A taste of Asia

A taste of Asia

A taste of Asia

Like Malaysia, its cuisine is a melting pot of diverse cultures and flavours – a mix of Malay, Indian, Chinese, Arab, Thai, and colonial influences of the British, Dutch and the Portuguese.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Kuala Lumpur (KL), the capital city. On Jalan Alor in the tourist hub of Bukit Bintang, roadside stalls dish out ethnic Malay specialties like kajang satay, sarawak laksa, mee foo (fried noodles), char kuay teow (fried flat noodles) and bah kut teh (pork bone soup).

Over 600 years ago, Hindu prince Parameswara adopted Islam, founded Melaka and developed a close alliance with Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho. On a visit to Melaka, the admiral encouraged his followers to stay back and marry the locals, which resulted in the first generation of Peranakan or Straits settlers.


When Chinese princess Hang Li Po was betrothed to Mansur Shah, the fourth Sultan of Melaka in 1459 AD, she brought an entourage who later settled in Bukit China. Despite their Chinese origins, these Straits settlers spoke Malay and developed a hybrid cuisine using Chinese ingredients cooked with Malay herbs and spices! Since Peranakan men are called Baba and the ladies Nyonya, the genre was dubbed Baba-Nyonya.

Kuala Lumpur’s (KL) tin-mining industry attracted people from all over. Central Market used to be a dingy dockside wet market, home to opium dens, gambling houses until Chinese kapitan (community leader) Yap Ah Loy developed it in 1888. The British gave it an Art Deco facelift and today, the heritage monument is a vibrant cultural hub with shopping avenues and cuisines dedicated to various communities.

Legend has it that the spicy, tangy Nyonya dish Chicken Curry Kapitan got its name when a Dutch sea captain asked his Indonesian crew what was for dinner and he replied, “Curry, Kapitan!” It’s a great accompaniment to rice, roti jala (Malay lacy pancake) or pulut kunyit (glutinous rice cooked with turmeric). 

Over time, immigrants to KL settled in different communal pockets. Petaling Street became Chinatown; Bukit Bintang transformed into Arab Street; and Brickfields, where mud from the river was used to make bricks, was known as Little India. It’s today dotted with banana-leaf restaurants.

A uniquely Malay tradition is the kopitiam or traditional Chinese coffee shop with quaint decor that exudes old-world charm. It’s a place to catch up on the news over locally brewed coffee, boiled eggs and kaya (coconut jam) toast with butter and kaya, a colonial influence.

The Indian imprint in Malay cuisine is strong. Tamil settlers run banana-leaf restaurants and serve roti canai (like a Kerala paratha, but named after the city of Chennai). Another popular culinary style is the Mamak cuisine or Nasi Kandar, which originated in the 18th century when Muslims from South India migrated to Penang during the British Colonial period.

In the old days, hawkers carried the nasi (rice) and assorted non-veg curries and fries inside wooden baskets on a pole, which was strung over their kandha (Urdu for ‘shoulders’), hence the name. The vendors would settle down every morning on street corners or under shady trees, which eventually paved the way for pop-up restaurants.

One of the most successful brands in this genre is Nasi Kandar Pelita, which started 25 years ago and is named after pelita, the Malay word for oil lamp. Usually open round the clock, the nasi is eaten with ayam goreng (fried chicken), kari ikan (fish curry), fish head curry, curried spleen, cubed beef, fish roe, fried prawns or squid.

The dish laksa is derived from Sanskrit laksha, which means ‘a lot’, and refers to the numerous ingredients that go into making this rich-noodle dish. Murtaba or paratha stuffed with egg and meat, cut into quarters and served with pickled onion, provides a touch of Arabia.

Nasi lemak, the unofficial national meal of Malaysia, is rice cooked in rich, creamy coconut milk flavoured with pandanus leaf, ginger and lemongrass, served with fried peanuts and anchovies, boiled egg, cucumber slices and a dollop of sambal (a spicy paste).

Any Malay meal is incomplete without it. The famous sambal belacan is made of dried, fermented shrimp and bird’s eye chili. Another uniquely Malaysian dish is curry mee – yellow noodles, or bee hoon (vermicelli) served in a spicy gravy made from curry powder, coconut milk and other ingredients like fried tofu, prawns, cuttlefish, shredded chicken, crunchy bean sprouts and mint leaves, with a dollop of sambal.

Malaysia’s tropical weather has endowed it with a variety of exotic fruits such as durian, rambutan, mangosteen, star fruit and dragon fruit. Visit between June and August, and you’ll find the streets lined with stalls selling durian and other exotic fare. Vendors hand out plastic gloves to avoid getting your hands messy. The durian craze is so much, it is consumed in every form – fried durian, durian ice-cream, cakes, crepes and pancakes.

Sweet tooth

Dodol is a gooey, gelatinous sweet made from rice flour, palm sugar and coconut milk, continuously stirred in a large vessel over fire for nearly six hours. In a traditional Malay kampung (settlement), as Hari Raya (Eid-ul-Fitr) approaches, neighbours come together to toil over a communal cauldron.

Another interesting celebration is the Mid-Autumn or Moon Cake Festival, celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, marked by lantern processions. Malaysian Chinese give each other moon cakes with a variety of fillings - lotus paste, red bean, taro, chocolate, coffee, cheese, custard, green tea, pandan or durian.

Those with a sweet tooth will appreciate Malaysia’s wide variety of kuih (cakes) made from glutinous rice flour, tapioca, yam, sweet potato, green pea flour, coconut, palm sugar and pandanus leaves. But Malaysia’s most popular dessert has to be bubur cha cha, a colourful porridge of sweet potato and yam cubes cooked in thick coconut milk, sugar, pandanus leaves and sago pearls.