it is believed that with no flavor adulterations from artificial coatings, the original flavor of the food being cooked is retained, and additionally, being free of artificial coatings makes the wok a healthier cooking tool too.
Sri Lankan cookery uses a number of un-glazed, environmentally friendly clay cooking pots all of them collectively referred to as “hatti-mutti” හට්ටි මුට්ටි in Sinhalese (“hattiya” හට්ටිය is the singular term referring to just one clay pot). These 100% natural, organic, un-glazed, environmentally friendly clay pots are must-have cooking vessels for authentic Sri Lankan (Sinhalese) cuisine. These earthen pots are believed to contribute a distinctively appetizing flavor and aroma to the food that is cooked in it and modern-day cooking utensils such as stainless steel pots and non-stick pans would simply not produce the same outcome. It is also believed among traditional Sri Lankans that these earthen pots help absorb unwholesome elements in the food.
Prior to usage, the earthen pots are first seasoned by boiling water and grated coconut refuse over a medium flame.
Coconut trees are a ubiquitous sight in Sri Lanka, and since ancient times, every part of the tree from the trunk, to the leaves, the white coconut flesh, the coconut shells and coconut flowers were all put to good use. Playing such an integral role in daily life of an average Sri Lankan, the venerable coconut tree earned the moniker “kapruka” කප් රුක which is meant to reflect the tree's timeless value. Among the many ways coconut shells were used in Sri Lanka, one was to craft spoons, usually by hand, with which they would be used as an accessory for cooking. The empty coconut shells would be cleaned and attached to sticks, forming a rudimentary yet highly functional spoon known as a “pol katu handa” පොල් කටු හැන්ද in Sinhalese (“pol” පොල් = “coconut”, “katu” කටු = “shell”, “handa” හැන්ද = “spoon”).
These are 100% natural, organic, un-glazed and environmentally friendly.
Known as the "dhara lipa" in Sinhalese ("dhara" = "wood" and "lipa" = "stove"), a wood-fired stove coupled with a traditional Sri Lankan unglazed clay pot yields the best of flavors and aromas that Sri Lankan (particularly Sinhalese) cuisine has to offer. Smoking wood and a seasoned, organic clay pot produces an unparalleled and appetizingly earthy aroma and flavor that modern-day gas-fired / electric stoves and metal-based cooking vessels simply cannot match.
Coconut Grater ("Hiramanaya" හිරමනය):
Coconut is one of the most important ingredients in Sri Lankan cuisine and they would traditionally be grated using a kitchen tool known as a “hiramanaya” හිරමනය. Coupled with lots of elbow grease, an experienced set of hands could grate a single coconut in about a few minutes.
Grinding Stone ("Miris Gala" මිරිස් ගල):
The "miris gala" මිරිස් ගල (which literally means "chili stone", "miris" මිරිස් = "chili, "gala" ගල = "stone") was an important kitchen tool in ancient Sri Lanka and remains so today in rural villages and towns. Similar to the “sil-batta” in India and the “batu-giling” in Malaysia, the Sri Lankan "miris gala" is comprised of two units; a rectangular slab of granite (a little more than a foot in length, about 1 foot in width and about 3-4 inches in height) and a cylindrical granite "roller" about the same width as the rectangle granite slab.
The "roller" sits over the rectangular slab and using hands, substantial muscle, elbow grease, time, and patience, this roller is rolled back and forth over the ingredients which have been placed on the rectangular slab.
Often used to grind spices and chili pastes, the "miris gala" is generally believed to yield better results nutrition-wise and taste-wise compared to modern-day food processors and grinding equipment which destroy delicate nutrients and flavors in the food as a result of the heat and sheer speed at which the food is processed.
Pestle And Mortar ("Vangediya" And "Mole-Gaha"):
The "vangediya" and "mole-gaha" which is basically a super-sized pestle and mortar, was an essential tool in the ancient kitchens of Sri Lanka. The "vangediya" is the mortar, ranging from about 1-2 feet in height and about 1 foot in diameter, while the "mole-gaha" is the pestle, about 4-5 feet in height and 3-4 inches in diameter. The "vangediya" is usually carved out of wood from trees with a hard core, such as Jack tree, Teak or Nadun. The "mole-gaha" or the pestle, is also made out of wood, though it does not have be to be as hard as that used for the "vangediya". Wood from the ubiquitous coconut tree or kithul tree, which are generally not hard enough to make a "vangediya", are common choices to make the "mole-gaha".
These super-sized pestle and mortars were used by the Sri Lankan ladies for a variety of purposes such as to pulverize rice into rice flour for whipping up local treats such as “konda kevum” and “aggala”. The vangediay and mole gaha is also used to pound rice and greens such as gorukola to prepare one of Sri Lanka’s most popular breakfast congees - “kola kenda” (which means “green porridge” in Sinhalese, “kola” = “green”, “kenda” = “porridge”).
This is a traditional quern for grinding finger millet grains (“kurakkan”) into kurakkan flour which would be used to prepare a variety of traditional delicacies such as kurakkan porridge, kurakkan roti, halapa etc.
Earthen water pitcher (“gurulethuwa” ගුරුලෙතුව):
The “gurulethuwa” ගුරුලෙතුව as it is known in Sinhalese, is a traditional Sri Lankan water cooler. Crafted out of clay, these natural water jugs are porous allowing the heat to escape while allowing the external air to cool the water contained within the container. It is also believed that any traces of unwholesome elements in the water are absorbed by the clay, rendering a purer, healthier and more refreshing water.
Similar to the earthen clay pots used in daily cooking, the “gurulethuwa” is usually seasoned first prior to using.
Refined sugar and products containing refined sugars are generally accepted to be significant contributors to cavities and diseases such as diabetes. Here are some nutritious and natural alternatives to refined sugar:
Natural honey has been used as a sweetener, preserving agent and beauty treatment for centuries in numerous cuisines, healing and beauty practices around the world. Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda both teach of the healing properties of honey. For skincare purposes, honey helps nourish the skin and keep it moist. One of Cleopatra’s most famous “beauty secrets” is a regular bath of milk and honey and this combination of milk and honey for beauty is still used today.
