NPR recording of Yee Sang/Lo Hei

Lo Hei/Yee Sang - New Year Salad

Last Saturday,  I held my annual Lunar New Year Celebration at my house.  A prominent dish served on this occasion is a raw fish salad called Yee Sang.  NPR had found my past postings (read blog) on this unique Southeast Asian tradition and they inquired if I knew anyone holding such custom.  So, I invited the producer over, and here is the audio broadcast, along with a few photos.

http://www.npr.org/2016/02/14/466748096/yuhsheng-a-dish-to-toss-in-the-air-to-celebrate-the-chinese-new-year

History of Yee Sang/Lo Hei

Hope you can feel the joy and festive mood when “tossing” this salad high in the air for good fortune in the year.  Happy Year of the Monkey.

Peanut Cookies

Peanut CookiesAfter cooking for around a week, my guests have just left my Lunar New Year Open House.  It was the perfect opportunity for me to prepare some of my grandmother’s Nyonya dishes (see blog), a treat for my guests over the last few years.  This year, I decided to make New Year cookies as  dessert, and I started preparations a bit earlier for that.  With three attempts to make the special powdery cookies, Kueh Bangkit, resulting in dissatisfaction and disappointment, I resorted to Peanut Cookies, a favorite of mine back when I was growing up in Malaysia.  These are very delicate flakey bites with the rich nutty flavor in each crumb.  With success under my belt, here is the simple and tasty recipe, adapted from the Rasa Malaysia website (see page).

Ingredients:

4 cups ground roasted peanuts (or oven roast peeled raw peanuts at 250 F (120C) until fragrant and lightly brown), plus extra pieces for decoration

1 cup confectionary sugar

1 cup peanut oil

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons shortening or cold butter

1 egg yolk, beaten slightly with 1 tsp water for egg wash

Method:

Chop peanuts in food chopper until very fine and loose and when the mixture starts to become slightly sticky.

Mix the ground peanut, sugar, and flour together until well combined. Cut the shortening into mixture until fine bits. Slowly add the peanut oil and mix well, until the mixture begins to come together – stop adding the oil at this point.

Shape into small balls and place on baking tray lined with parchment paper – do not flatten. Use a toothpaste cap to make the circular indentation by pressing and rotating the cap to lightly flatten the cookie. Or you can press down a peanut half into the middle of the dough.

Brush the sides below the indentation or around the peanut with the egg wash.

Bake at 350 degrees F (180 degrees C) on middle rack for 20 minutes or until brown – check and watch out for burning after 15 minutes and rotate baking tray position if needed be. Check around the bottom of cookie for burning and remove if you smell burning. Remove from oven, take the parchment paper with the cookies off pan, and let cool.  When cool, store in airtight container.

Long Yoke/Pork Jerky Recipe

Loke Yoke/Pork Jerky

Long Yoke/Pork JerkyLast Friday, we welcomed in the Year of the Horse, one of the dozen zodiac signs marking each year in the Lunar Calendar.  Growing up in Malaysia, this was a three-day celebration filled with an Open House wowing guests with wonderful food and treats, and a constant stream of invitations to restaurant dinners and homes of other people to divulge in their gastronomic offerings.  One of the seasonal treats is Long Yoke, a sweet and salty pork jerky, whose grill smoke clouds the air in Chinese-dominated parts of the city.  As kids, we would literally attack the packet of these meaty treats since they were not available year round and due to their irresistible flavor.  Since I now live in the Washington DC area,  it is impossible for me to find them store-made; hence, I am compelled to make it myself at home.  I managed to find a couple of online recipes, and with a bit of tweaking and merging of both, this is my version.  Believe me, once you have made it, you will find it both quite easy to make and delectable to dig your teeth into.

Ingredients:

2 lbs ground pork

Marinade:

1   1/2 tbsp fish sauce

1   1/2 tbsp soy sauce

200 gm sugar

1/8 tsp five-spiced powder

1/2 tsp cinnamon powder

1/2 tsp kam cho powder (grounded from dried licorice stems) – in Asian grocery stores

1 tbsp oil

2 tbsp thick dark soy sauce

2 tbsp rice wine (preferably Rose rice wine)

3-4 drops of red food coloring

Method:

1.Season ground pork with the marinade and leave in the fridge overnight or at least 4 hours.

2.Turn oven to 250 F.

