The main characteristic of traditional Malay cuisine is the generous use of spices. Coconut milk is also important in giving the Malay dishes their rich, creamy character. The other foundation is belacan (prawn paste), which is used as a base for sambal, a rich sauce or condiment made from belacan, chili peppers, onions and garlic. Malay cooking also makes plentiful use of lemongrass and galangal.
Nearly every Malay meal is served with rice, which is also the staple food in many other Asian cultures. Although there are various types of dishes in a Malay meal, all are served at once, not in courses. Food is eaten delicately with the fingers of right hand, never with the left which is used for personal ablutions, and Malays rarely use utensils.
It is uncertain when the Malay culinary traditions took shape, but the earliest record of the tradition is from the 15th century when Malacca Sultanate became the important trade centre in the Malay archipelago. The most important legacy of Malacca derived from its involvement in the spice trade, its openness to the ingredients and culinary techniques introduced by foreigners notably the Arabs, Persians, Chinese and Indians and its cultivation of a rich eclectic gastronomy. Malacca was also a catalyst for the development of two other rich and unique culinary cultures which are the fusion of Malay with Chinese and European traditions, cuisines respectively known as Nyonya and Eurasian. In the centuries before and after Malacca, there were other non-Malay groups from Buginese, Javanese to Minangkabau who were absorbed into Malay society at different times, aided by similarity in lifestyle and common religion, and had varying degrees of influence on Malay food.
It is important to understand the nuance and differences of what makes a dish Malay, which is intertwined with the differences between the concept of Malay as an ethnic group or as a race. In Indonesia, Malay cuisine is more specifically refer to the cuisine of ethnic Malay people that traditionally inhabit east coast of Sumatra, Malay Peninsula and coastal Borneo. In Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and outside of Malay archipelago (such as Sri Lanka and South Africa) however, the term "Malay cuisine" are often took a broader scope, which includes those culinary traditions of other neighbouring common Austronesian peoples; which often includes Minangkabaus, Javanese and Bugis, or even its fusion derivative.
Nasi lemak, rice cooked in rich coconut milk probably is the most popular dish ubiquitous in Malay town and villages. Nasi lemak is considered as Malaysia's national dish. Another example is ketupat or nasi himpit, compressed rice cooked in palm leaves, is popular especially during Hari Raya. Various meats and vegetables could be made intogulaior kari, a type of curry dish with variations of spices mixtures that clearly display Indian influence already adopted by Malay people since ancient times. Since most Malays are Muslims, Malay cuisine rigorously observes the Islamichalal dietary law. Protein intake are mostly taken from beef, water buffalo, goat, and lamb meat, and also includes poultry and fishes. Pork and any non-halal meats, also alcohol is prohibited and absent from Malay daily diet. Laksa, a hybrid of Malay and Chinese cuisine is also a popular dish. Malay cuisine also adopted some their neighbours' cuisine traditions, such as rendang adopted from Minangkabau cuisine in Sumatra, nasi ulam from Betawi cuisine and satays from Javanese cuisine in Java. However, the Malays have developed distinctive tastes and recipes.
Nearly every culture and language has contributed to the culinary language. Including Malay, it also possessed its own terminologies of food that embrace its preparation, method of cooking, and numerous unique food names. The Malay food terminologies has been shaped by cultural transmission over many generations. The average Malay parents would usually bequeath the skill and process of cooking to their children through it terminologies that act as medium of transmitting that occurs not only during daily cooking activities, traditional events but also during wedding ceremony.
In Malay food preparation, varieties of ingredients used are often described as spicy and flavorful as it is melting pot of spices, herbs and roots. Strong, tangy and flavorful fresh herbs, spices and ingredients such as serai (lemongrass), pandan (screwpine), kemangi (a type of basil), kesum (polygonum), buah pala (nutmeg), kunyit (turmeric) and bunga kantan (wild ginger buds), biji sawi (mustard seeds) and halba (fenugreek) are often used. Apart from the Malay ingredients terminologies, another important aspect for Malay food terminologies is the equipment and utensils used. Several traditional Malay cooking equipments including several types of grinders called lesung batu (pestle and mortar), batu giling (stone roller), and the batu boh (mill) used for preparing spices and pastes. Vegetables are diced on a landas (wooden board); while a coconut scraper or kukur niyur is indispensable in making both curries and sweets. Pastries are also made for desserts and for this a torak (rolling pin) and papan penorak (pastry board) are considered essential. Besides the preparation and the cooking methods, food names also play an important role in Malay food terminologies. Malay foods are typically are named after factors such as the appearance of the food, the way food is prepared, places, people and by certain event or incident. Some well-known Malay food names include buah melaka, lompat tikam, badak berendam, tahi itik, cek mek molek, serabe, beriani gam, cakar ayam, and nasi dagang.