There are several varieties of natural honey to choose from, depending on the variety of flower from which the pollen was harvested by the honeybee. Each honey type is rich with its own unique flavor, color, aroma, nutritional and medicinal properties.
To name a few:
Orange blossom honey
Note: It is not recommended to feed honey to babies as natural honey may contain traces of botulism which is harmless to adults but harmful to young babies.
Unrefined Palm Sugar
This is a traditional and natural sweetener in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia (known as “gula melaka”, Indonesia (“known as “gula merah”), Philippines, Sri Lanka (known as “jaggery” in English or “hakuru” in Sinhalese), India (known as “jaggery” in English or “gur” in Hind), Brazil (known as “rapadura” in Portugese), and Mexico (known as “piloncillo” in Spanish).
In Latin America, fresh sugar cane is crushed using a machine and the resulting fibers are discarded or used as fuel, while the sugarcane juice is heated until it forms a thick liquid. This liquid is poured into molds and left to solidify.
The same process is used to produce Indian “jaggery”.
Sri Lankan jaggery, Malaysian and Indonesian “gula melaka” or “gula merah” undergo the same production process as well, except that more often it is the sap extracted from coconut flowers rather than sugar cane juice that is used as raw material.
These traditional unrefined sugars are not only uniquely delicious, offering an unpatrolled depth of flavor, they are also considered to be highly nutritious because having undergone limited processing, they retain micronutrients which refined sugars lose during the refining process.
Date Syrup or Date Honey
Dates are an integral ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine and these small, sweet fruits have been consumed for thousands of years in the region. Date syrup also known as date honey, has been the traditional sweetener in Middle Eastern and North African kitchens for generations. Known as “dibis ttamarru” دبس التمر in Arabic (which means “date molasses” “dibis” دبس = “molasses”, “ttamarru” التمر = “dates”), date syrup is believed to have significant nutritional properties. It is one of the first foods fed to a baby and nursing mother.
The most popular molasses worldwide are sugarcane molasses however in reality there exists a far wider variety in the world such as those derived from fruits (known as fruit molasses) which have been used since ancient times. For instance, molasses (made from grape juice known as “defrutum”), along with honey, were the main sweeteners in ancient Rome. In Middle Eastern cuisine, molasses such as carob molasses (made from carob pods), figs, pomegranates, mulberries are traditional sweeteners which have been used for generations and are still widely used.
Brown Rice Malt Syrup
Also known as rice syrup or rice malt, this is derived from wholesome brown rice. This is a traditional sweetener in Japan known as “mizu ame” and has been used for centuries in ancient Japan. One of the few remaining authentic brown rice malt syrup manufacturers in Japan is the Uchida Toka Company in Fukuyama. Organic barley grains are first soaked until sprouted. They are then dried and crushed. Next, the brown rice is processed into flakes by passing the grains through two rollers which flattens the grains into flakes. These brown rice flakes are then soaked overnight. The next morning, the flakes are steamed with water added to form a thick porridge known as “kayu”. Next, the rice porridge and sprouted barley are combined. This sprouted barley provides the natural enzymes to break down the starch in the brown rice porridge and convert it into sugars. The porridge and sprouted barley are cooked at a certain temperature (which cannot be too high, else the natural enzymes are destroyed) for several hours during which time the enzymes in the barley break down the complex carbohydrates in the rice into simple sugars. After this process is complete, the cooking is stopped (if left to cook further, it ends up fermenting instead, developing alcohol). The porridge is then pressed to extract the syrup, a dark brown sweet liquid. This liquid is cooked, then steamed, filtered and ready for use.
Modern day Japanese rice malt syrups omit the natural enzymes from sprouted barley, instead relying on chemically produced enzymes. While these are faster and more efficient, true connoisseurs generally agree that they are no match to the flavor of rice syrup produced with natural barley enzymes.
Barley Malt Syrup
Barley malt syrup, is produced with just sprouted barley grains and water. Barley grains are left to soak, then left in a humid environment in optimum temperature which encourages them to sprout. The sprouted grains are then dried and cooked. The liquid is filtered and boiled down until it reaches a desired consistency, after which, it is ready for use. Barley malt and honey were the chief sweeteners in Chinese cuisine for centuries before cane sugar gained popularity.
Native Americans are credited with being the first peoples to produce maple syrup and this natural sweetener has been used in Native American cuisine for generations.
The process of producing this natural sweetener is more difficult and time-consuming and consequently this product is not only rarely available, but also considerably expensive compared to more commonly available syrups such as maple syrup. Birch syrup production is an emerging cottage industry, in particularly in Alaska where birch trees thrive in Alaska’s forests.
Similar to the teachings in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Ayurveda also believes that summer is a time for cooling foods (click here for a TCM guide on healthy eating during summer). Ayurveda also believes that summer is a time for cooling foods. Summer, is a “pitta season” according to Ayurveda. “Pitta” refers to the Fire and Water elements and during the “pitta season” these elements can overpower the other elements that make up the human body, namely Ether, Air and Earth. This results in an imbalance. An imbalance of these five elements Fire, Water, Ether, Air and Earth manifests itself as an illness, discomfort or pain.
Like TCM, to re-balance this imbalance, Ayurveda recommends adapting one’s diet and lifestyle to accommodate the change in season. How much one has to adapt, depends on each person’s body type which is referred to as “dosha”. Three categories of “dosha” can be identified: “vata”, “pitta” and “kapha”. A “pitta dosha” type person is more likely to experience an imbalance during summer (the “pitta season”), than a “vata” or “kapha” person and therefore may have to make more lifestyle and dietary adjustments to “pacify pitta” compared to people of the last two body types.
Fruits and fruit juices:
Fresh, juicy, fully-ripened, tree-ripened fruits and freshly juiced drinks consumed at room temperature or lightly chilled, not ice cold are cooling food choices during sweltering summer months.
