Pasta is a staple in Italian cuisine, often making up part of every Italian’s main meal for the day, particularly in southern Italy (“mezzogiorno”) and certain regions elsewhere in Italy such as Liguria (where pasta with pesto is a staple).
Good quality artisanal pasta is usually a pale-yellow color. Artificially-colored pastas tend to have a vibrant yellow hue. Pasta should be cooked “al dente” which literally means “to the tooth” in Italian. This refers to the ideal texture of cooked pasta which should have a firm bite yet not so firm that it tastes raw.
Traditionally, pasta was either homemade or made by skilled artisans who sold their handcrafted pastas in shops or delivered it to wealthy customers. Artisan pasta was commonplace in Italy’s commercial pasta capitals such as Naples and Genoa while the rest of Italy tended to rely on homemade pasta.
Traditional production method of pasta in Italy
Like most Italian food, pasta making has traditionally been an artisanal process.
Pasta begins with fresh, stone-ground, durum wheat flour (known as “durum semolina” or just “semolina”) obtained by milling locally-grown, organic durum wheat. Durum wheat is a hard wheat variety, “hard” meaning the grain is not easily broken apart. Durum wheat contains more protein, more gluten and is able to absorb more water. Soft wheat, so called because the grain breaks easily, is used to obtain white flour and is not ideally suited for pasta making. Durum wheat flour is coarser, granular and has a rich yellow color compared to soft wheat flour and this makes it ideal for pasta making. Italian pastas of the highest quality are traditionally made with 100% durum wheat flour and these tend to be more costly and are the most authentic Italian pastas. Pastas made with a mixture of semolina and soft wheat tend to be cheaper, of lower quality and, needless to say, are far from authentic.
The next step is making the pasta which is made entirely with just durum semolina and spring water. Because of the simplicity of the ingredients, the qualities of the ingredients are imperative for a quality outcome. The ingredients are combined to form a pliable, firm dough which is kneaded and then left to rest. After resting, the pasta is rolled out using a wooden rolling pin, and then cut to strips using a knife or molded into a variety of shapes.
The pasta can be eaten fresh, in which case it is sold immediately and is cooked immediately by the customer. If the pasta is not intended to be sold or consumed immediately, the pasta is dried, which preserves the pasta’s shelf life. Dried pasta is known as “pasta secche” in Italian. Traditionally, pasta is dried naturally, using just sunlight and air over very low temperatures, a process which could take weeks or more than a month. This long and slow drying process results in pasta that is well dried, yet not so dry that it ends up brittle. Large-scale, mass-produced pasta manufacturers on the other hand, dry their pasta artificially using mechanical driers, at considerably higher temperatures to reduce the drying time which results in “baked” rather than “dried” pasta. The consequence is that this “baked” pasta tends to break up easily when cooked unlike sun-and-air-dried pasta which retains a chewy al dente texture when cooked.
The pasta drying process requires skill and experience where airflow is adjusted depending on the wind, humidity and temperature conditions of the environment. The traditional pasta drying stage is divided into three main stages:
Stage 1: Incarmento
The first stage involved drying the surface of the pasta, usually by placing the fresh pasta under direct sunlight.
Stage 2: Rinvenimento
After the surface has dried due to the “incarmento” stage, the pasta is moved to an environment that is cooler and damper than its previous environment. This could be a cool cellar where it is left to rest for several hours which could be about 12 hours or so. As the pasta rests, the moisture retained within the dried surface of the pasta, seeps to the surface.
Stage 3: Essiccazione definitiva
The pasta is then transported to an environment that is cool yet not as damp as it was during the second stage. Here it is left to rest, carefully watched by the artisan pasta maker, until the pasta reaches the desired state of dryness. How long this takes depends on the ambient temperature and humidity. During summer months, it could take several days while during winter months it could take weeks, sometimes longer than a month, or sometimes the pasta cannot be dried at all.
Olives have been cultivated in Italy for centuries and tends to be particularly popular in southern Italian cuisine whereas in northern Italy, butter and lard tend to be more popular.
Like most oils, olive oil is susceptible to rancidity. Freshly pressed oil is at the height of its flavor, aroma and nutrition Oxidization of olive oil begins immediately after it is produced. For this reason, similar to milk, meat and seafood, olive oil is best consumed fresh, the fresher the better, (if possible, straight from the press) for maximum flavor and nutrition.. If olive oil is to be served uncooked such as in the case of salads, only the freshest olive oil should be used. If olive oil is over a year old, it is better to use it for cooking purposes.
The flavor of the oil depends on several factors such as the type of olives used, local growing conditions, harvesting time etc. It is not uncommon for artisanal olive oil producers in various areas of Italy be it Tuscany, Liguria or Umbria, to insist that their olive oil is the best.
Olive oil is a D.O.P. recognized product. D.O.P. stands for “Denominazione di Origine Protetta” in Italian which literally means “Protected Destination of Origin”. Olive oil with the D.O.P. mark is of the highest quality having been produced under strict E.U. guidelines. A few of the rules stipulate that the olives must be cultivated according to traditional methods, the oils must be exclusively produced in certain regions in Italy, using only natural ingredients (no chemicals and additives are allowed for D.O.P. olive oils, unlike some other oil products which use such chemicals for purposes such as oil extraction) and must be produced according to traditional methods.
Unlike D.O.P. designated olive oils which are exclusively made in Italy by artisan producers in specific regions of Italy, the title “Extra Virgin olive oil” is applicable to olive oil produced anywhere in the world and does not necessarily have to be produced by an artisanal olive oil producer. Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a title reserved for olive oils obtained from the first pressing of olives and contains less than 0.8% acidity. Thus, an Extra Virgin Olive Oil produced mechanically will simply be sold as “Extra Virgin Olive Oil”. However, an Extra Virgin Olive Oil product produced by an artisan producer in a specific region in Italy, produced following the strict quality guidelines to qualify for a D.O.P. designation will be sold with as “Extra Virgin Olive Oil D.O.P.”. For instance, an Extra Virgin Olive Oil produced by a qualified artisan olive oil producer in Liguria would be sold as “Olio Extravergine Riviera Ligure DOP” (which translates into “Extra Virgin Olive Oil DOP Liguria”).
Traditional method of making olive oil in Italy
Olive oil production starts with olives. Italy has over 350 varieties of olive trees or “cultivars” but usually only certain varieties of olives are used for producing olive oil such as Frantoio, Taggiasca, Leccino, Ascolano, Pendolino and Moraiolo.
Frantoio is a typical olive varietal cultivated in central Italy, particularly in Tuscany, and is a highly prized variety for producing olive oil.
Taggiasca is an olive varietal from Linguria, Italy and this olive variety derives its name from the village of its origin – Taggia. Taggiasca olive trees have been cultivated for centuries and today there exist Taggiasca olive trees which are over hundreds of years old that are still bearing fruit.
Traditionally olive fruits are handpicked from the trees (not machine-picked) at the right stage of ripeness (usually just before they fully ripen). By allowing the olives to develop naturally on the tree to the right stage of ripeness, ensures a naturally fruity, less acidic and more flavorful olive oil. Olives that spontaneously drop from their branches are not used for olive oil production as usually these olives are fully ripened. Fully ripened or overly matured olives are not ideally suited for oil production.
Once picked, it is time to crush the olives to extract the oil. The sooner they are crushed after plucking, the better, as fresh olives produce a fresh-tasting olive oil. The longer the olives sit after plucking, the more susceptible they are to rancidity, mold and spoilage, particularly if they are stored in environments with little aeration. This inevitably would have a negative effect on the flavor of the oil. The manner of storage also greatly affects the final oil. If the olives undergo significant trauma during the storage and transportation process, the olives could be injured, which also has a negative effect on the final flavor of the oil. Such trauma is less likely to take place in small-batch olive oil production facilities. At larger-batch olive oil production facilities, the freshly-plucked olives could be stored in thin layers to minimize such injury.
Within hours of picking, the olives are crushed at the local “frantoio” (“oil mill” in Italian) or “frantoi” (plural) using a traditional stone mill known as “molazza” in Italian. These traditional stone mills have been used for centuries to produce olive oil and today, some artisan olive oil producers continue to use centuries-old mills to produce their oils. In ancient times, animals such as horses or donkeys would be used to power the stone wheels which crush the olives at low speed. This way, the olives are crushed at temperatures not exceeding 27 °C into a paste containing oil, water and fruit particles. This crushing process is aimed at releasing the oil from the vacuoles of the olives, assisting the small oil droplets to combine and form large oil droplets and allowing the fruit enzymes to amplify the aroma and flavor of the oil.
