Online Issues / Summer 2013 (Vol. 1, Online Issues)

Everyday Malaysian


Coconut Milk, Chilies, and Pandan Leaf: Everyday Malaysian Cooking

By Sophie Lewis | Photos by Suzanne M. Lewis | Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

A long overdue trip to visit ex-pat relatives in Southeast Asia leads to a Malaysian food cooking class. Four hours of cooking later, there’s a four-course, homemade meal on the table ready to be enjoyed. Find some recipes below to get your own taste of this Malaysian summer.

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 “Here, try this.” A metal plate of warm Roti Chennai was pushed across the table toward me and I quickly pulled off a piece and put it in my mouth. The thin layers of fried bread were so hot that they almost burned my tongue but I was too hungry to mind. Inside the folded layers was sweet kaya, a caramel-colored coconut jam filling. I quickly reached for more before my sisters could gobble it all up. The 23-hour plane ride to Malaysia the day before had done nothing to dampen our appetites, and we were all very glad that we’d decided to get our first taste of the city by doing a tour of old town Kuala Lumpur.

malP_1Kuala Lumpur (or as the locals call it, KL) is the capital city of Malaysia, a country that is home to over 20 distinct ethnic groups, the largest of which being the Malayu, Chinese Malaysian, and Indian Malaysian. The combination of the cultures and religions of these various ethnic groups make Malaysian national cuisine anything but homogenous; it’s a fusion of ingredients, cooking methods, and cultural experiences that come from all over the country. While we’re all familiar with Bombay Frankie’s 3am roti roll on Amsterdam, here in Malaysia there is so much variety in ingredients and cooking methods that you could never find the particular roti I’ve been enjoying in Kuala Lumpur in Manhattan.

 Food is integral to Malaysian culture: often central to religious and social events, the many different offerings available to eat in Malaysia are impossible to separate from the people who prepare the food and the people who enjoy eating it. To get a first-hand experience of the culture that surrounds Malaysian cuisine, my family decided to take a cooking class to learn how to prepare kuih cara berlauk, sago gula melaka, nasi lemak, and sambal udang, all traditional dishes from the Malayu ethnic group.

Getting to that cooking class, however, first required navigating the often nerve-racking KL traffic. “Something tells me this isn’t it,” my aunt sighed in frustration. After a 45-minute drive through rush-hour traffic, our GPS had led us to a strip mall with a few car dealerships and a halal grocery store, but no cooking school in sight. Luckily someone leaned out of a second-floor window above an Islamic Montessori preschool and called us in; we’d been easily spotted as the only foreigners amidst the locals doing their morning shopping and car salesmen hoping to make a commission.

Upstairs, we found the kitchen with just a few oscillating fans providing a weak breeze. I felt beads of sweat form on my neck and realized that we hadn’t even fired up a single wok yet—if we were hoping for relief from the unrelenting Malaysian heat, we weren’t going to find it today. Our instructor, a smiling Malayu woman named Saadiah who had previously worked as a chef in a restaurant, greeted us with a cheery “Salamat Datang!” (“warm welcome” in Bahasa Malay, the official language of Malaysia). As Saadiah described the menu, her assistants carried trays of unidentifiable spices, roots, and herbs out of the prep area. There was no time to feel apprehensive as Saadiah brought us over to our workstations and began the class.

Most Malaysian food is fried and involves chilies, even if it’s not very spicy, and our first dish was no exception. Kuih cara berlauk  (pronounced “kway char buhlouw”) was defined to us loosely as “little meat cups” and consisted of a coconut milk batter, fried ground beef filling, and a topping of chilies, green onions, and deep-fried scallions. We prepared the three components separately and then fried them together in a special mold. The curry powder in the ground beef filling gave the final dish a tangy but also subtly sweet flavor, while the chilies gave it a kick and the fried scallions added crunch. Following Saadiah’s recommendations to eat the kuih cara berlauk while still hot, I devoured my batch almost as soon as they hit the plate. I still had three more dishes to prepare and eat after this one, so it might have been better to exercise a bit of restraint…

malP_2For our next dish we used sago, a grain similar to rice that bears an uncanny resemblance to crumbled bits of Styrofoam, to make sago gula melaka, a dessert a bit like rice pudding. In addition to looking like Styrofoam, sago also feels like crumbled up Styrofoam: the small white spheres stuck to my hands and spoon as I poured them in boiling water. While we waited for the sago to become translucent and release its starch, Saadiah told us about cooking, “Thai, Cantonese Chinese, Northern Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Chennai Indian, Punjabi, Indonesian, Malayu, Chinese Malaysian, Indian Malaysian cuisine, and Western food” in her restaurant. I thought how unfortunate it is that we lack this amazing variety of Asian foods in the US, only to realize that Malaysians must suffer from the exact same problem in reverse. That’s geography for you, am I right? While chilling the now-transparent sago in the fridge, we chopped up palm sugar, a cross between maple sugar and molasses with a subtle spiciness, and boiled it with lime into syrup to pour over our chilled sago. Saadiah then briskly moved us along to begin preparing the nasi lemak.