Eat ripe, juicy fruits such as watermelon, mangoes, honeydew and cantaloupe freshly plucked ideally or freshly squeezed into juice. Sip room temperature natural, coconut water.
Cooling vegetables such as cucumber and zucchini are good options during summer while vegetables with “heaty” properties such as turnips, radishes, tomatoes and hot peppers are not recommended.
Eat cucumbers as a refreshing salad, or sip room temperature “cucumber water” – water with a few slices of cucumber.
Sweet, astringent and bitter flavors:
Ayurveda recommends sweet, astringent and bitter flavors during summer while reducing or avoiding salty, sour and spicy flavors. Sweet here refers to naturally sweet flavors. Refined sugars and foods heavily sweetened with refined sugars such as carbonated drinks are best avoided or reduced. Pulses, grains, milk and unrefined sugars such as jaggery fall under the “sweet” flavor profile. Refined sugars, sugary drinks and sugary foods should be avoided. Intake of certain sour foods such as vinegar and yogurt are recommended to be reduced during summer.
Most spices tend to have “heating” properties however, there are a few that have cooling properties and these are recommended to help pacify “pitta” during summer. Fennel, mint, coriander, rose petals are considered cooling. “Heating” spices such as onions, garlic, chilies, black pepper, black mustard seeds and dry ginger could be reduced.
Try a cooling fennel tea, sipped at room temperature.
Foods to Reduce Or Avoid:
Ice cold drinks, particularly during meals
Carbonated, sugary drinks
Processed, sugary foods
Oily, spicy, salty foods
Alcohol and wine
Highly processed foods such as ready-to-eat instant meals, canned foods and “junk foods”
Known in Malay as “pulut”, this makes up an integral part of Malaysian cuisine used for delicacies such as “pulut inti”, “kuih wajik” and “seri muka”. Two main varieties of glutinous rice feature in Malaysian cuisine: white and black (“pulut hitam”, “hitam” = “black”).
Malaysian cuisine sees a variety of noodle dishes, an influence from the Malaysian Chinese for whom noodles are a staple food apart from rice.
Mung Beans / Green Gram:
Mung beans are popular for “bubur kacang hijau” which is a fragrant mung bean porridge sweetened with unrefined palm sugar known as gula melaka served with creamy thick coconut milk, “kuih bom inti kacang hijau” (“literally means kuih bom with mung bean filling”, “kuih bom” is a type of traditional sweet) and “cucur kacang hijau” (a batter-fried fritter with a sweet mung bean paste filling).
Rice is the staple food in Malaysia with almost all ethnicities having at least one meal of rice every day. White rice is most commonly consumed although brown rice is increasingly gaining favor as more Malaysians begin to appreciate its health benefits.
Rice flour is an important ingredient for traditional delicacies in all ethnic Malaysian cuisines. Nyonya treats such as “apam balik” (a Nyonya creation of fluffy pancake turnovers with a center filling of crushed peanuts, butter and sweet corn), Malay treats such as “kuih kacang hijau” and cendol, Malaysian Chinese delights such as “huat kueh” 發糕 (a steamed rice flour cake, popular during Chinese New Year), and Malaysian Indian delicacies such as “appam”, “idli” and “murukku” call for rice flour.
Lentils are a staple for Malaysian Indians who prepare a number of dishes such as sambar, dalcha and vadai.
SPICES, SEASONINGS, SWEETENERS AND FLAVORINGS:
Also known as “buah maram” in Iban (which is a language spoken by the indigenous Iban people in Malaysia), asam paya is a local fruit, usually used for cooking as its intensely sour taste renders it unpalatable as is (hence its name “asam paya”, “asam” = “sour” in Malay). It is used as a substitute for sour ingredients such as tamarind (known as “asam jawa” in Malay) or garcinia cambogia known locally as “asam keping” (which literally means “sour slices”).
Alternatively, belacan is used as a flavor enhancer where a bit of belecan is lightly toasted with aromatics such as garlic and onion to which the main ingredients are added such as kankung. Dishes such as “kankung belacan” and “sayur sawi goreng belacan” (literally means “sawi vegetables fried with belacan”) are prepared this way.
Candlenuts, known in Malay as “buah keras” is a type of nut, so rich in in oil that it could burn a candle. It is commonly as a thickener or to add a rich flavor to dishes.
It appears in a wide variety of preparations from sambals (such as sambal tumis), sauces (such as peanut sauce for satay) to curries (such as chicken curry) and pickles (such as Sarawak acar).
They are mildly toxic when raw and have a strong laxative effect, however when roasted, these toxins are destroyed.
Cassia is used in curries in Malaysia. It is the cheaper and more abundantly available cousin of Ceylon (Sri Lankan) cinnamon however the two are vastly different. Cassia is usually made of one thick, hard bark which might require a hammer to break to smaller pieces while Ceylon cinnamon has several very delicate layers of bark which flake off easily using just fingers. They smell and taste different too with cassia having a strong, spicy smell and taste whereas Ceylon cinnamon has a delicate, mildly sweet fragrance and flavor.
Chilies are a staple ingredient for most Malaysians with chilies used extensively by most ethnicities, from fresh chilies to dried chilies to chili paste. It is common for Malaysian houses with garden space to grow chili plants – such is the importance of the venerated chili in Malaysian cuisine.
Several varieties of fresh chilies are available in Malaysia, with the more popular ones being red cayenne peppers (known in Malay as “cili merah”), green cayenne peppers, green chili peppers, red chili peppers and the smaller but hotter bird’s eye chilies known locally as “cili padi”.
