Discover the Tastes of Malaysian Cuisine

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Linda Lombroso wrote an engaging and informative story for the food section last week, and I neglected to post it here on Small Bites. She interviewed Susheela Raghavan of New Rochelle,  right, who just published “Flavors of Malaysia: A Journey Through Time, Tastes, and Traditions” (Hippocrene Books, $40), which is, as Linda says, “a heartfelt memoir filled with photos, anecdotes and a detailed cultural history of the Malaysian people.” Linda’s story is just as heartfelt.

Plus, there are fabulous recipes from the book, including Stir Fried Sambal Shrimp, Pickled Cucumber and Carrot and Barbecued Chicken with Spicy Peanut Sauce. The story — including the recipe for Peanut Sauce, which we accidentally overlooked when publishing this story in print — is all after the jump.

By Linda Lombroso

When Susheela Raghavan first lived in the United States, she carried a bottle of homemade Malaysian chili sauce in her handbag.

As the American culinary landscape grew less bland, Raghavan ditched the hot sauce. But she remained troubled by one thing: Most Americans seemed mystified by Malaysian culture and cuisine.

So Raghavan, a food scientist and teacher, decided it was time for a book.

All photos by Carucha L. Meuse/TJN

“Flavors of Malaysia: A Journey Through Time, Tastes, and Traditions” (Hippocrene Books, $40) is more than a simple cookbook — it’s a heartfelt memoir filled with photos, anecdotes and a detailed cultural history of the Malaysian people.

Raghavan’s love for her homeland and her family is evident on every page. She vividly recalls her grandmother “grinding red chilies by hand for her fragrant sambal tumis” and her mother “handpicking kari leaves” from the garden for her aromatic crab curry. “In our culture, it was common to serve meals on fresh banana leaves,” she writes, “and we ate using our right hand, without the barriers of utensils to separate us from the natural experience of eating.”

The book succeeds in showing how many cultures live harmoniously in Malaysia, says Suvir Saran, chef-owner of Devi in Manhattan, who wrote the foreword. Malaysia’s melting pot includes Malays, Chinese, Indians and other cultures such as Nonyas, Indian Muslims (Mamaks), Kristangs and Chittys, says Raghavan, who features dishes from each group.

“She’s done a lot of the homework for us, simplifying the recipes of Malaysia and bringing them to the American table,’’ adds Saran.

But writing the book proved more than a culinary journey for its author.

“It was a healing thing for me,’’ says Raghavan, sitting in the living room of her New Rochelle home, where she tested every one of the book’s 150-plus dishes. “My mom and dad passed away, and all of these memories started coming back each time I’d write a recipe.”

Raghavan, one of nine children, remembers being in the kitchen as her mother listened to cooking shows on the radio and scribbled down notes. She collected many of those recipes for the book, adding some from other family members and a few of her own.

Many people are unaware that Malaysia’s vast ethnic diversity is reflected in its food, says Raghavan — a cuisine influenced by cultures including Indian, Chinese, Portuguese, Indonesian, Thai, Arab, Dutch and even British. Among the most popular Malaysian foods are curries, stir-fries, satays (grilled chicken or meat, often marinated with turmeric, lemongrass, coriander, shallots and cumin) and chili-based sauces called sambals. Rice and noodle dishes are also a mainstay of Malaysian cooking.

“Wet” spices, like ginger and galangal, are used in many Malaysian recipes, says Raghavan, who has a lemongrass plant growing in her kitchen — another wet spice.

Many of Raghavan’s fondest memories revolve around the festivals that would find crowds coming to her childhood home for day-long feasts.

In her book, Raghavan also devotes a section to the “street chefs” known as hawkers, whose flavorful dishes showcased Malaysian cooking as its best.

“When we grew up, we didn’t have restaurants, we had stalls and hawkers, and we never got sick,’’ she says. “My hats off to all those chef guys, all those things they would do so fast.”

