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Malaysian Cuisine – Ingredients Guide

GRAINS AND PULSES:

Glutinous Rice / Sticky Rice:

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”).

Noodles:

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:

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:

Lentils are a staple for Malaysian Indians who prepare a number of dishes such as sambar, dalcha and vadai.

SPICES, SEASONINGS, SWEETENERS AND FLAVORINGS:

Asam Paya:

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”).

Belacan:

Belacan is a slab of fermented and sun-dried shrimp paste. It is a popular flavoring agent for some Malay dishes. “Sambal belacan” for instance, is a popular condiment made with belacan, fresh chilies and lime juice (click here for Culinary Connoisseur’s authentic Malaysian “sambal belacan” recipe).

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.

Click here for more information on belacan and its traditional production process in Malaysia.

Candlenut:

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:

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:

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”.

Fresh red chilies (“cili merah”) for sale at a fresh market in Selangor, Malaysia

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:

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:

Curry leaves are very important for Malaysian Indian dishes, used in a variety of preparations such as lentil curries, meat dishes and “pagoda” பக்கோடா.

Curry Powder:

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.

Galangal:

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.

Lemongrass:

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:

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:

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.

Turmeric Leaves:

These are usually used fresh, added to enhance the flavor of curries such as chicken curry.

VEGETABLES:

Banana Flowers:

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.

LEAFY GREENS:

Bayam:

Several types of bayam are consumed in Malaysia to name a few:

  1. Round green bayam
  2. Long green bayam (known as “bayam panjang”)
  3. Round baby bayam (which is a more tender and delicate version of the roung green bayam)
  4. Long baby bayam (known as “baby bayam panjang”)
  5. 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.

Bok Choy:

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.

Choy Sum:

Known as “Sawi hijau” in Malay, like bok choy, choy sum is usually stir fried, or added to clear soups such as chicken soup.

Cassava Leaves:

Known as “pucuk ubi kayu” in Malay which literally means “cassava shoots”. This tends to be more popular in rural Malaysia and is prepared in various ways such as stir-fry, curry or “kerabu”. Click here for more details on cassava leaves in Malaysian cuisine.

Gotukola (“Pegaga):

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.

Chinese broccoli, known in Malaysia as “Kailan” or “Gailan”.

Water Spinach / Kankung:

Kankung belacan is a popular dish of kankung stir fried with a bit of belacan for flavor.

Pucuk Manis:

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:

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.

Emperor Vegetable:

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.

SEAFOOD:

Anchovies (Dried):

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).

Fish (Fresh):

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”).

Fish (Salted):

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”).

Fish (Pickled):

“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.

Shrimp (Dried):

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.

Squid:

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:

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:

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:

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:

Bananas:

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”).

Dabai Olives:

Found mainly in Sarawak, dabai olives is known among the locals as “black olives”. It is rarely found in other parts of Malaysia. It is soaked in hot water then consumed with salt or soy sauce, or is fried with rice, lending a distinct taste and aroma to the rice unique to Sarawak. Click here for more information on Sarawakian dabai olives, such as the varieties available, its usage in Malaysian cuisine etc.

Dragon Fruit:

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:

Guava, known as “jambu batu” is usually eaten fresh, or juiced.

Kalamansi:

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.

Kedondong:

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.

Papaya:

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:

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.

Pineapple:

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.

Pomelo:

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.

Rambutan:

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.

Rose Apple:

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”.

Wood Apple:

Known as “buah belinggai” in Malaysia, this fruit is quite uncommon and thus infrequently consumed.

DAIRY:

Milk:

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.

MISCELLANEOUS:

Agar-agar:

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.

Artisanal tempeh, wrapped in a 100% natural banana leaf packaging, pictured here for sale at a fresh market in Selangor, Malaysia.

 

Tofu:

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.

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