It is common for Malaysian Chinese restaurants to serve little containers of thinly sliced fresh red and green chillies immersed in light soy sauce. The Malays and the Indians usually include fresh green and red chilies with their curries. Red chili paste, known as “cili kering” is used for a number of Malay dishes. Red chilies are dried and used as is or ground to flakes or fine red chili powder, all three of which are regularly used by the Malays and Indians for curries but rarely by Malaysian Chinese. Malaysian cuisine also sees pickled green chilies (known locally in Malay as “cili hijau jeruk”, “hijau” = “green”, “jeruk” = “pickled” or 腌制青辣椒 ““A zhì qīng làjiāo” in Chinese, “A zhì” 腌制 = “pickled”, “qīng” 青 = “green”, “làjiāo” 辣椒 = “chili pepper”). These are slices of green chilies immersed in a brine of rice vinegar and served along with dishes such as fried noodles (known as “mee goreng” in Malay), wonton noodles, or fried rice (known as “nasi goreng” in Malay).
Coconut milk is very extensively used among the Malays and to a relatively lesser extent, among the Indians as well. Coconut milk is not as heavily used in Malaysian Chinese dishes. The creamy, nutty flavor of coconut milk is a distinct feature of Malay dishes, with a number of curries and desserts featuring coconut milk as an ingredient.
Curry leaves are very important for Malaysian Indian dishes, used in a variety of preparations such as lentil curries, meat dishes and “pagoda” பக்கோடா.
Malaysian cuisine features a variety of curry powders, widely used by almost all ethnicities, to a great extent in Malay and Indian dishes. Chicken curry powder, fish curry powder, meat curry powder are perhaps the most commonly used curry powders.
Known as “lengkuas” in Malay, galangal belongs to the same family as ginger, and is widely used (usually fresh) in Malaysian cuisine for dishes such as laksa, rendang, and curries such as “ayam masak lengkuas” (which literally means “chicken cooked with galangal”).
Gula Melaka (Unrefined Palm Sugar):
Gula melaka is the predominant sweetener for Malay and Indian desserts and for some Malay curries as well such as the popular “rendang”. Being an unrefined form of palm sugar, gula melaka contains minerals and is thus healthier than refined sugar which loses these micronutrients during the refining process. Gula melaka imparts a distinct flavor and aroma (and nutrition) to Malaysian desserts which refined sugar cannot match.
Gula melaka is left to solidfy in hollow bamboo tubes.
Kaffir Lime Leaves:
The leaves are usually used fresh, added to dishes as a flavor and fragrance enhancer. One of the most popular dishes in Malaysian cuisine that calls for kaffir lime leaves is laksa.
In Malaysia it is not uncommon for houses with garden space to have a kaffir lime tree, the leaves are which are plucked and used fresh to whip up a local delicacy.
Kerisik (Toasted Grated Coconut):
Kerisik is the Malay word for toasted grated coconut. The coconut shavings are toasted over a low flame until they turn into a deep caramel brown and smell like toasted coconut. This is added as a thickener for dishes (mostly meat dishes) such as rendang and chicken curry.
Known as “serai” in Malay, lemongrass is an important spice in Malay and Nyonya cuisines mostly used in curries such as Nyonya chicken curry and laksa.
Pandan Leaves / Screw Pine Leaves:
Known as “daun pandan” in Malay, pandan leaves are very extensively used in Malaysian (particularly Malay) cuisine. A pandan plant in the backyards of Malaysian houses is a common sight.
Pandan leaves are added for their flavor and aroma into steamed rice, spreads such as “kaya” and the majority of Malay sweets. Juice extracted from crushed fresh pandan leaves is used as a natural coloring agent for Malay desserts.
Tamarind, known as “asam jawa”, tamarind is used in Malay, Nyonya or Peranakan and Malaysian Indian cuisines in Malaysia. “Sambal tumis” a popular Malay condiment calls for tamarind. Popular Nyonya dishes which use tamarind include “Penang assam laksa”, “asam pedas” (a hot and sour fish dish) and “udang goreng assam” (literally means “prawns fried sour” with the sour referring to tamarind “udang” = “prawns”, “goreng” = “fried”, “assam” = “sour”).
Malaysian Indian dishes such as “sambhar” require tamarind.
Tempoyak is a paste made from the fermented flesh of one of Malaysia’s most popular fruits, durian. The paste is cooked together with spices and herbs in certain vegetable and fish dishes, lending a rich, creamy, milky consistency.
Tepus / Tipu:
Stripped to its soft center and prepared as a sambal belacan (a Sarawakian specialty) or added as a flavoring to dishes such as Pansuh or Daun Ubi Tumbuk.
These are usually used fresh, added to enhance the flavor of curries such as chicken curry.
Known as “jantung pisang” in Malay is cooked as a salad or as a curry.
Bitter Gourd / Bitter Melon:
Known locally as “peria” in Malay or “ku gua” 苦瓜 in Chinese, bitter gourd is used by all cuisines within Malaysia, with two main types available: Indian bitter gourd and Chinese bitter gourd.
Appearance-wise, Indian bitter gourd is thinner and smaller compared to Chinese bitter gourd and its skin has sharp “teeth”. Chinese bitter gourd on the other hand, is large, its skin is smooth with ridges running lengthwise. Taste-wise, Indian bitter gourd tends to be bitterer than Chinese bitter gourd. The two bitter gourd varieties are prepared in a myriad ways: Chinese bitter gourd is usually stir-fried with egg (a Malaysian Chinese dish known as “kugua chao dan” 苦瓜炒蛋 which means “bitter gourd with scrambled eggs”), or stir fried with some chili (“peria goreng pedas”, perhaps a Malay dish) or eaten fresh as a salad, thinly sliced along with thinly sliced onions, chilies and tomatoes, with a dash of kalamansi lime, pinch of salt and freshly cracked pepper).
Indian bitter gourd is popular among Malaysian Indians, as a curry or sliced into thin rings and deep fried with gram flour and chili (a preparation known as “pakora”).
Stink Bean / Bitter Bean:
Known locally as “petai”, these are usually consumed cooked (not raw) in Malaysia.
A popular preparation is “sambal petai ikan bilis”, which is a dish of dried anchovies cooked with sliced onions and sometimes spicy chilies or spicy chili gravy into which petai beans are added when the dish is almost finished cooking so as to preserve the beans’ vibrant green hue and crunchy texture.
