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Malaysian cuisine consists of cooking traditions and practices found in Malaysia, and reflects the multi-ethnic makeup of its population.[1] The vast majority of Malaysia's population can roughly be divided among three major ethnic groups: Malays, Chinese and Indians. The remainder consists of the indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak in East Malaysia, the Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia, the Peranakan and Eurasian creole communities, as well as a significant number of foreign workers and expatriates.

As a result of historical migrations, colonisation by foreign powers, and its geographical position within its wider home region, Malaysia's culinary style in the present day is primarily a melange of traditions from its Malay, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Filipino and indigenous Bornean and Orang Asli, with light to heavy influences from Arab, Thai, Portuguese, Dutch and British cuisines, to name a few. This resulted in a symphony of flavours, making Malaysian cuisine highly complex and diverse. The condiments, herbs and spices used in cooking vary.

Because Peninsular Malaysia shares a common history with Singapore, it is common to find versions of the same dish across both sides of the border regardless of the place of origin, such as laksa and chicken rice. The same thing can be said with Malaysian Borneo and Brunei, such as Ambuyat. Also because of their proximity, historic migration and close ethnic and cultural kinship, Malaysia shares culinary ties with Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines,[2] as these nations often share certain dishes, such as satay and rendang.

Because the vast majority of Chinese Malaysians are descendants of immigrants from southern China, Malaysian Chinese cuisine is predominantly based on an eclectic repertoire of dishes with roots from Fujian, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese cuisines.[3] However, despite the vast majority of Indian Malaysians are descendants of immigrants from southern India, Malaysian Indian cuisine has a mixture of north-south Indian and Sri Lankan diversity that can be differentiated by drier or wetter curry dish preparation.[citation needed]

Origins

Malaysian cuisine has developed over the region's history. Although the modern state of Malaysia did not exist until 1963, the cuisine can claim traceable roots as far back as the 1400s during the time of the Malacca Sultanate. Malaysian cuisine is a mixture of various food cultures from around the Malay archipelago, India, China, the Middle East, and several European countries.[4] This diverse culinary culture stems from Malaysia's diverse culture and colonial past.[5] The cuisine was developed as a melange between local and foreign. In the 15th century, the region now known as Malaysia became an important passageway for maritime trade. Passing through Malaysia were Arab traders who brought spices from the Middle East, as well as Portuguese, Dutch, and English colonists and traders who introduced food staples such as peanuts, pineapples, avocado, tomato, squash and pumpkin.[4] During the 19th century during the period of British colonial rule, many Indian and Chinese laborers were brought to Malaysia, contributing to the diversity of tastes in Malaysian cuisine.[6][4]

Being a multicultural country, Malaysians have over the years adopted each other's dishes to suit the taste buds of their own culture. For instance, Malaysians of Chinese descent have adapted the Indian curry, and made it more dilute and less spicy to suit their taste. Chinese noodles have been crossed with Indian and Malay tastes and thus Malay fried noodles and Indian fried noodles were born. Malaysians have also adapted famous dishes from neighbouring countries, or those with strong cultural and religious ties, and in the absence of an established community from said countries have made it completely their own, a notable example being tom yam, one of Thailand's most well-known dishes.

After migrating south of the border, Thai tom yam takes on the visual characteristics of a Malaysian Assam gravy with a flavour profile of sweet, sour and spicy. It is thickened with pounded chile paste which also turns it a vivid orange-red. Tamarind is often used instead of lime juice as its souring agent, and dried instead of fresh chillies are used to provide a fiery kick. Malay-style tom yam soup tends to be heavily seafood-based, whereas in Chinese-style eateries the broth's spiciness is toned down and usually serves as a base for noodle soup.

Across the sea from Peninsular Malaysia, on Borneo island, lie the states of Sabah and Sarawak. Traditional lifestyles and limited roads still predominate outside of the major cities, especially in Sarawak, where rivers are the only major highways for much of the inland population. The jungles of Borneo are teeming with wild plants, fungi, and fruits, and its sweeping coastlines and many large rivers provide an abundance of seafood and freshwater fish fit for the dinner table. A rich variety of traditional food has been developed by Borneo's many tribes and indigenous groups over the centuries; much of it is healthy food, consisting of foraged (now increasingly cultivated due to modernisation) and fermented foods. Because much of the region was once under the Brunei Sultanate's thalassocracy, the Bruneian Malay people have left a lasting culinary influence, particularly on the cookery of the coastal Muslim communities of East Malaysia. According to the source paper written in 2006, the Malaysian food industrial sector accounted for about 14% of the total manufacturing energy consumption.[7]

Historically speaking, fresh produce is often scarce for hunter-gatherer nomadic tribes around the world, thus it is usually preserved out of necessity for important events and festivals. The tribal peoples of Sabah and Sarawak are no different; most of them have developed techniques for curing, fermenting or preserving their supplies of fresh meat, fruit and vegetables. For example, during festive occasions the Murut people of Sabah would serve tamba (jeruk in the Malay language) made from fresh raw wild boar or river fish, which is stuffed in bamboo tubes along with rice and salt and left to ferment for a few weeks, a technique which is also practised by the Lun Bawang people across the border in Sarawak. Fermented products are also frequently used as a cooking ingredient besides eaten on their own. Dayak households in Sarawak may saute their version of fermented meat with garlic and tapioca leaves (either fresh or pickled), and fermented tempoyak is a popular cooking seasoning.[citation needed]

The production and consumption of traditional liquor play an important cultural role for the non-Muslim peoples of East Malaysia. Alcoholic drinks made from rice is the most common form, as well as the widely available. In Sabah, the Penampang Kadazan lihing is perhaps the most well known. Yet due to the historical lack of a standardised Kadazandusun language used and understood statewide, ethnic groups from other districts in Sabah have very different names for similar fermented rice-based drinks: hiing (certain Dusun languages), kinomol, segantang, kinarung, kinopi, linahas, and even tapai[8][9] To add to the confusion, tapai proper as understood by most Peninsular Malaysians is a fermented sweet and sour rice paste served as a snack or dessert, although further fermentation of the tapai to produce alcoholic drinks is possible. The preferred party drink of the Murut, made from the tuber of the cassava or tapioca plant, is also called tapai.[9] The Iban of Sarawak call their rice wine tuak, which must not be confused with Sabahan talak, which is a hard liquor made from rice. To the native peoples of Sarawak, tuak may also refer to any alcoholic drink made from fermenting any carbohydrate-rich substance besides rice.[10]