Different cultures and language tend to have their own unique ways of cooking and each of them has different terminologies which often come from historical necessities. Traditional cooking methods in Malay cuisine are quite similar to life in Malay villages, slow and laidback as most authentic Malay delicacies cooked on low heat for a long time as compared to Chinese food. There are numerous methods of cooking terminologies that are used in Malay cooking that consist of dry and moist methods.Tumis (use a small amount of oil or fat in a shallow pan over relatively high heat), salai (smoked or grilled food on the fire such as dried fish and the ingredients are usually cut into pieces or thinly sliced to facilitate fast cooking), sangai (method of cooking whereby food mainly dries spices are frying without oil), layur (warm over low heat to dry) are examples of terminologies for dry-heat cooking methods. On the other hand, moist-heat cooking method includes terms such as tanak (cooking in a pot especially rice), jerang (boiling or simmering normally used of liquids), celur (blanching or dipping something such as vegetable into the hot water) and reneh (simmering or boiling food).
As defined by Ainuddin, Malay food has five characteristics:
Roti prata is a Malay Singaporeans' signature dish. Roti prata is a fried flatbread that is cooked over a flat grilling pan. It is prepared by flipping the dough into a large thin layer before folding the outside edges inwards.
Dendeng is a thinly sliced dried meat. Dendeng preserved through a mixture of sugar and spices and dried via a frying process. It clearly shows Minangkabau-influences.
Ayam golek or ayam percik, grilled chicken with spicy sauce.
Ayam goreng, a generic term for deep fried chicken, typically marinated in a base of seasonings prior to cooking.
Ayam goreng kunyit, deep fried chicken, marinated in a base of turmeric and other seasonings.
Ayam masak merah, a casserole of chicken pieces in dried chillies sambal. It tends to be a home-cooked dish, so many variations on the recipe exist.
Ayam pansuh, a dish prepared by cooking chicken meat in a bamboo stalk, filled with water (which will later be the soup), seasonings and covered with tapioca leaves from the cassava plant.
Begedil, spherical fritters made from mashed potato and occasionally ground meat.
Bihun belacan, rice vermicelli dressed in a gravy made from ground chillies, belacan, tamarind, and dried shrimp. It is garnished with cured cuttlefish, julienned cucumber, bean sprouts and century egg wedges.
Bihun kari, rice vermicelli mixed with curry, served with mung bean sprout, fried tofu and red chillies sambal.
Bobotie, Cape Malay dish consisting of spiced minced meat baked with an egg-based topping.
Bubur cha cha, breakfast dish prepared using pearled sago, sweet potatoes, yams, bananas, coconut milk, pandan leaves, sugar and salt.
Bubur lambuk, a savoury rice porridge consumed during the fasting month of Ramadhan, made with a mixture of lemongrass, spices, vegetables, and chicken or beef. It is usually cooked communally at a local mosque, which is then distributed to the congregation as a meal to break the fast every evening.
Kacang pool, a stew of cooked broad beans served with vegetable oil, cumin, and optionally with chopped parsley, garlic, onion, lemon juice, chili pepper and other vegetable, herb and spice ingredients.
Kerabu, a type of salad-like dish which can be made with any combination of cooked or uncooked fruits and vegetables, as well as the occasional meat or seafood ingredient. There are many kerabu recipes, the populer one is kerabu taugeh.
Kerutuk daging, a type of coconut milk-based curry. Traditionally it is best eaten with white rice, sambal belacan and ulam.
Ketupat, a type of glutinous rice dumpling that has been wrapped in a woven palm leaf pouch and boiled. As the rice cooks, the grains expand to fill the pouch and the rice becomes compressed. This method of cooking gives the ketupat its characteristic form and texture. Usually eaten with rendang (a type of dry beef curry) or served as an accompaniment to satay or gado-gado. Ketupat is also traditionally served by Malays at open houses on festive occasions such as Eid al-Fitr.
