Growing up I always loved cooking with my family and have many happy memories of time in the kitchen with my mum. I’ve cried over the loss of my first love whilst crimping curry puffs, exchanged juicy stories as we peeled onions, and stirred pots of curry as we put the world to right. The kitchen was a not just a room dedicated to the creation and enjoyment of food, but very much a haven to share and dissect life’s ups and downs.
Over the years and observing my mum work her magic in the kitchen, it was evident that there were some key ingredients which are essential for anyone building a Malaysian store cupboard or those dipping their toes in malaysian cooking. Hence I had a light bulb moment which I hasten to add is a rarity and decided to share my top 10 ingredients to commence your journey.
I must stress though that this list is non-exhaustive and there is a whole host of other ingredients that play a part in this rich and diverse culinary heritage. For now however, I think this will suffice. Please feel free to get in contact if you have any queries. Have fun!
1. Lemongrass (Serai)
Lemongrass, known as ‘serai’ in Malay, can be added to a wide variety of dishes such as fishdishes, soup, vegetable, or meat and poultry dishes. Using lemongrass adds a wonderful lemony hint and is not only flavourful but also mouth-wateringly fragrant. As an added bonus, it promotes good digestion and is even available as a tea which can often be found in Malaysian and Thai restaurant menus.
The most popular way of using it is by chopping or slicing the white part only (the green bit is woody) and adding to other ingredients when making a ‘Rempah’ or curry paste. Do not be tempted to discard the green part as this is usually thrown in the curry for that extra hint of aroma, but should not be eaten as it can be quite woody and you will be chewing till kingdom come! Other uses include adding finely sliced pieces to fried dishes. There really is no substitute and omitting it from a recipe will yield an end product that lacks a certain something which makes it authentic. I am also totally against the ready minced types often found in tubes and cubes or even the dried variety. If you can’t source if a recipe calls for it, it then as brutal as it may seem I would advise you to make another dish!
2. Garlic (Bawang putih)
Garlic known as ‘bawang putih’ or white onion in Malay is another popular feature in Malasyian cooking and often present in stir fries or mixed with other ingredients such as ginger, onions and dried chillies as part of a rempah. It has a strong taste and smell so only a small quantity is required unless the recipe states otherwise. However, it’s distinct smell is essential to certain dishes and as such is quite a major player in Asian dishes.
Apparently it has several health benefits such as reducing high blood pressure and aiding nausea, but sadly not so great in the kissing department if you’ve indulged in a dish laden with it! Like lemon grass I am yet to find a substitute.
3. Ginger (Halia)
Ginger, known as ‘halia’ in Malay has a sweet and warm aroma with a hot flavour. When I say ‘hot’ I’m not referring to the fiery taste of chili, but more of an intense deep heat that doesn’t blow your head off or linger! In fact it’s so well loved that we even have a tea in Malaysian known as ‘teh halia’ that is a popular beverage in many food courts.
Like lemon grass and garlic, ginger is often part of the Rempah gang but also perfect cut into strips or slices and added to seafood, meat, vegetables or tofu. It also makes a lovely garnish when cut into fine strips and deep fried, then added as a golden crown.
4. Shallots/onions (Bawang)
Of all the vegetables, shallots and onions are perhaps the most versatile, with many dishes across all different Asian cuisines that use it as a base. For a Rempah, shallots which are smaller than a red onion is the preferred choice but it’s size makes peeling incredibly time consuming so often large red onions are a good substitute.
As with many western dishes, similarly Malaysian recipes often begins with onions. White onions are quite popular too and used in stir fries, however I have found that using it in a Rempah leaves a slight bitter after taste to the finish product hence I would advise using red. Finely sliced deep fried onions strewn on top of fried rice, rice porridge (congee), and soups as a garnish looks aesthetically pleasing and enhances the flavour of a dish.
5. Dried chillies (chili kering)
Malaysian cuisine is known for its strong flavours and spice, and dried chillies are a large part of this. Using dried chillies rather than fresh chillies has many benefits such as giving dishes a richer crimson colour, with a sweeter, more intense flavour. It’s another ingredient present in many Rempahs and quantities will largely depend on how much of a kick you’d like in your curry!