Staples

Rice

A Malaysian nasi lemak traditionally wrapped in banana leaves
A Malaysian nasi lemak traditionally wrapped in banana leaves

Rice (Malay: nasi) is the most important staple food in Malaysia. According to Indonesian-born food and cookery writer Sri Owen, there is some evidence for rice cultivation found in the state of Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo dated 2300 BC, and about 900 years of history for the state of Kelantan in West Malaysia. Today Malaysia produces about seventy percent of the amount of rice it needs to support itself and the rest is imported.[11] This is a matter of policy as the government believes that national resources can be used more profitably instead of attempting to achieve self-sufficiency with rice production; the prevalent attitude is that revenue generated from its industries enables the country to import up to half the rice it needs.[12] Nevertheless, the government is fully committed and involved in planning, allocating resources and managing subsidies for the rice farming industry. The state of Kedah is considered the "rice bowl"[13][14] (Malay: jelapang padi) of the country, accounting for about half of Malaysia's total production of rice.

Plain steamed white rice, to be served with side dishes of meat or vegetables, is typically prepared with an electric rice cooker at home. Some households and food establishments prefer to cook rice on a stove top with the absorption method or the rapid-boil method. Compressed rice, called nasi himpit, is another method of preparing and cooking rice: the rice is wrapped with fronds or leaves and compressed into the form of a cylinder, which is then cooked by boiling. The rice would compress and merge during the cooking process. Compressed rice is usually eaten cold with some sort of gravy, although it may be served warm in a broth or soup. A notable variant of compressed rice prepared by the Bugis community is burasak: rice is precooked with coconut milk before it is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed until fully cooked.

Besides the ubiquitous white rice, there are different types of locally grown and imported rice available in the market, and each type has a specific cooking method to bring out optimal results.[15] Glutinous rice (Malay: pulut) is one example: because of its low amylose and high amylopectin content which results in a sticky texture after cooking, glutinous rice is prepared with different measurements and techniques and is not suitably interchangeable with regular rice. It is typically used for making snacks and desserts, but glutinous rice is also prepared as a savoury staple by indigenous peoples like the Orang Asli as well as the Dayak people of Borneo. Lemang is glutinous rice roasted in a hollowed bamboo tube, and is prepared for festive occasions like Ari Gawai, Hari Raya Aidilfitri, and Hari Raya Aidiladha.[16]

A popular dish based on rice in Malaysia is nasi lemak, rice steamed with coconut milk and pandan leaves to give it a rich fragrance. Of Malay origin, nasi lemak is very popular and frequently referred to as the national dish.[17] It is customarily served with ikan bilis or fried anchovies, peanuts, sliced cucumber, hard-boiled eggs and sambal. Although it is often considered a breakfast dish, it is served in a variety of ways and commonly eaten at any time of day due to its versatility. For a more substantial meal, nasi lemak may be served with fried chicken, curries, or a spicy meat stew called rendang.

Congee is a type of rice porridge or gruel popular among Malaysia's ethnic communities. It is eaten primarily as a breakfast food or late supper. It is also considered particularly suitable for the sick as a mild, easily digestible food.[18] Congee is called bubur in Malay; 粥 written in Chinese, pronounced as zhou in Mandarin Chinese and juk in Cantonese; and kanji (கஞ்சி) in Tamil. It may be served plain with little embellishment, or cooked with ingredients like fish slices, seafood, chicken, beef, pork, vegetables, and spices. The importance and popularity of congee in the Malaysian diet is such that bubur ayam or chicken congee is a permanent fixture on the menu of Malaysian McDonald's restaurants.[19]

Noodles

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Noodles are another popular staple, particularly in Malaysian Chinese cuisine, but used by other groups as well. Noodles such as bi hoon (米粉, Hokkien: bí-hún, Malay: bihun; rice vermicelli), kuay teow (粿條, Hokkien: kóe-tiâu) or ho fun (河粉, Cantonese: ho4 fan2; flat rice noodles), mee (麵 or 面, Hokkien: mī, Malay: mi; yellow noodles), mee suah (麵線 or 面线, Hokkien: mī-sòaⁿ; wheat vermicelli), yee meen (伊麵 or 伊面, Cantonese: ji1 min6; golden wheat noodles), dongfen (冬粉, Hokkien: tang-hún, Cantonese: dung1 fan2; cellophane noodles), Lao Shu Fen (老鼠粉, Cantonese: lou5 syu2 fan2; silver needle noodles), and others provide an alternative source of carbohydrate to a serving of rice that accompanies every meal. Stir-fried noodle dishes (Malay: mee goreng) are ubiquitous throughout Malaysia's cities, towns and villages, with numerous localised variants prepared by various ethnic communities according to their culinary traditions and preferences. MCFC OK

Bread

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Roti canai
Roti Telur and Teh Tarik
Roti Telur and Teh Tarik

Malaysia does not produce wheat, and all supplies are imported from wheat-producing countries. Nevertheless, Western-style white bread and Indian breads made with wheat flour like roti canai are fairly common foods ir is sandwiched along with a layer of kaya between slices of untoasted white bread.

Traditional wheat-based pleated steamed bao or pao (Chinese : 包子) is a Chinese staple which has become tightly woven into Malaysia's gastronomic fabric. Pao are found in restaurants doing brunch dim sum trade, as well as specialist Chinese kopitiam (coffee shops). Sweet fillings may include tausa, lotus seed paste, kaya, pandan, ground peanuts, and custard; savoury fillings may consist of stewed char siu (Chinese : 叉燒), chicken or pork. Malay versions (pau) may be found in night markets (pasar malam) and they are always halal, with fillings of curried potato, chicken or beef. Some variants have a quail egg in the middle in addition to the curry.

