‘MANY CULTURES IN A SPOONFUL’
Elaborate mix of herbs and spices re-creates the best flavours of Malaysian street food
“Think of it as happy cooking,” Christina Arokiasamy says. “Malaysian food is a journey of taste. Sweet, sour, salty, spicy and savoury hit your palate at the same time. And that is a glorious palate that is happy and dancing with flavours.”
In her second cookbook, The Malaysian Kitchen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), Arokiasamy offers an introduction to her native cuisine in 150 recipes. She grew up in Kuala Lumpur and was previously a chef at Four Seasons resorts in Thailand and Bali.
Now based in the Pacific Northwest, Arokiasamy has been teaching culinary classes for more than two decades. In the book, she captures the essence of Malaysian home cooking while utilizing ingredients that are readily available in grocery stores.
“It is the ingredients that make this food,” she says. “The book is based on what we have in North America … (To) bridge the gap between the way my grandmother cooked and the way readers learn to cook.”
There’s a nine-page spice chart in the book, detailing 35 spices and aromatics: their taste and aroma, health benefits, and uses. Spices are the foundation of Malaysian cooking, Arokiasamy explains, providing depth. But herbs and other aromatics (lemon grass, galangal and makrut lime leaves) are equally significant.
“Spices provide a different dimension and complexity. But herbs (and other aromatics) lift them all up … They bring life to chutneys, pickles, vinaigrettes and dressings. They revive a dull-tasting marinade. Adding any of these Asian aromatics just brings an amazing amount of lightness,” she says.
Arokiasamy highlights the multiculturalism of Malaysian cuisine in the book. Culinary traditions from the Malay Peninsula’s predominant cultures — Malay, Chinese, Indian, Baba-Nyonya (a.k.a. Peranakan) and Portuguese — have been borrowed, shared and built upon by cooks.
“It’s an eclectic way of eating. You taste many cultures in a spoonful,” she says.
Street food is abundant in Malaysia, and the island of Penang in particular is renowned for its hawker stalls. Arokiasamy grew up on this food, and says that the hawkers have inspired her passion for the cuisine as much as her professional chef’s training.
She devotes a chapter to street food in the book, a selection of popular recipes that represent the cultural diversity of the vendors in Penang — Malaysia’s culinary capital.
“Malaysians who move overseas are always searching for this food: Hainanese chicken rice, nasi lemak (fragrant rice), char kway teow (stir-fried noodles), five-spiced barbecue-roasted pork, curry puffs and Malaysian wantan noodles,” she says.
“When we go back, that’s the food we want to eat because it represents Malaysian food — the many cultures that created that one particular dish. I’ve taken the best of the best and I’ve put it in that chapter. And I think they would find themselves as if they’ve just taken a journey back home.”