Top 10 Must-Have Ingredients for Malay Cooking
Introduction to Malay Cuisine
Malay cuisine offers many tasty, authentic, and wonderful delights. One of the most notable elements in Malay cuisine is the specificity of the ingredients. Using authentic ingredients is essential to the correct execution of the dish because every single flavor is a critical component of the whole.
Malay cooking has been an important part of my life since I was young. I grew up in a small town with a traditional Malay family. I learned to cook by watching and helping my mother. It was with her that I began learning to recognize some of the essential ingredients and techniques of Malay cuisine.
I started to take cooking more seriously after I went to university in Kuala Lumpur, the nation's capital. After one semester, I decided to rent an apartment with a couple of my friends. It was then that I started to use some of the cooking skills that I had learned from my family.
Moving to America
After I moved to the United States, I worried about how to find the necessary ingredients to make the dishes I craved from back home. Luckily, my husband knew of an Asian market where I could find everything I needed, including spices, rice, different types of flours, herbs, Asian condiments, and much more.
Authentic Ingredients In Malay Cooking
At the Asian market, I found many of the ingredients that my mother used in her cooking; for example, daun pandan (pandan leaves), daun kari (curry leaves), cili padi (bird eye's chilies), gula Melaka (palm sugar), kelapa (coconut), belacan (shrimp paste), serai (lemongrass), daun pisang (banana leaves), and much more. These are some of the authentic ingredients we commonly use in Malay cuisine.
I miss my parents' backyard because they grow lemongrass, pandan leaves, curry leaves, bananas, coconuts, and much more. How I wish I had all of that growing in my backyard, too!
Here are the top 10 ingredients that I always have in my kitchen:
- Pandan leaves
- Curry leaves
- Banana leaves
- Palm sugar
- Dried anchovies
- Dried red chilies
- Curry powder
- Turmeric root
Ten Must-Have Ingredients in My Kitchen
Coconut is a versatile fruit because we can use it to make many types of savory dishes as well as sweet desserts. In Malay cooking, we use coconut milk more than any other ingredient. Coconut milk is essential for making chicken rendang, beef rendang, fish curry, chicken curry, shrimp curry, and much more.
In addition, the rich and nutty flavor of coconut milk is an important component of traditional Malay kuih (bite-sized snacks or desserts). For example, pengat pisang (banana in sweetened coconut milk), kuih seri muka (steamed glutinous rice), puteri ayu (steamed coconut pandan cupcake), and much more.
Shredded coconut is used to make coconut jam, kuih lopes (pandan-flavored steamed glutinous rice), and much more.
2. Pandan Leaves
Daun pandan, or pandan leaves, are very popular in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and other regions in Southeast Asia. Usually, pandan leaves are used for coloring and flavoring. All you have to do is cut the leaves, blend them with water, tie a knot, and throw them in the pot for flavor. These leaves play a big part in my cooking, especially when I'm making Malay desserts.
Pandan leaves are one of the main ingredients in fragrant coconut rice, or nasi lemak. The flavor from the leaves mixed with coconut milk makes the rice very fragrant and fluffy. I just love the aroma of cooked nasi lemak.
3. Curry Leaves
Curry leaves are a very common ingredient in the Malay kitchen. I use curry leaves when I cook chicken curry, fish curry, and shrimp curry. Fresh curry leaves look like small, shiny lemon leaves, and they smell pungently of curry. I prefer to use fresh curry leaves whenever I cook, but here is a tip. You can store any leftover curry leaves in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks (or freeze them). Although you can buy dried curry leaves at the store, they have less flavor and aroma than fresh.
Did you know that curry leaves have antioxidant properties and also contain vitamins A and C? In addition, they are rich in Vitamin B complex, zinc, iron, and minerals. My mother used curry leaves as a natural remedy to prevent graying hair.
4. Banana Leaves
Fresh banana leaves, or daun pisang, are useful in so many ways in the Malay kitchen. Growing up, I enjoyed watching my mother cooking in her tiny kitchen. I remember exactly how she would explain why we were using banana leaves to wrap foods such as nasi lemak. Not only did the leaves help preserve the food, they also helped to keep the rice warm. I never thought about it much when I was a kid, but now everything makes sense. I also use banana leaves to wrap fish and grill it over the stove. Delicious!