Oven-baked buns are also available in specialist bakeries, kopitiam, and restaurants. One local speciality in particular - a bun with a buttery core and topped with a crispy and fragrant coffee pastry crust - has achieved iconic status in Malaysia, and franchises like Rotiboy and Pappa Roti which specialise in these coffee buns have successfully expanded abroad to multiple nations and spawned hundreds of outlets. However, the popular buns that remain a favourite among Malaysians are the buns that are filled with a sweet shredded coconut filling, kaya (coconut jam), pandan kaya (screwpine with coconut jam), sweet corn, chocolate, red bean paste and butter buns.

Other staples

Like Peninsular Malaysia, rice is the undisputed staple food for the majority of the people of Sabah and Sarawak. Rice is central to Kadazandusun culture, and its paramount importance is reflected in the annual Kaamatan festival, as well as traditional beliefs and customs since antiquity which revolve around the veneration of rice spirits. But for other ethnic communities throughout Sabah and Sarawak, cassava or tapioca tubers as well as sago starch are also popular staples. The tapioca tuber is just as important as rice to the Bajau people of Sabah, while the Dayak peoples of Sarawak make extensive use of both the tuber and leaves of the tapioca plant in their cooking. Sago starch is derived from the pith extracted from the sago palm, and is the staple food for the Melanau and the Penan peoples of Sarawak.[20]

Sago starch is prepared as a gooey and sticky paste by the Bisaya and Kedayan communities called ambuyat, and is called linut by the Melanau. It is eaten by rolling the paste around the prongs of a bamboo fork, and dipping it into soup, sambal, or other varieties of gravies and dipping sauces. Aside from being the source for sago pith, the sago palm is a source of another delicacy for the indigenous peoples of Borneo: the sago grub. Called butod in Sabah and ulat mulong in Sarawak, sago grubs are typically eaten raw but also served deep fried, roasted or sauteed.[21]

Protein

Meat

Tanks of fresh seafood at a seafood restaurant in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
Tanks of fresh seafood at a seafood restaurant in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

Malaysian poultry is handled according to halal standards to conform with the country's dominant and official religion, Islam.[22] Imported poultry is available at major hypermarkets, supermarkets and speciality stores especially in affluent areas where a significant expatriate community can be found.

Fish, both freshwater and saltwater, features prominently in the Malaysian diet. Most local fish is purchased soon after it is caught, while frozen fish is generally imported. Such fish, namely salmon and cod, are well received on the Malaysian table but are not found in Malaysian waters.[23] Many types of seafood are consumed in Malaysia, including shrimp or prawn, crab, squid, cuttlefish, clams, cockles, snails, sea cucumber and octopus. In general, members of all ethnic communities enjoy seafood, which is considered halal by Malaysian Muslims (according to Shafi’i fiqh), though some species of crabs are not considered halal as they can live on both land and sea. Sea cucumbers are considered halal.[24]

Beef is common in the Malaysian diet, though it is notable that the consumption of beef is proscribed by some followers of Hinduism and certain Chinese folk religious sects. Beef can be commonly found cooked in curries, stews, roasted, or eaten with noodles. Malays generally eat beef that is halal. Australian beef prepared under the Government Supervised Muslim Slaughter System (AGSMS) is imported into Malaysia and is halal.[25]

Malaysian Malays, who form about half of Malaysia's population, are Muslim and therefore do not consume pork since Islam forbids it. This does not prohibit others from producing and consuming pork products, and thus pork can be found in wet markets, supermarkets and hypermarkets, usually displayed with a non-halal disclaimer. Pork is consumed by the Chinese communities, Indians, the Iban, the Kadazan, Murut, Lun Bawang/Lundayeh, the Orang Asli, and non-muslim expatriates.[26]

In Malaysia, the term "mutton" refers to goat meat; lamb, or the meat of a young sheep, is always imported from countries like Australia and New Zealand. In the past mutton was primarily associated with Malaysian Indian cuisine, and was not as widely eaten due to health concerns as well as its perceived gamey flavour. Today, dishes like whole spit roast of mutton, mutton biryani and mutton soup are now a common sight at banquets and events. Today, the demand for mutton during the fasting month and Hari Raya period has now far exceeded that for Deepavali and Christmas combined.[27]

Fruit and vegetables

Vegetables

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Kangkung belacan
Kangkung belacan

Locally-grown produce is available year-round as Malaysia is a tropical country and does not have four seasons. During rainy seasons, vegetable yields may decrease (which may result in an increase in market price), but rarely if ever stop altogether. Imported produce has made inroads into the market in recent years, either to supplement local demand for essential ingredients like garlic and potatoes, or to supply produce which does not grow well in Malaysia's climate and soil conditions. A few regions in Malaysia, like Cameron Highlands and the foothills adjacent to Mount Kinabalu provide the appropriate mean temperatures and soil conditions for the cultivation of temperate produce like tea.

Malaysian-grown greens, tubers and vegetables commonly found nationwide include but are not limited to amaranth (bayam), bean sprouts (taugeh), brinjals (terung), bitter gourd (peria), bok choi (sawi), cabbage (kobis), choy sum, cucumber (timun), Chinese celery (daun sup), coriander (daun ketumbar), ginger (halia), green beans, water spinach (kangkung), ladies' fingers (bendi), leeks, lettuce, lotus root, maize (jagung), napa cabbage (kobis cina), sweet potatoes (ubi keledek), spring onions (daun bawang), katuk (cekur manis or sayur manis), pumpkin (labu), shiitake mushrooms (cendawan), stink beans (petai), tapioca (ubi kayu), taro or yam (ubi keladi), tomatoes, yambean or turnip, turmeric (kunyit), and yardlong beans (kacang panjang), carrot (lobak merah), and scallions (daun bawang).

In some areas in Malaysia local produce is grown on a small scale, and many rural communities like the Peninsular Orang Asli and certain tribal peoples of Sarawak forage wild edible ferns or vegetables to supplement their diet. Vegetable fern, better known as pucuk paku pakis, is perhaps the most widely available fern and is found in eateries and restaurants throughout the nation. Stenochlaena palustris is another type of wild fern popularly used for food. Endemic to East Malaysia, it is called midin in Sarawak and is prized for its fiddleheads by locals and visitors. It is known by the native peoples of Sabah as lemiding, lembiding or lombiding, where both the leaves and the fiddleheads of the plant are eaten. The young shoots of plants like bamboo and coconut are popularly harvested as food by communities outside urban areas.

