Malaysia doesn't tend to feature on most gastronomic radar screens. Far less visited than Vietnam and Thailand, with much smaller expatriate and migrant populations than the Indian subcontinent and China, its food is little-known and infrequently available outside the largest capitals.
But with large Chinese and Indian minorities, a land border with Thailand and close proximity to Indonesia, food in Malaysia not only captures many of the methods, ingredients and dishes of more famous Asian cuisines, but also combines them in new and beguiling ways. There are Indian-inspired fried and filled flatbreads, stir-fries adapted to Malay tastes for sour and hot flavours and Thai-style curries aromatic with seasonings like fennel seed, cloves, cinnamon and star anise. With the exception of the desserts, which like many in the region tend to be appealing only to those who encountered them at an early age, it’s difficult to think of a category which is not well-served.
Ever since a trip to Malaysia some 8 years ago, I’ve always been on the lookout for chances to experience the food again, finding good options in New York and Washington D.C., and, less consistently, in London. But Malaysian food has been almost omnipresent in these parts of late. First, G’s brother got engaged to a lovely Malaysian woman, who’s turned out to be a skilled and enthusiastic cook. Our visits to them in Nottingham seem to generate a whirlwind of kitchen activity, and tables loaded with dishes reflecting both her own Chinese background and the Indian, Nyonya and Eurasian influences on Malay food. My interest in Malay food is being encouraged too, with gifts of hard-to-find ingredients like palm sugar and Malay curry powder, and a book of classic recipes.
Closer to home, a converted bus pulled into Brixton a month or so back, parking on a market side street previously dominated by Afro-Caribbean food vans. It serves up Anglo-Chinese standards like black bean beef and sweet and sour chicken to local residents and office workers. But the specials are Malaysian classics, including one of my all-time favourites: nasi lemak, a fantastic combination of coconut rice and chicken curry garnished with crispy anchovies, red-skin peanuts, a spicy vegetable sauce (sambal) and hard-boiled eggs. It’s about as far away from a boring sandwich as lunchtime can get, and at £4 for an enormous portion, far better value too.
With its myriad components, nasi lemak is not a dish that even most Malaysians make at home. But the chicken curry which forms a major part of it is much more accessible, with the added bonus that any extra gravy can be served alongside the rich flatbreads known as parathas (often found in the freezer section of Asian groceries) to make another delicious dish, roti canai.
Malay Chicken Curry (Ayam Masak Merah)
The name of this dish translates as chicken cooked in red, a reference to the large amount of tomato paste used. If your local Asian shop doesn’t sell a Malaysian or Singaporean curry powder, try to find one that contains as many of the following ingredients as possible: coriander seed; chili; fennel; cumin; turmeric; white pepper; aniseed; cinnamon and clove.
Although generating a bit of a mess, the process and ingredients used are relatively simple. It needs nothing more than plain rice and a green vegetable alongside.
Active time: 45 minutes+; Total time: 2 hours
Special ingredients: food processor and mortar and pestle/spice grinder
1 kg dark meat chicken parts (bone-in, skin-on)
1 tbsp curry powder
½ tsp turmeric
2 large onions
6 cloves garlic
Small piece ginger (1/2 a finger length)
3 fresh red chiles
½ tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
¼ tsp black peppercorns
3 cardamom pods
short cinnamon stick
200 ml tomato paste
400 ml coconut milk
Marinate chicken pieces in curry powder and turmeric for 1 hour.
Heat a thin film of oil in a large, heavy, lidded pan. Brown the chicken in batches until it gets a good crust. Remove from pan and set aside.
Peel and quarter onions. Peel garlic and ginger. Remove chili tops. Blend to a paste in the food processor. Set aside.
In a small pan, dry-fry cloves, fennel seed, cumin seed and peppercorns for a few minutes until fragrant. Grind in the mortar and pestle. Set aside.
Add a bit more oil to the large pan and place on medium heat. Fry the remaining spices for a minute or two. Add the onion, garlic, ginger and chili paste and stir until fragrant. Add the ground spices and tomato puree. Add a splash of water and cook until the oil begins to separate.
Pour in coconut milk.
Add chicken pieces and cover. Simmer gently until chicken is cooked through and gravy thickens, 40 minutes minimum.