The resultant paste is then sent through a “pressing process” whereby the solid particles or “pomace”, known as “sansa” in Italian are separated from vegetation liquid comprising water and oil known as “mosto”, using a presser.
Traditionally, this is done by pouring the paste onto flat fiber disks which traditionally were made with natural fiber from hemp or coconut but nowadays these disks may be made of synthetic fiber materials as these are easier to clean. These fiber disks, known as “fiscolo” in Italian, are filled with a certain quantity of the olive paste, then piled on top of each other to form a vertical tower. Next, pressure is applied to squeeze out the liquids (vegetation water made up of water and oil) while the solids are retained in the fiber disks. The vegetation water which seeps out slowly is collected. Once this step is complete, the disks are disassembled and the solid residue taken out and set aside. The disks are cleaned thoroughly and the process is repeated. If the disks are insufficiently cleaned, remnant residue in the disk could ferment and negatively affect the flavor of the next batch of oil.
Sometimes the press fails to extract all the oil in the “first press”. So the “sansa” is subjected to a second or third pressing to release additional oil. However, the oil extracted after the first press would not be sold as “Extra Virgin”.
Modern day olive oil production processes may utilize a mechanical crusher (which crushes the olives), a mixer (to “malax” the paste helping small oil droplets to combine and form larger oil droplets) and an industrial decanter which separates the oil from the vegetation water through centrifugation. These processes generally tend to be less labor intensive and more efficient than the traditional method. However, these tend to be more energy intensive and may result in a loss of healthy polyphenols.
The “sansa” is used for a variety of purposes from being a source of heating fuel to being an ingredient for food such as “taralli”.
Next, the vegetation water collected from the pressing stage is left to decant in large stone basins in a process known as “affiorato”. Since oil and water are non-soluble, and oil has a lower density than water, the oil separates and floats up to the surface. This is collected using a special pan known as “oliarole”.
Traditionally olive oil is not filtered, so after the decantation process, the product is bottled immediately. Unfiltered olive oil is known as “Non Filtrato” in Italian. This oil is cloudy as it contains olive fruit particles suspended in the liquid. Some find this traditional non-filtered olive oil to be more flavorful, nutritious and rich in phenolic compounds (which decrease the shelf life of the oil and so must be consumed fresh).
Modern day, non-traditional olive oils may be filtered which results in a clearer oil free of olive pulp sediments which helps increase the shelf life of the oil and produces a more “sellable” oil. However, filtered olive oil may not be as flavorful or nutritious compared to unfiltered olive oil since some of those healthy phenolic compounds are removed.
Parmigiano Reggiano is one of Italy’s most famous “grana” cheeses (“grana’ means “grainy” in Italian) earning it the moniker, the “King of Cheeses”.
This is a hard, uniformly straw-colored, gratable cheese with a deep, rich flavor and a golden, oily, edible rind. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is traditionally made with fresh cow’s milk from grass-fed cows. Other “grana” cheese include “grana padano”.
Traditionally, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese has been produced in northern Italy, in the areas of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua and Bologna. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese produced in these regions are considered to be the most authentic and under Italian law, only cheese from these regions are legally allowed to be labeled as “Parmigiano Reggiano”. This ancient product is recognized by the European Union as a D.O.P. product (“Denominazione di Origine Protetta” which is Italian for “Protected Destination of Origin”) and only Parmigiano Reggiano produced from producers located in these areas are allowed to carry the D.O.P. seal on their Parmigiano cheese.
Thus, the more widely and cheaply available “Parmesan Cheese” is not the authentic, artisanal “Parmigiano Reggiano”.
The first recorded reference to Parmigiano Reggiano dates back to 1344 and the second oldest reference to the cheese can be found in “The Decameron”, a 1353 collection of novellas written by 14th century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375). In it, he mentions:
…and there was a whole mountain of Parmigiano cheese, all finely grated, on top of which stood people who were doing nothing but making macaroni and ravioli.
Artisan Parmigiano Reggiano cheese made using traditional recipes passed down through the centuries. Authentic Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is traditionally made only in specific regions from mid-April to mid-November.
Founded in the 18th century, Valserena is reportedly the oldest Parmigiano dairy in Italy, and one of the few “farmstead” producers (producers who manage the entire cycle of producing cheese from growing the grass to feed the cows, birthing and breeding of cows and the process of making aged cheese).
Managed by the Serra Family, the farm is located in Parma, in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna which is considered to be Italy’s food region, home to famous Italian delicacies such as artisanal Italian traditional balsamic vinegar (known in Italian as “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale”), prosciutto and of course, Parmigiano Regiano cheese.
Valserena, is a member of the Consorzio di Parmigiano Reggiano and is one of the few members of the “Consorzio di Sola Bruna”. Producers who are members of “Consorzio di Sola Bruna” (which literally translates into “Only Italian Brown Consortium”) guarantee that the milk for Parmigiano Reggiano produced by them comes only from a certain registered breed of Italian “Brown Cows” – referred to in Italian as “Solo di Bruna” which means “exclusively (from) brown” (cows). The brown cow was introduced to Italy over a century ago, possibly around 1870. Belonging to the Alpine family, milk from this breed of brown cows is relatively low-yield (compared to for instance the Friesian cow which is known as “Frisona” in Italian), however the milk is particularly rich with a higher protein (particularly casein, which is important for cheese making) and calcium content, and results in a relatively high yield of cheese. Additionally, the richness of the milk imparts a distinctive creaminess, aroma and flavor into the finished wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese which milk from other breeds of cows are not able to match. Its high protein and calcium content further amplifies its value, as apart from a rich flavor, it also offers a rich source of nourishment.
So prized is the milk from this Italian brown cow, that it is known in Italy as “white gold” (“oro bianco” in Italian) and the Parmigian Reggiano cheese produced exclusively using this “white gold” is referred to as “Parmigiano Reggiano D.O.P. di Sola Bruna”.
There are hundreds of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese producers in Italy, however only a handful produce their cheese exclusively using milk from this Italian brown cow.
Authentic, artisanal Parmigiano Reggiano cheese production is regulated by the “Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano” (“Consortium of Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese”) which was founded in 1934. The consortium is comprised of artisanal Parmigiano Reggiano cheese producers from northern Italy, specifically in the provinces of Parma, Regio Emilia, Modena, Mantova and Bologna.
The consortium works to protect the tradition, history and culture surrounding authentic Parmigiano Reggiano cheese by stipulating certain requirements.
The milk for Parmegiano Reggiano cheese must be obtained from cows fed only on grass grown on rich, fertile soil, or fed with hay obtained from the same area, produced through a traditional drying process (not fed with fermented fodder, known as “silage” such as “corn silage” which is usually cheaper but creates quality problems in the finished cheese).
Producers have to produce their cheese using artisanal methods that have remained unchanged for seven centuries
The cheese must be aged through natural means.
The ingredients used in producing the cheese must be 100% natural; there is zero-tolerance for artificial additives, such as flavorings, preservatives, coloring agents and other agents to conceal or rectify problems that arise during the cheese-making process.
Strict compliance of these rules are mandatory for members of the consortium and in doing so, they are accepted as producers of the finest and most authentic Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
Traditional Production Method of Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese in Italy
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese production in Italy has traditionally been an artisanal process (it is not a manufactured product) and it remains so to this day among northern Italy’s artisanal Parmigiano Reggiano cheese producers which use traditional methods and recipes handed over several generations.
It begins with rich milk from cows fed with fodder that may be fresh or dried using a traditional drying process. Fermented fodder is not allowed to be fed. This milk is accepted to be richer, more flavorful and more nutritious compared to milk from cows fed with artificial feed. Italian brown cows produce highly-prized rich, flavorful milk which the more common Holstein-Freisean cow cannot match. Of Italy’s Parmigiano cheese producers, only a handful produce their cheese using milk from Italian brown cows.
The quality of the milk is the foundation of cheese-making and the best quality milk is imperative for a quality cheese. The fresher the milk, the better and thus full-cycle / farmstead cheese producers may have an advantage. If the milk is of substandard quality, problems are likely to arise during the ageing process. Since the Consortium of Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese bans additives of any kind whatsoever to rectify or conceal such problems (which mass-produced, imitation cheese manufacturers may resort to), ensuring the quality of the milk is of paramount importance. Since only the freshest, raw milk is to be used for authentic Parmigiano cheese, it is usual for artisanal Parmigiano Reggiano cheese-producers in northern Italy to work every single day, including Sundays and holidays, churning out cheese from fresh milk provided by their cows everyday.