A popular way to cook leafy vegetables like kangkung and sweet potato leaves is stir frying with a pungent sauce made from belacan (shrimp paste) and hot chilli peppers. Other vegetables popularly cooked this way include bean pods and fiddlehead ferns like paku pakis and midin. Vegetables like carrots, cucumbers, onions and yardlong beans are used to make a localised variety of pickle called acar. Vegetables and herbs are also popularly served undressed and often raw in some rural indigenous communities as ulam. An ulam spread may include items such as banana blossoms, cucumber, winged beans, pegaga leaves, petai, and yardlong beans, typically eaten with a pungent dipping sauce like sambal belacan.

Vegetarianism in Malaysia

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A typical serve of banana leaf rice.
A typical serve of banana leaf rice.

As of 2012, about one million people within Malaysia's total population were practising vegetarians, and vegetarian food is much easier to obtain when dining out today. However, because of the heavy emphasis on meat and seafood by traditional Malay cuisine as well as the common inclusion of shrimp paste and other seafood products in many local dishes, diners may find it difficult to negotiate their way around menus in search of vegetarian or vegan food in Malay cuisine restaurants.

Restaurants that display signs with the words sayur sayuran, vegetarian or the Chinese characters or will offer a decent variety of food for diners who abstain from meat. There are many of them across the country, particularly in urban areas. These restaurants serve only vegetarian/vegan food and absolutely no meat or animal products is used in their cooking. Even restaurants that specialise in meat and seafood will make vegetarian dishes upon request. Some meat-serving restaurants have a vegetarian section in their menu.

Over 80% of Malaysian Chinese identify themselves as Buddhists, and some follow a vegetarian diet at least some of the time. Some vegetarian Chinese cuisine restaurants offer an exclusively vegetarian menu (Chinese: 素食, 斎) featuring Chinese dishes which resemble meat dishes in look and even taste like "roast pork", fried "fish" with "skin" and "bones", and "chicken drumsticks" complete with a "bone". These restaurants are run by proprietors who abstain from consumption of animal products and strong-tasting vegetables and spices as way of life for religious reasons, and are essentially vegan. The meat analogues used are often locally produced as opposed to imported, and are made solely from ingredients like soy, gluten, mushrooms and tuber vegetables.

Organic vegetarianism has also slowly become a trendy modern vegetarian diet nowadays. Most of the organic vegetarian menu will include superfood ingredients, for example: organic quinoa, millet, chia seeds, flax seeds, avocado, egg, tofu, pine nuts, blueberry, almond milk, etc. A lot of organic fruit and vegetables are locally produced in recent years. There is even an organic version of vegetarian sambal balacan, Nasi lemak chili paste, etc.

Buddhist vegetarian restaurants are likely to be found in areas with a high concentration of Chinese and tend to be especially busy on certain festive days where many Buddhists adopt a strict vegetarian diet for at least a day. In Buddhism, some people who are full-time vegetarians are observing the Buddhist Five Precepts. They are vegetarian because they are observing the precept to abstain from killing or harming living beings intentionally. Another precept is to abstain from taking drugs or intoxicants for enjoyment, hence, alcohol is not used in most pure vegetarian shops. (This is different, however, when ordering vegetarian food off the menu of restaurants that serve meat dishes.)

Vegetarianism has a long and revered tradition in Indian culture. Some Malaysian Indians are born-and-bred vegetarians who often hail from a family line with generations of vegetarians. Some others practice vegetarianism on auspicious festivals such as Thai Ponggal, Hindu New Year, Deepavali, Full Moon Prayers, and on certain days of the week as a symbol of respect when they visit holy temples. Abstaining from meat before fulfilling a vow is a common practice to bring the body to a neutral and focused state, physically and mentally, during Thaipusam and other holy prayer events. Dishes, of South and North Indian types, are based on the ancient concept of Ayurveda and are known to include arusuvai or six types of tastes. Some Indian vegetarian dishes may incorporate dairy products and honey (lacto vegetarian). Some others are heavily based on lavish coconut milk and nuts. There are many Indian eateries and restaurants in Malaysia that offer a pure vegetarian menu. South Indian restaurants, in particular, offer no shortage of meatless options such as Thali meal, also known as banana leaf rice, which is often vegetarian by default, and a wide array of sweets, snacks and light meals such as kesari, tose, idli, uppuma, vade, aviyal, idiyappam and paniyaram.

Fruit

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Malaysia's tropical climate allows for fruit to be grown all year round. A huge variety of common and obscure fruits, either locally grown or imported are available throughout the country. While the vast majority of fruits grown in Malaysia naturally thrive in the tropics, a few areas in the country like Cameron Highlands or Kundasang in Sabah have a different climate zone which enables the cultivation of temperate fruits like strawberries. Fruit is commonly served after a meal as dessert, and fruit juices are highly sought after as drinks of choice in a climate that is hot and humid all year round. Pickled fruits or jeruk are popular and widely available, whether sold from street stalls or specialist shops. Many localities are named after native fruits, most notably Alor Setar (buah setar) and Malacca (buah melaka).

Penang rojak

Fruits are used to make a popular salad dish called rojak (Chinese: 水果囉喏). It consists of pieces of fruit and vegetable bound with a viscous dark sauce made from shrimp paste, sugar, chilli, and lime juice. The Penang version is particularly popular and well regarded. The dish is usually topped with a generous sprinkling of toasted ground peanuts.