Terung Asam or Terung Dayak:
A wild eggplant with a mildly sour taste, found mainly in Sarawak, rarely found elsewhere in Malaysia. Cooked with spices and coconut milk.
Turmeric Flower Petals:
Eaten raw as a salad.
Several types of bayam are consumed in Malaysia to name a few:
Round green bayam
Long green bayam (known as “bayam panjang”)
Round baby bayam (which is a more tender and delicate version of the roung green bayam)
Long baby bayam (known as “baby bayam panjang”)
Red bayam (known as “bayam merah”)
Bayam is usually stir-fried sometimes a few slices of red chilies are thrown in for color and flavor.
Known as “sawi Jepun” in Malay, bok choy features most dominantly in Malaysian Chinese cuisine although it is popular among all Malaysians. A popular preparation is bok choy stir-fried with garlic (sometimes vegetables such as carrots may be added), drizzled with soy sauce and oyster sauce and garnished with crispy fried onions. Bok choy is also added to clear soups along with other vegetables such as baby corn and carrots.
Known as “Sawi hijau” in Malay, like bok choy, choy sum is usually stir fried, or added to clear soups such as chicken soup.
Known as “daun pegaga” in Malay, gotukola is usually prepared as a salad or as a curry.
Kailan / Gailan / Chinese Broccoli / Chinese Kale:
“Kailan ikan masin” is one of the most popular preparations in Malaysia. Here the leaves are cooked with a salted, pickled mackerel, known as “tenggiri jeruk” (“jeruk” = “pickle”) or “tenggiri masin” (tenggiri” = “mackerel”, “masin” = “salt”). A few slices of red chilies are thrown in and the cooked leaves are then drizzled with oyster sauce.
Water Spinach / Kankung:
Kankung belacan is a popular dish of kankung stir fried with a bit of belacan for flavor.
Known as “mani cai” 马尼菜 among Malaysian Chinese and “pucuk manis” or “sayur manis” in Malay (which literally means “sweet vegetable”, “sayur” = “vegetable”, “manis” = “sweet”) this leafy green is widely consumed throughout Malaysia and is particularly popular in Sabah.
The scientific name for this leafy green is Sauropus androgynous. It has been found to be toxic when consumed raw though the toxicity is broken down when the vegetables are cooked.
Sawi is one of the most commonly available leafy greens in Malaysia, usually stir-fried with garlic, a few slices of red chilies and a flavor enhancing ingredient such as belacan, soy sauce or oyster sauce.
Known as “Sawi Raja” in Malay and Ti Wan Cai 王帝菜 in Chinese, this is usually stir-fried to which aromatic and flavor enhancing ingredients are added. For instance, a few slices of red chilies and oyster sauce would be put in or the leaves are stir-fried with some dried shrimps and a spice paste of belacan, onion, garlic and chilies.
Known as “ikan bilis” in Malay, these fish are hand sorted based on size and color and then sun-dried before being sold. The lighter and smaller varieties are more expensive than the larger and darker hued types.
Ikan bilis it is used to make a rich “sambal” or just fried plain until crispy – both of which are must have accompaniments to “nasi lemak” – Malaysia’s national dish. Other popular ikan bilis preparations are “sambal petai ikan bilis” and “cucur” (Malaysian-style fritters).
Fresh fish is usually prepared as a curry (popular among Malays and Indians), fried plain (common to all Malaysians) or fried plain (which could be served with kalamansi halves and sliced chilies) and fried then doused with a sambal, steamed (popular among Chinese) or made as a soup (such as Sabah fish soup). A variety of fish (known as “ikan” in Malay) is available in Malaysia some of the more popular types include Indian mackerel (known as “ikan kembong”), Island mackerel (known as “ikan mabong”), scad (known as “ikan selar”), Asian seabass also known as Barramundi (known as “ikan siakap”), Indo-Pacific King Mackerel (known as “ikan tenggiri papan”), white mullet (known as “ikan susu”), white pomfret (known as “ikan bawal putih”), red snapper (known as “ikan merah”), and Spanish mackerel (known as “tenggiri”).
Known as “ikan masin” in Malay, several varieties of salted fish are available in Malaysia. Some of them include ikan masin selar, ikan kurau, ikan masin kembong, ikan masin gelama, ikan tenggiri papan masin, and ikan masin bulu ayam.
They are used either as a standalone accompaniment to a main dish such as rice or included as a flavor enhancer. In the first use case, they would be fried plain, fried with additions such as chilies and onions. In the second use case, they would be fried with leafy greens such as kalian (the dish is known as “kalian ikan masin”).
“Tenggiri jeruk” as it is known in Malay (“tenggiri” is the Malay name for mackerel while “jeruk” = “pickle”) is a popular flavor enhancer for stir fried leafy greens, porridge, or fried and served as an accompaniment to rice.
Known as “udang kering” in Malay (“udang” = “shrimp”, “kering” = “dried), dried shrimps are a staple ingredient in Malaysian cuisine. A popular Peranakan Chinese preparation is “sambal udang kering” where dried shrimp is combined with ingredients such as red onions, lemongrass and chilies, pounded in a pestle and mortar into a rich paste then toasted until the paste is dried.
Known as “sotong” in Malay, these are eaten fresh either fried or as a curry. Dried squid known as “sotong kering” (“kering” = “dry” in Malay) is popularly prepared as a sambal (“sambal sotong kering”) which is a side dish made of sotong, chilies, onion and garlic cooked together.
MEAT AND POULTRY:
Chicken is commonly consumed throughout Malaysia. Preparations such as chicken rendang, chicken curry, fried chicken, spiced fried chicken (known as “ayam goreng berempah” in Malay, “ayam” = “chicken”, “goreng” = “fried”m “berempah” = “spiced” ), roast chicken, chicken satay.