The cows are milked in the evening and this unpasteurized milk is left to rest overnight. The next morning, the cream will have risen and the milk is skimmed off. This is a 100% natural method of producing skimmed milk. The cream is used to make butter. The skimmed milk is added to the whole milk from this morning’s milking. The two milks are combined in traditional copper cauldrons.
Natural, fermented whey (usually derived from the previous day’s cheese production) is added to the milk along with natural rennet which triggers the curdling process. The milk is cooked at a temperature of about 30–35 °C or 86 – 95 °F.
The curd is broken down by hand through long movements using a traditional whisk known as a “spino”. This is an enormous balloon whisk which traditionally was made with wood, although now they tend to be made with metal. This whisk helps break down the curds into miniscule granules, giving it a grainy texture.
Next, the temperature of the heat is raised to about 55 °C or 131 °F. This ultimately results a mass of cheese granules separated from the whey. This mass of granules are taken out and wrapped in cheese cloth. The cheesecloth bundle is lifted up and suspended over the cauldron by tying two ends of the cloth to two poles on either side of the cauldron. It is left to drain for a few minutes and then the cheesecloth is hoisted out of the copper cauldron and placed into circular wheel molds. The cheese wheels are left to rest for a few days.
The cheese wheels are then salted, through a wet-salting process where the cheese wheels are immersed in brine (a solution of water and sea salt) for about 20 days. The wheels are inspected and turned every day by an artisan cheesemaker.
After the salting process, the ageing process begins. The cheese wheels are laid on wooden boards, one wooden board over another, in a temperature and humidity-controlled warehouse or ageing room. As it ages, the cheese exterior naturally dries out over time, forming a hard, oily, perfectly edible rind.
Authentic Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is aged for a minimum 12 months. The cheaper, non-genuine, imitation products are often aged for less than that, sometimes just a few months. The longer it ages, the richer the flavor, the stronger the aroma, the harder the cheese and the more granular the texture. “Parmigiano Reggiano Fresco” (“fresco” = “fresh” in Italian) is aged for 12 – 14 months. “Parmigiano Reggiano Stagionato” (“Stagionato” = “Seasoned”) is aged for 22-24 months. “Parmigiano Reggiano Stravecchio” is aged for over 30 months.
During the ageing process, the cheese wheels are constantly under watch by the artisanal cheesemaker, who will inspect, brush and turn them every day.
The cheese is tested for quality by a panel of judges from the “Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano” (“Consortium of Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese”). The testing process usually sees the judge “tapping” the cheese using a hammer and sometimes inserting a screw-needle into the cheese.
In the hammer test, various points of the cheese are tapped with a hammer (known in Italian as “martelletto”). The resulting sound is carefully listened to, and the crust is observed to see how it takes the blow of the hammer. This gives clues on the quality of the cheese encased within the rind and if there are any defects in the structure of the cheese. This process is akin to a doctor using a stethoscope to aid in diagnosing a patient.
The screw-needle test sees a long thin instrument, similar to a screw, inserted into the cheese and then taken out to obtain a minute sample of the cheese. The resistance of the cheese as the screw needle is inserted gives clues on the consistency of the cheese while the sample gives clues on the aroma, taste and degree of maturation.
If the cheese fails the test, the markings on the cheese rind typical of authentic, artisanal Parmigiano Reggiano cheese will be scraped off. If the cheese passes the test, cheese will be sealed with the “Parmigiano Reggiano DOP” mark with the Consorzio’s logo. The cheese may be left for further ageing or may be taken out to be sold. If the cheese producer is a member of the “Consorzio di Sola Bruna” then their cheese will be sold as “Parmigiano Reggiano DOP di Sola Bruna”.
Various types of balsamic vinegars are available in the market, however, the most traditional and authentic balsamic vinegars hail from the Emilia Romagna region in Italy, specifically in the cities of Modena and Reggio Emilia, where the grapes have an optimum balance of sweetness and acidity, and the climate is most conducive to the balsamic vinegar ageing process.
These traditional balsamic vinegars (known in Italian as “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale”) are produced only with fresh grape juice (known as “grape must”) unlike other vinegars which have wine vinegar added in and sometimes caramel and coloring as well. Additionally, the aging period is no less than 12 years, unlike non-traditional balsamic vinegars which are aged for a much shorter period of time, sometimes just a few months.
Producers of traditional balsamic vinegar must be members of the Consorzio Aceto Balsamico di Modena (Consortium of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) which regulates traditional balsamic production.
Consequently, these traditional balsamic vinegars command a considerably higher price in the market and they can be identified by a legally approved bottle shape (which non-traditional balsamic vinegars are not allowed to use), as well as an official European Union certification: “D.O.P.” (“Denominazione di Origine Protetta” which is Italian for “Protected Destination of Origin”). So, for instance, a traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena aged for 12 years would carry the label “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, D.O.P., Affinato” while a traditional balsamic vinegar from Reggio Emilia aged for 12 years would carry the label “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia, D.O.P., Affinato”.
To carry the “D.O.P” certification, the entire process of producing traditional balsamic vinegar must take place in the region of origin; in the case of traditional balsamic vinegar, this is either Modena or Reggio Emilia (this includes the source of grapes which must also be grown in these areas, so for instance, cheaper grapes grown elsewhere are not allowed to be used).
This compares with bottles labeled “I.G.P” (“Indicazione Geografica Protetta” which is Italian for “Protected Geographical Indication”) which is stamped on bottles of balsamic vinegars that are processed in Modena and made with grapes varietals typical of Modena (Albana, Ancellotta, Fortana, Lambrusco, Montuni, Sangiovese, and Trebbiano). However, the grapes may have been grown in a locale other than Modena or Reggio Emilia.
“Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Affinato” is aged for at least 12 years.
“Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Extra Vecchio” (“Extra Vecchio” = “Extra Old”) is aged for a minimum 25 years.
“Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Riserva Oro” (“Riserva Oro” = “Gold Reserve”) is aged for at least 100 years.
Traditional Production Method Of Balsamic Vinegar In Italy
Balsamic vinegar production in Italy has traditionally been an artisanal process which continues to this day using techniques, recipes and paraphernalia (such as wooden caskets) handed down over several generations of mostly small-scale producers. The process originated in Modena and was later adopted in the Reggio Emilia region. It first begins with the grapes. Only certain locally-grown grape varieties are used to make traditional balsamic vinegar with Trebbiano and Lambrusco being the most common. Other varieties are Ancellotta, Berzemino, Occhio di Gatto, Sauvignon and Sgavetta. These grape varietals were poor choices for making wine and so were put to good use by producing balsamic vinegar instead.
Late in the year during autumn, the grapes are harvested. Harvesting them as late as possible in the season allows the grapes to naturally produce a higher concentration of natural sugars. These freshly harvested grapes are processed into “grape must” (pressed grapes which includes seeds and skins). The pulp and skins are then filtered out and the grape juice is cooked for hours over a slow fire until it reduces to about half its original volume and turns into a brown hue. The exact time this requires depends on the size of the batch, the climate, humidity etc. The boiled down juice is then set aside to ferment in wooden barrels for a period ranging from a few weeks to a few years.
In winter, perhaps during the months of January or February, the process of making the vinegar begins. This is done through a “batteria” – five or more wooden caskets, decreasing in size. The caskets are crafted with particular kinds of wood. Seven types of approved wood are used namely oak, cherry, juniper, mulberry, chestnut, ash, acacia (the last two are not widely accepted and are not very common),
The type of wood greatly contributes to the flavor of the resulting vinegar. For instance vinegar aged in cherry wood caskets tends to have a sweeter flavor profile. Each wooden casket in the “batteria” is made with a different type of wood, which imparts a flavor to the vinegar different from the previous casket it fermented in. The blend of wood used to ferment the vinegar is very much a part of the producers’ secret recipe. Producers are legally given freedom to decide on the combination of wood for the “batteria” depending on the flavor and aroma the individual producer wishes to produce for their balsamic vinegar.