Kuning, rice dish cooked with turmeric, lemongrass, salt, bay leaves, and other spices to taste.
Kurma, chicken or mutton braised with a medley of ground spices, nuts, and coconut milk or grated coconut.
Kuzi ayam, a very unique thick based curry. Traditionally it is best eaten with white rice, sambal belacan and ulam.
Kwetiau goreng, stir fried flat rice noodle dish from Indonesia and popular in other Malay countries. The Malay version is without pork.
Laksa, a spicy noodle soup dish that consists of thick wheat noodles or rice vermicelli with chicken, prawn or fish, served in spicy soup based on either rich and spicy curry coconut milk or on sour asam (tamarind or gelugur) with various types.
Laksa asam, sour, fish and tamarind-based soup of laksa.
Lakso, noodle dish served in savoury yellowish coconut milk-based soup, flavoured with fish, and sprinkled with fried shallots.
Lekor, a speciality of the state of Terengganu and other states on the east coast of Peninsula Malaysia, is a savoury cake made from a combination of batter and shredded fish. Sliced and fried just before serving, it is eaten with hot sauce.
Mi jawa, noodle dish made up of yellow egg noodle drenched in blended sweet potato base with tomato sauce and prawn stock.
Mi kari, curry noodles made up of thin yellow noodles and/or string thin rice vermicelli with spicy curry soup, sambal, coconut milk, spices and a choice of toppings.
Mi kolo, light and tossed noodles in a transparent sauce.
Mi rebus, a famous noodle dish which consists of mee (noodle, salt and egg) served with a tangy, spicy and sweet potato-based sauce. It is sometimes also called mee jawa, perhaps as a nod to its Javanese origins.
Mi siam, noodle dish of fried thin rice vermicelli with spicy gravy.
Nasi minyak, rice flavoured with whole dried spices and ghee, usually served with rendang. As the name implies, it is on the buttery and rich side (minyak means oil). A variation of nasi minyak dyed in multiple shades of colour is called nasi hujan panas.
Nasi padang, a steamed white rice served with an array–sometimes as many as twelve or more–of pre-cooked dishes, the mini banquet usually laid out style in small plates.
Nasi tumpang, a rice packed in a cone-shaped banana leaf. A pack of nasi tumpang consists of an omelette, meat floss, chicken or shrimp curry and sweet gravy. The dish originating from Kelantan.
Nasi ulam, steamed rice dish mixed with various herbs, especially the leaves of Centella asiatica or often replaced with kemangi, vegetables, spices and accompanied with various side dishes.
Otak-otak, a spicy fish cake grilled in a banana leaf wrapping.
Pekasam, the Malay term for fermented food. In Malay cookery, pekasam usually refers to freshwater fish fermented with salt, palm sugar, toasted rice grains and pieces of asam gelugur. Making pekasam is a tradition in South Kalimantan as well as in northern states of Peninsular Malaysia. Chenderoh Lake in the state of Perak is a hub for freshwater fishing as well as the production of pekasam.
Pasembur, a salad of shredded cucumber, boiled potatoes, fried bean curd, turnip, bean sprouts, prawn fritters, spicy fried crab, and fried octopus.
Perut ikan, a spicy stew comprising mainly vegetables, herbs and getting its distinctive taste mainly from fish bellies preserved in brine and Piper sarmentosum.
Pindang, fish or eggs cooked in salt and certain spices.
Pulut, glutinous rice is a type of short-grained Asian rice that is especially sticky when cooked. It is widely used during the Raya festive seasons as traditional food.
Rendang, a spicy meat stew originating from the Minangkabau ethnic group of Indonesia, and adopted by Malay throughout archipelago. Rendang is traditionally prepared by the Malay community during festive occasions.
Rojak, traditional fruit and vegetable salad dish with various types, it clearly shows Javanese influences.
Rojak bandung, a rojak dish consists of boiled water spinach, cucumber, cuttlefish, and dressed with a black shrimp paste sauce with added garlic and chilli paste.
