With Merdeka Day just around the corner, we’re taking a look back through Malaysia’s colourful culinary history to see just what makes our makan so diverse and delicious.
The melting pot of Malaysian cuisine has been stirred for centuries by local and international influences, from shore to shore and all corners of the compass. One of the very first ‘fusion foods’, the three most distinct flavours are Chinese, Indian and Malay, with a strong Middle Eastern seasoning from the spice routes along the Straits, centuries ago. There’s more than a pinch of Portuguese pepper with plenty of other European accents too.
The founding flavours go back 1500 years, when a Malay kingdom in Bujang Valley welcomed Chinese and Indian traders, who brought more treasure than merely gold and silks – they brought the herbs and spices which form the foundation of our national dishes. These were left to simmer for a thousand years before more spices arrived from across the sea; this time, Arab traders making their way to Malacca, which became a fishing port of some significance in the 15th century. Cardamom, clove and exotic vegetables made their way onto the Malaysian menu. The traders didn’t just bring food, but faith – the practices and principles of Islam, which had a profound effect. The Sultan of Malacca converted to Islam, and trade with other Muslim nations increased, especially Indonesia. Being natural neighbours anyway, and already sharing plates such as satay, sambal and rendang, this just thickened the sauce of the special relationship our two countries share at the table.
When the Portuguese, Dutch and British arrived in the years to come, their mouths watered at the cosmopolitan culinary scene already underway in the country. They also brought important ingredients with them: peanuts, pineapples, pumpkins, and avocados (the original hipsters?). In fact, these days Malacca is still famous for its east-west fusion food, pairing Portuguese with Malay. During British rule in the 18th and 19th centuries, a large influx of Indian and Chinese workers (for the tin mines and rubber plantations) had a great influence on local language, customs, and food.
This isn’t just a history lesson – it’s geography, too. With Thailand to the north and Indonesia to the south of the Peninsular, the foreign flavours are clear to see. Kedah, Perlis and Penang have a clear preference for hot spicy-and-sour, using tamarind and starfruit for tanginess, not to mention a lot of chili. In the south, Johor’s menu has a Javanese edge. East Malaysian cuisine is a real taste of culture, such as Sarawak Laksa, full of flavour but subtle, not spicy like its northern sister, or the eclectic Sabahan cuisine, famous for its excellent seafood and representing a long multi-ethnic heritage.
From coconut milk to the colonial touch, roti canai to rendang, Malaysia’s most famous and favourite foods have a long and interesting history – more reason to savour every mouthful this Merdeka Day. Make a feast of it and make your country proud!