Dried chilies mixed with water and then blended creates a wonderful chilli paste and is used for making the much loved ‘sambal’ sauce which is found everywhere. In fact a visit would not be complete without a taste. Here in UK I tend to buy dried Kashmiri chillies as it has a wonderful rich colour when cooked and is much less fiery. A brand called ‘Leela’ which is Sri Lankan and can be found in many Indian grocery shops is another good choice.
6. Turmeric (kunyit)
When using turmeric in Malaysian cooking is can come in the form of dried powder or fresh rhizome. The rhizome has a deeper colour and a more intense flavour compared to the powder but sourcing it can be a challenge so powder which is more readily available can be used.
It’s yet another ingredient that is often found in a Rempah and it gives the dish a vibrant yellow colour.
7. Coconut milk (Santan)
Coconut milk is often used in Malaysian cuisine to give dishes a rich creamy character, especially in curries. It is the base/key ingredient of many popular Malaysian dishes such as nasi lemak, curry laksa, Rendang and dodol (sticky sweet cake). An added bonus of cooking with coconut milk is that it’s lactose-free, and vegan friendly!
Freshly grated coconut purchased from the market, mixed with water and then squeezed to extract the milk is the traditional method of use. In UK grated coconut can be obtained in the freezer section of Asian grocery shops, but in all honesty I tend to opt for coconut powder which makes a good alternative or even cans of coconut milk which are quite rich and tasty. Coconut milk is also used in many sweets and cakes which is a great non-dairy option.
8. Shrimp paste (Belachan)
Shrimp paste, known as belacan in Malaysia, is made from sun-dried, fermented ground shrimps. The smell is incredibly strong and off putting for some people but it mellows down after cooking. Yet another ingredient that is present in some Rempahs (Malaysian spice pastes) for curries and especially when making Sambal sauce. Oddly enough it’s now widely available here not just from Asian stores, but also high street supermarkets where it can be found in jars in the Asian section. My choice is the ones that are in blocks which has a richer more intense flavour.
Other methods of use includes adding it to stir fries like Nasi Goreng Kampung (Fried rice), Rempah sayur (stir fried vegetables), and Kangkung Belachan (A popular green vegetable). A popular condiment called ‘Sambal Belachan’ made by toasting the belachan then pounded in a pestle and mortar along with fresh chili, and sprinkled with fresh lime juice can be found on dining tables everywhere in Malaysia.
9. Candlenut (Buah Keras)
These nuts are mildly toxic when raw, however the cooking process makes them safe to eat. They make a great thickener and texture enhancer in many dishes, especially curries and often added to Rempah. I was delighted to find them in the Asian Grocery store here in UK but is also easily available online. My mother has suggested using Macadamia nuts as an alternative but no other nuts can be substituted.
Pandanus leaves, or screwpine leaves as they’re known in English, are a versatile ingredient and can be described as the Asian Vanilla which isn’t eaten but is more of a flavour enhancer in sweets such as pandan cake. It’s often added to rice during cooking which then imparts a beautiful aroma similar to Basmati rice and is a well known Malaysian breakfast called Nasi Lemak. For those of you familiar with Thai cuisine, you would have tried with Pandan Chicken where the pandan is used as wrapper and then deep fried. Yet another ingredient that can be easily found in Asian supermarkets in UK.
Even though these didn't make the top 10, I thought I'd add on a few important spices, as spices make up a major part of Malaysian cuisine and are essential aromatics. These are:
Cinnamon Bark (Kayu Manis)
Star Anise (Bunga Lawang)
Cloves (Buah cengkih)
Coriander seed (Ketumbar)
Fennel (Jintan manis)
Cardamom (Buah pelaga)
Cinnamon, star anise, cloves and cardamom are also known as ‘rempah empat beradik’ or the four siblings as they are often used together in a dish. Others such as cumin, mustards seeds, and nutmeg are also used on an occasional basis. These spices are not difficult to source as even local supermarkets now have an impressive selection.
Hoo Hing Oriental Store
A406 North Circular Rd
Wing Yip Oriental Store or online
395 Edgware Rd
Online stores which are widely available on google search.
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