Roti jala, a special bread with a five-hole perforation used to make the bread looks like a fish net. It is usually eaten as an accompaniment to a curried dish, or served as a sweet with serawa. Serawa is made from a mixture of boiled coconut milk, brown sugar and pandan leaves.
Roti john, a spiced meat omelette sandwich, popularly eaten for breakfast or as a snack.
Roti tissue, a variant of roti canai made as thin as a piece of 40–50 cm round-shaped tissue in density. It is then carefully folded by the cook into a tall, conical shape and left to stand upright. Roti tissue may be served with curry gravy, dal and chutneys, or finished off with sweet substances such as caramelised sugar and eaten as a dessert.
Samosa or samoosa, Malay-style of samosa—a fried or baked pastry with a savoury filling, such as spiced potatoes, onions, rousong, cheese, beef or other meats.
Sata, a traditional dish from Terengganu, consisting of spiced fish meat wrapped in banana leaves and cooked on a grill.
Sup ikan, fish soup specialty of Riau Islands that made of usually red snapper and dried shrimp, seasoned with shallot, garlic, pepper, soy sauce, fish sauce, add with tomato, scallion and fried shallots.
Sup kambing, a hearty mutton soup slow simmered with aromatic herbs and spices, and garnished with fried shallots and fresh cilantro.
Ulam, a traditional salad of undressed herbs, greens and vegetables which may be cooked or uncooked. An ulam spread may include items such as banana blossoms, cucumber, winged beans, pegaga leaves, petai, and yardlong beans. Ulam is typically eaten with a pungent dipping sauce like sambal belacan.
Balado, hot and spicy sauce, made by stir frying ground red hot chili pepper with other spices including garlic, shallot, tomato and key lime juice in coconut or palm oil.
Budu, an anchovies sauce known in Kelantan and Terengganu in Malaysia, Riau Islands, South Sumatra, Bangka Belitung and Western Kalimantan in Indonesia as well as Southern Thailand.
Kerisik, coconut-based condiments made by grated, toasted, then ground to a paste. It is sometimes referred to as coconut butter. It can be made at home or bought ready made. It is used in dishes such as kerabu salads and rendang.
Sambal, not a dish in itself, but a common chilli-based condiments to accompany most of foods.
Sambal gesek, sambal that made by pounding fried anchovies, cili padi, onions, and garlic together and then fried until fragrant.
Sambal sotong, squid are cooked in a sambal-based sauce, made with chilies, shallots, garlic, stewed tomatoes, tamarind paste and belacan.
Serikaya, a jam made from a base of coconut milk, eggs and sugar.
Serunding, spiced meat floss originating from Javanese cuisine. Serunding may also refer to any dish where the primary meat or vegetable ingredient is shredded and pulled into thin strands. In Indonesia, this term strictly refers to a dry-toasted grated coconut mix instead.
Tempoyak, a popular Malay delicacy. It is durian extract which is preserved and kept in an urn. Commonly eaten with chillies and other dishes.
Kue and kuih (plural: kuih muih) is a selection of confectionery eaten as a snack during the morning or during midday, and are an important feature during festive occasions. It is a tradition shared by both the Malay and the Peranakan communities.
Agar-agar, the Malay word for a species of red algae. A natural vegetarian gelatin counterpart, agar-agar is used to make puddings and flavoured jellies like almond tofu, as well as fruit aspics.
Akok, a traditional sweet dessert in Kelantan, Malaysia. Made mainly from eggs, coconut milk, flour and brown sugar, akok have a distinctive sweet caramel taste. It is often served during afternoon snack together with coffee. Akok is prepared in a special cooking utensil called "dapur tembaga" made with solid brass of which it will be placed surrounded with charcoal.
Apam balik, terang bulan or martabak manis (in Indonesia), it is a bread like puff with sugar, corn, and coarse nut in the middle.
Bahulu, a traditional sponge cake with round shape.
Bika ambon, a sponge cake made from ingredients such as tapioca flour, eggs, sugar, yeast and coconut milk. This cake is specialty of North Sumatra.
Bingka ubi, a baked kuih of grated tapioca mixed with a little tapioca flour (derived from the residue of the juice after the grated tapioca is squeezed to remove bitterness), coconut milk and white or brown sugar. The kuih is yellow if white caster sugar is used and brown if raw sugar or palm sugar (gula Malaka) is used. After baking a delicious dark brown crust tops the cake.
