Far Eastern cuisine: Fancy a Malaysian?

While we’re all used to popping out for a Chinese, the subtle delights of another Far Eastern cuisine are a mystery to many British foodies. It’s time to change all that, says Alice-Azania Jarvis
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Think back to the last time you had a Chinese. Or a Thai. Or, perhaps, some Japanese. The odds are that it wasn't that long ago. In the last month, perhaps – almost certainly in the last year. In the UK, Far Eastern food has achieved the kind of ubiquity that sees it given a starring role on pub menus and in supermarket ready meals. It has won Michelin stars and spawned thousands of takeaways. Vietnamese and Korean, once novel, have become commonplace in many a city centre. "Pho" no longer sounds like the opening syllable of a half-formed word; it sounds like what it is – a steaming bowl of Vietnamese rice noodles.

But what of Malaysian cuisine? Britain boasts just 70 Malaysian restaurants across the country – a tiny number when sat alongside the 300 Thai outlets in London alone. Satay aside (and, yes, satay is a Malay speciality, though the peanutty sauce's renown has rather surpassed that of its origins), Malaysian food has remained out of the spotlight – so much so that the country's government is dedicating considerable resources towards its promotion abroad. Hence, last month we had a free Malaysia night in Trafalgar Square, Selfridges stocked, for a limited period, traditional Malay ingredients and Rick Stein, long-term cheerleader of far eastern cuisine, stepped out to sing the country's praises.

The thing is, Malaysian food – unlike some of its regional cousins – didn't evolve as an isolated national entity. Just 60 per cent of the country's population is ethnic Malay; 26 per cent is Chinese, and the remaining 14 per cent a mixture of Indian, pan-Asian and indigenous people. The Malay peninsular, so-called "crossroads of Asia" and former hotbed of the spice trade, is as defined by its diversity as it is by its distinctiveness. One of the most important culinary strands is so-called the "nonya" cuisine developed by the Peranakan people. A unique mix of Chinese and Malay ancestry, the Peranakans' cooking blends the two cultures perfectly, using largely Chinese ingredients and techniques – much of the cooking, for instance, is done in a wok – and blending them with the aromatic herbs, spices and coconut milk of Malay traditions.

The result is that very few Malay dishes taste totally alien; almost all prompt some kind of comparison, whether that's to Thai or Chinese or Indian. Yet they retain, quite clearly, their own identity. Wandering the street markets of Terengganu, it's impossible not to be struck by the number of fruits that are completely unrecognisable: the prickly durian, renowned for its stink (best eaten deep fried, though still not to everyone's taste); the conker-like mangosteen with its funny, fleshy cloves; the bulbous jackfruit, part banana part pawpaw; and the bright-red rambutan with its long, spiky hairs. Local snacking habits, too, are quite unique. Stores selling keropok lekor, a kind of spindly fish sausage, line the streets, dishing up their wares (without doubt an acquired taste) boiled or deep-fried. Elsewhere people chomp on serunding, a floss made of curried beef, dried and finely shredded. Teh tarik, a cold layered tea sweetened with condensed milk, is the preferred accompaniment to even the richest of meals.

Be that as it may, it needn't be a struggle to recreate Malay cuisine at home; in fact, many an Asian grocer offers everything needed for a loyal-ish interpretation. Over in Malacca Town, a small, picturesque city in the south of the Malay peninsular and focal point of Peranakan culture, Kenny Chan is something of a celebrity. It's not just his role as head chef at the Majestic Hotel – it's his 500-episode sitcom, The Cook, His Food and the Dishy Nonyas (nonya translating, literally, into "Peranakan women"). Each episode features some domestic drama between Chan and his various companions, every one is resolved with his teaching the women a traditional dish. In a cool, colonial dining room overlooking the Malacca river, he demonstrates three such recipes: a mellow, mushroomy chicken curry (ayam pong the), a fiery okra salad (sambal bendeh), and – a personal favourite – a spicy, oniony shrimp-paste omelette (cincalock omelette). None takes longer than a brief half-hour; all use ingredients readily available in Asian supermarkets. "Everything is very simple," he explains. "We use the fresh tastes and ingredients from our environment and the techniques of our ancestors."

