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Cookbook review: 'The Flavors of Malaysia'

A collection of recipes that blends the diversity of Malaysia into a harmonious whole.

By Jonny Seponara-SillsWe Are Never Full / February 7, 2011

Malay fragrant rice that accompanies the lamb peratil (a sort of dry curry) perfectly encapsulates the depth and complexity of Malaysian cooking.

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Though a resident of Singapore, then a part of Malaysia, during the early 1950s, I doubt very much if my father ever had much of an opportunity to experience its astonishing variety of cuisines. Confined mostly to the Changi district (now better known for its international airport) and the company of other expatriate British military families, his diet hardly differed from that of his older brother, Roger, who stayed in England at boarding school throughout the family’s four year sojourn in the east.

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A child of the gastronomic wasteland of post-Word War II rationing, when food was extracted from a can and then boiled to the point of annihilation, my dad is still a picky eater, ever-ready to pull a face if served something strongly flavored. In the broader context of his early years, these culinary proclivities aren’t so surprising. Well into the 1990s (by which time rationing had been over for more than 40 years), I remember visiting my paternal grandparents and noticing that their oven was spotless in spite of being nearly 20 years old, having been used exclusively as extra storage space for canned goods.

Widely read, well-traveled and knowledgeable about many things, gastronomy is one of the few areas of which my dad is entirely ignorant. Exposure, at such a tender age, to such perfumed and harmonious dishes as Singapore and Malaysia offer in abundance could have had a profoundly transformative influence on his tastebuds. Instead, the insipid and farty flavors of boiled beef and cabbage became the signature flavors of his youth.

All of which, to me at least, is a great shame since the laksas, curries, stir-fries, biryanis and sambals – culled from an ethnic and religious make-up as varied as any nation – that he could have tasted, are the signatures of a country that for milennia has been the regional cross-roads and melting-pot.

Susheela Raghavan’s family, on the other hand, embraced this tantalizing concoction, and in her new book, "The Flavors of Malaysia: A Journey Through Time, Tastes and Traditions," she draws together a collection of recipes from across the full range her country’s diversity into a harmonious whole that is as interesting and educational to read as it is jam-packed with deliciousness.

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