Although she wasn’t interested in cooking when she left home to pursue a master’s degree in England, Raghavan has since become an accomplished chef whose dishes reflect her heritage and her love of spices. A typical home-cooked Thanksgiving meal, served to her American-born husband and daughter, might be a roast chicken infused with saffron, turmeric, soy sauce and curry powder, filled with a stuffing made with cilantro, chilis and spices.

For Raghavan, who has a master’s in food science and nutrition, creating flavors and seasonings has always been second nature — and a skill she perfected while working for companies including Nestle.

“I would create things that people loved, just out of the blue,’’ says Raghavan, recalling her days of dabbling in the lab, putting together concoctions that coworkers would devour on pasta during lunch breaks. “I balance flavors very well. That’s what they say I’m good at.”

Raghavan has lectured and published extensively over the past 20 years, preferring to call herself a “culinary creator” rather than a food scientist.

Among her books is the “Handbook of Spices, Seasonings and Flavorings,’’ a text geared to food-product developers, research chefs and culinary educators.

In 2006, she debuted a product line called A Taste of Malacca, which includes Malaysian, Southeast Asian and Indian spice blends. They’re sold at Whole Foods — and directly from Raghavan through her website — and each comes with a recipe designed to offer the home cook a simple way to create an authentic dish.

The recipes in her new book, she says, have been tweaked a bit to make them healthier, often with less oil, yet retain their authenticity. And many can be prepared, from start to finish, in under a half-hour.

Raghavan hopes her cookbook will prove that preparing Malaysian dishes is not at all intimidating — and that finally, people will understand just what it means to eat Malaysian.

Although many are still mystified when they meet Raghavan — wrongly assuming that she’s from India or Guyana, she says — hopefully the book will educate them too.

Malaysian culture is indeed something to be celebrated, says Saran.

“The reality of their lives has made them so magically wonderful, in a global way, that the rest of us can only hope that maybe 100 years from now, we’ll be somewhat like Malaysians,’’ he says.

Recipes adapted from “Flavors of Malaysia,’’ by Susheela Raghavan.

Stir-Fried Sambal Shrimp
Sambal Tumis Udang

Yield: 3 to 4 servings

“Sambals are the ubiquitous chili-based sauces of Malaysia and for most Malaysians the “soul” of a meal. Sambal tumis udang is one of our family’s favorite Malay dishes. To make it, shallots are a must and Ma or Periama would sit for hours in the kitchen peeling them. When I asked her why she didn’t use big onions so there was less to peel, she would say that the dish would not taste the same, but you can use regular onions in this recipe. Ma “tumised” the ingredients in oil, a slow-stirring technique that takes away the raw notes, and releases a wonderful aroma to the sauce.

Although it is frequently served with nasi lemak (coconut rice), Ma served it with cooked white rice, kankung belacan (spicy water spinach) and a cucumber tomato salad. Ma balanced the spicy shrimp sambal with “cooling” spices, such as fennel, star anise, cinnamon and turmeric. These spices made her recipe a truly unique sambal tumis udang, with Indian and Malay touches. I have added belacan, but it is optional. You can also use fish for this recipe.”

1 pound (about 2 heaping cups) shelled and deveined shrimp, tails intact
1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/4 cup cooking oil
1 cup (8 ounces) chopped and pureed tomatoes, or 1/2 cup tomato paste, or 1 1/2 cups tomato sauce
2 tablespoons tamarind concentrate or tamarind juice extracted from pulp
3 to 4 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt

Spice Paste:
2 tablespoons sliced garlic cloves
1 teaspoon sliced fresh ginger
2 cups sliced shallots or onions
12 to 20 whole dried red chilis (depending on desired heat), steeped in hot water for 5 to 8 minutes, slit and deseeded; or 3 to 5 tablespoon cili boh; or 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 tablespoons bottled sambal olek
4 to 6 fresh red chilis, preferably mild or deseeded (Fresno, cayenne, or cherry) sliced, or even red bell peppers
1 lemongrass stalk, sliced into 1/4 to 1/2-inch pieces
Optional: 1 teaspoon dried shrimp paste (belacan), toasted at 400 degrees for 15 minutes
1/4 cup water

Spice Blend:
2 teaspoons coarsely pounded or ground fennel seeds
1 star anise
1-inch cinnamon stick

Garnish:
1 tablespoon chopped coriander leaves (cilantro) or thinly sliced Kaffir lime leaves

Rub shrimp with turmeric. Set aside. Process spice-paste ingredients to a coarse or smooth paste.

