Glorious Food: Malay-style cooking

Penang Malay food © Adrian Cheah

Coconut milk, chillies and belacan (shrimp paste) are among the main ingredients in Malay cooking. Rice and curry feature consistently while a must-have side accompaniment with every meal is the spicy sambal belacan, a potent concoction of chillies, shrimp paste and lime juice. Other finger licking variations of the sambal dip are sambal belimbing which is made with baby star fruit (belimbing), chillies and grated coconut, and ‘sambal kicap’ which consists of cut chillies in sweet soy sauce, tomatoes, shallots and lime juice.

Malay food stalls are a permanent feature in Malaysian streets, whether urban or rural, offering a varied menu of the savoury, spicy and sweet. The stalls are literally a one-stop, drive-in eatery for the busy office crowd in search of a complete meal. After a spicy meal, a refreshing drink to cool the mouth and throat is ais manis or rose syrup served with shaved ice, with or without milk.

Nasi lemak

nasi lemak © Adrian Cheah

The favourite breakfast dish for all Malaysians. Nasi lemak is rice cooked with coconut milk and served with spicy ikan bilis (anchovies), peanuts, sambal (spicy gravy), sambal prawn or fish, eggs, long beans and cucumbers. Nasi lemak is available either pre-packed in newspaper and banana leaf or 'buffet' style. The latter allows the customer to choose the lauk (dishes) like sambal squid, fried/hard boiled egg, fried fish, vegetables, curry chicken or beef to go with the nasi lemak.

Purists say that nasi lemak ought to be eaten in an authentic setting, nasi lemak should be eaten at a mamak teh tarik stall (wooden pushcart with wooden bench and tables arranged by the roadside, normally under a shady tree) and wash it down with a cup of teh tarik (literally translated to mean “Pull Tea” – or tea that is poured in mid-air from one container to another).

Satay

Penang satay © Adrian Cheah

Some say that this dish has Turkish roots. Be that as it may, satay has been available in Malaysia for many years already and is synonymous with Malay cuisine. In the olden days, satay sellers would carry their wares balanced on a long pole and propped on the shoulder, going from house to house in a village, calling out "satay! satay!" Whenever there was an order, the seller would there and then set up the stove, light the fire, roast the satay, and lay out the food on a small makeshift table for eating!

Satay consists of beef, goat or chicken bite-size pieces marinated in spices, skewered onto thin sticks and grilled over a charcoal stove. The chef ensures thorough cooking of the meat by fanning the fire and turning the sticks of satay over at the right time. Satay is best eaten with its own spicy peanut sauce, ketupat (rice cakes) cucumber and raw onions.

Nasi Tomato

Tomato flavoured rice with servings of your choice: chicken kurma is recommended, although beef, mutton, seafood, egg and vegetables are also available. This rich meal will keep you sated for a long time. Cost depends on dishes selected. Nasi tomato is also commonly served at Malay weddings.

Nasi Minyak

Note that the translation of this dish is not, as expected, oily rice but scented rice. Nasi minyak is rice cooked with butter, ginger, coconut milk, spices, raisins and almonds. Very popular at weddings and official functions. When an elder Malay asks a young person when she or he is going to serve nasi minyak, he really means to ask when they are getting married!

Popular Malay lauk (dishes to go with rice) 

Malay dishes © Adrian Cheah

Malay dishes © Adrian Cheah

  • Bergedel – a minced beef and potato patty deep fried to a golden brown.
  • Sayur pucuk masak lemak – fern fronds cooked in coconut milk and turmeric. Another variety uses the sweet potato leaf.
  • Ikan masak lemak – a mild fish curry cooked in coconut milk and turmeric, which gives the dish its distinct yellow colour.
  • Ayam ros – Forget the modern stalls with the electric stove. The best ayam ros (roasted chicken) is made traditionally. A whole chicken marinated in turmeric and spices is roasted over a wood fire which imparts a smoky flavour to the meat.
  • Parjeri – pienapple or brinjals cooked in a thick and sweet kerisik-flavoured sauce.
  • Gulai masam – skate or mackerel cooked in a sourish stock.
  • Ikan panggang – roasted skate eaten with a hot and sourish dip made with tamarinds, cili padi and onions.
  • Ulam – fresh greens like cucumber slices, raw petai, boiled cashew leaves, boiled long beans, fresh cabbage and boiled papaya leaves go into this Malay style salad. Eaten with sambal belacan.

Appetisers, snacks and kueh

Malay cakes © Adrian Cheah

  • Gado-gado – deep fried prawn fritters and taukua served with sweet peanut sauce. Usually eaten at tea time.
  • Cucuk badak – deep-fried flour pattie with sambal prawn filling.
  • Popiah – the Malay/Mamak variety is different from the Chinese. This variation is sweeter and spicier and not sopping wet like the Chinese kind.
  • Ketupat – ketupat nasi (made with plain rice) and ketupat daun palas (made with glutinous rice). Both varieties are wrapped in palm leaves and then boiled in water until cooked.
  • Lemang – made from glutinous rice and coconut milk, and cooked in a hollowed bamboo. Taste great with rendang or serunding.
  • Kueh bahulu – A fluffy sponge cake made of eggs, flour and sugar. It has a slightly crusty outer layer and is quite similar in taste and texture to the French Madeleines.
  • Kueh keria – Resembles a doughnut. Made from sweet potato which is first deep fried and then soaked in sugar syrup and air dried before eating.
  • Kueh lopis – Glutinous rice patty coloured bright green, coated with grated coconut and served with gula melaka (palm sugar) syrup.
  • Lepat pisang – steamed mashed banana with grated coconut filling.
  • Pulut udang – glutinous rice with sambal prawn filling roasted over a charcoal stove until slightly burnt.
  • Seri muka – glutinous rice topped with rich kaya. The mark of a well made seri muka is the softness of the kaya topping, which should be creamy but not runny.