More familiar, perhaps, to British diners (and even easier to recreate) is the array of roti canai on which Malaysians – particularly those watching their wallets – feast. A speciality of so-called "Mamak", or Indian Muslim, tradition, Malaysia's interpretation of the flatbread isn't a million miles away from Indian chapatti. Soft on the inside with a flaky crust, roti batter is fried on a skillet and served both as a side dish and as a meal in itself – breakfast, lunch or dinner. It comes in a variety of forms: roti telhur, stuffed with egg; murtabak, stuffed with minced meat and onions; or – most indulgent of all – roti tissu, a kind of paper-thin pancake spun into a pyramid and fried with generous amounts of salt and sugar.

In the Bornean jungle, isolated villagers put together their own versions using the most basic of cooking methods – a hot pan of oil over a fire – while in Kuala Lumpur, Mamak stalls and diners are open 24 hours a day, pumping out pop music, pulling in teenagers and dishing up hot, fresh-out-the-pan snacks accompanied by dhal and chilli sauce. "This is where I come at the end of the month for a cheap meal before I get paid," explains one punter. "You can eat roti, and you know it will keep you going."

Roti requires little more than flour, milk and water. A rather longer list of ingredients is used in rendang – though no discussion of Malaysian food would be complete without it. Served on special occasions to honour guests, rendang is as close to a national dish as the country gets. A (very) slow-cooked curry of beef, chicken or lamb stewed in coconut milk and spices until almost dry, it is notoriously un-photogenic and famously delicious. In fact – simply in terms of its construction – rendang isn't a million miles away from a Thai curry: a spice paste is combined with the milk and meat for a straightforward, if time-consuming, three-stage recipe.

Given its obvious appeal, it is unclear why Malaysian food has yet to reach the mainstream. There are almost as many Malay-born Brits as there are Chinese (49,886 to 51,078 at the last census). One theory is that few have official, chef-level qualifications – most are simply family-taught cooks, as it were. The restaurant community is attempting to correct this, encouraging would-be restaurateurs to return to their homeland for lessons. Elsewhere, it looks as though things are changing on their own.

In London's Old Street, Mr and Mrs Yeoh recently opened the nonya restaurant Sedap to rave reviews. Some 17 other Malaysian specialists are taking part in the capital's ongoing restaurant festival and, when Trafalgar Square opened its flagstones to the pasar malam (Malay for night market), stalls were so inundated with customers that they sold out within hours. From the end of this week a similar market will be open for six days in Spitalfields, East London. Malaysia, it seems, might be coming in from the cold.

Malay Staples

* Roti canai: a thin bread with a flaky crust, similar to the Indian kerala porotta and traditionally served with curry, dhal, sugar or condensed milk. Comes in several variations: paper-thin tissu, egg-filled telhur, or mince-filled murtabak.

* Rendang: fragrant curry of slow-cooked beef, chicken or lamb cooked in coconut milk and spices for several hours. It can be served dry or wet. Dry rendang keeps for several months.

* Nasi lemak: rice cooked with coconut milk and butter and served with curries.

* Rojak: a fruit salad which is dressed in a sweet, spicy sauce.

* Serunding: literally, a shredded rendang in a form of floss, to be sprinkled over rice or bread.

* Keropok lekor: fish sausage, served boiled or deep-fried, accompanied by chilli sauce or shrimp paste.

* Teh tarik: translating, literally, as "pulled tea", Teh tarik mixes black tea and condensed milk, which are then poured between two containers from a height until the tea is cool, with a clear froth on top.

* Kuih: colourful, bite-sized confectionery often served at breakfast or as a snack. Frequently very sweet, they often feature glutinous rice, sugar and coconut milk and resemble Indian mithai.

* Cendol (dessert): a traditional dessert consisting of pandan-flavoured green strands, red kidney beans, glutinous rice or cream corn, and a mound of shaved ice drenched in a generous amount of sweet coconut milk.

Kenny Chan's ayam pong the

* 1kg chicken cut into bite-sized pieces

* 300g potatoes

* 5-6 pieces of dried mushroom, soaked and drained

* 50g garlic

* 100g shallots

* 50g taucheo (fermented soy bean paste, available in Chinese supermarkets)

* 3tbsp oil

* Sugar and salt to season

Finely chop the garlic and shallots and sauté with the taucheo until fragrant.

Add the chicken and stir.

After a few minutes, add enough water to cover and leave simmering with the mushroom and potato.

When the chicken is cooked, serve with bread or rice.

Sambal Bendeh

10 fingers of okra

6 pieces of toasted belachan (dried shrimp paste, available from Asian supermarkets)

1tbsp onion, sliced

200g vinegar

30g dried shrimp, soaked and diced finely

Red chilli to taste

Sugar and salt to season

Mix the chopped chillies and belachan to form a paste.

