Malay cuisine

Nasi lemak, one of the most popular Malay breakfast dishes.

Malay cuisine is cuisine of ethnic Malays in Malaysia, Indonesia (parts of Sumatra and West Kalimantan), Singapore, Brunei, Southern Thailand and the Philippines (mostly Southern). Different Malay regions are all known for their unique or signature dishes - Terengganu and Kelantan for their Nasi dagang, Nasi kerabu and Keropok lekor, Negeri Sembilan for its lemak-based dishes, Pahang and Perak for their gulai tempoyak, Kedah for its northern-style Asam laksa, Malacca for its spicy Asam Pedas, Riau for their ikan patin (Pangasius fish) dishes; Gulai ikan patin and Asam Pedas ikan patin, Melayu Deli of Medan North Sumatra for their Nasi goreng teri Medan (Medan anchovy fried rice) and Gulai Ketam (gulai crab)[1] and Brunei for its unique Ambuyat dish.

The main characteristic in traditional Malay cuisine is undoubtedly 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.[2]

Nearly every Malay meal is served with rice, which is also the staple food in many other Asian cultures. Although there are various type 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.[3]

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.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6] Another example is Ketupat or nasi himpit, compressed rice cooked in palm leafes, is popular especially during Hari Raya or Eid ul-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 Islamic halal 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 Peranakan 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.[7] The Malay food terminologies has been shaped by cultural transmission over many generations.[8] 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.[9]

Food preparation

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.[10] 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.[11] 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.

Cooking methods

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.[12] 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.[13] There are numerous methods of cooking terminologies that are used in Malay cooking that consist of dry and moist methods.[14] 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).[15]


Typical festive fare during Hari Raya Puasa or Hari Raya Haji (clockwise from bottom left): beef soup, nasi himpit (compressed rice cubes), beef rendang and sayur lodeh.


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 usually a selection of cakes, pastries and sweets 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:


See also


  1. Gulai Ketam
  2. James Alexander (2006). Malaysia Brunei & Singapore. New Holland Publishers. p. 58. ISBN 1-86011-309-5.
  3. World and Its Peoples: Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Brunei. New York: Marshall Cavendish Corporation. 2008. p. 1222.
  4. "Tracking down fine Malay food". Star Publications (M) Bhd. 17 October 2010. Retrieved 18 March 2011.
  5. Rosemary Brissenden (2007). Southeast Asian Food: Classic and Modern Dishes from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Periplus Editions. pp. 175–176. ISBN 978-0-7946-0488-2.
  6. "Nasi Lemak". Retrieved 6 July 2010.
  7. Omar, Asmah (2004). The Encyclopedia of Malaysia, Languages and Literature. Singapore: Didier Millet. ISBN 9789813018525.
  8. Mohamed, A; Mohamad, S; Hussain, H (2010). "Food gifts in Malay Weddings: Custom and Interpretation". Journal of Social Studies, Development and Environmental. 5 (1): 103–115.
  9. Kasim, Aishah (2008). "Malay Language As a Foreign Language And The Singapore's" (PDF). GEMA Online Journal of Language Studies. 8 (1): 47–56.
  10. Chan, Kim Lian (2011). Authenticity Representation of Malay Kelantan Ethnic Cuisine (doc). The 2nd International Research Symposium in Service Management. Yogyakarta. p. 458. Retrieved 9 February 2016.
  11. Leong, Q. L; Ab Karim, S; Selamat, J (2009). "Perceptions and acceptance of 'belacan' in Malaysian dishes" (PDF). International Food Research Journal. 16: 539–546.
  12. Levy, J; Auld, G (2004). "Cooking classes outperform cooking demonstrations for college sophomores". Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 36 (4): 197–203. PMID 15544728.
  13. S.H, Hassan (2011). "Consumption of functional food model for Malay Muslims in Malaysia". Journal of Islamic Marketing. 2 (2): 104–124.
  14. S.A, Rahman (2010). "Malay cultural and heritage tourism at Bukit Chandan, Kuala Kangsar, Perak, Malaysia". UNITAR E-JOURNAL. 6 (2).
  15. Abdullah, Khairunnisa (2014). Malay Cooking Method Terminologies: Understanding and Usage (PDF). 2nd ASEAN Entrepreneurship Conference 2014. Penang. pp. 7–12.
  16. "Pekasam". Department of Fisheries Malaysia. Retrieved 26 March 2014.
  17. Owen, Sri (1993). The Rice Book. Doubleday. ISBN 0-7112-2260-6.
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