Tag Archives: Malaysian food

Ketupat (Steamed Rice Dumplings)

22 Aug

I still have to wrap up Taiwan, but I wanted to do a quick post in honor of Hari Raya, or Eid al-Fitr as it’s called in the rest of the world. This two-day (or longer) celebration marks the end of Ramadan, and in Malaysia — for those who celebrate — it’s kind of like Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one. And, like those holidays, it’s celebrated with special foods, like ketupat.

Ketupat is rice that’s packed into cute little baskets woven from coconut fronds and then boiled. As the rice cooks, it expands to fill the packet, creating a compressed cake of rice. (Actually, “cake” or “dumpling” is a nice way to describe them; “brick” would be a less flattering but more accurate term.) Ketupat is traditionally served with rendang, a dry Malay curry thickened with toasted coconut. The texture of ketupat does work as an accompaniment to the curry — like a heavy matzo ball, it absorbs the flavors of the rendang — but all in all, I still prefer the other festive rice dish, lemang, which is glutinous rice steamed with coconut milk inside bamboo. (Unfortunately, lemang can be difficult and messy to serve without a machete, as we discovered.)

The question is, what do I do with my leftover ketupat packets? They would make great projectiles, but we don’t have monkeys at our condo (yet), and I don’t think management would be too happy about me hurling them over the balcony.


Nasi Lemak: The Food and The Film

30 Jan

It occurred to me that I haven’t done a post on actual Malaysian food in a while. And I’ve never done a post on nasi lemak, which is a huge oversight on my part. Nasi lemak is about as close to a national dish as Malaysia has. It’s so resonant as a symbol of the country that it’s even the title of a movie about racial identity in Malaysia: Nasi Lemak 2.0.

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Lemang: Nature’s rice cooker

11 Nov

This Monday was a public holiday for the observance of Eid al-Adha (Hari Raya Haji), which commemorates Abraham’s (almost) sacrifice of his son, and also marks the end of the Haj. Like Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, it’s celebrated with big family meals (and, apparently, the sacrifice of a goat) — and in Malaysia, that means it’s time for lemang.

Left, a whole lemang; right, unwrapping the lemang

I had my first lemang at a pasar Ramadan, but I missed my chance to post about it. It’s glutinous (aka mochi) rice mixed with coconut milk which is stuffed into a banana-leaf-lined bamboo and cooked over an open flame, a sort of natural rice cooker. Lemang seems to be reserved for special occasions; it’s not what you’d call home cooking, and I’ve only seen vendors during the festive seasons. I felt a bit sheepish only buying half a lemang, when most people buy five or ten, but I only have two mouths to feed, after all. We had lemang with the traditional accompaniments of beef rendang (procured at the same vendor) and curry. The richness of the coconut milk plays off the slightly smoky, woody flavor from the bamboo.

The most exciting part of lemang is opening up the package. Take a machete, or more likely, a cleaver, and split the bamboo; peel back the woody bits to expose the lemang. I always love a dish that requires big knives; it feels so festive!

Road Trip to Ipoh: Salt-baked chicken and a 280-million-year-old wine bar

2 Nov

The verdant mountains of Ipoh

Did you know that Groupon has extended its reach all the way to Malaysia? Their trademark absurdist (and slightly snarky) copy loses something in the translation, but the concept of killer deals doesn’t. We took advantage of one of these for a weekend getaway to The Banjaran Hot Springs Retreat in Ipoh, about two and a half hours north of KL. The Banjaran is a resort nestled in the mountains, with natural hot springs and spectacular limestone caves.

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3 Mar

I can’t believe I haven’t talked about rojak yet. It’s one of the quintessential Malaysian dishes, inspiring both a short film and a book of short stories. The word means “mixture” in colloquial Malaysian, and it’s kind of like chop suey imagined as a fruit salad. (Though neither marshmallows nor Cool Whip make an appearance in rojak. Thank goodness.) Rojak is typically a mixture of fruits like pineapple, guava (the green type, not the pink, sour type), cucumber, something called kedongdong (really), and green mangoes, dressed with a thick, spicy, sweet-and-sour sauce made from palm sugar, tamarind pulp, shrimp paste (again, really), and chili. It’s frequently garnished with crushed peanuts and a prawn cracker, though usually not as large as the one pictured. The taste is somewhere between savory and sweet, and surprisingly refreshing for something so strongly flavored.

Sometimes Malaysian culture is likened to rojak: a mixture of disparate elements coming together in a pleasing whole, even as each ingredient retains its distinct flavor. It’s probably a more apt description than the melting pot, and besides, what’s more Malaysian than eating fruit with shrimp paste and chilis?


Sambal belacan, or: why I’m glad I have a wet kitchen

24 Feb

I’ve mentioned sambal belacan before, but it really deserves its own post. Sambal belacan is a spicy condiment on every Malaysian table, whether the food served is Chinese-, Indian-, or Malay-Malaysian. It even inspired an ad campaign (NSF racially sensitive W):

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Recipe: Semi-Lazy Ikan Sumbat Sambal (Fish Stuffed with Chili Sauce)

3 Feb

Mabong, or Indian mackerel, is one of those small, blue-skinned fishes, like sardines, that are easily found fresh in coastal areas and almost impossible anywhere else — which is a shame, because not only are they delicious, they’re also more sustainable than big fish like salmon and tuna. My favorite way to eat this kind of fish, especially if it’s small, is simply grilled with salt. In Malaysia, it’s usually stuffed with sambal (chili-and-herb paste) and then grilled or, more commonly, fried. I wanted to try it for dinner tonight, but a proper sambal is labor- and ingredient-intensive, so I took some shortcuts, and it turned out pretty well. Below is my recipe for semi-lazy sambal-stuffed fish. (If I were really lazy, I would have just gotten it at the hawker stall.)

The fish was delish, and made quite a dish

(Proportions are for two fish. One fish per person should be enough, depending on side dishes.)


2 whole small fish, such as horse mackerel or sardine, cleaned

2 Tbsp chili paste (I used a Malaysian brand, Puteri, but Vietnamese-style paste would work in a pinch. Just make sure that the ingredients are mostly chili, without other flavorings)

1 very small shallot (probably about 1/4 of a normal shallot)

Juice of 1/2 lime, or two calamansi limes


  1. Rinse the fish and pat dry. Rub well with salt, and set aside.
  2. Mince the shallot as finely as possible, and combine with the chili paste and lime juice.
  3. Make a slit along the sides of the fish. Stuff the chili paste into the slits and also the cavity.
  4. Grill, broil, or pan-fry fish until done.

By the way, if you’re interested in trying your hand at the real thing, Rasa Malaysia has a very thorough recipe. And then you’ll understand why I cheated.