Each year, vinegar from the smallest casket is taken out and bottled. Next, the fermenting liquid from the second smallest casket is poured into the smallest casket and liquid from the third smallest casket is poured into the second smallest casket and so on. The fresh batch of fermented grape must is poured into the largest casket.
As the must ages, it gets increasingly concentrated as a result of the evaporation that takes place through the walls of the wooden caskets, ultimately resulting in a liquid with the thick, viscous, syrupy consistency and intensely rich flavor that traditional balsamic vinegar is famous for.
How long the vinegar sits in these antique caskets (some could be over 100 years old, the older the casket the better the flavor) varies from producer to producer, the method they use and the quality of the vinegar they intend to produce. The longer it sits, the more rich and intense the flavor, the more thick and viscous the consistency and the higher the price in the market.
The barrels are stored in attics where it would be influenced by external climactic changes. It is believed that the contrasts of heat from summer and cold from winter help the ageing process.
The final product is tested by a panel of judges from the consortium for quality and if it passed the test, it is bottled in legally approved bottles which are reserved exclusively for traditional balsamic vinegars, provided a government-issued registration number and sealed with a D.O.P label. If the vinegar fails the test, it may require further ageing and so is returned to the producer. The producer may return it to the wooden casket and re-submit to the consortium for testing which may be within the next year or after a few years. Or the producer may simply sell it off as a lower-grade “condimento”.
Authentic artisanal D.O.P. traditional balsamic vinegar is not as acidic and vinegary compared to commercial-grade balsamic vinegars. The word “balsamic” was derived from the word “balm” which referred to a soothing tonic (since the ancient Romans believed balsamic vinegar had therapeutic properties).
Guide to buying traditional balsamic vinegar
Look for the EU label “D.O.P.” (“Denominazione di Origine Protetta”)
Look for the word “tradizionale” on the bottle.
Look for a government-issued registration number.
Look at the ingredients list. It should only contain “grape must”. Nothing else.
Look at the bottle shape. Traditional balsamic vinegars from Modena are sold in 100 milliliter bottles with a “sphere and cube” design (designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro) while vinegar from Reggio Emilia are sold in bottles with a tulip design.
Frequently Asked Questions
HOW IS TRADITIONAL BALSAMIC VINEGAR USED?
Traditional balsamic vinegar is usually not used for cooking as this would destroy its rich flavor and nutrients. Depending on the flavor and aroma profile of the vinegar, it may be suited for ice cream, strawberries, cheese (particularly “Parmigiano Reggiano” cheese) or meats (such as lamb, venison), prosciutto and fish. Traditional balsamic vinegar aged in cherry wood caskets for instance, has a slightly sweet flavor and thus makes it suited for sweets and desserts such as ice cream, gelato and strawberries. Juniper vinegar is pungent, thus making it suitable for meats. Mulberry vinegar is fruity making it delicious with fruit cocktails. Traditional balsamic vinegar is of vastly superior quality compared to commercial balsamic vinegars, and thus usually just a few drops or a light drizzle would suffice.
WHY IS TRADITIONAL BALSAMIC VINEGAR SO MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE COMPARED TO OTHER TYPES?
Quality over quantity results in limited supply. Traditional balsamic vinegar is an artisan product, and only a stipulated quantity of high-quality balsamic vinegar is produced annually.
WHAT IS “CONDIMENTO”-GRADE BALSAMIC?
This is balsamic vinegar that was well-produced using traditional methods however it didn’t pass the consortium for a D.O.P. label and instead of returning the vinegar to the wooden casket, it is simply sold off as a lesser-grade “condimento”, commanding a substantially lower price than traditional balsamic vinegar with the D.O.P seal. Condimento vinegars are preferred for salads where olive oil and other ingredients are mixed in (Italians tend to enjoy traditional balsamic vinegar with minimal interference from other ingredients). However, there exist some “condimento”-grade balsamic vinegars that are simply commercially produced products that are of inferior quality.
HOW SHOULD TRADITIONAL BALSAMIC VINEGAR BE STORED?
Store balsamic vinegar in a cool, dry place, away from sunlight.
Like olive oil, balsamic vinegar does not require refrigeration. It could be stored at a temperature of between 4 – 30°C.
Known as “tua dum” ถั่วดำ in Thai, these beans have to be soaked overnight prior to use. Black beans are most commonly used for traditional desserts and it is relatively uncommon to use them in curries or savory dishes.
Popular Thai dishes with black beans:
Black beans with coconut milk (“tua dum kaheng buuad” ถั่วดำแกงบวด).
Glutinous rice (also known as “sticky rice” or “sweet rice”):
Known as “khao niao” ข้าวเหนียว in Thai, glutinous rice comes in two colors (white and black) and two types of sticky rice (long grain sticky rice and short grain sticky rice).
Sticky rice is a staple in northern and northeastern Thai cuisine (such as for instance in the cuisine of Isan, a northeastern region in Thailand) and citizens in these regions consume it almost every day with savory accompaniments. Glutinous rice is traditionally cooked in a traditional Thai glutinous rice steamer basket known as “ri ku phi miphi” หวดไม้ไผ่ in Thai.
Throughout the rest of Thailand however, glutinous rice is popular as a sweet dessert. Popular dishes with white sticky rice include “sticky rice with mangoes” (“khao niao mamuang” ข้าวเหนียวมะม่วง), “sticky rice with durian” (“khao niao thu-rian” ข้าวเหนียวทุเรียน) and “banana leaf sticky rice” (“khao tom mud” ข้าวต้มมัด)
Known as “tuo kheeo” ถั่วเขียว in Thai this is used for popular desserts such as “Thai coconut custard” (“khanom ma gaeng tuo” ขนมหม้อแกงถั่ว) “mung beans with sugar syrup” (“tuo kheeo tong namtaan” ถั่วเขียวต้มน้ำตาล) and “mung beans with coconut milk” (“tuo kheeo thomgkati” ถั่วเขียวต้มกะทิ)
Rice, known as “khao” ข้าว in Thai is a staple in food in Thailand and rice is one of the most important crops in Thailand’s agricultural industry. A number of varieties of rice are cultivated in the country with perhaps Jasmine rice (available in both white and brown) being one of the most popular types. Rice is steamed and consumed with curries or rice is fried with other ingredients to make fried rice
Rice is ground to make rice flour which is used to make dishes such as “chive dumplings” (“khanom kui chai” ขนมกุยช่าย).
SPICES, SEASONINGS, SWEETENERS AND FLAVORINGS
Black pepper is used for certain Thai dishes such as “massaman curry”.
Known as “bi krawan” ใบกระวาน in Thai, this is used for dishes such as “massaman curry”.
Calamansi limes, known as “manaw” มะนาว in Thai are essential for Thai cooking. Although regular limes could be used in place of calamansi, there is a distinct difference in taste between the two, with calamansi being considerably more aromatic and having slightly sweet tones compared to regular lime.
Used for dishes such as “massaman curry”,
Introduced to Thailand by the Portuguese in the 1600s, chilies are known as “phrik” พริก in Thai and if there is one ingredient that represents Thai cuisine, it could be chilies. Chilies are used very extensively in Thai cooking and most rural households grow their own chili plants and almost every Thai table would have a little condiment bowl of fish sauce into which finely sliced vibrant red and green bird’s eye chilies are thrown in.
Bird’s eye chilies (sometimes known as “Thai chilies”), a variety of chili known in Thai as “phrik kee noo” พริกขี้หนู are a staple in Thai kitchens, usually used fresh. These unsuspecting small-sized chilies are considerably hotter than the bigger-sized chilies and they are an essential ingredient for authentic Thai cuisine. It is possible to use other types of chilies as a substitute for the venerated bird’s eye chili, however the outcome would be less than authentic and a Thai food connoisseur may notice the difference.
Dried red chilies, mostly from the larger red varieties, are popular for red curry pastes. For instance, a standard Thai “red curry paste” known as “prig gang khua” พริกแกงคั่ว calls for dried chilies which are pounded together with other ingredients such as lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime zest, garlic and shallots into a fine paste.
Green chilies, (“phrik kee noo kheeyo” พริกขี้หนูสีเขียว) are popular for green curry pastes.
Coconut milk (“kathi” กะทิ) is an essential ingredient in Thai cuisine use not just for savory curries but also for sweet desserts as well. Like other countries that use coconut milk extensively in cooking, in Thailand coconut milk was traditionally extracted fresh every day; freshly grated coconut would be mixed with just enough warm water to soak the grated coconut and the milk would be squeezed out using clean hands. Milk extracted from the “first squeeze” known as “huakathi” หัวกะทิ is used for curries and desserts. After the first squeeze, warm water would be added into the grated coconut and squeezed again. This is the “second squeeze” known as “hangkathi” หางกะทิ and is used as a gravy enhancer for curries.
