Since the halcyon days of the Malacca Sultanate, Malaysia has remained a gastronomic paradise with the local cuisine acquiring additional flavours and colours.
WHEN it comes to food, Malaysians don’t need a milestone celebration like the upcoming 50th Merdeka Day to indulge. After all, this is possibly the only country in the world where one can literally eat 24/7, 365 days of the year. A feat surely that will qualify us for a world record?
Although Malaysia is generally perceived as a unique culinary melting pot of sorts, in reality it is more akin to a giant rojak bowl. This is because even though the different cuisines appear as a multi-cultural creation, each ‘ingredient’ remains distinct enough to hold its own.
Early food trends indicate that many Malay dishes were greatly influenced by Thailand and Indonesia due to these countries’ proximity and historical ties with ours. During the halcyon days of the Malacca Sultanate (1403-1511), local cuisine acquired additional flavours and colours due to the priceless spice and tea trade which attracted sea merchants from Burma, India, China and the Middle East.
When diplomatic relations were forged between Malacca and the Chinese kingdom, they soon resulted in the birth of Babas-Nyonyas when some of the pioneer Chinese settlers married local Malay ladies. Consequently, the Baba-Nyonyas’ artful blend of Chinese culinary traits with their prevalent use of local spices, herbs and coconut milk left a lasting impression on the Malaysian foodscape until today.
The first Eurasian dishes such as Devil’s Curry, Grilled Fish and Beef Smore appeared post-1511 after the Portuguese invasion of Malacca. But it was the British colonials who were ultimately responsible for the diversification of our culinary make-up, not only with their mat salleh specialities but also Chinese and Indian food when hordes of migrant workers were brought in to work in British-owned tin mines and rubber plantations.
Nancy Huang, who will be celebrating her 40th year of employment with Malaysia’s first hotel, the Federal Hotel Kuala Lumpur, recalled English-style dishes were all the rage back in the 1950s. “During its heydays, our hotel was the most sought-after place in town for Western food. Even our first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj who enjoyed spicy Malay delicacies, often brought his guests here to savour his favourite dishes such as lamb chops, roast prime rib with Yorkshire pudding and cream of mushroom soup.”
Director of Marketing, Regional Sales & Business Development of Federal Hotels International, Ooi Lee Ping, said efforts are being made to trace and possibly replicate the inaugural celebratory menu served to VVIPs for the 50th Merdeka Day celebrations. “The cookbook on our first premier’s favourite recipes, produced in collaboration with his niece, Tunku Dato’ Hajah Mukminah Tunku Mohd Jiwa has continued to generate great interest amongst cuisine lovers everywhere since its launch two years ago,” she said proudly.
The post-Merdeka years saw greater inter-racial interest towards the different communities’ culinary specialities. Known for their adventurous palate, the Chinese soon acquired a liking for Malay and Indian food such as nasi lemak, satay, curry puffs, prata or roti canai, puttu mayam and curries. Chicken rice, chee cheong fun and yong tau foo as well as Indian poori, chappati and thosai also grew in appeal to the Malays.
Mobile hawkers abound as they moved from house to house, shouldering a kandar, a long pole with a huge basket hung in balanced at each end or on bicycles strapped with baskets or iron cases containing delicious gems such as mee curry, pasembur rojak, kuihs, satay, bread, puttu mayam and ice lollies. Local kopitiams (coffee shops) offering freshly brewed kopi ‘O’, soft-boiled eggs and charcoal-toasted bread became popular social gathering points.
In 1963, A&W became the first fast food outlet to be set up in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman (TAR) and Western-style snack bars and later coffee houses became fashionable amongst the younger set. This was followed by Western grill rooms, modern supermarkets and hotels in the late 60s to mid 70s. The Weld Supermarket was known for its soft serve ice-cream, flaky puff pastry curry puffs and meat pies while the Copper Grill upstairs dished out chicken in a basket, steaks, banana split and bombe Alaska. The Kuala Lumpur Hilton, Hotel Equatorial Kuala Lumpur and Merlin Hotel drew the upper crust to their hallowed fine-dining outlets. When Bangles became the first Indian restaurant to open in Jalan TAR, it drew a sizeable multi-racial patronage.
In the 70s, independent restaurants such as Tai Thong and Chan Kee were the bastions of Cantonese food whilst dim sum became a major draw on weekends at the Federal’s Mandarin Palace, the Equatorial’s Golden Phoenix and the Merlin. The Ship carved a name for itself as the best steak house in town.
Modern shopping complexes (Ampang Park, Sungai Wang Plaza) and Japanese supermarkets like Kimisawa and Chujitsu emerged in the late 70s to early 80s, giving Malaysians their first taste of Japanese dorayaki, a moulded pancake with red bean filling and other imported delights. However, the latter folded when the economy hit a skid after that.
Buoyed by a vibrant economy in the 1990s, the local dining scene saw a slew of Japanese, French and Nyonya restaurants opening up in hotels and independently. Music and films buffs celebrated the debut of Hard Rock Café and Planet Hollywood, making Tex-Mex dishes the hottest eats in town.
Malay food was actively promoted by restaurants like Yazmin, Rasa Utara and Sate Malaysia while Hong Kong chefs continued to dominate almost every other hotel Chinese restaurants, albeit tweaking their repertoire to include Sichuanese and Hunanese food. Fine-dining restaurants kept diners enthralled with showy tableside preparations – Caesar salad, French-style gueridon specialities like pressed duck, flambé and sabayon.
Malay cuisine gained renewed lustre thanks to Chef Wan Ismail who at one point dominated local TV airwaves. Indian specialities went upmarket thanks to refined outlets like The Taj and Bombay Palace. High tea and afternoon teas with fashion show were trendy then. Thai, Mediterranean and Italian led the wave of foreign invasion.
The past few years have seen the rise of Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean eateries. Sushi kaiten or conveyor belt sushi outlets helped to popularise the cuisine amongst Malaysians while the allure of Korean drama serials extended to the country’s cuisine. Dining out has become such a norm that almost every other special occasions were celebrated on a grand scale at hotels and free-standing restaurants. In addition, Middle Eastern cuisine gained prominence as the country saw increased visitor arrivals from the Arab continent in recent years.
Giant coffee chains such as Starbucks brewed up unprecedented success in the last five years but now, a whole generation of young Malaysians have rediscovered the joys of hanging out at retro kopitiams just like their parents had in the good old days.
The Chinese restaurant scene looked to China for inspiration with cosmopolitan Shanghai’s famous xiao loong pau (steamed dragon dumplings) and la mien (hand-pulled noodles) emerging as choice morsels amongst foodies. Hong Kong fought back with its char charn teng (tea diners) while savvy Indian-Muslim or Mamak eateries became a showcase for Malaysia being truly Asia.
The West and East truly did meet as thanks to the advent of the Internet and telecommunications, Continental and Oriental chefs began imbuing classical dishes with trans-ethnic ingredients.
While ‘fusion’ is a much derided word, traditional culinary boundaries are blurring as foie gras and balsamic vinegar, wasabi and miso, fresh herbs and dried spices from different continents find their way into an assortment of cuisines.
On the homefront, yong tau foo and pau have conquered the Malay palate just as the Chinese and Indians find it unthinkable to forgo nasi lemak and teh tarik. Seems like the old adage, “The family that eats together stays together” still holds true and may it continue to be so for the next 50 years and more.