For some good Malay-style cooking, try these places.

Malay dishes © Adrian Cheah

  • Ani Nasi Campur Gulai Sembilang at Balai Nelayan Jelutong, Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway | T: +6016 458 4229 | 11:30am – 5:00pm, closed on Sundays
  • Cargas Cafe at 978, Main Road, Jalan Bayan Lepas | T: +6016 423 6392 | 9:30am – 4:00pm, closed on Fridays
  • D'Dapor at 7, Lebuh Union, George Town | T: +604 262 9323 | 11:00am – 10:00pm
  • Jawi House Cafe & Gallery at 85 Armenian Street, George Town | T: +604 261 3680 | Opens: 11:00am – 10:00pm, closed on Tuesday
  • Lagenda Café, 43, Lebuh Campbell | T: +604 -261 2293 | 11:00am – 11:00pm
  • Nasi 7 Benua at Koo Boo Cafe, 231 Jalan Tun Dr Awang, Bayan Lepas | T: +6017 439 7617 | 11:30am – 11:00pm, closed on Sundays
  • Nasi Melayu Lidiana at Arked Tanjong Bungah (No. 5), 11200 Tanjung Bungah | T: +6016 415 8686 | 7:00am – 9:00pm, closed on Sundays
  • Nasi Campur Wati at Hai Beng Coffee Shop, 216 Jalan Burma, George Town | 10:30am – 7:00pm
  • Nurul Ikan Bakar Special at Tun Dr. Lim Chong Eu Highway, Gelugor | T: +6013 455 5430 | Monday-Thursday: 5:00pm -1:00am, Friday-Sunday: 5:00pm – 2:00am
  • Padang Brown Medan Selera at Jalan Perak Road and Anson Road, Penang | 7:00pm – 11:30pm
  • Projek Nasi Lemak at 498, Jalan Dato Keramat | T: +6018 989 8018 | 12:00pm – 2:30pm, 6:30pm – 11:00pm, closed on Wednesdays
  • Restoran Ikan Bakar Din at 6735, Jalan Butterworth, Kampung Permatang Manggis, Kepala Batas | 11:00am – 4:00pm, closed on Fridays
  • Restoran Minah at 362 S & T, Sungai Gelugor, Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah | T: +604 658 1234 | 8:00am – 6:00pm, closed on Mondays
  • Restoran Nasi Campur Awet Muda at 795-B, Lorong Sungai Dua, Kampung Dua Bukit, Gelugor | T: +6012 494 7478 | 10:00am – 4:00pm, closed on Sundays
  • Restoran Nasi Padang Minang at International Hotel, 92 Transfer Road | 11:00am – 3:00pm, closed on Mondays
  • Restoran Pen Mutiara at Wisma Nelayan, Pelabuhan LKIM Batu Maung | T: +604 626 4615 | 11:00am – 12:00am
  • Restoran Terapung Pulau Aman at 120, Pulau Aman, 14100 Simpang Ampat | T: +6016 495 5125 | 12:00pm – 3:00pm
  • Sup Hameed at 48, Jalan Penang | T: +604 261 8007 | 11:30am – 5:30pm, closed on Sunday

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Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved
Updated: 5 April 2019


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Lagenda Cafe © Adrian Cheah

The key signature in traditional Malay cuisine is definitely the generous use of local herbs, spices and belacan (shrimp paste). Coconut milk is also added to Malay dishes to enrich them with a creamy finish. In Penang, as well as the northern states of Malaysia, Malay cooking has further integrated Thai flavours. Meats and seafood are usually marinated with a special blend of herbs and spices before being cooked. Vegetables are often stir-fried and some eaten raw always with sambal belacan. I love Malay dishes because of their strong, spicy and aromatic oomph. For an authentic Malay feast, head down to Lagenda Café.

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Nasi lemak © Adrian Cheah

A favourite breakfast dish for most Malaysians is the Nasi Lemak – something which transcends the often-tenuous ethnic boundaries in this multi-racial country, as Malays, Indians and Chinese all love it.

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Roti Jala © Adrian Cheah

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Satay © Adrian Cheah

Satay is an example of how Penang cuisine was greatly influenced by the Arabs who came here to trade from the Middle East. Some say that this dish has Turkish roots. Be that as it may, satay has been available in Malaysia for many years already and is synonymous with Malay cuisine.

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Kueh Bahulu © Adrian Cheah

Kuih Bahulu is a perennial favourite among Malaysians of all ages. It is a light, fluffy sponge cake made of eggs, flour and sugar. It has a slightly crusty outer layer and is quite similar in taste and texture to the French Madeleines. Kuih Bahulu ideal for tea time and goes very well with black coffee. It comes in different shapes and sizes, but the popular options include the goldfish and the button flower designs.

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Lemang (glutinous rice cooked in bamboo)

Lemang © Adrian Cheah

Although lemang is available all year round, it is nonetheless an exceptionally special dish during Hari Raya open house. Although the preparation seems simple enough, cooking lemang requires an open area with plenty of ventilation - which is why people just prefer to buy lemang rather than attempt to make it themselves.

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Ketupat © Adrian Cheah

The most popular types of ketupat found in Malaysia are ketupat nasi (made with plain rice) and ketupat daun palas (made with glutinous rice). Both varieties are wrapped in palm leaves and then boiled in water until cooked. It is said that ketupat daun palas originated from the northern states – Penang, Kedah and Perlis while ketupat nasi is more popular in Perak.

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