Notable fruits which are cultivated in Malaysia include:

Durians in rack sold in Kuala Lumpur
Durians in rack sold in Kuala Lumpur

Ingredients

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Sambal belacan, made with mixed toasted belachan, ground chilli, kaffir leaves, sugar and water
Sambal belacan, made with mixed toasted belachan, ground chilli, kaffir leaves, sugar and water

Chilli peppers are indispensable in Malaysian kitchens, and both fresh and dried forms are used. Chillies come in several sizes, shapes and colours. As a general rule, two type of chilli cultivars are the most commonly available: the bird's eye chilli (cili padi), which although small in size are extremely pungent and very hot; and longer varieties, which tend to be much milder. Green chillies are more peppery in taste, while red chillies, green chillies which have been left to ripen, have a slightly sweeter heat. If a milder flavour is preferred, the seeds and membranes are removed from the chilli pods before they are cut, or the chillies are left whole and removed prior to serving. Some common uses include grinding the chillies into a paste or sambal; chopping fresh chillies as a condiment or garnish; and pickling whole or cut chillies.

Belacan is essential to Malaysian cooking. It is a type of shrimp paste which is pressed into a block and sun-dried. In its raw form it has a pungent smell. Once cooked, the aroma and flavour mellow and contribute a depth of flavour to the dish.[31] To prepare belacan for use, one typically wraps a small amount in foil, which is then roasted over a flame or placed into a preheated oven. Belacan is most commonly pounded or blended with local chilli peppers, shallots and lime juice to make the most popular and ubiquitous relish in Malaysia, sambal belacan. Belacan is also crumbled into a ground spice paste called rempah, which usually includes garlic, ginger, onions or shallots, and fresh or dried chilli peppers. A rempah paste is similar in form and function to an Indian wet masala paste or Thai curry paste, and is often browned and caramelised (Malay: tumis) to mellow the raw flavours of its component ingredients and produce a harmonised finish.

The coconut (Malay: kelapa) is another quintessential feature of Malaysian cuisine, and virtually all parts of the plant are used for culinary purposes. The white fleshy part of the coconut endosperm may be grated, shredded and used as is; dried to make desiccated coconut; or toasted until dark brown and ground to make kerisik. Grated coconut flesh is also squeezed to make coconut milk, which is used extensively in savoury dishes and desserts throughout the country. Coconut oil is used for cooking and cosmetic purposes, and may be either obtained by processing copra (dried coconut flesh) or extracted from fresh coconuts as virgin coconut oil. Coconut water, the clear liquid found inside the cavity of each coconut, is a popular cooler in Malaysia's hot and humid climate. Gula melaka is unrefined palm sugar produced from the sap of the coconut flower. It is the most traditional sweetener in Malaysian cooking and imbues a rich caramel-like flavour with a hint of coconut. Coconut fronds are traditionally used to wrap food, hollowed out coconut husks and shells may be used as a source of charcoal fuel for barbecued meats and traditional pastry making, and even the apical bud or growing tip of the coconut palm is a popular delicacy served in rural communities and specialty restaurants.

Soy sauce of different varieties is another important ingredient. Light soy sauce contributes its pleasantly salty flavour to a variety of stir-fries, marinades and steamed dishes. In some hawker establishments, freshly sliced or pickled chillies arrive immersed in light soy sauce to be used for dipping. Dark soy sauce is thicker, more intense in flavour and less salty. It is often used when a heartier flavour is desired, particularly with masak kicap (a style of braising with a blend of soy sauce varieties) dishes, and also to darken the color of a dish. Kicap manis, sweetened soy sauce sometimes flavoured with star anise or garlic, is also a popular seasoning for cooking. The sweet and savoury taste of kicap manis also functions as a substitute to approximate the combination of dark soy sauce and thick caramel sauce, which is primarily used to colour and season stewed dishes.

Common herbs include lemongrass (Malay: serai), a type of grass with a lemony aroma and flavour. Young, fresh stems are more desirable as older stems tend to acquire a woody texture. The tender white part closest to the base of the stem is thinly sliced and eaten raw in salads, or pounded with other aromatics to make a rempah. It is also used whole in boiled and simmered dishes. The pandan (screwpine) leaf is the Asian equivalent of vanilla in Western cuisine. Its subtle aroma is released when the leaves are bruised by tying one or two long leaves into a knot, and used for cooking curries, rice and desserts. The leaves can also be used to wrap items like rice, chicken or fish for cooking. Pandan leaf is also available in liquid essence or powdered form to flavour and colour cakes. Turmeric (Malay: kunyit) is a rhizome popular for its flavour as well as colouring properties. The leaves and flowers of the turmeric plant are also used in cooking or eaten raw.

Tofu products, specifically fried tofu, are widely used as cooking ingredients and as side accompaniments. While fried tofu can be bland in flavour on its own, its main contribution is texture and especially with tofu puffs, the ability to soak up the flavour of whatever they are cooked in. Fried tofu products are found as a versatile component ingredient for dishes like stir fried noodles, rojak (fruit and vegetable salad), noodle soups, and stews. A popular way of serving fried tofu on its own is a salad with bean sprouts, shredded cucumber and spring onions, covered in a thick sweet and spicy dressing and dusted with roasted ground peanuts. Fried tofu may also be stuffed with a mixture of ground meat or shredded vegetables.

Dried seafood products contribute a savoury depth of flavour to some Malaysian dishes. Small dried anchovies, known as ikan bilis, are very popular. It acquires a crispy texture when deep-fried, and is served as an accompaniment or prepared as a sambal relish in this capacity. Ikan bilis is also boiled to make fish stock; in fact, instant ikan bilis stock granules are a popular seasoning in modern kitchens. Dried shrimp and salted dried fish are also used in various ways.

Other essential seasoning and garnishes include tamarind (Malay: asam jawa), specifically the paste-like pulp extracted from the fruit pod which contributes a tart flavour to many dishes. Candlenuts (Malay: buah keras) are similar in appearance to macadamia nuts, being round, cream-coloured and having a high oil content. Candlenuts are normally ground to thicken sauces. Lup cheong is a type of dried Chinese sausage made from pork and spices. Mainly used by the Malaysian Chinese community, these sweet sausages are usually sliced very thinly and added for additional flavour and texture. Recent studies have shown that there are 62 commonly consumed Malaysian foods that include biogenic amines.

