By Charlie Allen
Whether you fancy a satay chicken dish with lots of creamy peanut sauce or a simple vegetable stir-fry with a twist, many chefs and restaurateurs swear by Malaysian food.
Malaysia, in South East Asia, is often an overlooked holiday destination, not to mention food choice. Its cuisine has four key flavours: salty, sour, sweet and spicy.
Malaysian food combines many flavours with influences from Portuguese, Arab, Indian, Chinese, Thai and Indonesian cultures. “The variety of food is definitely the distinctive and exciting aspect of Malaysia,” said Andy Spracklen, manager of Malaysian chain of Ning restaurants, which began as a South East Asia eatery. “We served Thai dishes as this was more familiar to the customers. And after a few years, people started to become aware of Malaysian cuisine.”
Malaysia has always been a melting pot of cuisines and cultures, due to Chinese, Indian and European traders using Malaysia as a trading port for nearly 1,000 years. Malaysia only became independent from the British in 1957.
Spracklen has visited Malaysia nine times already. “Food is a huge part of the Malaysian culture. They will often eat five times a day, and will eat rice with every meal.” But, being vegetarian or vegan in the country can be tough, he adds. “Many vegetable dishes there are not always vegetarian and will have minced pork or shrimp paste in. You always have to ask the vendor. People will travel 90 minutes just to eat there. All we have available at gas stations and newsagents are crisps and chocolate. Everything is freshly cooked there.”
Malaysia in the UK
The Chinese and Indian communities are the two largest in Malaysia, and the food reflects this. But in England, people tend to prefer one or the other. “We find Indian is the most popular takeaway choice, closely followed by Chinese and Pizza,” said Charles Astwood, 36, founder of Dinner Deals, which represents over 9,500 restaurants nationwide.
“Malaysian cuisine is largely unknown as there are fewer Malaysian restaurants available for people to experience and enjoy.” Stanley Harper, 19, works with Malaysian Kitchen and Whynot! two London-based companies that promote and celebrate Malaysian food. “I am British and admittedly, when I started working for Malaysia Kitchen, I knew nothing of the cuisine. It has had such little coverage,” Harper said.
“But, everyone that I’ve seen try Malaysian food for the first time has loved it.” Malaysian Kitchen tries to raise public awareness of Malaysian products and restaurants through public events like October’s Malaysia Night at Trafalgar Square, the Olympic Kitchen at Stratford and Westfield and the Street Food Tour, a 49 consecutive-day demonstration during the 2012 games in which top chefs such as Rick Stein, Gary Rhodes and Norman Musa all took part, cooking in front of a live audience.
People are handed recipe cards and can taste the food, so they can then and want to cook it at home. “We usually have a product market or stall next to the cooking stage so people can buythe sauces and spices that they saw being used, straight after tasting it,” added Harper.
Norman Musa is a Malaysian chef at the Ning restaurant chain, and together with Andy Spracklen won ‘Best Malaysian Restaurant’ award in 2012. Last year, the chain saw 20,000 guests. Not bad, considering there are only about 60 Malaysian restaurants, compared with thousands of Chinese and Indian restaurants in the UK.
For the last two years, Musa and Spracklen have been on tour giving cookery classes, and Musa has appeared regularly on television, including Masterchef Malaysia.
He has also taught students in Portsmouth student halls to cook. “The student housing department had spent thousands on brand new kitchens and they weren’t even being used. International students especially were unsure about ingredients such as where to find Halal meat,” Spracklen said. “Norman really inspired them to cook basic dishes such as stir fries as he was taught to cook over the phone by his mother. When he first came to England he couldn’t even fry an egg!”
Watch Norman Musa show us how to make Prawn Fritters and have a go yourself: