This story is about a month late. I originally intended to run it in late July but a tragic incident put it on hold. To explain: I was invited to dinner recently by a lovely woman named Christina Arokiasamy, who was having a dinner party to discuss her country's cuisine, Malaysian, noted as one of the top three trending flavors in 2014 by the National Restaurant Association.
Malaysian cuisine is a unique melting pot of Malay, Chinese, Indian and Nonya cooking, cultures that build deeply-layered complex flavors without the spicy heat of other Southeast Asian cuisines. As the first-ever Malaysian Food Ambassador to the U.S., Arokiasamy spearheads the Malaysian Kitchen Program, a project which gives voice to the accessibility and convenience of the country's cuisine and products to U.S. consumers.
Malaysia is a small, progressive tropical paradise of 30 million people in Southeast Asia. Its main city, Kuala Lumpur, is a sophisticated enclave on that continent adjacent to the contentious independent city-state of Singapore. I visited Malaysia once in the early '70s looking to put a Cinerama movie theater there. We didn't, but I never forgot the warm, lovely people and oh-so-tasty food. So I welcomed an invitation to dine at the only Malaysian restaurant in West L.A, an eatery called Pappa Rich (711 S. Western in the mid-Wilshire district.) It was a splendid meal which I will describe shortly, and I returned home that night with extensive food notes and a bagful of wonderful Malaysian products, mainly sauces and curries. The next morning the tragic incident in question occurred, the shooting down of the Malaysian airline Flight 17 and the death of all its passengers. This followed the equally-tragic disappearance of a Malaysian airliner a month before somewhere in the Indian Ocean. I decided to let some time pass before telling my Huffington readers about the wonders of Malaysian food and products, but the time has come to enlighten you about them.
Christina is a renowned chef, author and spice expert, running The Spice Merchant's Cooking School in Seattle, where she resides, while also traveling the country demonstrating how to incorporate Malaysian products such as chile sauces, organic noodles, curry pastes and more into everyday cooking. Christina grew up in Kuala Lumpur at the epicenter of the world's first spice trade. Her culinary career began in her family's kitchen and spice stall surrounded by exotic spices and aromatics such as turmeric, cardamom, galangal and tamarind, and it led to her first chef stints at the Four Seasons hotel properties in Bali and Chiang Mai, Thailand. Today Christina shares her culinary spice journey and was able to explain to me that her nation's food is an amalgam of many cultures....the early Malay settlers (and its offshoot, Nonya), Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian and East Indian, as well as the European influences who ruled from time to time. "I am a fifth generation descendent of spice merchants who have been trading since the supremacy of the British East India Company in the 16th century." She went on to tell me that she began as a young girl in the family kitchen and quickly moved into working at their spice stalls.
She handed me a copy of her first cookbook, THE SPICE MERCHANT'S DAUGHTER, considered one of the best cookbooks published in America in the last decade, which I have devoured and found fascinating as both a memoir and a cookbook. In it I found how she had created modern American versions of Malaysian dishes using her flavors and spices. She gave me a quick course into the main ingredients of their dishes. "Lemongrass is used in everything; it's a woody aromatic grass which is good for digestion. Chiles were brought to Malaysia in the 16th century by the Portuguese; they boost your metabolism and are full of vitamin C. Coconut milk and cream is used extensively, and the milk adds a smooth sweetness to dishes without adding sugar. The zinc boosts the immune system." I mentioned that I have been mostly on a gluten-free diet for about a year, and she laughed and said that most Malaysian food is gluten-free. "Some fresh noodles are made with eggs and flour, but almost all of our noodles are made with rice flour. Kway teow is fresh flat rice noodles, and laksa is fresh rice noodles." I told her that I eat regularly a portion of thanghoon, the dried mungbean glass noodles which are so slitheringly delicious. She pointed to a shaker of turmeric and said that it was a prime spice in the cuisine, its bright yellow flavor and warm aroma are also anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.
I have already cooked Sloppy Joe Rendang, Macaroni Tom Yum and Garlic Chili French Fries from her book. She told me that the curiosity and discovery behind Malaysian ingredients remains untapped in the U.S., so the Malaysian Kitchen USA program is helping to introduce these all-natural, value-driven, easy-to-make and authentic ingredients and dishes. She said that the newly-introduced Malaysian food products can now be found in 400 Whole Foods and Cost Plus World markets. She sampled some of them with me, and I snitched a few to take home.
-Nona - a satay sauce
-Malay Taste - laksa paste
-Agromas - pink guava preserve
-Asian Meals - Lemongrass curry sauce (awesome!)
-Boh - lychee rose tea (not very strong)
-Golden Noodle - sesame organic noodle
- LINGHAM'S - the mainstay of their products, a hot sauce with chili garlic to which I am now addicted. This bright yellow bottle has become a staple in my crowded kitchen, and I sprinkle a few drops of it into....everything. I learned on the Internet it was first manufactured in 1908 during the British Colonial rule for colonial expats. Made from red chiles, sugar, vinegar, and salt, they now make it in Sriracha, Ginger and Hot Sauce flavors. Try it once to see what I mean.
The dinner at PappaRich--co-hosted by Madam Rusiah Mohamed, the Consul/Trade Commissioner, Consulate General of Malaysia Commercial Section (MATRADE) and her colleague, Norbilah Hussein)who were present alongside Christina -- was a revelation of unusual tastes and flavors, and I intend to go back on my own one night shortly to repeat it. Like all Malaysian meals, it began with a Mango Salad, this one with jicama, red cabbage slaw dressed with Lingham's Chili Sauce and a splash of lime. Served with it was Roti Canai, Malaysian hand-tossed griddled bread dipped in Malaysian coconut curry. It was followed by the Satay Skewers of beef and chicken with a peanut sauce. Christina laughed as she brought a platter of Beef Rendang Sliders to the table. She told me that the braised beef sirloin had been cooked in coconut lemongrass sauce from Asian Meals.
My favorite dish of the evening was the Wok-Tossed Chili Sesame Prawns with Curry Leaves, served with bowls of aromatic steamed white rice. The restaurant chefs then ushered in a tray of Ayam Masak Merah, braised chicken and tomato in a tamarind sauce. She told me to leave some space for her favorite next dish, which was Malaysian Curry Laksa, A spiced coconut noodle curry with shrimp, fishball, eggplant and bean sprouts, served with a lime wedge and Sambal. The sauce was Dollee Curry Laksa Paste.
We had been talking about the Nonya people, an offshoot of the mainstream, and she had ordered a Nonya dish for us....Sambal Shrimp. It was shrimp and asparagus cooked Nonya style, sauteed in Sambal Belachan. I was stuffed, but a Malaysian dessert was in order; Kaya Toast. Kaya is slow-churned coconut and Pandan jam, served on buttered toast...served with Aik Cheong Malaysian Coffee. (Susan Feniger has been serving this same dessert at her Mud Hen Tavern on Highland.)
Yes, Malaysia is far away, but here is a happy way to think of these wonderful people and their small, peaceful country....with an appetite for their food and culture. So join me in stopping at your local Whole Foods and picking up a few jars and pouches of their indigenous food. One taste of that fabulous Lingham's Chili Sauce and your life will definitely change for the better.
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