Asian Traditional Food Diary: Malaysia

Rice is Malaysia’s main food product. Malaysian culture requires that people respect rice- -meaning, they must not waste it because it is their staple food. So perhaps to instill in the young children’s mind the value of rice, the elders tell children that rice ‘cry at night when you leave leftovers on your plates or bowls’.

Malaysia is famous for waterfalls. The country is dotted with more than a hundred of them – – such as the enchanting waterfalls of Duvan Perangin, Telaga Tujah, Punchak Janing, Bukit Perak, Lata Mengkuang and many, many more. These waterfalls are mostly found in far-flung villages and deep jungles.

Our friend Francis Lajamin, a 45-year-old clergyman, native of Menggatal, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah describes his own native village as “a really beautiful place- -a green paradise, pleasing to the eyes as well as to the soul!” Just at the back of his village is the forested Crocer Mountain Range, which is finally connected to Mt. Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia. And hidden in this lush tropical jungle area are meandering rivers and rapids, and magnificent waterfalls. Who would not agree with Francis when he says it IS a paradise? Every mountain range and every waterfall in Malaysia offers the visitor verdant scenery- – an ambiance that is so invigorating, tranquil and soothing.

In this native village as a child, Francis remembers his mother cooking on firewood a simple but hearty breakfast of rice, boiled tapioca, ubi manis (sweet potatoes) or ubi kaladi (purple yam) and a lot of fresh garden vegetables such as: kangkung, kacang panjang (long beans), different varieties of sawi (green leafy vegetables) squash, tarong (eggplant), cucumber, raddish, cabbage, bitter gourd and sometimes labu. In the olden days Francis says there was no need to buy food from outside. We just bought cooking oil, salt and tofu. Our vegetables and spices come from our own garden. “Tofu is also a regular item in our meals. It is cheap and sold everywhere. We buy them from the Chinese.” Malaysia is a multi-racial country- -the principal racial groups being the Malay, the Chinese and Indians. The base of the national culture is of course Malay culture. So although Francis and his forefathers were of true Malay ancestry called ‘Bumi Putra’. Still, their food is largely influenced by the Chinese, as evident from their use of tofu, noodles and rice.

Rice is Malaysia’s main food product. Malaysian culture requires that people respect rice- -meaning, they must not waste it because it is their staple food. So perhaps to instill in the young children’s mind the value of rice, the elders tell children that rice ‘cry at night when you leave leftovers on your plates or bowls’. Thus, children end up eating each and every grain, not wasting a single morsel! Malaysia consists of thirteen states and two Federal Territories; nine of the states in the Peninsula are under Malay rulers. Most villagers in these different states have their own traditional rice dishes such as: the aromatic Nasi Ulam (herbal rice)- – cooked with kaduk leaves, pegaga leaves, ulam raja leaves, selom leaves, roasted coconut and lemon grass. Nasi Ulam is usually served with Makam Pedas Batang Keladi (hot sour yam stalk soup); Nasi Lemak Kedah (rice with coconut milk, pandan leaves, ginger, fenugreek); Nasi Kungit (glutinous rice with coconut milk, asam gelugu and turmeric.)

Other simple, nutritious breakfast food are Keria (sweet potatoes cooked in flour and sugar), Bubur Gandum ( bulgur wheat cooked in sugar and coconut milk) and Buah Melaka (glutinous rice, coconut milk and sugar). Malay food is generally piquant and spicy as many of its ingredients are chillies, fennel, cumin, ginger, coriander, black pepper and turmeric. Popular herbs used for flavoring are screwpine and lemon grass. Northern Malay food is more tangy because of the liberal use of tamarind pulp and lime juice. Kaffir lime leaves also give it a distinct aroma.

Francis says “Lunch and dinner are basically the same- -rice with simple vegetable, beans, noodles and tofu dishes seasoned with herbs and spices. Meat and chicken are rare. They are served only on special occasions. Fish is also rare. When there is chicken it means there is a special guest. In those days of the sultans, visitors to the islands were entertained with women, and good food- -which means, the choicest fruits and vegetables.” Among the favorite dishes for lunch and dinner is Pasembor (beansprouts, tofu, cabbage, lettuce, cucumber, chillies and served with peanut and tamarind pulp sauce. There is Tofu in Peanut Sauce, Tofu Satay with Satay sauce (coconut milk, peanuts, turmeric, cumin, garlic, galagal, lemon grass); Sayur Goreng (mixed vegetables such as cauliflower, carrots, corn cobs, green beans cooked in peanut oil); Turi leaves in coconut milk and sweet potatoes. Sometimes cebur manir leaves or meranti leaves may be used unstead of turi. Then there is beans curry made from kacang merang (red beans), kacang hijau (mongo beans and kacang soya (soybeans. Brinjal Paceri (eggplant cooked in coconut milk, ginger, cinnamon, curry powder and curry leaves). Paceri could be prepared using pineapple, mangoes or kedondong instead of brinjal (eggplant).