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a wok or skillet and sauté the spice-blend ingredients for about 1/2 minute.

Add remaining oil and the spice paste and cook, stirring, for about 10 to 15 minutes, till the oil seeps out. (Note: This is when the spice paste gets to its optimum fragrance. But you can always add less oil and stir for less time and still achieve a wonderful flavor.)

Stir in the tomato puree, sauce or paste (if using paste add 2 to 4 tablespoons of water), tamarind juice, sugar and salt and sauté for another 3 to 5 minutes.

Add the seasoned shrimp and stir for about 4 minutes, till shrimp are cooked and coated well with sauce.

Garnish with coriander leaves or Kaffir lime leaves.

Serve with rice.

Pickled Cucumber and Carrot
Acar Timun Carot

Yield: 5 to 6 servings

“Cucumbers and carrots are another favorite pickle combination in Malaysia. This dish combines Indian and Malay flavor nuances to create a crunchy and delicious side dish for grilled chicken, sambal tumis udang (stir-fried shrimp in sambal), fried chicken, rich coconut-based curries and rich rice dishes such as biryanis, ghee rice and nasi dagang. The light combination of cucumbers and carrots offsets the richness of the coconut milk and ghee in these dishes. “

1 medium (1/2 pound or 2 cups) sliced cucumber (11/2 to 2-inch-long by 1/4-inch-wide pieces)
1 1/2 cups (7 1/2 ounces) peeled and sliced carrots (1 1/2-inch-long by 1/4-inch-wide pieces)
1 cup sliced shallots or red onions (1- to 1 1/2-inch by 1/8-inch pieces)
1 fresh red chili (jalapeño, Fresno, Serrano, cayenne, Thai or cherry), sliced into
1 1/2-inch-long by 1/4-inch-wide pieces
1 tablespoon salt

Dressing:
2 tablespoons rice vinegar or distilled white vinegar
7 teaspoons sugar

Optional: 1 to 2 tablespoons sliced fresh ginger

Optional garnish:
1 tablespoons cooking oil
1/4 teaspoon black or dark brown mustard seeds
1/8 teaspoon chili powder
1/8 teaspoon turmeric powder

Or …

2 tablespoons crushed unsalted roasted peanuts or other nuts
1 or 2 fresh green chilis (jalapeño, cayenne, Serrano or Thai), sliced

Rub cucumber, carrots, onions and chilis with salt and let sit in a colander weighted down by a plastic bag of water for about 15 to 20 minutes, till all liquid is drained. (Alternately, soak the vegetables in water to cover for about 15 to 20 minutes. Then drain in colander and gently squeeze out excess water.)

Combine vinegar, sugar and ginger, if using, in a non-reactive bowl. Add the vegetable mixture and coat well with the dressing.

Optional: In a small skillet, heat oil, add mustard seeds, cover, and let seeds pop. When popping subsides, uncover, add the turmeric and chili powder and stir for a few seconds. Remove from heat and pour this savory oil mixture over the pickled salad. Or top the salad with peanuts and chilis.

Barbecued Chicken and Spicy Peanut Sauce

Satay Ayam dan Kuah Kacang

Yield: 5 to 6 servings

“While most Americans associate satay with Thai cuisine, satay is really a Malaysian recipe with origins in Arab kebabs. Watching the satay man preparing this national specialty was always great fun. First he would place a dozen or so skewers of marinated chicken over a portable charcoal fire. He would then bruise a lemongrass stalk and crush it with the back of a knife. He then dipped the lemongrass “brush” in peanut oil and basted the chicken skewers (satay) while turning them. As we watched him in excited anticipation, fanning the satay, a waft of smoky delicious aroma drifted to our table, making our mouths water. The peanut sauce is essential to the true satay experience. You can substitute crunchy or smooth peanut butter for the unsalted roasted peanuts in this recipe, and the sauce tastes equally great.”