Coriander leaves / Cilantro:
Known as “pak chee” ผักชี these are often used for garnishing, eaten fresh as part of a salad, or thrown in at the last minute to infuse their flavor and aroma into soups.
Known as “raak pakgchi” รากผักชี these are used for flavoring stocks and soups and for curry pastes such as Thai green curry paste.
Cumin (“yeera” ยี่หร่า ) is usually lightly roasted and ground up into a powder along with other spices to make curry pastes and curry powders for Thai curries. Traditionally a Thai pestle and mortar was used to grind up these spices.
Fermented shrimp paste:
Similar to “belacan” in Malaysian, Indonesian and Bruneian cuisine, “kapi” กะปิ is Thailand’s version of fermented shrimp paste used for making condiments such as “nahm prik kapi” วิธีทำ น้ำพริกกะปิ.
Known as “nam pla” น้ำปลา in Thai, this is one of the most important seasonings in Thai cuisine. These are usually made with small, low-value fish (larger fish that cold command a high price in the market are usually not used to make fish sauce). These small fish are combined with a certain quantity of sea salt, and the mixture is placed in vats which are left to ferment which may last at least a year. After fermentation the “fish water” is scooped off, poured into boiling pots and boiled over charcoal fire. A solution unrefined palm sugar and water is separately brought to a boil and then combined with the simmering “fish water”. Once well mixed, the liquid is poured into terracotta vats and left to cool which could take several days. Afterwards, the liquid is strained to remove any residues and the resulting clear fish sauce is bottle and ready for consumption.
Known as “khaa” ข่า this is a relative of ginger but its flavor tends to be milder and fresher. It is often paired with lemongrass.
Known as “kratheeur” กระเทียม, garlic is extensively used in Thai cooking, added as a flavor enhancer and aromatic for fried dishes and soups.
Known in Thai as “bai khrapao” กระเภา these are used fresh, (the fresher the better) added as an aromatic to stir fries.
The rind of the kaffir lime is ground along with other ingredients to make curry pastes.
Kaffir lime leaves:
Known as “bai makrut” ใบมะกรูด in Thai, these are used fresh and usually used to add a citrusy flavor and aroma to dishes such as “tom yum”. They could be thinly sliced, or torn into pieces or just added whole into a simmering dish. Unless thinly sliced, they are usually not meant to be consumed.
Known as “ta khrai” ตะไคร้ in Thai, lemongrass is one of the most important herbs in Thai cuisine, usually used fresh and often paired with galangal when making certain Thai food such as tom yum soups and Thai red curry pastes. It is also used to make lemongrass tea” (“cha takhrai” ชาตะไคร้).
Several varieties of tamarind are available in Thailand, with their flavors ranging from sweet, to sweet and sour, to sour. Sweet tamarind, known as “makham hwan” มะขามหวาน in Thai generally commands a higher price. It is sold encased within their pods, and is usually not used for cooking. It is consumed as is as a fruit or used to make traditional delicacies such as “tamarind candy” (“makham gao” มะขามแก้ว).
Phetchabun เพชรบูรณ์ in northeastern Thailand is famous for sweet tamarind. In rural Thailand where some houses grow sweet tamarind trees in their backyards, it is common for young children to climb the trees, pluck the pods, break them up and eat the sweet pulpy flesh fresh as a snack.
The more commonly available sour tamarind, known as “makahm” มะขาม are usually used for cooking.
Turmeric, known as “khemin” ขมิ้น in Thai, is held in high regard among Thais as a spice with medicinal properties. It is believed to lower blood sugar, and has traditionally been used in Thai folk medicine to treat skin diseases.
Turmeric is particularly popular in southern Thai cuisine, for dishes such as turmeric soups and “yellow curries”. It tends to be used fresh rather than powdered.
Unrefined palm sugar:
Known as “natal tanod” in Thai น้ำตาลโตนด, this is a natural sweetener produced from the sap of coconut flowers and has been the traditional sweetener for Thai dishes for generations. It is produced in areas such as Samut Songkhram, Ratchaburi, Phetchaburi and Surat Thani to name a few.
In the evening, flowers from palm trees such as the coconut tree and palmyrah tree are cut and a bamboo container is placed underneath to collect the flowing sap. This sap flows very slowly and so the container is left overnight until it fills up. The next morning, this sap is collected. If it is not collected it ferments. The collected sap is boiled down and left to solidify after which it is broken into a crumbly mass of unrefined sugar.
Banana flowers / Banana blossoms:
Known as in “hua plee” หัวปลี Thai, this is the banana blossom from banana trees. When a banana flower is about 7-8 months old, it begins to grow flowers and all of these flowers gradually transform into bananas. One banana flower however, a male flower, does not undergo this transformation, remaining in its original flower state. Instead of letting it go to waste, this flower is plucked and prepared in multiple ways; they are fried (“thadmun hua plee” ทอดมันหัวปลี), made into soups or prepared as a salad (“yum hua plee” ยำหัวปลี).
It is believed that consuming banana blossoms help increase milk production in lactating mothers and so dishes such as “banana blossom soups” are popular for new mothers.
Known as “fag tong” ฟักทอง in Thai, this is used for dishes such as pumpkin curries and desserts.
Pumpkin with coconut milk (“fag tong khaeng buet” ฟักทองแกงบวด)
Fish is known as “pla” ปลา in Thai. Fishing is a substantial industry in Thailand and fresh fish is abundantly available. Miles of coastal waters around Thailand, numerous rivers and lakes within the country, and paddy fields where rice crops and fish co-habit contribute towards offering a plethora of fish varieties for consumption. Some of the popular varieties include:
Snakehead (“pla chon” ปลาช่อน)
Red tilapia (“pla thabthim” ปลาทับทิม)
Nile tilapia (“pla nim” ปลานิล)
Barramundi (“pla kapong” ปลากะพง)
Grouper (“pla gow” ปลาเก๋า)
White pomfret (“
Red snapper (“pla kaphong daeng” ปลากะพงแดง)
White pomfret (“pla chalamed khaw” ปลาจะละเม็ดขาว)
Popular Thai dishes with fresh fish:
Grilled fish (“pla pao” ปลาเผา)
Crispy fried fish with tamarind sauce (“pla rad phrik” ปลาราดพริก)
Fish fritters / fish cakes (“tod man pla” ทอดมันปลา)
Prawns / Shrimp (fresh):
Known as “goong” ต้มยำกุ้ง in Thai, Thailand is a major producer of shrimp. The Penaeus vanamei (Whiteleg Shrimp) and Peneaus monodon (Giant tiger prawn) are some of the most commonly produced variety. In Thailand, fresh prawns are used to make popular Thai dishes such as “tom yum shrimp soup” known as “tom yum goong” ต้มยำกุ้ง in Thai and “tamarind shrimp” known as “goong pad makam” กุ้งผัดมะขาม.
MEAT AND POULTRY
Known as “kai” ไก่ in Thai, chicken is grilled, fried, curried or added into soups and stews.
Popular Thai dishes with chicken:
Grilled chicken (“gai yaang” ไก่ย่าง)
Chicken curry with winter melon (“khaeng gai sai fak kheeo”
Basil chicken (“phad kra phao gai” ผัดกระเพราไก่)
Duck eggs and chicken eggs are commonly consumed in Thailand
Popular Thai dishes with eggs:
Son-in-law eggs (“khai luuk keuy” ไข่ลูกเขย)
FRUITS AND NUTS
Known as “kluaay” กล้วย in Thai, bananas are available all year round in Thailand and a variety of bananas are cultivated and sold in the country.
Known as “malagao” มะละกอ in Thai, these are essentially raw, unripe papayas. Their skins are a rich green hue, the fruit will be very firm and the flesh would be almost white in color. This compares with ripe papayas which tend to be a yellowish-orange hue, the fruit would be relatively soft to the touch and the flesh would be a vibrant orange hue. Green papayas by themselves are mild and bland in flavor so it is mixed with a variety of sauces and seasonings to create an orchestra of flavors.
