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IDIOT’S GUIDE: ETHNIC FOODS #3

Malaysian & Indonesian

Malaysia and Indonesia are two of the most culturally diverse nations in the world, so it is no surprise that an innumerable number of dishes fall under the culinary category of “Malaysian” or “Indonesian.” The cuisine of this area derives influence from Malay, Javanese, and other indigenous groups from the many islands that comprise the nations of Malaysia and Indonesia. Immigrants from countries such as China, India, and Thailand have combined their respective national dishes with native flavors and modified indigenous recipes to suit their palettes. The large Muslim community in Malaysia and Indonesia has also greatly influenced popular cuisine.

As fantastic as all this variety is, Western restaurant-goers may be overwhelmed by Malaysian and Indonesian menus full of unfamiliar words. But don’t despair, adventurous foodies! There are ingredients and dishes that most restaurants have in common, some of which may already be familiar to you.

Like in other Asian cultures, rice is the staple of the Malaysian-Indonesian diet. You can expect to be served rice in Malaysian and Indonesian restaurants, and Nasi goreng (fried rice) will probably be available to order. Equally ubiquitous is the Malaysian Nasi lemak, which is similar to the Indonesian Nasi uduk. Here, the rice is given a special coconut cream soak and steamed, sometimes with ginger and lemongrass added. Glutinous rice, commonly known as “sticky rice”, is also mixed with coconut milk then steamed, boiled, or grilled in a banana leaf to make a dish called Pulut in Indonesian and Ketan in Malaysian.

Coconut milk is widely used in Malaysian-Indonesian cuisine. Rendang is beef or some other meat simmered in coconut milk, along with a medley of spices including chilies, lemongrass, turmeric and ginger. A popular variety of Indonesian soup, called Soto, uses a coconut milk broth, while Malaysian-Indians frequently add coconut milk to their curries. The richness of coconut milk makes it a popular ingredient in Malaysian and Indonesian desserts as well.

Indonesian cuisine is particularly well-known for its use of peanuts. Southeast Asian peanut sauce has recently become very popular in America, leading to promulgation of “easy” peanut sauce recipes that rarely approach the complex taste of the real thing. The peanut sauce used in Indonesian and Malaysian dishes is generally less sweet than the Thai version, flavored by sweet soy sauce, garlic, tamarind, coconut sugar, shallots, ginger, chilli, lemon juice, and peppercorns. This blend is eaten over satay, a marinated, skewered, grilled meat dish common in Asian-Fusion restaurants.  Gado-gado is a vegetable salad dressed with peanut sauce, and is considered an Indonesian national dish along with satay.

Chinese-inspired dishes are very prevalent in Malaysian and Indonesian restaurants, reflecting the large presence of people of Chinese origin living in Southeast Asia. This subcategory is exceptional in its extensive use of pork, which is not eaten by the majority Malaysian and Indonesian residents for religious reasons. However, Chinese food in Indonesia and Malaysia incorporates the local ingredients of chili and coconut milk. Many items have direct analogs; Pangsit is the Indonesian word for wonton, Popiah and Lumpia refer to spring rolls, and Siomay are related to Chinese Shumai. Noodle varieties are abundant in Malaysian and Indonesian-Chinese cuisine, including variations on Chow mee and the more familiar Chow fun. Char kway teow is flat rice noodles stir fried in light and dark soy sauce with chili and prawns. It is often sold on the streets of Penang, Malaysia, which is Mecca for hawker food.

Are you hungry yet? There isn’t an abundance of Indonesian or Malaysian restaurants in the Boston area, but try Penang in Chinatown or Island Hopper in Back Bay. Soon you’ll be ordering Bakmi Bakso like a pro!

Here is a fun video showing how to make Roti canai, a kind of Malaysian-Indian bread served with curry dip. I make sure to order it every time I go to an Indonesian or Malaysian restaurant.

Rachel Verrengia

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