1 to 2 tablespoons thinly sliced or chopped palm sugar (gula Melaka or gula Jawa) or dark brown sugar (or use light brown sugar for a lighter color)
1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon rice vinegar or distilled white vinegar
1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken breasts, thinly sliced into 2 to 3-inch lengths**
Optional: 1 lemongrass stalk, bruised with the back of a knife, to be used as a brush for basting
1/4 to 1/2 cup cooking oil for basting

Satay marinade:
2 to 3 teaspoons sliced garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon sliced fresh ginger
3/4 cup chopped shallots or onions
1 lemongrass stalk, sliced (about 1/4 cup)
1/4 cup water

Spice blend:
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/4 teaspoon ground chili powder

Garnish:
Sliced shallot or onion rings
Sliced cucumbers

Process marinade ingredients to a smooth paste. Combine spice-blend ingredients. Add spice blend, sugar, salt and vinegar to the marinade and mix well.

Rub chicken with the spice paste to coat. Marinate for a minimum of 2 to 4 hours, but preferably overnight in the refrigerator.

Skewer marinated chicken (if using wooden skewers, soak them first in warm water for about 20 to 30 minutes to soften).

Grill chicken (preferably over charcoal fire), basting occasionally with lemongrass brush or regular basting brush dipped in the oil or oil-sugar mixture.**

*Alternatively, you can use 1/2 tablespoon of the sugar in the marinade and keep the remaining 1/2 tablespoon sugar to mix with the oil for basting the chicken.

**Alternatively, you can cut the chicken into slices or small cubes, season with the marinade paste and broil for about 8 to 10 minutes, turning after first 4 to 6 minutes.

Spicy Peanut Sauce
Kuah Kacang

Makes about 1 1/2 cups sauce

2 to 3 tablespoons cooking oil
3/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
2 tablespoons tamarind concentrate or tamarind juice extracted from pulp
About 1/4 cup packed thinly sliced or chopped palm sugar (gula Melaka or gula Jawa) or brown sugar
1 to 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 cup unsalted roasted peanuts, finely ground, or 1Ž2 cup crunchy or smooth peanut butter (preferably crunchy)
3/4 to 1 cup unsweetened coconut milk if roasted peanuts are used, or 1/4 cup if peanut butter is used
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups water

Spice Paste:
2 teaspoons chopped garlic cloves
1/4 cup chopped shallots or onions
1 teaspoon chopped fresh or frozen and thawed galangal or fresh ginger
1 to 3 dried chilies, soaked in hot water for 15 minutes, slit and deseeded; or 1/2 to 1 teaspoon cili boh; or 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon bottled sambal oelek; or 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon chile powder (depending on heat desired)
1/4 cup sliced lemongrass stalk
Optional: 1 teaspoon dried shrimp paste (belacan), toasted at 400 degrees for 15 minutes
1/4 cup water

Process Spice Paste ingredients to a smooth paste.

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a skillet or wok and sauté Spice Paste for 1 to 2 minutes, then add coriander, cumin, and turmeric and an additional 1 tablespoon of oil and sauté for another 4 to 6 minutes till fragrant, adding more oil if necessary.

Add tamarind juice, sugar, and salt and sauté for another 1 to 2 minutes. Add peanuts or peanut butter, coconut milk, and water and stir ontinuously till oil seeps out from sauce, about 15 to 20 minutes.

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About Author

Liz Johnson is content strategist for The Journal News and lohud.com, and the founding editor of lohudfood, formerly know as Small Bites. As food editor, she won awards from the New York News Publishers Association, the Association of Food Journalists and the Associated Press. She lives in Nyack with her husband and daughter on a tiny suburban lot they call their farm — with fruit trees, an herb garden, and a yardful of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, shallots, cucumbers, zucchini, radishes, cabbage, peppers, Brussels sprouts and carrots and four big blueberry bushes.

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