There are many ways you can use banana leaves in cooking. Believe me, you'll be surprised. Wrap your banana leaves in paper and freeze for future use.
5. Palm Sugar or Gula Melaka
Gula melaka, known in English as palm sugar or Malacca sugar, originated from Melaka (Malacca), a historical state in Malaysia. Palm sugar is made from the sap of the coconut tree's flower bud. The sap is boiled until it is thick; then it is packed into bamboo tubes to form a cylindrical shape. The color varies from dark brown to a light golden color.
Palm sugar is widely used as a sweetener to flavor desserts. Did you know you can use this as a sugar syrup? All you have to do is cook the palm sugar with some water, and it will impart rich dark caramel and butterscotch flavors. You can also use it as a substitute for processed white sugar. Shave it and use it to flavor your coffee or add to recipes.
6. Dried Anchovies
Anchovies, or ikan bilis, are commonly used in Asian side dishes. The anchovy is a fish that is similar to a sardine. Generally sold whole, these finger-length fish are used as stock for seafood dishes, or they are fried until crispy and served as a side dish with rice.
In Malay cookery, we use anchovies in fried rice, sauces, finger foods, fritters, and much more. One of my favorite dishes that includes anchovies is sambal ikan bilis, or spicy anchovies.
Anchovies have several health benefits. They can help lower cholesterol levels and help reduce the risk of heart disease (due to their heart-friendly fatty acids).
7. Dried Red Chilies
Dried red chilies are very important to those who love spicy food. Known for their striking red color, they are widely used in many cuisines as a spice that adds heat to dishes. I love spicy food, so I make sure my pantry is always stocked with dried chilies.
In Malay cuisine, we use dried chilies to make sambal paste, or sauce. The thick, red paste can be added to many different dishes; for example, sambal udang (spicy shrimp). We also use sambal paste in mi goreng (fried noodles), bihun goreng (fried vermicelli noodles), and much more.
We make sambal paste by grinding seeded red chilies into a fine paste. Usually, I add garlic, shallot, and ginger. I store the remaining paste in a jar and keep it in the fridge for up to two weeks.
8. Curry Powder
Curry powder is a blend of spices that contains coriander, cumin, fenugreek, mustard seeds, and turmeric. It has a distinctive yellow color. It is interesting to note that curry powder does not contain any curry leaves.
Curry powder is an essential ingredient in my kitchen. There are a few types of curry powder that you can find at Asian markets. Two commons types are meat curry powder (used for chicken and beef) and fish curry powder (used for fish and shrimp). Usually, I buy both because I love cooking chicken and fish curry at home.
When I make curry, my husband and I usually eat it with rice or naan bread. If we have leftovers, we save them in the fridge and eat them the next day for lunch or dinner. I find that the flavors deepen and get even tastier the next day.
9. Turmeric Root
Fresh turmeric root has a subtle, earthy taste, and it gives a vivid color to spice blends. It may also be dried and ground to a deep yellow powder that gives a nice color but only a slight hint of flavor. Sometimes, I use turmeric powder to coat chicken or fish before frying.
Turmeric root is one of the main ingredients when making chicken or beef satay paste. The flavor and color of turmeric will absorb into the meat and give it a perfect flavor.
Did you know that turmeric root has various health benefits? For example, turmeric is known to be an anti-inflammatory and pain reliever. It is also believed to improve digestion.
To keep turmeric root fresh, place it inside an airtight jar with cold water and keep it in the fridge. Make sure to change the water every two weeks.
Woody and stringy, lemongrass is used throughout Southeast Asian cuisine, imparting a fragrant citrus flavor to dishes. Before using it, make sure to remove the pale yellowish-green, paper-like layer around the stalk. The essential part of lemongrass is the root end, which should be chopped, pounded, or crushed before being added into a spice blend, marinade, or curry. In Malay cooking, lemongrass is used in chicken rendang, satay, ayam percik, and many more dishes.
Lemongrass has many health benefits, as well. It may help to lower cholesterol, reduce fever, treat infections, reduce aches, and more.
To keep lemongrass, cut off the top and store in an airtight container filled with water. Keep in the fridge and make sure to change the water every two weeks.
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