Structure of meals

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There is no standard breakfast (Malay: sarapan) menu due to Malaysia's multi-ethnic social fabric as well as the advent of modern influences. Western-style breakfast like breakfast cereal, cooked eggs and toast have become commonplace in homes and when dining out, but heartier traditional fare based predominantly on noodles and rice dishes are still very popular. One may choose to start the day with the ubiquitous nasi lemak or kuih; venture for Chinese-style congee, dim sum and noodle soups; or settle for Indian-influenced fare such as roti canai, idli (Tamil: இட்லி iṭli /ɪɖlɪ/), thosai (Tamil: தோசை tōcai /t̪oːsaj/), and upma. In the state of Kelantan, the term nasi berlauk refers to a breakfast meal which consists of a small serve of rice and complementary dishes or lauk.

For lunch and dinner, food is not customarily served in courses but rather concurrently. A meal may consist of a single dish for solitary diners, or rice with many complementary dishes shared by all. At restaurants where food is cooked to order, there is often no distinction between appetizers/starters and main courses, and food will arrive at the table whenever it is ready. At some traditionally-run eateries where pre-cooked food is served, diners are meant to help themselves by starting with a plate of plain rice and choose from a buffet spread of assorted dishes. Like the Indonesian Nasi Padang, this is not an all-you-can-eat for a fixed price dining experience. The cost of the meal would depend on what the diner selects and how many different items were placed on the plate for consumption. In Malay-run warung (a small family-owned casual eatery or café) or restaurants (kedai makan), this style of dining is known as nasi campur which means "mixed rice". A similar concept exist at some eateries serving home-style Malaysian Chinese food, where it may be known as economy rice (Chinese: 杂饭).

A practice known as "open house" (Malay: rumah terbuka) is popular during festive seasons, and even as an elaborate occasion to celebrate birthdays and weddings. Open house events are traditionally held at the home of the host: well-wishers are received and that everyone, regardless of background, is invited to attend. Home-cooked or catered food is provided by the host(s) at their own expense, and while it is acceptable for guests to bring along gifts for the host, they are expected to help themselves to the food as much as they like. Open house events may also be held at restaurants and larger public venues, especially when hosted by government agencies or corporations.

Food establishments

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A kopitiam or kopi tiam is a traditional coffee shop patronised for meals and beverages, predominantly operated by Chinese proprietors and especially members of the Hainanese community. The word kopi is a Malay/Hokkien term for coffee and tiam is the Hokkien and Hakka term for shop (Chinese : 店). A common sight in Malaysia and neighbouring Singapore, menus often feature offerings like nasi lemak, boiled eggs, roti bakar, noodle dishes, bread and kuih. The owners of some kopitiam establishments may lease premise space to independent stallholders, who sometimes offer more specialised dishes beyond standard Chinese kopitiam fare. Typical beverages include Milo, a malted chocolate drink considered iconic to Malaysians of all ages, as well as coffee (kopi) and tea (teh). Diners would use slang terms specific to kopitiam culture to order and customise drinks to their taste.

The omnipresent Mamak stall is a Malaysian institution. Available throughout the country and particularly popular in urban areas, Mamak stalls and restaurants offer a wide range of food and some are open 24 hours a day. The proprietors of these establishments are members of Malaysia's Tamil Muslim community, who have developed a distinct culinary style and wield an enormous influence on Malaysian food culture disproportionate to their numbers. A type of meal served buffet-style at some Mamak eateries is called nasi kandar, which is analogous to the Malay nasi campur where you pay for what you have actually eaten. The diner is to choose from a variety of curried dishes made with chicken, beef, mutton, or seafood. A mixture of curry sauces is then poured on the provided rice: this is called banjir (literally means "flooding").

Cuisines of Malaysia

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Malay cuisine

Main article: Malay cuisine

For a traditional Malay meal, rice is considered the centerpiece of a meal, with everything else considered as an accompaniment, relish or side for the rice. Malay cuisine bears many similarities to Indonesian cuisine, in particular some of the regional traditions from Sumatra. It has also been influenced by Chinese, Indian, Thai and many other cultures throughout history, producing a distinct cuisine of their own. Some regional Malay dishes, such as arisa and kacang pool, are examples of influence from Arab cuisine due to longstanding historical and religious ties. Many Malay dishes revolve around a rempah, which is usually sauteed in oil (tumis) to draw out flavours to form the base of a dish. A dipping relish called sambal is an essential accompaniment for most Malay dishes.

Air bandung.
Air bandung.
Ikan bakar in Muar, Johor.
Ikan bakar in Muar, Johor.
Authentic mee bandung from Muar
Authentic mee bandung from Muar
Nasi dagang
Nasi dagang
Nasi kerabu
Nasi kerabu
Raw (l) and cooked (r) sambal tempoyak.
Raw (l) and cooked (r) sambal tempoyak.
Sate

Javanese-influenced cuisine

Main article: Javanese cuisine

Soto ayam, (chicken soto). Note the transparent yellow broth, the emping and fried shallot
Soto ayam, (chicken soto). Note the transparent yellow broth, the emping and fried shallot

There are certain Malaysian dishes with overt Javanese influences or are direct adaptations from Javanese cuisine, brought to Malaysia by Javanese immigrants who have been assimilated or integrated into the wider Malay community to various degrees. Javanese cuisine is highly distinct from mainstream Malay cooking, being noted for its simplicity and sweeter flavours, as opposed to mainstream Malay cuisine which is predominantly based on the complex and spicy regional cuisines of Sumatra. A popular way of serving Javanese-influenced food in the southern part of Peninsular Malaysia is termed nasi ambang, which consists of shared platters of white rice served with accompaniments like chicken cooked in soy sauce or curried gravy, stir fried noodles, sambal goreng, fried shredded coconut pieces, egg, vegetables and so on. .

Malaysian Chinese cuisine

Main article: Malaysian Chinese cuisine

Malaysian Chinese cuisine is derived from the culinary traditions of Chinese Malaysian immigrants and their descendants, who have adapted or modified their culinary traditions under the influence of Malaysian culture as well as immigration patterns of Chinese to Malaysia. Because the vast majority of Chinese Malaysians are descendants of immigrants from southern China, Malaysian Chinese cuisine is predominantly based on an eclectic repertoire of dishes with roots from Cantonese cuisine, Hakka cuisine, Fujian cuisine and Teochew cuisine.[citation needed]

As these early immigrants settled in different regions throughout what was then British Malaya and Borneo, they carried with them traditions of foods and recipes that were particularly identified with their origins in China, which gradually became infused with the characteristics of their new home locale in Malaysia while remaining distinctively Chinese. For example, Hainanese chicken rice is usually flavoured with tropical pandan leaves and served with chilli sauce for dipping, and tastes unlike the typical chicken dishes found in Hainan Island itself. Some of these foods and recipes became closely associated with a specific city, town or village, eventually developing iconic status and culminating in a proliferation of nationwide popularity in the present day.

