Zesty Treats on Malaysian Streets

Once mainly fish and rice, today's fare has a mix of flavors, mostly from China and India

MALAYSIAN food includes the best of three worlds: noodles from China, spices from India, and the haunting Malaysian aromatics like lime leaves and lemon grass, ginger and galangal, tamarind and coconut cream.Years ago, the Malaysian diet consisted mostly of fish and rice. Today it is a cuisine predominately spicy, with intriguing flavors. It evolved over many years, influenced mainly by China and India, but also by Portuguese, Dutch, and British spice traders. All brought and left a bit of their cuisine and culture. Today the creativity of the Malaysian chefs goes far beyond the fragrances and flavors that are unique to their native dishes. The flavors are still here, but the art of presentation, garnish, and decoration have been added and the skill of the chefs is on a par with the finest in the world. Although chefs in the fine dining rooms of Malaysia's capital city now prepare expert and beautiful dishes from many classical Western cuisines, Malaysian chefs like Chef Marzuki Md Noor were once a rarity at the international Asian hotels. "When I first started out in the 1970s, Malay chefs employed at the large hotel chains were relegated to the kitchen staff to cook for the local employees," says Mr. Marzuki. "The menus were Western. There was no real Malay kitchen - only a few token dishes like nasi goreng and a curry or two. The local dishes were modified to a point where they couldn't be recognized." Marzuki's patience and creativity paid off when he introduced the first Malaysian buffet lunch at the Petaling Jaya Hilton. "It was once believed that Malay food was too provincial for fine restaurants," he says. "This is now being proved to be wrong." The award-winning chef started cooking as a boy, earning free lessons from village elders by helping out at kendurius, Malaysian feasts, every Saturday. After working in several hotels in Europe, he returned to Kuala Lumpur and earned his diploma in Western cooking at the Institute of Technology, Mara, School of Hotel and Catering Management. Now head chef of the Malaysian kitchen at the Petaling Jaya Hilton, Chef Marzuki spends much of his time exploring new ways to cook and serve native dishes. Included in a group of food editors and writers from the United States attending special sessions of the Sixth Asian Nutrition Conference and the 1991 PORIM International Palm Oil Conference, this reporter explored and sampled the food at top hotels and restaurants, as well as from street vendors. Sampling street foods is one of the easiest and most entertaining ways for a visitor to learn about the local foods. Vendors and hawkers sell an almost infinite variety of snacks that are strictly fresh, as we ll as cheap, clean, and delicious. Up and down the streets all day long and into the night, you'll find people dipping bamboo skewers of satay into peanut sauce, slurping noodles in shrimp broth, sampling spicy fish rolls, fiery curries, chutneys, pickles, duck, and crisp pancakes with fillings of sweet corn. Our group sampled tropical fruit we had never seen before, such as the bright red thorny rambutan; ciku, a small purplish-brown fruit with a sweet, delicate flavor; as well as mangosteen, pomelo, mango, papaya, the exotic star fruit and many others, often made into fresh fruit juices. THE food vendors on the street have more than just snacks. There's everything from breakfast to salads to midnight feasts. Early morning workers pick up nasi lemak, a banana leaf packet of rice cooked with tamarind shrimp and a dash of fiery hot chili sauce or a bowl of the Chinese congee. At the end of the day, a working woman may take home an assortment of curries to go with the rice she will cook for the family supper. Satay, although from Indonesia originally, flourishes on the narrow and busy streets of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. It seems that along nearly every street in South Asia there's a satay-hawker with this succulent meat on bamboo skewers served with a dipping sauce. There is nothing more compelling in the evening when the heat leaves the city and the aroma rises from the hundreds of tiny charcoal fires. Along with great street foods found all over Southeast Asia, another common thread in these countries is noodles. Malaysians are passionate about them and cook them often, with a special, spicy shrimp paste called blachan, made of lemon grass, tumeric, tamarind, and other spices. A rice noodle dish called laksa has fish, shrimp, or chicken in a creamy curry or tart tamarind sauce. Nasi lemak is one of the most popular in an endless variety of Malaysian rice dishes. Once a hearty breakfast in rural areas, the dish lives on in the hearts of many who still consider it the ultimate Malaysian breakfast. City-dwelling Malaysians agree it is a heavy dish, but they easily become nostalgic about it. It is served traditionally with fried anchovy, peanuts, a wedge of egg, and cucumber slices. Purists say the banana leaves add a special, necessary flavor, but this rice cooked with coconut mil k and subtle spices is now found in upscale restaurants, "fluffed up." Indian flatbreads, chapati and naan have become part of the Malaysian diet. At an outdoor vendor by the Battu Caves one early morning we had roti canai, a flat bread with an egg, and we also liked the teh tarik or "pulled tea," which is hot tea, tossed back and forth until frothy. Every Malaysian household has a wok, and home methods at home are simple. The secret is in mastering the blend of spices - then adding the top fragrant notes. Mrs. Natrah Bujang, a young suburban mother of three small children, laughed when I asked if she mixed her spices with mortar and pestle. "No, I don't," she admitted. m lucky that my mother mixes her spices by hand and then gives me packages of rempah. My mother has no use for prepared spices." Rempah is a mixture of roots, herbs, and spices. Pounded into a paste to make the base seasoning for Malaysian and Indonesian curries, it is also used with meat for satays. "I can buy some good spice mixtures, being careful to find ones that are pure - that have no filler added, like tapioca or flour. Many people use them," Mrs. Bujang says. "I use a lot of palm oil in cooking," she says. "My mother does, also, although some people use peanut oil. Today for the mee [fine rice noodles]. I pounded chilies, a bit of garlic, added chopped squid and sayur bayam - like spinach," she explains. "Our basic seasonings are ginger, garlic, palm oil, tamarind. We use all these in stir-fry dishes and curries, too. We also use a lot of kicap - the Malay word for soy sauce," she says, smiling. "It is indispensable. We use it at every meal."

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