3.Oil  or line the under side of large baking sheet.  Put marinated pork on baking sheet and spread meat as thinly as possible to cover the whole sheet. Use another baking sheet if there is extra meat.

4.Bake in oven for 20 mins or until firm to the touch.

5.Turn oven up to 350 F and bake for 20-30 mins until pieces are sticky and quite dry.

6.Remove from oven and using a scissor or pizza cuter, cut meat into large pieces. Allow to cool.

7.Grill pieces or place them in broiler until slightly caramelized.  Wrap in foil and freeze until needed.

Chinese Banquet 1

50th Wedding Anniversary DinnerIn my last blog, I wrote about my family coming together from disparate parts of the world to meet up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in order to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. I described the delicious dishes of first Chinese dinner that we ate on the first night together. This type of dinners was always a gastronomic highlight for me, of which I find such quality cooking missing from my experiences outside of Asia. To continue with this series, I will describe a couple of formal Chinese banquets that we were ingratiated with during our brief trip.

The first banquet took place in celebration of my parents’ Golden Anniversary. Many relatives and friends were invited to partake in such a joyous occasion, and since some were Muslim, the meal was completely halal (Muslim kosher), thus no pork was served at all. However, such dietary restriction is never in the way of good creative Chinese cooking as in their banquets. Since my nephew from Australia was sitting next to me, it was a good opportunity to explain to him the logical sequence of dishes in a banquet, very much like the order of the Chinese dinner in the last blog.

Four Seasons Appetizer

1) Appetizer: Four Seasons. In a formal banquet, the meal starts with this kind of opener, unlike a dinner. This platter holds such a name as it is a dish with four different elements that distinguish themselves in texture, flavor, and ingredient. On this day, we were served a cold spicy papaya salad, crispy soybean skin stuffed with a fragrant lemongrass filling, crispy spring rolls coated with a sweet sauce, and chicken cooked with Chinese mushrooms.

Sharks Fin Soup

2) Soup: Shark Fin Soup. This soup is almost de rigueur in a big celebratory dinner, as was in this case. The thick soup comes with fine strands of shark fin that has been cooked until it is tender. Although it has not much in terms of flavor, a good stock gives it character and body. Furthermore, a customary splash of Chinese black vinegar and English mustard (a new local trend for me) gives it some more flavor interest – this soup is a favorite of my mother. Unfortunately, this dish has fallen out of favor for many due to its unsustainable ecological practices.

Steamed Pomfret Fish

3) Protein 1: Steamed Pomfret Fish. Like the Chinese dinners, the fish is simply cooked, steamed as in this case, and paired with a light soy sauce. The diner is always looking for a fresh sweet quality from the flesh, not covered by too much or too heavy of a sauce. The fish that arrived on the table was really huge, more than enough to serve 10 guests per table.

Crispy Chicken and Shrimp Crackers

4) Protein 2: Roasted Chicken. Since the meal was halal, poultry was the obvious alternative (never beef or lamb since many Chinese find their flavors too strong for their palate). Here the meat was well-seasoned and the skin made crisp in the oven, which can be dipped in a white pepper/salt combination for more seasoning. The clouds of Shrimp Crackers are equally tasty echoing the crispy nature of the dish.

Lotus Root and Sweet Peppers

5) Vegetable/Tofu Dish: Sautéed Lotus Roots with Sweet Peppers. This was a new dish for me. Slices of fresh lotus roots have been stir-fried with sweet peppers in a light sauce. I have had this root in mostly soup dishes, but I quite enjoyed its slight crunchy texture with equally crunchy sweet peppers.

Longevity Noodles with Roasted Chicken and Chinese Mushroom

6) Noodle/Rice Dish: Longevity Noodles. This dish is a must-order in such celebrations as my parents’ anniversary. Here the noodles are paired with roasted chicken, Chinese chives, bean sprouts, and Chinese mushrooms, brought together by a light sauce. It is imperative that server does not cut into the noodles to ensure the intention of wishing the celebrants longevity in their marriage and lives together.

Sweet Lotus Seed PancakeLongan in Syrup

7) Dessert: Longan in Syrup and Lotus Seed Pancakes. This is one of my favorite banquet desserts. Fresh longan fruit has been cooked in light syrup, paired with a hot pancake with filling made from mashed lotus seeds, a divergence from the traditional use of black bean paste. In the past, this pancake was served with a hot sweet peanut soup, which I enjoyed very much. However, this was equally satisfying for its light quality, especially after so many courses.