Chinese food is especially prominent in areas with concentrated Chinese communities, at roadside stalls, hawker centres and kopitiam, as well as smart cafes and upmarket restaurants throughout the nation. Many Chinese dishes have pork as a component ingredient, but chicken is available as a substitution for Muslim customers from the wider community, and some Chinese restaurants are even halal-certified.[citation needed]

A sample of representative Malaysian Chinese dishes found nationwide include:

Bak Kut Teh
Bak Kut Teh
Char kway teow in Penang
Penang chee cheong fun
Hainanese chicken rice balls in Muar, Johor, Malaysia
Hainanese chicken rice balls in Muar, Johor, Malaysia
A bowl of Penang Hokkien mee
A bowl of Penang Hokkien mee
Claypot chicken rice
Pan Mee
Pan Mee
Tau sar pneah, also known as Tambun pneah, from Penang
Tau sar pneah, also known as Tambun pneah, from Penang
Wonton Mee
Wonton Mee
Yusheng
Yusheng

Malaysian Indian cuisine

Main article: Malaysian Indian cuisine

Malaysian Indian cuisine, or the cooking of the ethnic Indian communities in Malaysia consists of adaptations of authentic dishes from India, as well as original creations inspired by the diverse food culture of Malaysia. As the vast majority of Malaysia's Indian community are mostly ethnic Tamils who are descendants of the modern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka's Northern Province, much of Malaysian Indian cuisine is predominantly South Indian inspired in character and taste. A typical Malaysian Indian dish is likely to be redolent with curry leaves, whole and powdered spice, and contains fresh coconut in various forms. Ghee is still widely used for cooking, although vegetable oils and refined palm oils are now commonplace in home kitchens. Before a meal it is customary to wash hands as cutlery is often not used while eating, with the exception of a serving spoon for each respective dish.

Food served in the traditional South Indian manner is termed banana leaf rice. Plain white or parboiled rice would be served with an assortment of vegetable preparations, lentil gravy, pickles, condiments, and papadum crackers on a banana leaf, which acts as a disposable plate. Banana leaf meals are eaten to celebrate special occasions such as festivals, birthdays, marriages, or to commemorate funeral wakes. It is customary to consume banana leaf meals by hand and to show appreciation for the food by folding the banana leaf inwards, though less ritual and etiquette is observed when the meal isn't part of a formal occasion, such as the Malayalee community's elaborate Sadya feasts. Boiled eggs, meat or seafood dishes are available at banana leaf restaurants which are not exclusively vegetarian or vegan.

Some notable Malaysian Indian dishes include:

Idli served with typical accompaniments.
Idli served with typical accompaniments.
Maggi goreng in George Town, Penang
Maggi goreng in George Town, Penang
Murtabak being made at a stall, a type of pancake filled with eggs, small chunks of meat and onions.
Murtabak being made at a stall, a type of pancake filled with eggs, small chunks of meat and onions.
Pasembur.
Pasembur.
Roti tisu served as a savoury meal, pictured here with a glass of teh tarik.
Roti tisu served as a savoury meal, pictured here with a glass of teh tarik.

Sabahan food

Main article: Sabahan cuisine

Sea grapes, known as latok by the Bajau people.
Sea grapes, known as latok by the Bajau people.

The food of Sabah reflects the ethnic diversity of its population and is very eclectic. Traditional Kadazandusun cuisine involves mostly boiling or grilling and employs little use of oil. From simple appetizers of seasoned unripe mango to a variety of pickled foods collectively known as noonsom, tangy and pungent flavours derived from souring agents or fermentation techniques is a key characteristic of traditional Kadazandusun cooking.[45] Rice wine accompanies all Kadazandusun celebrations and rites, and at a Murut event there will be rows upon rows of jars with fermented tapioca tapai.[9] Presently few eateries in Sabah serve traditional indigenous dishes, although it will always be found during festive occasions like weddings and funerals, as well as the Kaamatan and Kalimaran cultural festivals. Chinese-influenced dishes like northern Chinese potstickers and Hakka stuffed tofu, along with many original creations developed in Sabah's interior settlements by immigrants from both northern and southern China throughout the 20th century, feature prominently on the menus of many kopitiam establishments and upscale restaurants.[citation needed]

Sabah is notable for its excellent seafood, temperate produce and tea (Sabah tea has GI status) grown in the highlands of Mt. Kinabalu, and a small coffee plantation industry with Tenom coffee considered the best produce in the region. Local ingredients like freshwater fish, wild boar (bakas in native dialects), bamboo shoots, wild ferns, and various jungle produce still figure prominently in the daily diet of the local population. As a significant portion of rural communities still subsist on agriculture as their primary source of income, small scale festivals are even held each year at certain towns to celebrate produce vital to the livelihoods of the local people: the Pesta Jagung of Kota Marudu, the Pesta Rumbia (sago) of Kuala Penyu, and Pesta Kelapa from the town of Kudat.[46] Sabah vegetable, also known as cekuk manis or sayur manis (Chinese : 树仔菜), can be found on the menus of many eateries and restaurants throughout the state of Sabah. It is one of the local terms used for a variety of Sauropus albicans developed in Lahad Datu, which yields crunchy edible shoots in addition to its leaves.[citation needed] The flavour is reminiscent of spinach but more complex, "as though it had been fortified with broccoli and infused with asparagus",[47] and is typically stir-fried with eggs or seasonings like sambal belacan.