Francis’ reflections on his country’s healthy diet are infused with a deep sense of history. He is optimistic that his people’s resilience will help them in the end, as far as choosing a healthy diet. He says, “As far as we Malaysians are concerned, Western culture disturbed us- -intruded on our traditional food. Our basic rice and vegetable diet was already sufficient and healthy. And that has been the food of my parents and grandparents until the British Christian missionaries came along. They introduced to us their own food style which was not necessarily healthy.”

The British came to Malaysia at the end of the 18th century, in the wake of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. But before that, ancient civilizations came to Malaysia around the first century and had Hindu-Buddhist influence from India and China. Then came the era of Islamization during the Melaka Sultanate in 1400’s. Melaka’s (one of Malaysia’s states) spice trade led to its attack by the Portuguese in 1511, resulting in the fall of the Sultanate. Together with their conquest, they brought in Catholic Christianity to the locals. Control of Melaka then went to the Dutch in 1641, and then finally to the British.

“I never lived up to witness the British conquest myself but to a certain extent, British influence is still there – – they introduced the educational system, the religious system and their own food system.” Before the coming of the British, the native Malaysians never went to formal school. Francis says even his own father never had a chance to go to school. The form of education was conducted by the council of elders or village chiefs who instilled among its people values on morality, marriage, social behavior and so forth. “The Christian missionaries called us pagans (free thinkers) but actually we were not free thinkers. We believed in the existence of the Supreme Supernatural Spirit who was everywhere. We worshipped this Supreme Being and gave offerings to it and we tried to appease and live in harmony with it”, says Francis.

The natural vegetation of Malaysia is tropical rain forest so the main economic product is timber. In South East Asia, Malaysia is also the leading producer of palm oil. Malaysian palm oil- – sometime dubbed as “Nature’s gift to Malaysia and Malaysia’s gift to the world” – -is truly a vegetarian’s good friend. Palm oil is cholesterol free and does not contain trans fatty acid. It has been found to be a safe and nutritious source of edible cooking oil, margarine and shortening. A diet that contains palm oil is found in the studies to be a diet that inhibits cancer growth. For almost 5,000 years, palm oil has been an important crop to man. It originated in Africa but now it is widely grown and processed in Malaysia.

From Malaysia’s rich vegetation also comes a rich array of luscious tropical fruits. Tasty. Exotic. Wholesome. These are the hallmarks of Malaysian fruits. Our friend Francis himself is a large fruit eater, just like any typical Malaysian. It didn’t exactly matter to him when we explained that plenty of fruits in the diet is really good in that it provides a lot of fiber- – another reason why the Malaysian diet is truly a healthy one! All he knows is that he loves the taste of the fruits especially durian, the most popular and according to Francis ‘the most prestigious fruits of all!’ So aside from durian, there are mangosteens, rambutans, pulasans, mata kucings, mangos, kuinis (tastes better than mango!) bananas, papayas, coconuts, watermelons, pineapples, jackfruits, cempedaks, kecapis, langsats, dukus, rambais, Malay apples, guavas, passion fruits, pomelos and (whew!) sugar apples. And there are even rare fruits such as kerandangs, and China chestnuts. Malaysians make all kinds of bengkang (pudding) with fruits and vegetables; also fresh fruit salads and the famous ice kachang (made from sweet red beans, gula melaka, condensed milk and coconut)

Such pleasant talks of Malaysian food, history and people on this bright November afternoon, surely brings to Francis a deep feeling of “Balik Kampung” (a feeling of going back to one’s hometown or village). The dint in his eyes tells us that once again, his thoughts wander back to that pristine, palm-fringed paradise island known as Malaysia- -with its waterfalls that are largely unspoiled- – cascading with sparkling cool water, shaded from direct sunlight by the forest canopy. Truly captivating in it’s natural splendor.

Meat and chicken are rare. They are served only on special occasions. Fish is also rare.

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