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 (shrimp 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 Bugis, 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.
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 or Eid al-Fitr. Various meats and vegetables could be made into Gulai or 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 in Sumatra, and satays from 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 (lemon grass), 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. There is an abundance of unique food names that can be found for Malay delicacies that typically are named after the appearance of the food, the way food is prepared, places, people and by certain event or incident. Some of the famous and unique Malay food names include buah melaka, lompat tikam, badak berendam, tahi itik, cek mek molek, serabe, beriani gam, cakar ayam, nasi dagang and many more.
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).
Ayam goreng kunyit - deep fried chicken, marinated in a base of turmeric and other seasonings.
Gulai - a type of soupy curry-like dishes that could be made from various ingredients; meats, fish or vegetables. A popular one is gulai kambing (goat or mutton gulai) and Gulai Ayam (chicken gulai). Gulai ketam (crab gulai) is a speciality of Malay Deli, Medan, North Sumatra.
Kari - the Malay adaptation of curry dishes. Just like gulai, it could be made from various ingredients; meats or vegetables. A popular one is kari ayam (chicken curry).
Ikan bakar - grilled/barbecued fish with either chilli, kunyit (turmeric) or other spice based sauce.
Keropok 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.
Mee 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.
Mee bandung - a famous noodle dish cooked with dried shrimp and blended chili. Often serve with half boiled egg
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 goreng - fried rice. Nasi goreng kampung is a typical variant, traditionally flavoured with pounded fried fish (normally mackerel), though recently fried anchovies are used in place of it. Nasi goreng teri Medan (Medan anchovy fried rice), is a Malay Deli speciality of North Sumatra.
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 the northern states of Peninsular Malaysia, as well its East Coast. Chenderoh Lake in the state of Perak is a hub for freshwater fishing as well as the production of pekasam.
Satay - Satay were originally from Java and Sumatra in Indonesia, and distributed widely across the Malay Archipelago. It is widely popular and common within Indonesian cuisine with rich variations and recipes. Malay chicken satay closely resembles Madura satay with rich peanut sauce. In Malaysia, the most popular variant are Kajang satay.
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.
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 Idul Fitri (Hari Raya Aidilfitri).
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.
Roti jala - The name is derived from the Malay word roti ("bread") and jala ("net"). A special ladle 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.
Sambal sotong - squid are cooked in a sambal-based sauce, made with chilies, shallots, garlic, stewed tomatoes, tamarind paste and belacan.
Sayur lodeh - a stew of vegetables cooked in a lightly spiced coconut milk gravy. It Indonesian cuisine influences and mostly popular in Southern Region of Malaysia.
Sup kambing - a hearty mutton soup slow simmered with aromatic herbs and spices, and garnished with fried shallots and fresh cilantro.
Tempoyak - a popular Malay delicacy. It is durian extract which is preserved and kept in an urn. Commonly eaten with chillies and other dishes.
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.
Due the influence of Chinese immigrants' cuisine, Malay cuisine include noodle dishes. These include mi goreng, mi soto, mi bandung, mi racun (alias mi tulang utara), char kue tiaw, mi kolok, mi kari, bi hun goreng and mi siam.
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.
Some examples include:
Apam balik - also called terang bulan or martabak manis in Indonesia, it is a bread like puff with sugar, corn, and coarse nut in the middle.
Bingka ubi is 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.
Epok epok is 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.
Kuih akok is 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.
Kuih cara berlauk is 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.
Kuih kaswi are 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.
Kuih ketayap is 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. The coconut filling is made by adding grated coconut (dried grated coconut can be used if you cannot get fresh grated coconut) to brown sugar syrup. The syrup is made by heating brown sugar in a small quantity of water. The resulting jam-like consistency is wrapped in the pancake skin. This is done first by rolling the pancakes around the coconut filling, then folding the sides and finally rolling it again to form cylindrical parcels.
Kuih keria (a.k.a. Kuih gelang) are 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.
Kuih koci is a pyramid of glutinuous rice flour filled with a sweet peanut paste.
Kuih serimuka is 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.
Kuih talam (tray cake) is a kueh 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.
Lapis sagu (a.k.a. 9-layers kuih) is a steamed multicoloured and multilayered firm kuih made from tapioca flour, coconut milk, and flavoured with pandan. The layers are separately steamed.
Pulut inti is glutinous rice topped with caramelised grated coconut flesh and wrapped in a cut banana leaf to resemble a square pyramid.
Pulut tekan is 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.
^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.