"Roti, roti and more roti!" Granddaughter Abby
Yesterday we received some photographs from my daughter-in-law, of the family eating out in KL, where they are enjoying a few days before moving on to Europe. I asked for one-line quotes from them all about the food because, inspired by the photographs, I thought I would write about Malaysian food. Well we don't know a lot about it do we? The first quote above, as you can see, is all about the bread which is pictured here in all its glory.
I will come to that roti, and their other quotes, (also about bread), because it is rather fascinating and emblematic of the whole Malaysian vibe really, but first a little history.
The thing about Malaysia is that it's in the middle of South-East Asia, has a rich history of immigration and colonialism and so it has absorbed all of those cultures, making it somewhat difficult to find the truly unique. It's a kind of example of those lines in John Lennon's song Imagine about us all eventually being coffee coloured - a blend. Well we are all the same fundamentally - we just look different. And so in Malaysia there has been a blending of the native Malay, and the immigrant Chinese and Indians. Plus British colonialism, Sri Lankan, Thai and everything else around. Way back in history Malaysia and Indonesia were part of the same empire - their languages are still fundamentally the same - and in the modern world everyone has had their part to play in the local cuisine. The Indonesians in particular often lay claim to supposedly Malaysian dishes and so it has been somewhat difficult to extract something uniquely Malaysian from the mix. Rendang is perhaps the prime example of that particular fight, although maybe satay too. Two really superb dishes I might say.
The Indians have been linked to Malaysia since time immemorial - Madhur Jaffrey claims as long ago as the 4th century, mostly through trading links. But, as she says:
"By the time the British acquired Penang, most Indians with ancient immigrant forebears had either intermarried or been otherwise absorbed into the culture."
That's what happens over time, and in a way I think the British are particularly adept at this. Yes, of course they have been responsible for imposing their own culture on other countries but it has often been an exchange with the end result being Britons absorbed into the local culture. They intermarry and stay and 'go native'.
Later Indians and Sri Lankans were brought in as virtual slave labour on the British plantations, as well as other Indians - from the north rather than the south who took on jobs such as policing, trading, textiles and money lending.
The Chinese, on the other hand - the largest group after the Malaysians - came from two sources. The first are the Straits Chinese descended from people born in Penang and Malacca. who were encouraged to immigrate by the British because of their industriousness. They became wealthy, and they in turn imported Chinese coolie labour. They did not regard themselves as the same as the Mainland Chinese however.
"They were in the main brought up as Chinese, steeped in the Chinese heritage. But there was one important difference: they usually had Malay or half-caste mothers. The Chinese Government in the early days had restricted the emigration of women to Malaya, and the immigrants at this time took local wives. This meant that the cooking was heavily Malay-influenced, a fitting reminder that love and food go together." Rosemary Brissenden
All of which led to the cultural mix that is Malaysia today.
"Such a situation may at times cause disturbances in the nation's political life, but it can only throw the diner into ecstasy. For here you have in one geographical area three separate, well-defined styles of cookery, each reflecting its own distinct cultural and religious influences." Rosemary Brissenden
So much for history. Let's now consider some of the trademark dishes of Malaysia.
"Often, perhaps, the original dish is given a local flavour by the addition of the inevitable side-dish of chilli sauce, sliced chilli in vinegar, or even by the use of fresh red chilli to garnish the food." Rosemary Brissenden
And the local spice mix, which is added to lots of things is rempah - red chilli, garlic and ginger plus shrimp paste and lemon grass, to which is added various other flavourings according to whatever it is you are going to cook.
Let's begin with my family's experience. Each of their one line sentences talked about roti:
"Dionne: My favourite food has been the okra/ lady finger curry and roti
Zoe: The roti is splendid. Max: The Milo roti was yum
Dom: I love the bread!"
Here, Max has already demolished his roti and my son has almost done the same. I suspect that tray in front of Dom may well be a second go at it. And in the small compartments are dalcha - "a wonderful stew of split peas, vegetables and ground nuts" (Madhur Jaffrey). Which would have pleased my vegetarian granddaughter enormously. It is directly related to a Muslim Indian dish with the same name but more Malaysian spices have been added and nuts too.
Milo roti by the way? Yes it's a thing. This is a photograph I found of one version. It's obviously a Malaysian thing - now is Milo an Australian thing and so is Australia a new influence? I will check it out.
Back to the genuine basic roti canai though.
Recently TasteAtlas - a reputable travel site - voted Roti canai - the name for this kind of bread - the top street food of the world. Which is some recognition. The thing about it is that the dough is made paper thin, by experts who flip it over by hand thus stretching it, until paper thin.
There is a video of Poh Ying Leow and Adam Liaw - our own Malaysians making this delectable looking bread - here is the finished product. Alas I cannot give you the video directly but you can view it if you click here. It's not very long and quite instructive and cheering in that neither of them are particularly good at flipping and stretching it. The guy below is an expert though. So you can see why it would be popular street food. Not only do you get a yummy bread but you also get a show.
"In Singapore and Malaysia the bread got larger and larger. As vendors tried to attract the attention of passersby, they began to fling the dough into the air to increase its size, rather like pizza throwers." Madhur Jaffrey
However, in her piece on roti canai she also said:
"These breads had traditionally, been made by women at home. The women did not need to throw them dramatically into the air for effect. No one was watching them. Very often, they pulled the very flexible dough by hand or else they used a rolling pin to get the dough so thin that you could see through it. And who said they had to be enormous?
I have obviously spent an inordinate amount of time on the roti, so I shall now just mention some of the other Malaysian specialities by name with a few pictures. After all they all deserve a post of their own - another series coming up obviously. So here they are : Two versions of nasi lemak - described as the national dish by some; Char kway teow - obviously a Chinese influenced dish; Laksa; ayam goreng; ikam goreng and curry mee.
I have to say I envy my family over there in KL, and hope they get to enjoy more of these beautiful dishes. Here are a couple more of their photos.