Beef is one of the most commonly consumed meats in Malaysia, especially during the festival of Ramadan. Beef rendang is probably one of Malaysia most popular dishes among foreigners.
Pork is commonly consumed by non-Muslim Malaysian Chinese and Indians. The Malays and other members of Malaysia’s Muslim community such as the Indian Muslims abstain from pork consumption. Bak kut teh is perhaps one of the most popular pork dishes among pork consumers in Malaysia.
FRUITS AND NUTS:
A variety of bananas are grown and consumed in Malaysia, the more popular types include “raja pisang”, “pisang mas”, “berangan” and “pisang rastali”.
A popular local snack known as “pisang goreng” (“pisang” = “banana”, “goreng” = “fried”) is made with a variety of “cooking bananas”. The bananas are sliced lengthwise, dipped in a batter and then deep fried until golden. Sometimes the golden-hued batter-fried bananas are topped with shreds of cheese and this is known as “pisang goring cheese” – a modern twist to a classic snack.
Other popular local banana-based delicacies include “cekodok pisang” (a traditional banana fritter), “pengat pisang” and banana chips (known locally as “kerepek pisang”).
Dragon fruits are available in Malaysia in two main colors – white and pink (or deep magenta). They are popular fresh, juiced or made into agar-agar-based pudding.
Guava, known as “jambu batu” is usually eaten fresh, or juiced.
Known as “limau kasturi” in Malay, the kalamansi is an important citrus fruit in Malaysia, used in sambal belacan (click here for our authentic sambal belacan recipe) served alongside laksa, served with fried salted fish, prepared as a juice such as “assam boi”, used in place of lemon for ice lemon tea, as a chutney (known as “acar limau kasturi”) or salted and dried (a popular preparation among Malaysian Chinese) and retained to be used as a sore throat reliever.
It is common in Malaysia for houses with garden space to grow a kalamansi tree.
A fruit with prickly seed, in the olden days kedondong was served raw along with a dipping sauce of soy sauce and sugar. Nowadays, the trend has shifted towards kedondong juice, enjoyed for its refreshing taste and health benefits.
Ripe, mature papayas are eaten fresh or juiced. Green papaya, or young, unripe papaya is popular as a curry (known as prepared as a salad, such as Terengganu papaya salad (known as “rojak betik Terengganu”) or Thai green papaya salad called “som tam”, known locally as “kerabu betik muda” (“betik” = “papaya”, “muda” = “young”).
Peanuts are an integral part of Malaysian cuisine. It is fried and served alongside nasi lemak (Malaysia’s national dish), or crushed and cooked into a peanut sauce to serve with satay. It is ground into peanut flour which is combined with other ingredients such as rich pork lard to make delicate peanut cookies (a Malaysian Chinese specialty, known as 花生饼 “hua sheng ping”, this is particularly popular during Chinese New Year). Along with sweet corn and butter, it forms part of the stuffing for “apam balik”, a highly popular Nyonya creation. They are a must have ingredient for “rempeyek kacang tanah”, a crunchy cracker of Indonesian origin, mostly made in villages in Malaysia and sold to consumers throughout the country. Or just toasted and eaten as a snack.
Known locally as “buah nanas”, pineapples were introduced to Malaysia in the 16th century by the Portugese and the fruit is cultivated in the country in areas such as Johor and Sarawak. It is popular fresh, juiced, or made into treats such as pineapple tarts, a local favorite.
Known locally as “limau Bali”, pomelo is very popular among all Malaysians. Considered a lucky fruit for Chinese who hold as a symbol of luck and prosperity, pomelos are a must-have during Chinese New Year at which time stacks of the fruit could be seen in stalls and supermarkets throughout Malaysia.
Rambutans are native to Malaysia, and the name itself is derived from the Malay word “rambut” which means “hair”, a fitting description for the hairy fruit. It is popular fresh.
Known locally as “jambu merah” (red rose apple) or “jambu putih” (white rose apple), this is usually consumed fresh often with a relish of soy sauce, sugar and a few slices of Bird’s Eye Chili known as locally as “chili padi”.
Known as “buah belinggai” in Malaysia, this fruit is quite uncommon and thus infrequently consumed.
Milk is consumed as is and also makes up an important ingredient in Malaysian Indian cuisine. Payasam (a milk pudding made with ingredients such as rice, vermicelli or sago), pongal (a rice dish cooked with milk, popular during the Tamil festival of Thaipongal) are some Malaysian Indian dishes that use milk.
Agar-agar is commonly used to make Malaysia desserts such as “agar-agar gula melaka” and “agar-agar santan pandan”.
Tempeh / Tempe:
Tempe is prepared in a many ways. There are tempe curries with coconut milk, tempeh deep fried until crisp, deep fried with sliced chilies, or stir-fried with additions such as beans, “ikan bilis” and potatoes.
Tofu known as “dou-fu” 豆腐 in Chinese, is popular primarily in Malaysian Chinese cuisine where it appears in soups, stir-fries, steamed (and garnished with soy sauce, scallions fried onions), stuffed with fillings such as meat and vegetables (such as Hakka-style “yong tau foo” 客家酿豆腐) and even dessert (“dou-fu hua” 豆腐花 a soft tofu pudding served with sweet syrup, this dessert is believed to be a cooling refreshment in Malaysia’s sweltering hot climate). To a lesser extent than Malaysian Chinese cuisine, Malay cuisine also sees the addition of tofu (known as “tauhu” in Malay), however the fried tofu variety tends to be favored over the traditional tofu versions.
Image: Several types of belacan produced by a cottage producer from Melaka (Malacca), seen here for sale at a fresh market in Selangor, Malaysia.
Belacan is a staple ingredient in Malaysian (Malay) cuisine. It is a paste of fermented shrimp and sea salt, used as a base for condiments such as “sambal belacan” (click here for our authentic sambal belacan recipe) or as a flavor enhancer to dishes such as “kangkung belacan”.
