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Southeast Asian Cuisine: Malaysia

In the first of a four part series, Penelope Walsh explores the natural evolution of Malaysia’s fusion food

Written by . Published on July 20th 2011.

Southeast Asian Cuisine: Malaysia

IN almost every large town on the Malaysian peninsula, there is a Little India, filled with pungent smoky smells and vibrant acid brights, and a Chinatown, with the obligatory red, gold and cartoonish kitsch. And then, there are the British influences, the Portuguese influences and the Dutch influences. That’s before we even touch on the strong, cultural identity of the native Malays.

Just like its southerly sister Singapore, Malaysia is a multicultural society, a true melting pot of cultures, which whilst visibly distinct, have inevitably had a significant impact on one another. Nowhere, is this more evident, than in Malaysia’s food culture.

Local FoodLocal food

Char Kway Teow, for example, is now considered a Malaysian classic. It was, however, dreamt up in Penang (one of the strongest footholds of the Straits Chinese), as a cheap way of filling the stomachs of the predominantly Chinese labourers. The Chinese influence is clear, not only in the origins and name, but in the use of staple Chinese ingredients such as rice noodles, fish cakes, garlic and soy. In some ways, it is the Chicken Tikka Masala of Malaysia; it may have been created in Malaysia, but its parentage is clear.

Tukdin restaurant in Paddington boasts that Malaysian cuisine is the original fusion cuisine. Run by Mr. Tukdin and his family, their menu offers ‘traditional and modern Malaysian food’. “Modern Malaysian food,” Tukdin explains, “reflects this natural fusion of Malay, Indian and Chinese culture. The influence of Chinese cuisine is far reaching. Like Char Kway Teow,” he tells me, “Hawker food, fried rice and noodle dishes all find their origins in Chinese cuisine.”

Nyonya Dishes In The Baba Nyonya House MalaccaNyonya dishes

The greatest numbers of Chinese came to Malaysia in an economic migration as labourers (or ‘coolies’) in the mid-nineteenth century onwards. The first Chinese, however, came to Malacca centuries before, during the Ming Dynasty (in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries). This was the result of a strategic marriage between the Sultan of Malacca and the daughter of the Chinese Emperor, whose sizeable entourage founded the first Chinese settlement in Malaysia at Bukit Hill in Malacca. Many of these initial Chinese settlers adopted Malay customs, and married local Malays. Their descendents became known as the Peranakan, with men referred to as Baba and women as Nyonya. The Babas and Nyonyas adopted Malay language, customs and cooking, which gave rise to a unique and naturally evolved fusion cuisine, known now as Nyonya Cuisine.

 This fusion, Tukdin tells me, is less a fusion of techniques, than of ingredients. In fact, he suggests that many Nyonya dishes are almost Chinese adaptations of classic, Malay dishes. This, he explains, is often achieved with the “addition of Chinese herbs and spices such as star anise, five spice powder and candlenut”. The spectrum of salty, sour, hot (from chilli) is common to both Nyonya and Malay cuisine. As such, the balance of the two cuisines is similar; it is the flavours that differ. With the exception, Tukdin says, that Nyonya cuisine tends to be sweeter. This is due to the use of coconut milk as well as the quintessentially Chinese tendency towards adding sugar to savoury dishes. Tukdin gives me a few examples. Literally meaning ‘hot sour’, Assam Pedas is a traditional Malay dish, from the Malacca region. According to Tukdin, “The Chinese added pickled cabbage and sugar, and it became Nyonya Asam Pedas”. Again, the Malay Curry Laksa transforms into the famous Nyonya dish Laksa Lemak, with the addition of tofu, noodles and Chinese spices.

Prawn Laksa 196968Prawn Laksa

But the character and evolution of Nyonya cuisine can be much more complex. Malaysia’s two capitals of Nyonya culture are Malacca and Penang. Such is the broad range of influences evident in Malaysian food culture, however, that Nyonya cuisine can differ between the two. The Nyonya cuisine of Malacca displays strong Indonesian influences, revealing considering both were under Dutch control for a significant time. As such, Malacca’s Nyonya cuisine tends to be sweeter than that of Penang, and coconut milk is used prolifically. In contrast, Penang’s Nyonya cuisine follows the lead of neighbouring Thailand, veering towards a much sourer, tangy flavour. This sour flavour is often created with pastes made from sour fruits such as tamarind, green mango and belimbing, a sourer relative of starfruit.

Charkwayteow 197015Charkwayteow

In recent years, there have been moves in Peninsular Malaysia to preserve the unique cultural heritage of the Peranakan. So, I ask Tukdin, is the tradition of Nyonya cuisine still alive and well? “Well, the development of Nyonya cuisine has been curtailed” he says. Originally, the Nyonya spoke Malay and adopted Malay culture. Whereas, today’s generation of Chinese, Tukdin tells me, are keen to preserve their Chinese heritage, and as such most speak Chinese at home, and eat Chinese food. The Nyonya are in fact a small minority compared to the descendants of Chinese coolies, who did not adopt Malay customs with the same gusto. As such, curtailed the cuisine might be, but I just hope that this unique cultural pocket of the Peninsula continues to be celebrated.



Mr. Tukdin’s wide range of authentic Malaysian dishes.  


Specialists in Nyonya cuisine. Try the colourful Kuih-Kuih cakes.

Rasa Sayang

Sizeable selection of Singaporean style Chinese-Malay fusion food.

An Introduction to Malaysian Cooking at Mosimann’s Academy

Royal Warrant holder Anton Mosimann’s cooking school offers a hands on introduction with Malaysian chef Fazal Mahbob.


Follow @penelopewalsh on Twitter

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AnonymousAugust 23rd 2011.

I really liked that article! I had no idea that Chinese had that much influence on Malay food. What an interesting read!

AnonymousSeptember 7th 2011.

Very interesting article! Enjoyed reading it! More of these please!

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