Toss the sliced onions with the okra in a bowl. Toss in the belachan mixture, vinegar, sugar and salt until well mixed.

Transfer to your serving dish and garnish with finely blended dried shrimp.

Beef Rendang

For the rempah–rempah (spice paste):

6 x shallots - peeled

Approx inch or 2 of galangal

3 x lemongrass sticks - remember to remove some of the coarse outer leaf

6-8 x cloves (or one head) garlic - peeled

Approx inch or 2 of ginger - peeled

Fresh red chilli to taste

Tamarind pulp & juice about ½ cup (soak in warm water, squeeze, save juice and discard seeds)

Grind together in a food processor until completely smooth.

For the main dish:

1kg braising beef cut into bite-sized chunks and lightly browned

1x coconut milk

Approx 1 cup of desiccated coconut (see Kerisik Step 3)

1 x 2 inch cinnamon stick

6 cloves of garlic

3 star anise

3 cardamom pods

Salt (to taste)

Chef’s tip – the smaller and more seeds you have the hotter the chilli. Choose large red chillies and deseed

Cut the meat into cubes then fry quickly in oil until browned and put to one side.

Dry fry the coconut until golden and toasted. Keep stirring and take it off the heat, or tip it out as soon as it is golden, as it can burn quickly and then becomes bitter. Put to one side.

Mix the meat and spices together in a pot. Add coconut milk and cook. Do not be tempted to add water - the spices will release moisture and will be absorbed by the meat along with the coconut milk. Cook slowly on a low heat until done - typically a couple of hours. Sample your food throughout until it’s to your liking.

Roti Canai

3 cups of plain flour

1 pinch of salt

½ cup of milk

¼ cup of water

Pinch of sugar

Large knob of butter

Peanut oil

Put all the flour in a big bowl.

Pour in the milk and the water a little at a time working your way towards a firm dough.

Add salt and sugar to taste.

Knead the dough continuously until soft and elastic.

Wrap the dough in plastic or aluminium foil and leave overnight.

The following day, remove small portions of dough and roll in flour. Roll each portion into a ball and place on a tray.

Take some butter into the palm of your hands and baste the dough balls. Then leave to rest for 2-3 hours.

Pour some oil over a flat kitchen surface and roll out each dough ball, making them as thin as possible.

Put some oil in a flat frying pan and fry roti “pancake” until a golden crust appears. Flip on the other side and repeat the procedure.

The roti is now ready. Serve immediately!

Roti Tissu

To make 6-8 breads:

300g plain flour

1 egg,

250ml water,

1 tbsp sugar,

1 tsp salt,

50 ml condensed milk,

Margarine to roll

In a large bowl combine the flour, sugar and salt.

Make a well in the middle and add the egg and half the water and mix, add the condensed milk and more water as you go not letting it get to wet and sticky.

Once completely combined it should be fairly dry to the touch.

Leave to rest covered with a damp cloth in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Divide the dough into equal balls, between 6-8, 50g each.

Spread some margarine into your hands and roll each ball to cover. If you fold a piece of greaseproof paper and place the dough ball inside you will find it easier to roll.

Leave to rest for a further 30 minutes in the fridge.

To make the tisu, have a clear clean table, you can either try to make them the Malaysian way by spinning or press out onto the table top and spread out from the centre outwards keeping it even as you go, you need to make it so thin that when you lift it you can see through it.

Once made as thin as possible, cut to fit in a non stick pan and cook till crispy adding a little margarine as you go

The final result should be a thin crispy bread disc you can snap pieces off and enjoy with some (slightly warmed) chocolate sauce and cinnamon or vanilla ice cream.

Teh Tarik

4 tbsp powdered tea (any type)

2 tbsp sugar

4 tbsp condensed milk

Boiling water

Put 4 tbsp of powdered/loose tea into a large glass or cup. Add hot water (exactly after you boil it) and leave the tea to mix for about five minutes.

Sieve and transfer the tea into another glass. Add sugar and milk. Stir well.

Take two big glasses, and start pouring the tea from one glass to the other, ensuring that you pull it from as high as you can.

Stop when you have achieved the desired foamy texture.

All recipes from www.malaysiakitchen.co.uk

For more Malaysian recipes, including beef rendang and roti canai, visit independent.co.uk/foodanddrink