While a humbly simple dish, nasi lemak, meaning “coconut rice,” is the national food of Malaysia. While it may seem odd to have selected something so simple when there are so many bold and exotic dishes characteristic of Malaysia, the subtle sweetness of nasi lemak is actually the perfect base for a variety of spicy dishes. Saadiah explained that lemak can also mean “fat” and lamented, “When I married my husband 31 years ago, he was nice and slim. Very handsome looking. Now, after 31 years of marriage, I am the one who bore 6 children, but he is always 7 months pregnant! He likes nasi lemak too much!” We all laughed and promised to heed this warning as we ripped up pandan leaf, a long and thin fresh green herb used in sweet and savory dishes to impart a subtle flavor and aroma to the food, and put it in our cooking rice.

Finally we were ready to prepare our last dish, sambal udang, or “prawns in sambal,” a sauce made with chilies, shrimp paste, lemongrass and shallots that can be served on almost any type of protein as a main dish (or, as Saadiah told us, as a sandwich). Malaysia is a peninsula, so seafood is a major part of all types of cuisine, and as such, prawns are a typical Malaysian lunch. Pounding all the ingredients in a mortar and pestle until fine made my eyes water, but I was happily rewarded with the bold and intriguing taste of shallots and lemongrass mixed together with the spice of the chilies in the completed version of the dish. A successful end (for now!) of our lesson in Malaysian cooking.

Since taking the class I’ve sampled nasi lemak and sambal udang at a few local restaurants, and I have to say that our version was the best I’ve had so far. I swear that lunch (and the leftovers that we ate for dinner) tasted better because we had cooked it ourselves. The more I discover here the more I realize how much I have left to taste of the diverse and dynamic cuisine in Malaysia. Truly experiencing Malaysian food requires full-on immersion and a leap of faith; sometimes the ingredients and flavors in a dish may be unexpected but they’re almost always gratifying. While I may never understand the appeal of durian, a local tropical fruit that smells and tastes like rotten garlic but that Malaysians consider a delicacy, I have found that my palate has expanded in ways I could never have imagined.

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Adapted with permission from Auntie Saadiah.

Nasi Lemak (“Coconut Rice”)

Serves 1-2


·      ¾ cup long-grain basmati rice

·      ¾ cup water

·      2 pandan leaves (can be found at Asia Market Corp or Hong Kong Supermarket in New York; for more info click here)

·      2 slices fresh ginger

·      ¾ teaspoon salt

·      ½ teaspoon sugar

·      ¼ cup hot water

·      ½ cup fresh coconut milk


Place the rice, ¾ cup of water, pandan leaves, and ginger in a medium-sized saucepan and cook on low heat until almost all of the water has been absorbed, stirring once or twice.

While the rice is cooking, mix together the salt and sugar and dissolve into the ¼ cup of hot water. Once dissolved, add the coconut milk and stir. Once the rice in the saucepan has absorbed all the water, pour in the coconut milk mixture and continue to cook on low heat until most of the liquid has been absorbed, about 5 minutes, stirring once or twice. Cover the saucepan with a tight-fitting lid and cook on low heat for 8 minutes more without stirring. Turn the heat off and leave covered for another 10 minutes.

Serve hot with 4-5 slices of peeled and sliced cucumber, 2-3 tablespoons of deep fried peanuts, 1 hard boiled egg cut into small pieces, 2-3 tablespoons of deep fried anchovies, over sambal udang (see recipe below), or another main dish.

Sambal Udang (Prawns in Sambal Sauce)

Serves 1


·      1 dried tamarind, seed removed

·      1 tablespoons warm water

·      ½ cup shallots, minced

·      1 garlic clove, peeled

·      ½ teaspoon shrimp paste (can be found at Asia Market Corp in New York)

·      6 dried chilies or approximately 2 tablespoons chili paste

·      1 candlenut or macadamia nut (can be found in Asia Market Corp)

·      1 stalk fresh lemongrass

·      3 tablespoons vegetable oil

·      5 or 6 medium sized prawns, de-shelled and deveined

·      1 teaspoon sugar

·      ½ teaspoon salt

·      ½ onion, sliced into rings


Set tamarind to soak in a bowl with the warm water. Using a spoon, press the tamarind onto the sides of the bowl to release its juice and turn the water brown. Set aside to continue soaking.

Pound shallots, garlic, and shrimp paste in a mortar with a pestle until it makes a fine paste, and set aside in a small bowl. If using chilies, pound in the mortar until fine and set aside. Pulverize the candlenut or macadamia nut in the mortar until fine and mix into pounded chilies or chili paste. Lightly bruise the fresh lemongrass in the mortar without crushing it.

Heat the vegetable oil in a wok over medium heat. Add the shallot mixture, lower the heat, and cook until translucent, stirring occasionally. Add the chili mixture and lemongrass and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is smooth and no longer soupy, about 8-10 minutes. Season with the sugar and salt and add the onion slices. Stir well and cook a few minutes more until the onions are translucent.

Working with the soaked tamarind, remove the seeds and pour the warm soaking-water into the wok. Bring the sauce to a boil and reduce the liquid. The sauce should not be thin or excessively watery, but should not be too dry either. Add the prawns and stir until cooked, approximately 3-4 minutes.

Serve immediately over nasi lemak. •

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To learn more about the “Keep in Touch” online issue, click here.  To see the rest of the articles in the “Keep in Touch” online issue, click here.

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