Known as “mamuang” มะม่วง in Thai, mangoes are a highly popular seasonal fruit, eaten fresh or used to make traditional dishes such as “sticky rice with mangoes” (“khao niao mamuang” ข้าวเหนียวมะม่วง ).
Enjoyed as a snack or dessert, ripe papayas are cut into bit-sized chunks and served with a dash of lime. Green papayas on the other hand are not sweet and are eaten as a side dish.
Known as “sappa rod” สัปปะรด in Thai, these are usually enjoyed fresh for dessert or as a snack.
Known as “baahmee บะหมี่ or mee luueng หมี่เหลือง” these are used for dishes such as “baah mee moo dang” บะหมี่หมูแดง and “khao soi” ข้าวซอย.
Thailand produces a variety of rice noodles, of varying tastes and thicknesses. Rice noodle dishes include “pad thai” ผัดไทย and “kuay teow kua gai” ก๋วยเตี๋ยวคั่วไก่ .
Known as “bada iringu” in Sinhalese බඩ ඉරිඟු, corn has been consumed in Sri Lanka for centuries and was a staple for ancient Sri Lankans before rice became popular. Sri Lankan corn is grown in areas such as Mahiyanganaya. In Sri Lanka, corn is usually consumed boiled until cooked, dipped in a saltwater solution and eaten straightway.
Green gram or mung beans (known as “mung ata” මුං ඇට in Sinhalese) is a staple grain in Sri Lanka prepared in a variety of ways; green gram is mixed with rice and coconut milk is a popular savory dish for breakfast (known as “mung ata kiribath” මුං ඇට කිරි බත්). Another breakfast dish is green gram cooked till soft and dry (yet not mushy and the grains are still intact) and eaten with “lunu miris” ලුණු මිරිස් (click here for our authentic Sri Lankan “lunu miris” recipe) . For lunch, it is prepared as a curry (“mung bean curry”) or as a dhal (such as Jaffna style “mung dhal” which is popular among Tamils), which is similar to the Sinhalese “mung bean curry” with slight differences in ingredient combinations - and eaten together with rice. For festive occasions such as Sinhalese New Year, it is used to prepare traditional sweets such as “mung kavum” මුං කැවුම් a fritter of sweetened mung bean paste, dipped in a rice flour batter and fried.
Finger millet, known in Sinhalese as “kurakkan” කුරක්කන්, in Sinhalese is considered to be a highly nutritious grain. It is usually ground into flour known in Sinhalese as "kurakkan piti" කුරක්කන් පිටි ("kurakkan" කුරක්කන් = "finger millet", "piti" පිටි = "flour) which is then used to prepare food such as “kurakkan roti” (a flatbread of kurakkan flour, rice flour and freshly grated coconut) and kurakkan porridge (“kurakkan kenda” කුරක්කන් කැඳ, “kenda” කැඳ = “porridge”) and traditional sweets such as “halapa” (a pancake of kurakkan flour, rice flour and freshly grated coconut, steamed in a “kenda” leaf).
Locally known as “dhal”, it is usually a must have for a Sri Lankan lunch and sometimes dinner. Usually prepared as a curry such as “miris parippu” මිරිස් පරිප්පු (click here for our “miris parippu” recipe) either plain or with additions such as spinach. Sinhalese usually add coconut milk into their dhal curries while some Tamil dal preparations such as “sambhar” சாம்பார் do not.
It is also enjoyed as a soup (with a number of vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, leaks and French beans). “Vadai” வடை, a dhal-fritter of Tamil origin is also popular.
Rice is the staple food in Sri Lanka with almost all ethnicities consuming a meal of rice at least once a day. Brown rice is accepted to be healthier than white. Various varieties of red rice such as “red Nadu” (“rathu naadu” රතු නාඩු in Sinhalese), and white rice such as samba සම්බා, suuduru samba සූදුරු සම්බා and basmati බාස්මතී are some of the commonly consumed rice varieties in the country.
Most Sri Lankan specialties such as hoppers (known as "aappa" ආප්ප in Sinhalese or "appam" ஆப்பம் in Tamil), string hoppers ("indhi aapa" ඉඳියාප්ප in Sinhalese or "indhi appam" இடியப்பம் in Tamil) and "pittu" පිට්ටු are rice-based. Most Sri Lankan sweets (Sinhalese in particular) are rice-based as well and these are considered to be healthier than sweets made with refined wheat flour.
SPICES, SEASONINGS, SWEETENERS AND FLAVORINGS:
Black mustard seeds:
Black mustard seeds (known as “aba ata” අබ ඇට in Sinhalese and “katuku” கடுகு in Tamil) is commonly used in Sri Lankan cuisine for a cooking technique called “tempering” where the mustard seeds are left to crackle in hot oil then aromatics such as onion, ginger, garlic, curry leaves, green chilies are added and sautéed till brown and fragrant.
Black pepper is the most common variety of pepper available and used in Sri Lankan cuisine among all ethnicities. White pepper is rarely used.
Cardamom (green cardamom):
Green cardamom, a fragrant and flavorful spice grown in Sri Lanka, is very popular in Sri Lankan cuisine with most ethnicities using it extensively in their dishes, particularly when making sweets and desserts such as the Sinhalese "sago porridge" ("sau kenda" සව් කැඳ) and the Malay dessert "watalappan". Black cardamoms are rarely used in Sri Lankan cuisine (if at all). Cardamoms lose their flavor and aroma with age and thus taste best when used fresh.
The Sinhalese and the Tamils have a love affair with chilies and most Sri Lankan (Sinhalese and Tamil in particular, while the Eurasians - known locally as the "Burghers" - not so much) dishes use chilies quite extensively. Sri Lankans in the south of Sri Lanka, known as the "southeners" are particularly fond of tongue-searing Sri Lankan fare and food from the southern region tends to have higher doses of chilies compared to food from other regions of the country. Green chilies are commonly used fresh while red chilies are often used either fresh, or dried (known as "viyali miris" වියළි මිරිස් "viyali" වියළි = dried", "miris" මිරිස් = "chili"), or ground to flakes (known as “kaeli miris” කෑලි මිරිස්) or a fine red chili powder (known as “miris kudu” මිරිස් කුඩු). Whole dried chilies lightly fried until crispy are a popular accompaniment for Sri Lankan rice and curry.
Cinnamon (known as “kurundu” කුරුඳු in Sinhalese) is very extensively used in Sri Lankan cuisine in rice dishes such as yellow rice and in meat dishes such as chicken curry.
Only "Ceylon cinnamon" - as Sri Lankan cinnamon is widely known - is used. Worldwide, the more common and cheaper cousin of cinnamon known as "cassia" (which is often sold mis-labeled as "cinnamon") is unheard of in Sri Lanka and is almost never used (if at all). Ceylon cinnamon has a mild, pleasant fragrance, a very pleasant, mildly sweet flavor and a very delicate bark which flakes very easily. Cassia on the other hand has a stronger smell, a stronger flavor and a very hard bark that would have to be banged with a stone in order to break into pieces. Ceylon cinnamon is believed to be considerably healthier than cassia.
Cloves (known as “karaabu” කරාබු in Sinhalese and “karaambu” கிராம்பு in Tamil) are cultivated in Sri Lanka predominantly in the central region of the island, in areas such as Kandy, Matale and Kegalle.
The spice has been used in Sri Lankan cuisine for centuries - Sri Lankan dishes such as yellow rice (“kaha bath” කහ බත්, “kaha” කහ = “yellow”, “rice” = “bath” බත් ) and some curries call for cloves.
Flying above the tropical island of Sri Lanka, perhaps one of the most striking sights is the coastline dotted with an abundance of leafy coconut palm fronds gently swaying to the fresh sea breeze. It is no wonder then that grated coconut is a staple in Sri Lankan cuisine and Sri Lankans of almost all ethnicities use grated coconut fairly extensively (the Chinese and the Eurasians - locally referred to as "Burghers" - would perhaps be among the ethnicities that use grated coconut to a lesser extent). Freshly grated coconut tastes better and is more nutritious than frozen. A "hiramanaya" හිරමනය is the tool traditionally used to grate the coconut and this tool is still used today.
Similar to the cuisine of the Malays in Malaysia and Indonesia, Kerala cuisine in India, and southern Thai cuisine in Thailand, coconut milk is a staple ingredient in Sri Lankan cuisine (particularly the cuisines of the Sinhalese and the Malays particularly. Sri Lankan Tamils also use coconut milk to a certain extent, perhaps more than Southern Indian Tamils). Most Sri Lankan dishes use either coconut milk or grated coconut.
Two main types of coconut milk are widely used in Sri Lankan cuisine: thick coconut milk and thin coconut milk. Fresh is always better than frozen / UHT / powdered. Although regular cow's milk can be used in place of coconut milk in some dishes, it will not produce an authentic outcome. For instance, popular Sinhalese dishes such as "Young jackfruit curry" or Sinhalese sweets such as "kavum" or Malay desserts such as "watalappan" taste best when coconut milk is used.
With its distinct aroma and flavor, coconut oil is the only oil for authentic Sri Lankan Sinhalese cooking. However, while there is considerable focus on virgin coconut oil worldwide, in Sri Lankan cuisine it is coconut oil extracted from dried coconuts (known as “copra”) that appears to be most widely used. This oil has a more robust aroma and flavor compared to virgin coconut oil which is comparatively delicate and consequently, copra-based coconut oil imparts a distinctively appetizing flavor and aroma to Sri Lankan food that virgin coconut oil may not be able to match. This is particularly the case when enhancing Sri Lankan dishes through the traditional Sri Lankan “tempering” cooking technique (where spices such as black mustard seeds, curry leaves, onion and green chilies are sautéed until browned and aromatic). Here, unlike virgin coconut oil with its delicate flavor and aroma, the more robust copra-based coconut oil is able to withstand the heat involved in browning the aromatics and imparts a stronger flavor and aroma.
Coconut vinegar (known as “pol vinaakiri” පොල් විනාකිරි in Sinhalese, “pol” පොල් = “coconut” and “vinaakiri” විනාකිරි = “vinegar”) is the most popular type of vinegar used for Sri Lankan cooking. Other types of vinegar such as rice vinegar and apple cider vinegar are not used in Sri Lankan cooking.
Dried coriander seeds are usually ground along with other spices to make curry powders, and is rarely used whole in curries. When used whole, dried coriander seeds are usually simmered in water along with other additions such as garlic and ginger and a sweetener such as a local honey to make a tea, most often as a remedy to alleviate colds, flu etc. Sri Lankan Tamils may add a few black peppercorns as well.
Sri Lankan cuisine sees cumin seeds ground along with other spices to make curry powders or used whole to flavor curries.
A staple ingredient among Sri Lankans (Sinhalese and Tamil in particular), fresh curry leaves are added to curries and cooked to impart their flavor and aroma into the curry.
Also known as "five spice powder", curry powder is a must ingredient for most Sri Lankan (Sinhalese and Tamil) dishes. Aromatic and highly flavorful, the quality of a curry powder can make or break a dish. Curry powder is known as "thuna paha" තුන පහ in Sinhalese ("thuna" තුන = "three, "paha" පහ = "five") in reference to the three to five spices used to make a curry powder although some curry powder recipe use more than five spices. Two main types of curry powders are used: raw curry powder and roasted curry powder. Raw curry powder is relatively mild and often used for vegetable dishes while roasted curry powder is often used for meat dishes. Curry powders lose their flavor and aroma with age and is best used quickly.
Sri Lankan Tamils also use curry powders although they are slightly different from the Sinhalese varieties. For instance, the "Jaffna roasted curry powder" includes turmeric root and black pepper, two ingredients that are rarely used in Sri Lankan Sinhalese curry powders.
Fennel seeds are ground to make curry powders or are used whole to lend flavor and aroma to a dish.
Fenugreek seeds are ground to make curry powders or are used whole in curries.
Locally produced honey, specifically bee’s honey (“mee pani” මී පැණි in Sinhalese), coconut honey (“pol pani” පොල් පැණි) and kithul honey (“kithul pani” කිතුල් පැණි) are commonly used as sweeteners in Sri Lankan cuisine. Kithul honey is arguably the more popular type of honey among Sri Lankans. Almost all traditional Sri Lankan sweets and desserts use a locally produced honey or jaggery (an unrefined palm sugar) as a sweetener rather than refined sugar.
Jaggery, known as "hakuru" හකුරු in Sinhalese, is an unrefined form of palm sugar and almost all Sri Lankan sweets and desserts use some form of locally produced jaggery - coconut jaggery (“pol hakuru” පොල් හකුරු), kithul jaggery (“kithul hakuru” කිතුල් හකුරු) and palmyrah jaggery (“thal hakuru” තල් හකුරු). Kitul jaggery is arguably the more popular variety of the trio. This variety of jaggery is made from sap extracted from kithul flowers of the kithul tree.
Coconut jaggery, known as "pol hakuru" පොල් හකුරු ("pol" පොල් = "coconut") is made from sap extracted from coconut flowers of the coconut tree. This sap, known as "mee raa" මී රා, is frothy and white color and is used to either produce coconut honey or left to ferment to produce coconut toddy (known as "raa" රා, a type of mild alcoholic drink, popular in Sri Lanka which can be drunk as is, or distilled into arrack, known as "arrakku" අරක්කු in Sinhalese. If producing coconut honey, the coconut sap or "mee raa" is not left to ferment, and instead it is immediately boiled down, poured into cleaned, empty half coconut shells and left to solidify.
Jaggery is the traditional sweetener in Sri Lankan cuisine, and refined sugar is rarely used. Jaggery is considered to be healthier and considerably more flavorful than refined sugar as jaggery contains micro-nutrients that refined sugar loses during the refining process. Jaggery imparts a distinct flavor to Sri Lankan desserts that refined sugar cannot match. For authentic Sri Lankan sweets, a good quality jaggery is critical.
Pandan leaves / Screw pine leaves:
In Sri Lankan cuisine (particularly Sinhalese and Tamil), pandan leaves are often combined with curry leaves to lend aroma and flavor to curries. While the Malays sometimes use pandan leaves to flavor desserts such as watalappan this is rarely the case with Sinhalese and Tamil sweets and desserts where pandan leaves are rarely used, if at all.
Sri Lanka being a tropical, sunny-all-year island has an abundance of quality sea salt, most of which are produced in the coastal areas of the Sri Lanka such as Puttalam. Most, if not all, Sri Lankan salt is produced naturally through the evaporation of sea water, unlike in some countries such as the United States where salt is produced through industrial processes. As a result, Sri Lankan salt tends to be a good source of natural iodine.
Tamarind (known as “siyambala” සියඹලා in Sinhalese and “puli” புளி in Tamil) is cultivated in Sri Lanka and is commonly used for cooking, most especially among Sri Lankan Tamils.
Apart from the common tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica), Sri Lanka also cultivates a unique variety of tamarind known locally as “gal siyamabala” ගල් සියඹලා (“gal” ගල් = “stone/pebble”, “siyamabala” සියඹලා = “tamarind”). “Gal siyambala” is very popular among the locals, and the “gal siyambala” tree (Dialium ovoideum) is endemic to Sri Lanka. Its fruit are pebble-sized with a pleasant dark brown, velvet exterior. It is easily cracked open using fingers, and the fleshy pulp within is consumed as is.
Turmeric is cultivated in Sri Lanka. Tumeric root and powders are used. A pinch of turmeric powder is used for dishes such as dhal, yellow rice, some vegetable curries and traditional sweets such as “mung kavum”. Most often turmeric is added as a complement to enhance the flavor of the dish as a whole or for coloring purposes and the taste of turmeric by itself could hardly be distinguished. Some curry powders such as Jaffna curry powder uses turmeric root.
Known as “kesel muwa” කෙසෙල් මුව in Sinhalese, banana flower is the flower of the banana tree. It is chopped finely, soaked in salt water to remove any traces of bitterness then sautéed along with spices such as mustard seeds, chili powder, turmeric and curry leaves.
Bitter gourd is a popular vegetable among Sri Lankan Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils. Bitter gourd is believed to be a very medicinal vegetable and folks with diabetes turn to bitter gourd to control their blood sugar levels. It is prepared as a curry, fried or fresh salad.
Jackfruit - young, mature:
Jackfruit is believed to be highly nutritious among Sri Lankans. An old Sri Lankan saying says that "with a jackfruit tree and a coconut tree in your backyard, you would never go hungry". So treasured is the tree and its fruit that a permit is required from Sri Lankan authorities to cut a jackfruit tree (known as a “kos gasa” කොස් ගස in Sinhalese).