Traditional (artisanal) production process of belacan in Malaysia:
Traditionally, a good belacan starts with the freshest shrimp (not dried), and it is imperative that only a particular small shrimp variety is used (known as “udang geragau” in Malay, “udang” = “shrimp”). Using the right variety of shrimp coupled with its freshness are important factors for a quality outcome. Udang geragau is not available all year round and consequently, traditional belacan production is a seasonal industry.
There are different methods for producing belacan however the basic procedure of sun-drying and pounding is the generally same.
First, the fresh shrimp would first be thoroughly cleaned of impurities such as sand and grit. Next, the shrimp is mixed with coarse sea salt (about 10%-15% of the weight of the shrimp). The salt functions primarily as a preservative. Next, the shrimp-salt mixture is pounded in a traditional wooden pestle and mortar known as a “lesong” or “lesung”. The pounded mixture is then sun-dried and then pounded again until the mixture resembles a thick paste. The paste is sun-dried and pounded again, a process which is repeated at least three times, which could take weeks to complete. This drying process is critical for a quality belacan, not just to bring out maximum flavor but also for preservation purposes too. This is because moisture dramatically reduces the shelf life of the product. Properly dried, the belacan can be retained for at least 6 months without refrigeration.
Once the paste has reached an optimum state of dryness, they are molded, usually by hand into disks, cylinders or rectangular blocks.
A wide array of belacan types are produced and sold. Belacan nipis, belacan kepal, belacan segi, belacan kering, belacan bakar and belacan basah are some examples.
A number of artisan belacan-makers continue to ply their craft in pockets of Malaysia. For instance, artisanal, traditional, cottage-industry belacan producers could be found in places such as Melaka (Malacca), Terengganu and Sarawak.
However, fair amounts of belacan available in stores are also produced from large-scale commercial operations, utilizing modern production methods. These modern production methods have introduced considerable change to the original method of producing belacan. For instance, the sun-drying process is skipped or reduced, and instead the process is hastened through machine-drying. The traditional wooden “lesong” is also done away with, and is replaced with modern machinery. Sometimes preservatives are added which diminishes the nutritional value of the product. While these modern alterations to belacan production result in a more efficient production process, belacan “connoisseurs” however generally agree that these short-cuts come at the expense of quality and consequently the resulting output fails to match the flavor of original belacan produced the traditional way.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), humans (and all other living beings) together with the world make up one unified entity and changes in the surroundings bring about changes in the humans. These environmental influences can cause imbalances in the human body and steps can be taken to prevent such imbalances and maintain good health.
One of those steps is to alter the diet and eat according to seasons, thereby maintaining harmony with seasonal changes. As an example, the arrival of summer, a time of rising heat, could also result in a corresponding buildup of heat in the human body.
To re-balance this “imbalance”, foods that cool down the body (known as “cooling foods” or “qu huo” 上火 in Chinese) are popular during the hot summer season while “warming foods” (known as “shang huo” 上火) i.e., foods that increase heat in the body are generally reduced. How much cooling foods should be consumed depends entirely on the individual as some people are more prone to heat buildup while some are more not.
By adapting the diet to environmental changes, it is possible to restore balance between the yin and yang elements in the human body.
Summer is the season of fire, a time of rigorous growth and heat. During this season, cooling foods that dispel internal heat and nourish “yin” are preferred while “warming” foods which raise “yang” are reduced or avoided.
Mung beans are believed to have very cooling effects on the body according to Traditional Chinese Medicine. Mung bean soup or mung bean dessert soup with rock sugar are popular dishes during summer.
Cucumbers are abundantly available during summer and in most Chinese households, cucumbers are a popular food to stay cool during the hot season. A refreshing Chinese style cucumber , or cooked cucumber dishes such as cucumber soup are popular.
Watermelons and Cantaloupes:
Watermelons and cantaloupes are very hydrating and considered to be on the higher end of the “cooling scale” for fruit.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, green tea is believed to have cooling properties (black tea on the other hand is believed to have warming properties), and a hot cup of green tea (not chilled) is a popular way to stay cool during summer.
Soups are popular as they are hydrating, thereby helping to clear the summer heat. Nourishing winter melon soup for instance is very popular during summer.
Warming Foods To Reduce Or Avoid:
Intake of “warming foods” (foods that contribute to heat in the body) are usually reduced or avoided. The following foods are believed to be “warming”:
Red meat and chicken
Excessively sweet food
Heavy meals are also avoided during the summer months and instead light, frequent meals are preferred.
Known as “goraka” ගොරකා in Sinhalese and “korukkaippuli” கொறுக்காய்ப்புளி in Tamil, since ancient times this ingredient has held an important position in Sri Lankan cookery and herbal remedies. For culinary purposes, it is used as a meat tenderizer and as a souring agent for meat dishes such as chicken curry and fish dishes such as “ambul thiyal” (a specialty from the south of Sri Lanka but a favorite throughout the country, this is a dish of fish chunks cooked with an appetizing sour-spicy-salty spice concoction of ground black pepper, goraka and salt) and “maalu mirisata” මාළු මිරිසට (a hot and sour fish curry with red chili powder, goraka and salt).
Goraka is usually not used in vegetable dishes, perhaps with the exception being curries prepared with young jackfruit, known as “polos” පොලොස් in Sinhalese. “Polos ambula” පොලොස් ඇඹුල for instance, a highly popular curry of jackfruit spices and thick coconut milk, uses goraka as a souring agent (“polos” පොලොස් = “young jackfruit”, “ambula” ඇඹුල = “sour”).
It is also used as a preserving agent, for instance to preserve fish. “Jaadi” ජාඩි a traditional Sri Lankan preserved fish is one example. Here, the freshest fish such as Indian Mackerel (“kumabala” කුම්බලා) or skipjack tuna (“balaya” බලයා) would be doused with goraka and salt then sealed in clay jars for months before being taken out to be served as an accompaniment to rice.
Although this has historically been highly popular in Sri Lanka (particularly in the coastal south of the island in areas such as Galle, Matara and Ahangama), its consumption and production has been on the decline, perhaps due to the availability of modern methods of fish preservation which are comparatively less time-consuming (but no match in taste), such as freezing.
