Foods of Malaysia. . . with artistic license

A number of food writers have been waxing excited over the long lists of dishes in Malaysian fare recently, and so it seemed like a perfect fit for an exploratory menu during the last of the private dinners ahead of the Hel’s Kitchen opening.  

Those lists and the menu we used are posted here.

Here’s a quick summary of Malaysian food: it’s a mix up of cuisines, including (predominantly) Malay, Chinese, and Indian with European influence. It’s also bordered by Thailand and Indonesia. Many ingredients called for in the recipes I tried — like galangal, belacan, kecap manis, and pandan — I’d already acquired for Thai pantry purposes. Plus palm sugar. I’m increasingly convinced that anyone exploring Southeast Asian food needs an endless supply of palm sugar. It tastes sort of like molasses and dark brown sugar, it comes in hard cakes. It appears in savory sauces and desserts and drinks. If you want to see it in action, try out these Onde-Onde dumplings that surround palm sugar shavings in glutinous rice dough. Once boiled, the sugar turns into liquid syrup inside the chewy dough. The recipe is easy to make and the dumplings have three ingredients. . . although, admittedly, none of those three ingredients is an American staple (glutinous rice flour, pandan leaves, and palm sugar). 

The dumplings are a good example of something that struck me about the Malaysian food I tried to recreate – even though it feels very unfamiliar, it’s also very easy to take the basic ideas from a recipe and invent new ways to use them. It’s like an instant expansion of your cooking repertoire by manyfold. Those dumplings are as simple as mixing glutinous rice flour and water, rolling it into a ball, and pressing in a filling. It doesn’t have to be sweet sugar, I could have tucked in some meat or maybe shrimp. Or it could stay sweet with, marzipan or caramel or chocolate covered coconut or chocolate covered raisins or. . . 

Here are some other examples.

There’s Roti Canai, which I’m dubbing croissant naan. It’s naan but with many layers and a flaky outside from a quick pan fry. Here’s a video from Honeysuckle Catering showing one way to make them (I eliminated the sugar and added 2 Tb of sweetened condensed milk after watching this other video from a morning news show with an expert flinging the dough into thin sheets). They can be served to dunk in sauces, curries, stews, honey, maple syrup, Nutella sauce, etc. I made a sauce of coconut milk, red curry paste, peanut butter, pinch of cayenne, a few droplets of water. That worked too. I haven’t trying dunking them in my coffee yet, but you never know.  


There’s also Roti Jala. These have been translated as crepe noodles, but I made mine closer to a crepe funnel cake by cooking the batter up until it was crispy on the outside. Here’s the gist of it (and a recipe here): you take crepe batter, you put it in a squeeze bottle, you squeeze out swirly lines into a hot pan. It cooks quickly and unlike in traditional crepes you don’t have to worry about spreading out a thin even layer that gets flipped without tearing. I added oil to the pan and kept it hot, had thick lines of batter, and made it crispy (very delicious). These nets of crepe are served with curries and stews. I made up a batch and put a thick mushroom sauce (originally intended for pasta) on top, that was also brilliant. Probably butter, lemon, and powdered sugar would be excellent. Or poutine style with cheese curds and gravy.

And here’s a sauce recipe. It began with looking for recipes for Pasembur, which is a salad made of fresh vegetables, little fried bits, and a sticky peanut sauce. Then things got creative. I ended up making a thick paste by pureeing the following in a food processor:

  • Small sweet potato (150 g) peeled and boiled – keep the boiling liquid
  • 3/4 cup cashews (either puree these first to make a paste or use cashew butter)
  • 3 Tb sesame
  • 1/4 cup potato cooking water (plus more if needed)
  • 3 Tb vodka
  • 2 Tb tamarind
  • 1 Tb soy sauce
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric

Then I used that as a base for different sauces in my dishes. I mixed it with a smoky paprika vinaigrette to make a salad dressing, over a salad that could stand up to it (iceberg lettuce or a sturdy romaine, potatoes, tofu, and blanched green beans). I braised mustard greens and mixed it in with that, including the braising liquid, for what you might call a Malaysian-inspired interpretation of creamed spinach. It would have been good with chicken satay, in a sandwich, on chips, as a thickener in soups and curries.  

I’m not going to claim that I recreated authentic Malaysian food here; Hel’s Kitchen tries out a new menu every week – the goal is to be curious and explore different foods and maybe one day we’ll travel to Kuala Lumpur and sample the real deal. Sometimes we can get a little closer when there’s a particularly good resource to follow (like last week’s The Food of Taiwan). But if your goal is to have a starting point for trying out lots and lots of new ideas, Malaysia is definitely one great way to begin. 

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