Whether grilled, cured, deep-fried, steamed, stir-fried, braised, served raw, or made into soups, Sabah's seafood is famed for its freshness, quality, and good value for money. A vast variety of fish, cephalopods, marine crustaceans, shellfish, sea cucumbers and jellyfish have become mainstays on lunch and dinner menus at kopitiam, restaurants, and humble food shacks all over Kota Kinabalu and other coastal towns like Sandakan, Tawau, Lahad Datu and Semporna. Seafood paired with noodles also figure prominently for breakfast, for each day locals flock to speciality eateries where they may be served an assortment of fish-based products to start the day. Examples include: poached patties handmade with fresh fish paste; deep-fried fish cakes wrapped in tofu skin sheets; and noodle soups with toppings like sliced fish fillet, fish or prawn balls, and fish innards. A few eateries even serve "noodles" rolled out with fresh fish paste.[citation needed]

Edible seaweed is a traditional food for certain seaside communities throughout Sabah and also possess GI status.[48] Latok is similar in appearance to clusters of green-hued fish eggs or grapes, and is typically prepared as a salad by the Bajau people. Coral seaweed is another popular seaplant product; in recent times it is marketed as a gourmet health food to both locals and tourists, and is given the moniker of "sea bird's nest" (Chinese : 海底燕窝) as coral seaweed acquires a similar gelatinous texture when dissolved in water.[citation needed]

Amplang.
Amplang.
Swordfish hinava served with sandwich bread
Swordfish hinava served with sandwich bread

Among the foods and beverages particular to Sabah are:

Sarawakian food

Main article: Sarawakian cuisine

Sarawakian is quite distinct from the regional cuisines of the Peninsular. It is considered less spicy, lightly prepared and with more emphasis on subtle flavours. The most important spice in Sarawakian cuisine is pepper. Pepper is commercially produced on an industrial scale as a cash crop, and the preferred choice by local cooks when heat is wanted in a dish. Granted GI status by MyIPO, Sarawak black pepper is highly regarded by international culinary figures such as Alain Ducasse.[63]

While the Iban constitute the largest Dayak subgroup as well as the most populous ethnic group in Sarawak, much of the ethnic Iban population is still concentrated away from Sarawak's main urban areas, congregating instead within longhouse communities scattered all over the interior regions of the state. The traditional cookery of the Iban is called pansoh or pansuh, which is the preparation and cooking of food in bamboo tubes. Ingredients like poultry, fish, pork, vegetables or rice are mixed with fragrant herbs like lemongrass, tapioca leaves and bungkang leaves (a species of myrtle from the Eugenia genus), then sealed within the bamboo tubes and placed directly over an open fire. Cooking food this way will infuse it with aroma and flavour from the bamboo tubes while keeping it moist.[citation needed]

During Dayak festivals or Gawai, the Iban would slaughter locally reared pigs. The pig would be cleaned thoroughly after the slaughter, have its head and stomach removed, and the rest of the pig would be cut into smaller pieces in preparation for barbecuing. The head and stomach of a pig are usually put aside and prepared separately as they are considered the choicest parts of the animal; hence pig's heads are a common edible gift brought by visitors to an Iban longhouse, and dishes such as pork stomach cooked with pineapples are a must for Gawai.[citation needed]

Sarawak is notable for its rice; currently three varieties grown in Sarawak has been granted GI status by MyIPO.[64][65] Among the foods and beverages particular to Sarawak are:

Kolo mee
Kolo mee
Laksa Sarawak
Laksa Sarawak
Teh C Peng Special
Teh C Peng Special

Peranakan food

Main article: Peranakan cuisine

Peranakan cuisine, also called Nyonya food, was developed by the Straits Chinese whose descendants reside in today's Malaysia and Singapore. The old Malay word nyonya (also spelled nonya), a term of respect and affection for women of prominent social standing (part "madame" and part "auntie"), has come to refer to the cuisine of the Peranakans. It uses mainly Chinese ingredients but blends them with Malay ingredients such as coconut milk, lemon grass, turmeric, tamarind, pandan leaves, chillies and sambal. It can be considered as a blend of Chinese and Malay cooking, with influences from Indonesian Chinese cuisine (for the Nyonya food of Malaccan and Singaporean) and Thai cuisine (for Penang Nyonya cuisine). Traditional Nyonya cooking is often very elaborate, labour-intensive and time-consuming, and the Peranakan community often consider the best Nyonya food is to be found in private homes.

A bowl of Asam laksa
A bowl of Asam laksa

Examples of Nyonya dishes include:

Eurasian food

Kuih (delicacy) and snack

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A selection of Nyonya kuih
A selection of Nyonya kuih

Kuih (plural: kuih-muih) are usually, but not always, bite-sized foods associated with the Malay and Min-speaking Chinese communities of Malaysia. In the context of the term being cultural as opposed to being physically descriptive, the concept of kuih may refer to a selection of cakes, cookies, confections, pastries and sweetmeats. Kuih may be eaten throughout the day for light breakfast, afternoon tea (a tradition adopted from the British), as a snack and increasingly as an after-meal course.

More often steamed or fried and based on rice or glutinous rice, kuih items are very different in texture, flavour and appearance from Western oven-baked cakes or puff pastries. Most kuih items are sweet, and may be classified and eaten as desserts, but some are also savoury. Kuih is an important feature of festive occasions and is traditionally made at home, but is now available for purchase from home caterers, street vendors, market stallholders and specialist cafes, shops and restaurants. It is difficult to distinguish between kuih of Malay or Peranakan (also known as "Straits Chinese") origin because the histories of traditional kuih recipes have not been well-documented, and cross-cultural influences over the centuries were commonplace. Even the word kuih itself is derived from the Hokkien/Teochew word 粿 (pronounced kueh or kway).

Examples of notable kuih-muih include:

Mee Siput Muar

Examples of snack include:

Desserts and sweets

Ais kacang
Batik cake

Desserts and sweets in Malaysia are diverse, due to the multi-ethnic and multicultural characteristics of its society. Traditional Malay and Nyonya desserts tend to share a common feature however: generous amounts of coconut milk are used, and the finished product usually flavoured with gula melaka (palm sugar) and pandan leaves. Some notable desserts include:

Bubur pulut hitam, without coconut milk.
Bubur pulut hitam, without coconut milk.
Sarawak layered cake.

See also

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