In the next blog, I will be writing about another Chinese banquet. I hope this posting is giving you an idea what a Chinese formal entails, and how much I miss such delicious delights being away from my childhood home.

Chinese Dinner 1

Recently, members of my family and their spouses and children travelled long distances to meet up in the country which we were grew up in. The purpose of such reunion was for our parents who had been planning to come back to mark their Golden Anniversary with the renewal of their vows in the church where they first exchanged them 50 years ago, and to invite all their respective relatives to a big dinner that night. On the first night of the reunion, the whole gang of 16 decided to have a Chinese dinner in a reputable restaurant not too far from the hotel where we were staying at.

Many of you have read that I have hesitated for the longest to write a blog on Chinese food in the DC restaurant scene. This stems from the fact that I have been spoiled by quality Chinese food either in the restaurants, hawker stalls, or at home as I was growing up in that part of the world. When I would come back to Kuala Lumpur to visit my parents before their migration abroad, I looked forward to the home cooking and to our meals at high-end eating establishments that were always a epicurean highlight for me as I was growing up. Here is one such meal, albeit not quite a banquet, but a quality Chinese dinner.

Chinese BBQ Pork

First Course: Protein – Chinese Barbeque Pork. Customarily, in a regular dinner, there are no appetizers. This rendition comprised of small slabs of pork belly, mostly likely a suckling pig, that has been roasted and basted with a molasses-like sweet and salty sauce. This is my father’s favorite dish, and it is usually not amiss among the other orders.

Roast Duck

Second Course: Another protein – Roast Duck. The restaurant does a wonderful version here. The meat was still moist yet flavorful with the skin completely rendered of its fat and quite crispy. The flavor was less “gamey” than the ones I have tasted in other countries – this dish would win over the not-so-aficionado of this bird meat.

Steamed Sai Kap Fish

Third Course: Seafood. The Chinese prefer to have their seafood cooked simply in order to showcase the freshness and sweetness of the protein. Here a Wild Patin fish has been steamed with some rice wine and ginger juice before lightly covered with a light soy sauce mixture along with some green onion garnish. The flesh was indeed moist and sweet, however, the price of this dish was a bit of a sticker shock – Asians never ask the price before hand. However, it was a worthwhile order for the quality ingredient and cooking. I was just a bit dismayed that they had chopped off the fish’s head, to which the diner would find it a bit suspicious (Asians prefer to see the whole animal/fish intact).

Tofu and Vegetables

Fourth Course: Tofu Dish. Here, pillows of this soybean cake have been fried lightly to give it texture and body, and they are braised along with some Chinese vegetable resembling a large zucchini in a savory sauce.

Chinese Broccoli/Gai Lan

Fifth Course: Vegetable Dish – Chinese Broccoli/Gai Lan. The vegetable has been quickly parboiled and paired with mild sauces like soy sauce or oyster sauce. With this vegetable, it is important not to cook it too long so that the sweetness is retained along with the crunch of the stems. Like the seafood, mildness of flavor and freshness of ingredient are qualities sought after here.

Crispy Noodles with Freshwater Prawns

Sixth Course: Noodle or Rice Dish. Customarily, a noodle or rice dish served in a banquet is considered more or less a “throw away” dish, meaning, if you are still hungry, you better fill up with this dish. However, in a Chinese regular dinner, it is a bit more purposeful, and in this case, we ordered something that we missed very much – Sang Ha Meen.  Crispy bits of egg noodle have been paired by large freshwater prawns in a thick eggy sauce spiked with lots of ginger and green onion. It is favorite among my family members, but it took the restaurant so long to serve it and we waited very impatiently. But once the dish arrived, we attacked and ate it with muted hungry mouths.

Dessert: Since we had waited for a long time for the last dish and we had young toddlers in the group, we opted to skip this course. Usually, fresh fruits or fruit cocktail would be on the order.

In the next couple of blogs, I will write about the Chinese Banquet Meals that I managed to savor on this trip.   Hope this blog builds up an appetite for what is to come.

Lunar New Year Celebration

I am reblogging last year’s Lunar New Year’s celebration since I added a couple of dishes and photos to the blog – Enjoy!

