MY INTRODUCTION to Malaysian food began with the humble ketupat. Then, the wife of my father's chauffeur taught me how to weave coconut leaves to make the ketupat as part of the feast for Hari Raya Puasa, which marks the end of the fasting month.
The leaves are made into conical shapes, filled with rice and then boiled in water for three hours. The rice cakes taste best when eaten with satay - skewered meat, cucumber and onion dipped in a spicy peanut sauce.
Because of its multi-ethnic population, Malaysian food is an eclectic combination of culinary delights from the Malays, Indians, Eurasians, Chinese, Nonya, and indigenous peoples of Borneo.
|A sumptuous feast
NOV 2 TO 30: The annual Malaysia International Gourmet Festival brings together some of the world's best chefs who make their home in Malaysia. In November, Malaysia's finest restaurants offer exclusive menus, promotions and events that will tempt even the most discerning food connoisseur
Venue: Throughout Malaysia.
Much of the discovery journey took place in the kitchen of my friend, chef Rohani Jehani. According to her, kaffir lime, mint, Thai basil, galangal and tumeric are commonly used to enhance the flavours, tastes and aromas of Malay cuisine.
I like to start a meal with achar, which is a spicy, sourish and sweet side dish made with pineapples, lime, cucumber, long beans, garlic, cabbage, and carrot in many appetising variations. Sambal ikan bilis (anchovy) with peanuts fried to a crispy finish is another sweet and spicy "must munch" dish.
Another dish - rojak, whether Indian or Malay style - is a salad that not only tastes good but is healthy too. The Penang version has taw kua (bean curd), green mangoes and guava with crushed roasted peanuts and shrimp paste.
I like Penang - dubbed the Pearl of the Orient - because of its many gourmet delights. Take its popiah, for instance.
This savoury delight usually has fillings of crabmeat, pork, prawns, shallots, eggs and taw kua with shredded bangkwang (yam bean) as the main ingredient.
The mixture is wrapped in a rice crepe, rolled and brushed with some sweet black bean sauce. It is something Singaporeans like myself are willing to fly to Penang for.
L-R: Nonya kueh, satay and mee sua
Other dishes worth a try in Penang are its laksa with assam (tamarind) and mint leaves cooked in a rich stock with fish flakes; lor bak spring roll filled with five-spiced pork pieces encased in bean curd skin and deep-fried to crispy goodness and char kway teow, a flat rice noodle fried with a generous serving of bean sprouts, lap cheong (Chinese sausage), egg and bak yew pok (crispy pork fat).
As for fruits, tropical Malaysia has pomeloes, rambutans, mangosteens, papayas, guavas, chikus and more.
And how can we forget desserts? In Penang, there are as many varieties as there are races - kueh mueh, kueh talam-hijau and onde-onde, to name just a few.
Dr Michael Lim is a travel, food and wine writer who has travelled the world in search of the choicest delicacies and premium wines.