To most foreigners, Malaysian food is something of an enigma. Occupying Southeast Asia’s southern tip, with Thailand to the north and Singapore to the south, Malaysia is divided into peninsular West and island East, home to multiple ethnicities and at least a dozen regional cuisines. In comparison to Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore, Malaysia flies under the radar as a foodie destination.
Two recently released cookbooks might change that. Food scientist, culinary instructor and recipe developer Susheela Raghavan‘s “Flavors of Malaysia,” a slick and hefty hardback, is a near comprehensive overview of Malaysian cuisine. “Penang Heritage Food,” by retired professor of electrical engineering Jin Teong Ong, offers an idiosyncratic snapshot of the food of a single Malaysian state. The authors’ approaches couldn’t be more different, and their works couldn’t be more complementary.
Raghavan’s volume is, unusual for cookbooks in recent years, text-heavy, although small black-and-white photos of family and friends, markets and ingredients, notable places and landmarks are interspersed throughout, and 16 pages of color photos make up the midsection. Raghavan is clearly more intent on imparting information than entertaining with visuals. Impart she does, beginning with a 50-plus page introduction to the history and foods of Malaysia’s many ethnicities, its regional cuisines and its food culture. She follows with more than 150 easy-to-follow recipes divided among 12 chapters based on ingredients (poultry and eggs, meats) and dish categories (soups and stews, snacks and appetizers), and an excellent ingredients appendix with mini-recipes for “basics” like fried shallots and ikan bilis (tiny dried anchovies which, deep-fried, garnish or are incorporated into many Malaysian dishes).
Beloved, lesser-known recipes
The tone of “Flavors of Malaysia” seesaws between instructive and sisterly. “Tumising is a technique of stir-frying,” Raghavan explains in the recipe for Sambal Tumis Belacan, a sweet-spicy chili sauce that incorporates Malaysian shrimp paste (belacan). It’s a pleasure to find recipes that are beloved on Malaysian soil yet receive scant attention abroad, such as mee rebus (noodles in a sweet potato-based gravy), bak kut teh (a comforting pork stew flavored with Chinese medicinal herbs) and the addictive rolled coconut milk crepes called kueh dadar. Recipe names are given in English and local languages, and Malaysia-bound travelers will want to leaf through this book to compile a list of “must-eat dishes.”
Readers who collect cookbooks for more than their recipes will want to spend some quality time with this one, soaking up Raghavan’s information about the origin and health properties of barley, the role of kueh (Malaysian sweets) in religious ceremonies, and her reminiscences of a Malaysian childhood.
What’s missing is a more comprehensive list of brick-and-mortar sources for Malaysian ingredients such as gula Melaka (coconut palm sugar) and hae ko, a sweet black shrimp paste. Other quibbles: Measurements for spices usually sold in seed form, such as fennel, are given in powder. And the prominent pitch in the introduction for the author’s branded packaged spice blends feels out of place in a recipe book that doesn’t otherwise espouse shortcuts.
Zeroing In on Penang
The only pitch retired professor Ong makes in his “Penang Heritage Food” is for the cuisine of a state that many Malaysians consider to be home to the best food in the country. Ong grew up on the island of Penang, which lies just off the coast of Penang state in northwestern peninsular Malaysia. Founded by the British in the late 1700s, and for centuries a key port on the Southeast Asian trade route, the island’s capital city George Town (now a UNESCO World Heritage site) drew waves of immigrants from China, India and Thailand as well as Europe and the Middle East, all of whom contributed to a fascinating melting pot cuisine.
In just under 200 pages, Ong, who now lives in Singapore, immerses us in the sights, smells, tastes and foods of his home state. We learn the back stories of specialties such as Hokkien mee, noodles in a prawn and pork broth spiked with ground chilies, and satay babi (pork satay), a variation on Malay (and halal) satay invented by immigrants from the southern Chinese island of Hainan. Ong explains the many uses of bamboo and coconut palm — culinary and otherwise — and how nutmeg, the outer flesh of which Penang cooks make into pickles and squeeze for juice, found its way to the island. Especially wonderful are the many vintage black-and-white photographs — cooks (including Ong’s mother and aunt) in action, Penang-ites enjoying picnics on the beach and meals out at restaurants, wedding banquets, artisan food makers, street food vendors.
Some 75 recipes are divided into six chapters: one devoted to Penang specialties and the remaining five to dishes showing the influences of longtime resident immigrant communities (Indian, Thai, etc.). Ong takes pains to explain technique, and his encouraging tone should embolden the Malaysian cooking newbie. But readers will be frustrated by ingredients not listed in the order in which they are used and Americans must be prepared to convert metric measurements (the book was published in Singapore). The ingredients section at the front of the book needs beefing up and the absence of an index is an omission that should be addressed in the next edition. Also useful would be the addition of a short section devoted to sample menus for those who might wonder what to serve with lor bak and heh chnee.
But all in all, “Penang Heritage Food” is a big-hearted labor of love by a non-food writer driven simply by his desire to preserve the culinary traditions of his home state — Ong’s effort was inspired by his London-resident daughter’s telephone call requesting a recipe. If it is at times frustrating to cook from, the book is a joy to read. Likely to inspire longings to visit this culinary jewel of an island, it is as deserving of a place on the nightstand as it is on a shelf in the kitchen.
Zester Daily contributor David Hagerman shoots for the New York Times, Travel+Leisure and Saveur, among other publications. To view more of his slide shows, go to davidhagerman.photoshelter.com. Robyn Eckhardt is a food and travel journalist based in Penang, Malaysia. She also is a contributor to Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia and has been published in Saveur, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal Asia. Her last article for Zester was a double book review, Veggies and Grains Deluxe.
Top photo: Malaysian food sign. Credit: David Hagerman