Cara berlauk, cake which made up of flour, egg, coconut milk and turmeric. The mixture is mixed thoroughly before being cooked in a special mould until it hardens. Before it hardens, a filling made up either spiced beef or chicken is added. This kuih is very popular in the month of Ramadhan.
Clorot, a traditional cake with Javanese-influenced that made from a mixture of gula apong and rice flour, then rolled with palm leaves into cones and steam cooked.
Dadar gulung or ketayap, a pankace mix filled with coconut filling. Traditionally,the juice of pandan leaves is added to the pancake batter to get the green colour. Today green colouring is added and the flavour of the pandan leaves is obtained by artificial essence or by using pandan leaves to flavour the filling.
Dodol, a sweet, sticky, and thick toffee-like confection, made with heavily reduced coconut milk, jaggery, and rice flour.
Epok epok or karipap, a small pie consisting of specialised curry with chicken and potatoes in a deep-fried pastry shell. The curry is especially thick and rich to prevent itself from running.
Kalu dodol, a solid toffee- and jelly-like confection made by lengthy reduction of coconut milk, thickened with rice flour and sweetened with jaggery. This dish is specialty of Sri Lankan Malaycuisine.
Kochi, a pyramid of glutinuous rice flour filled with a sweet peanut paste.
Koe'sister, a traditional Cape Malay pastry often described as a spicy dumpling with a cake-like texture, finished off with a sprinkling of coconut.
Kaswi, rice cakes made with palm sugar. The ingredients are mixed into a batter and poured into small cups (traditionally, it is done with Chinese tea cups). When served, the cup is removed and the rice cake is topped with grated coconut flesh.
Keria, sweet potato doughnuts. They resemble just like the regular ones except that they are made with sweet potato. Each doughnut is rolled in caster sugar. This is usually eaten in Malaysia during breakfast or in the morning tea hours of the day, along with other cakes such as apam or the more savoury pratha.
Ku, a small round or oval-shaped with soft, sticky glutinous rice flour skin wrapped around a sweet filling in the centre.
Lapis sagu or sembilan lapis, a steamed multicoloured and multilayered firm kuih made from tapioca flour, coconut milk, and flavoured with pandan. The layers are separately steamed.
Lapis sarawak, a layered cake served in Sarawak on special occasions. Its origin in a form of layer cake with various spices found in Indonesia called lapis legit.
Makmur, a traditional cake made from butter, ghee and flour. Served during special occasion of Eid al-Fitr and identified with its white colour and usually in a round shape.
Pai ti, a thin and crispy pastry tart shell filled with a spicy, sweet mixture of thinly sliced vegetables and prawns.
Pinjaram, a saucer-shaped deep fried fritter with crisp edges and a dense, chewy texture towards the centre.
Pulut tekan, just a plain glutinous rice cake. It is served with kaya (jam from pandan leaves) coconut jam. The glutinous rice cakes are coloured with bunga telang. Half-cooked glutinous rice is divided into two portions. Both are them added with coconut milk but one of them is added with the bunga telang juice. This gives the rice cake a very bright blueish-indigo colour which is appealing to children. The half-cooked glutinous rice is then scooped in alternating fashion into the original tray to give it a marble effect of blue and white. The rice is then cooked some more and when it is cooked and cooled, it is cut into tall rectangles.
Seri muka, a two-layered dessert with steamed glutinous rice forming the bottom half and a green custard layer made with pandan juice (hence the green colour). Coconut milk is a key ingredient in making this kuih. It is used as a substitute for water when cooking the glutinous rice and making the custard layer.
Talam (lit. tray cake), a kuih consisting of two layers. The top white layer is made from rice flour and coconut milk, while the bottom green layer is made from green pea flour and extract of pandan leaf.
Wajik, a compressed Malay confection made of glutinous rice cooked with coconut milk and palm sugar.
Dadiah, a dairy-based dessert made from milk, sugar and salt which has been acidified with whey (obtained by fermenting milk overnight with asam gelugur) and steamed to form a custard like texture, it clearly shows Minangkabau cuisine influences.
^Rosemary Brissenden (2007). Southeast Asian Food: Classic and Modern Dishes from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Periplus Editions. pp. 175–176. ISBN978-0-7946-0488-2.