Welcome to Yi Jun Lo's Pantry! In each installment of this series, a recipe developer will share with us the pantry items essential to their cooking. This month, we're exploring seven staples stocking Jun's Malaysian kitchen.
"Malaysia, Truly Asia." It’s the singsong slogan my country is known for, blared in our travel ads across the world, with scenes of brilliant blue seas and dew-dropped rainforest accompanying the tune. While lush greenery and picture-perfect beaches are what many think of when it comes to the country, I’ve always thought they don’t show off just how "truly Asian" Malaysia is. To me, there’s no better example than our food. It’s where I see, smell, and taste the true extent of our multicultural, multifaceted country—without the need for any slogan-slinging or airbrushed ads.
Geographically, Malaysia is wedged between Thailand and Singapore, two countries with more internationally popular cuisines. While one is likely to find a tom yum and pad Thai outside of Thailand, and Singaporean chicken rice and chile crab is slated to be the new Asian culinary frontier, Malaysian food is still somewhat of a mystery to most who live outside of Southeast Asia. Those not in the know are missing out: The food of my country has centuries of history and rich veins of culture running through it. And when it comes to flavor, it’s packed with just as many tangy, spicy, slurp-able bites as its better-known brethren. (I’d argue it’s above all the rest, though I’m certainly biased.)
At its core, Malaysian food is a confluence of Malay, Chinese, and Indian flavors, pointing to our varied population demographic—the three ethnicities make up over 90 percent of the country. Ingredients like serai, the Malay word for lemongrass, and ulam, the catchall term for local herbs like pennywort and water celery, are native to the region, but due to the influx of Chinese and Indian immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, and an even longer history of European colonialism, Malaysian cuisine has greatly evolved over the centuries. We’ve adopted a procession of curries, spices, noodles, and rice, drawing from India, China, and even the Portuguese and British.
Walk through any town in Malaysia and you might find Malay warungs, or roadside restaurants, serving spicy rendang meat stews and lemang rice stuffed into bamboo tubes cooked over charcoal. Next door might be a few bustling Indian-Muslim restaurants, or mamaks, with roti, biryani, and colorful curries on the menu. Stroll a little farther along the same street and you’ll spot Chinese hawker centers touting Hokkien noodles, Hakka mee with minced pork, Cantonese roast meats, and chicken rice. Though vastly different, these food cultures intertwine on the daily in Malaysia.
Indeed, the punchiest, funkiest, most fun-to-eat flavors of Malaysian food often come from the melding of these disparate cuisines—from Malaysian chicken curries and tempoyak, a fermented durian condiment, to fish-forward laksas and our national dish of nasi lemak, served with fried anchovies, peanuts, crunchy cucumbers, hard-boiled egg, and a generous splash of sambal. Despite—in fact, because of—the myriad influences on Malaysian cuisine, many ingredients are cemented in the pantheon of the Malaysian pantry, and are indispensable to cooking any truly Malaysian meal. Here are seven of my favorite Malaysian ingredients, which I always have stocked up in my fridge and pantry.
1. Nasi Putih (White Rice)
Rice, or nasi putih, is the choice starch in most Malaysian dishes. While jasmine, basmati, and glutinous rice each have their place in Malaysian meals, the local medium-grain white rice is the true workhorse of our cuisine. From nasi ulam, a Malay dish of herbed rice and vegetables, to Indian banana leaf rice and Hainanese chicken rice, the common carb is rice. Heck, even our national dish, nasi lemak, features rice front and center.
2. Cili Padi (Bird’s-Eye Chiles)
Like its neighbors Thailand and Indonesia, Malaysia is also known for its eye-watering, head-tickling, capsaicin-heavy dishes. Bird’s-eye chiles, or cili padi, are notorious for their unsympathetically spicy kick, but when used in moderation, they can add an extra dimension to curries and sauces, and get you craving and salivating for the next mouthful.
3. Belacan (Fermented Shrimp Paste)
Fermented shrimp paste, or belacan, typically dehydrated and packaged as a compact cake, is a key ingredient in many of Malaysia’s slew of piquant dishes. While not spicy on its own, the pungent umami fishiness of belacan pairs perfectly with heat, adding complexity. The most common application is in the spicy, fishy relish sambal belacan. But beyond that, belacan is tossed into fried rice, mixed into laksas, and often tempered into stews and curries to lend savory, funky depth.
4. Serai (Lemongrass)
Lemongrass, or serai, is used liberally in Malaysia and throughout Southeast Asia. We trim the leaves, peel away the outer layers, then bruise or mince the fragrant stalks and throw them whole into curries, stews, and even in refreshing, summery drinks, harnessing that herbaceous perfume.
5. Gula Melaka (Palm Sugar)
Dark and floral, with notes of butterscotch and smoke, palm sugar, or gula melaka, is the choice sweetener in most, if not all, of Malaysia’s desserts. Local classics like cendol, shaved ice with pandan jelly, glutinous rice pastries called ondeh-ondeh, and the pearled tapioca pudding known as sago gula melaka use this sugar to great effect. Palm sugar is one-third of the holy trinity of Malaysian dessert ingredients, which also includes santan and pandan.
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6. Santan (Coconut Milk)
Coconut milk, which we call santan, is the silky, aromatic cream from the flesh of the coconut fruit, and a must in Malaysian snacks and desserts. But in addition to adding richness to our cendols and bite-size steamed cakes known as kuihs, we use santan to temper spicy stews, enrich rendangs, and add body and subtle fragrance to rice.
The leaves of this screw pine shrub, known as pandan, are a classic in Malaysian cooking. Adding a knotted and bruised bunch of pandan leaves to curries will bring herbaceous depth; blending the leaves and extracting their juices makes for grassy green-tinted desserts with a floral touch.