For medicinal purposes, goraka is valued for its ability to aid in digestion, relieve digestive problems. The flowers and leaves of the goraka tree are also used in traditional Sri Lankan remedies.
Goraka cultivation and production in Sri Lanka:
Goraka trees flourish in Sri Lanka, in the wet regions as well as in the forests. The goraka tree produces fruits twice a year. The fruits, referred to as “goraka fruit” somewhat resemble a mangosteen with deep ridges. The rind color, could be red, known as “rathu goraka” රතු ගොරකා in Sinhalese (“rathu” = “red”), or yellow, known as “ela goraka” එළ ගොරකා in Sinhalese (“ela” directly translates into “cow” however it is also used as a reference to “white”. Yellow goraka is white when immature and turns yellow when mature).
The production process starts with plucking the fruits from the tree when the fruits are ripe (however, in pursuit of profits, sometimes the fruits are plucked unripe and force ripened, which results in an inferior product). The rind is then broken off along the deep ridges (each broken off piece is called a “beak”), leaving behind just the core of the fruit (a pulpy flesh) which is retained separate from the ridges broken off earlier. This pulpy flesh is a deep magenta in the case of “red goraka”, or pale yellow in the case of “yellow goraka”.
The fresh fruits cannot be eaten raw, as their excessively sour taste renders its unpalatable.
The broken ridges are smoked, coated with the “sap” extracted from the goraka core that had been retained earlier and then sun-dried until the rinds turn dark black and wrinkled after which they are ready to be used.
Cassava leaves are known as “pucuk ubi kayu” in Malay (“pucuk” = “shoots”, “ubi kayu” = “cassava”), and the plant thrives in Malaysia’s balmy climate. These plants are widely grown in the country, not just in commercial farms but also in home gardens where they flourish, since they are quite hardy, requiring relatively little care and maintenance.
In addition to the regular cassava leaf variety, the long leaf variety, known in Malay as “pucuk ubi kayu pulut” (sometimes simply shortened to “pucuk ubi kayu”) is also extensively grown. Both leaf types are considered to be highly nutritious, usually consumed when tender, throughout Malaysia, though perhaps more in the villages than in the cities. The leaves are believed to be rich in amino acids thereby offering wound-healing, skin regenerative and immune-boosting properties. Their nutritive properties are perhaps enhanced by the fact that they are relatively low-maintenance plants, and due to this, they are generally accepted to have relatively low levels of fertilizer and pesticide (if at all).
In Malaysia, the leaves are popular prepared as a curry, stir-fry or “kerabu” (which is Malay version of a salad) all served as accompaniments to an everyday meal of rice. One cassava leaf curry preparation sees the leaves cooked in thick coconut milk, freshly ground turmeric and chilies. Another curry sees the leaves cooked with “tempoyak” a fermented durian paste, popular in Malay cuisine. Cassava leaves stir fried would see aromatics such as onion, garlic, dried anchovies (“ikan bilis” in Malay) and belacan sautéed until fragrant into which blanched cassava leaves are added and sautéed.
Cassava leaves “kerabu” style would see the leaves boiled first, then mixed with a paste of pulverized ingredients such as onions, garlic, bird’s eye chili, dried anchovies or dried prawns and freshly grated coconut, served straightaway with a dash of kalamansi lime juice (“kalamansi lime” = “limau kasturi” in Malay).
Known locally as “black olive”, “Borneo olive” or “Sibu olive” in English, “ga lang” 橄榄 in Chinese, or “buah Dabai” in Malay, this is a native variety of olive, found only in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, a region recognized as having one of the highest bio-diversities in the world.
The scientific name of the fruit is Canarium. Slightly larger than the Kalamata olive (which is native to Greece and is named after the Greek city Kalamata), these indigenous olives grown on tall trees (over 20 – 60 meters in height) which historically thrived in Sarawak’s lush tropical rainforests, and the fruits harvested are known locally as “wild dabai”. Believed to be highly nutritious (rich in antioxidants, carbohydrates, proteins and fat), the popularity of the dabai olive has resulted in the cultivation of the fruit in small plots of land by landowners, however the taste and quality of their produce is no match to wild dabai and consequently they generally command a lower price in the market.
When mature, the fruit is white, however it transforms into a deep opaque black hue as it matures, hence the moniker “black olive”. Dabai is a seasonal fruit, appearing in markets in Sarawak only once a year, between November and January. The fruit is rarely found in the rest of Malaysia.
The fruit cannot be consumed raw – its flesh is extremely tough; it is not possible to simply bite into it. The flesh is usually softened, either left to soak in some warm water (not hot and not boiling) or soy sauce after which it is consumed. It is sometimes eaten right away as a snack with a dash of soy sauce and sprinkling of salt or sugar, or it is served as a side dish to an everyday meal of rice.
Another popular preparation is dabai fried rice (known as “nasi goreng dabai” in Malay, “nasi” = “rice”, “goreng” = “fried”) which is a Sarawakian specialty, easily recognized by the purplish tinge in the rice, a color no doubt imparted by the black olives. In its simplest form, the dish sees boiled, de-seeded and roughly chopped dabai lightly fried in oil in a wok until aromatic. Then cooked rice (usually white) is thrown in. The ingredients are mixed, fried for a while and then seasonings such as soy sauce is added after which the dish is garnished with Chinese celery and served immediately.
More elaborate dabai fried rice variations see the addition of ingredients such as anchovies (known as “ikan bilis” in Malay), onion and garlic or anything else that the cook fancies such as oyster sauce and eggs.
Like most traditional dishes in Asia, there are no fixed recipes, with different families in different regions having different ingredient combinations and ratios.
Apart from the flesh of the dabai olive, the contents of within its large seed are also consumed. The seed is cracked open, and the contents are gently extracted out (a popular tool for this purpose is the toothpick) and eaten.