Curries made with young jackfruit (known as "polos" පොලොස්) and the more mature jackfruit, (known as "kos" කොස්) are firm favorites in Sri Lanka. Once ripened, the jackfruit emanates a sweet fragrance and is no longer suitable for curries. At this point, it is known as "waraka" වරකා and the yellow flesh is eaten as is without cooking.
Known as “kos ata” කොස් ඇට in Sinhalese, the seeds of the jackfruit are popular as a curry eaten with rice or deep fried with some chili for a spicy snack.
Sri Lankan potatoes are grown in the “up country” regions such as Nuwera Eliya and Badulla.
They are popular as a “white potato curry” (known as “ala hodhi” අල හොදි which is a curry with little or no red chilli powder), or “devilled” (known as “ala thel dhala” අල තෙල් දාලා). It is also added to lentil (“dhal”) soups along with other vegetables such as leeks and French beans.
Known as "rathu luunu" රතු ලූනු in Sinhalese, red onions are the favored onion variety when making Sinhalese dishes as they are believed to pack more flavor and nutrition than the larger onions which are commonly known as "Bombay onions" in Sri Lanka. These unassuming little onions give more "kick" to the heat-craving Sri Lankan tongue whereas "Bombay onions" are more mild and impart a slightly sweet flavor to dishes which results in a less-than-authentic Sri Lankan dish. This is especially important for dishes which call for raw red onions, such as "pol sambola" where the "heat" and the taste (and nutrition) from red onions cannot be matched by regular onions. Moreover the sweet taste from these regular large onions could impart a noticeably un-authentic flavor to the final dish. Click here for Culinary Connoisseur’s authentic and traditional Sri Lankan “pol Sambola” recipe.
Angunakola අගුන කොළ:
Anguna kola අගුන කොළ is a bitter, relatively uncommon, considered-to-be-nutritious leaf, usually prepared as a "sambola".
To reduce the bitterness, the leaves are thinly sliced, as thin as possible, the thinner the better - an opportunity for a display of the cook's knife skills. The leaves should be sliced along the width, never in any other direction as this would increase its bitterness which may end up being extremely unpalatable even for the experienced Sri Lankan palate. Various ingredients are added to prepare the "sambola" and then, it is usually eaten together with rice to minimize the bitter taste. Eating it straight, as would be possible with say a gotukola sambola, is usually not done as the bitterness makes it relatively unappealing to do so.
Commonly available and highly nutritious, gotukola is popular in Sri Lankan cuisine usually eaten raw or semi-cooked, such as "gotukola sambola" or as a "kenda" කැඳ which means “porridge” in Sinhalese.
Fish - fresh:
Sri Lanka, being an island, is surrounded by sea, providing its inhabitants with an abundance of fish. Common types of fresh fish consumed in Sri Lanka include:
Barracudas (known commercially as “jeelawa” ජීලව)
Yellowfin tuna (known commercially as “kelawalla” කෙලවල්ලා)
Goldstripe sardinella (commercially known as “salaya” සාලයා)
Spanish Mackerel (known commercially as “seer” in English or “thora” තෝර in Sinhalese)
Sail fish (known commercially as “thalapath” තලපත්)
Skipjack tuna (known commercially as “balayaa” බලයා)
Flying fish (known commercially as “piyamessa” පියාමැස්සා)
Thresher shark (“kasa moraa” කස මෝරා)
Fish is prepared in several ways - fish curry, fried fish and “devilled” are perhaps the most popular preparations. Steamed fish is not very common however.
Spicy prawn curry is one of the most popular preparations in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is famous for crab, and crab curry is one of the most popular crab preparations.
Known as "umbalakada" උම්බලකඩ in Sinhalese and "masi karuvadu" மாசி கருவடு in Tamil, Maldive fish is tuna fish, sun dried until it hardens to the point it bears resemblance to a solid piece of wood. It is broken down into pieces or flakes and added as a flavor enhancer to vegetable dishes such as beans curry, salads such as bitter gourd salad and relishes such as “pol sambola”.
MEAT AND POULTRY:
With the majority of Sri Lankans being Buddhist or Hindu, meat does not feature heavily in the average Sri Lankan diet.
Chicken is perhaps the most popular type of meat in Sri Lanka, prepared as a curry (chicken curry), roasted, grilled or fried.
Eggs are widely consumed in Sri Lanka, prepared as a Sri Lankan style omelette (which includes a sprinkling of curry leaves), or boiled, or as an egg curry. Most eggs produced and consumed in Sri Lanka are chicken eggs.
Mutton is a common ingredient in biryani, which is a popular rice dish, particularly among the Muslim community in Sri Lanka.
FRUITS AND NUTS:
Bananas are an important fruit in Sri Lanka, extensively grown in commercial plantations as well as in the backyards of a number of households. It is a must-have on the "avurudu" අවුරුදු table. A number of varieties are grown and consumed in Sri Lanka, to name a few: "ambul" ඇඹුල්, "seeni" සීනි, "kolikuttu" කෝලිකුට්ටු, "aanamaalu" ආනමාළු, "ambun" ඇම්බුන්.
Cashew nuts are the most popular type of nut cultivated and consumed in Sri Lanka. They are prepared as a curry (known as “cashew curry” or “kadju curry”, “kadju” කජු = “cashew”) or eaten as a snack lightly roasted plain, or roasted with red chili powder and salt which are popular snacks when entertaining guests. A sprinkling of cashews are added to local delights such as “watalappan” (an egg and coconut milk custard) and “bibikkan” (Sri Lankan coconut cake).
Jackfuit - ripe:
Enjoyed without cooking, some Sri Lankans eat it with a pinch of freshly ground black pepper.
Mangoes, a highly popular fruit in Sri Lanka are seasonal (with mango trees bearing fruit during the “mango season”) and grown throughout the country.
The fruits are enjoyed fresh, as a juice, chutney, jam, fruit salad or curry depending on the mango variety. It is not uncommon for houses with garden space to have a mango tree.
Green mangoes are usually prepared as a curry or eaten fresh with a side relish of red chili powder, salt and sometimes a dash of vinegar - a popular snack for school kids.
Several local varieties of mango are grown throughout Sri Lanka such as “betti amba” බෙටි අඹ, “giraa amba” ගිරා අඹ, “mee amba” මී අඹ, “rata amba” රට අඹ and “kohu amba” කොහු අඹ. Among all of them however, the “Kartha kolomban”, a Jaffna variety mango, reigns supreme as the mango of choice for Sri Lankans, its vibrant orange flesh valued for its rich, luscious sweetness, juiciness and fragrance. It is usually enjoyed plain or sometimes made into a juice.
Papayas are grown extensively in Sri Lanka, with plenty of houses having their own papaya trees as well. Papayas are eaten fresh while papaya juices are also common.
Watermelons (known as “pani komadu” පැණි කොමඩු in Sinhalese and “tapoorsani” தர்பூசணி in Tamil) are enjoyed in Sri Lanka either fresh or as a juice.
A popular fruit in Sri Lanka, the name “wood apple” is a fitting name for the fruit given its exterior shell, which is so tough that it is usually slammed on the floor to break open or cracked using a hammer or knife.
The pulpy flesh inside is scooped out and prepared as a refreshing beverage (known as “divul kiri” දිවුල් කිරි in Sinhalese, “divul” දිවුල් = “woodapple”, “kiri” කිරි = “milk”) or preserved through wood apple chutney and wood apple jam.
Curd is very popular among the Sinhalese and Tamils. It is usually made with buffalo milk which is thick and rich with dairy fat (curd made with cow’s milk is catching up). The buffalo curd is set in un-glazed earthen pots. The southern regions of Sri Lanka such as Matara and Hambatota are famed for producing the country’s best curd.
While the Sinhalese usually consume curd as a dessert with a local variety of honey (together the treat is known as “kiri pani” කිරි පැණි, “kiri” කිරි = “milk”, “pani” පැණි = “honey”) some Tamils consume curd with rice with usually no sweeteners added.
Like their Indian neighbors in the north of Sri Lanka, Sri Lankans are fairly heavy milk drinkers. It is often drunk with their morning cup of tea, a habit taken up from the English who colonized Sri Lanka until 1948. Cow's milk is the most popular type of milk, while goat's milk is also consumed. Buffalo milk is rarely drunk as is and is usually made into curd, a very popular fermented milk product among Sinhalese and Tamils. Milk is rarely used in Sri Lankan Sinhalese cuisine as an ingredient, but it is quite common among Sri Lankan Tamils who use it especially when making sweets.
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.
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).