Malaysian recipes are some of the world’s most heavily spiced and fragrant, thanks to an array of intriguing ingredients that we have never even heard of in the West. Before we take a look at these unique flavours, see if you can figure out what they are from the photos.
- Belacan: one of the most pungent ingredients in Malaysian cooking. It is a hardened block of fermented shrimp paste that adds a savoury depth to pastes and curries, much like how the Italians use anchovies to season salads, pastas and pizzas. Be warned; use sparingly as it packs a fishy punch and will leave a residual pong that can linger in your kitchen for days.
- Tamarind paste: made from the sweet-sour pulp of the tamarind tree fruit, native to east Africa. It is a sticky, brown liquid that is used to flavour soups, curried and stir-fried dishes. The pulp is made into a rigid block that contains bits of the fruit’s seeds and pod; these should be strained out prior to use.
- Ikan billis: these small, dried anchovies are a pantry essential for Malaysian cookery. Much like in Italian cooking, they are used as a flavour-booster in stir-fries, salads and soups, and may also be deep-fried until golden to garnish rice, noodles or to stir into samba bellman for nasi lemak.
- Bawang goreng: crispy fried shallots that are widely available to buy ready-made. They are used in Malaysian cooking to garnish curried and rice dishes for a shot of onion flavour.
- Galangal: a root herb similar to ginger, but with a milder flavour and heat, and a slightly citrusy aroma. Used in moderation, it gives a wonderful refreshing element to rich dishes like curries. However use too much and you risk adding a bitter flavour to your food. It is often pounded into a paste with water before being added to recipes. Mature galangal has a woody texture and therefore must be ground extremely finely before incorporating into a spice paste.
- Palm sugar: made from the boiled-down sap of the palm tree. It is sold in hard, rounded disks. It can be substituted for brown sugar, however, palm sugar gives a beautiful caramel-like, toasted taste that can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes.
- Candlenuts: native to Indonesia and a distant relative of the macademia, although larger and with a rougher exterior. In Malaysian cooking, they can be used ground to thicken coconut-based curries and spice pastes. The nuts should only be eaten when cooked as they are mildly toxic when raw.
- Kerisik: coconut butter traditionally made by frying desiccated coconut until brown and then blending until it turns into a paste. It is often used to dress salads or to add richness to dishes such as rendang.
- Kangkung: also known as ‘morning glory’, ‘river spinach’ and ‘swamp cabbage’; perhaps not the most appealing names. However, these long and slender leaves marry beautifully with flavours such as garlic, chilli and belecan. Its mild earthy flavour can also be enjoyed simply blanched and makes a great accompaniment to the likes of nasi lemak and fried fish dishes.
- Torch ginger flower: a gorgeous blushing pink bud, crunchy, succulent and with a citrus-marzipan flavour. It offen appears shredded in Malaysian-style salads (kerabu) or sprinkled onto assam laksa as a garnish.
- Durian: love it or hate it, you can’t escape this stinky fruit here in Malaysia. Possibly the most controversial fruit of all-time, its soft and creamy flesh can be eaten with a spoon, much like a firm custard. It comes in numerous varieties of varying sweetness and is advocated by nutritionists for its abundance of vitamins and minerals and apparent ability to fight certain serious ailments.
- Purple dragon fruit: extraterrestrial both in look and name. This fruit is native to Central and South America. Its flavour is extremely mild, yet fragrant and juicy. It makes for a refreshing snack on a hot day. Interestingly, this fruit comes from the cactus plant and is rich in vitamins C, B and antioxidants, as well as being an anti-inflammatory and providing significant protection for cells.
- Rambutan: another weird-but-wonderful fruit. Its name is derived from the Malay word for “hairy” due to its outer appearance. The fruit has a sweet-sour taste, similar to that of a grape.
- Pandan Leaves: these leaves come from the screwpine tree and are widely used in South-East Asian cookery. In Malaysia, their natural green juices are used to colour desserts. The leaves themselves are infused into curry sauces to add complexity or used to wrap rice and meat, giving food a delicate scent.
- Grass jelly: used in desserts and drinks, grass jelly is made by boiling the aged stalks and leaves of mesona chinensis, a member of the mint family. The jelly has a slightly bitter taste and a light lavender flavour.
Have you ever come across any strange ingredients when travelling or in recipe books? Let us know in the comments section.