Wong Eats

Over the past weekend, I held a dinner to mark the end of the fortnight-celebration that brought in the Lunar New Year. Being the Year of the Dragon, it is considered a very auspicious year, and it is my oldest brother “anniversary”. This year, the Lunar New Year commenced so close to the Gregorian New Year that I could not get myself ready in time to have a dinner gathering at the end of January – all I could muster then was a quick meal of 3 dishes with a couple of friends on the eve of the New Year.

The New Year celebration is a time for family members to travel back to the family home in order to spend time together. The Reunion Dinner, as it is known, is held on the eve, and it is considered imperative that all members are present at the dinning table for…

View original post 2,186 more words

Malaysian Drinks, Fruits, and Desserts

Al Fresco at Coffee ShopLiving in an environment where mornings start with 2 hours of soft diffused light and the skin is constantly moisturized from the high humidity and warm temperature, there are some downsides to these pleasant living conditions of tropical Malaysia.  Furthermore, the local penchant for rich and spicy dishes does tend to overwork the body system as I experienced this after a few days of indulging in the wonderful irresistible dishes that attack the visitor from all angles.  To overcome this “heatiness” that most face as the result of the above, many Malaysians resort to drinks and fruits to cool the system down.  With the abundance of fruits everywhere and the amazing variety grown in this tropical climate, one looks forward to the different offerings depending on the growing season.  Fruits also act as the perfect end to a meal, as well as some sweet concoction.  Here are the common Malaysian drinks, fruits, and desserts:
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1) Leong Soi – This hideous witches-brew-looking drink was my first request when I went to visit my auntie during my trip.  My grandmother used to boil this drink consisting of various dried leaves and stems that produce a slightly bitter dark herbal drink that I would sip often when it was too hot or when my system was overtaxed by the rich food.  Grandma was well-versed in Chinese herbal medicine since she had to rely on such cures during times when visiting doctors were financially unfeasible during the meager war years.  I am glad my auntie boiled this large pot since I must have consumed most of this in just a mere two days!  I did indeed feel much better after.

DSC_0361.jpg2) Yeen Mai Soi/Barley Drink – Another favorite of mine is this drink made by boiling whole barley pearls until most of the starch has leached into the liquid, leaving a slightly thick drink.  Sugar is added to sweeten it and lime juice to lighten it.  Served with ice, it is the perfect order when visiting a coffeeshop as in this case, the reputable Lai Fong Coffeeshop near Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur.  It may appear quite heavy due to the starch but amazingly it does a wonderful job cooling the system especially when served with lots of ice.

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DSC_0226.jpg3) Leong Fun/Grass Jelly Drink – This dark drink is another coffeeshop favorite that consists of a jelly made from Grass Jelly and mixed with a slightly sweetened iced water.  The jelly is made by boiling slightly oxidized stems and leaves of a plant, member of the mint family, along with a coagulant, and then allowed to cool into a jelly form.  It is slightly bitter and herbal which is balanced by the sugary water.  It can be found in most coffeeshops and it is another must order when dealing with the tropical heat.

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DSC_0108.jpg4) Sheen Kam Soi/Lime Drink – This rather potent drink is made with lots of lime juice as well as Vitamin C.  It is made with the local Kalamansi lime which is small yet packs a punch in its juices but not too sour as Key limes, the one used to make Key lime pies.  It has a slight bitterness from its tough skin that balances the tart flavors.  To enhance the flavors, a dried salted plum is added as the piece de resistance and the ultimate sour and salty treat in this drink.

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5) Teh Tarik/Pulled Tea – This drink hails from the South Indian community that used to be served at Roti Canai stalls (see blog) along with its food offering.  It is basically strong local tea (my favorite) that has been mixed with sweet condensed milk and “pulled” until it is frothy and slightly cool enough to be sipped – the tea version of cappuccino.  It is an incredible sight to watch someone pouring the steamy tea into another container while “pulling” the tea by lifting the containers away from each other, without spilling a single drop.  Just like its coffee counterpart, the top foam makes this drink stand out from its flat version. This is usually drunk at anytime, including late in the night at the night markets.

DSC_9930.jpg6) Duku Langsat – the flesh is sweet and fleshy with a bitter tiny seed in the middle, making it a challenge to eat the fruit without biting it.  But the sweet flesh makes it worthwhile and all attempts are usually made to avoid the center.  The outer skin is quite distinct by its leathery quality that peels easily to reveal the semi-translucent flesh.
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7) Chiku – This fruit is also known as Sapote in the Spanish-speaking world.  The sweet flesh is very soft but a bit rough in texture.  Like most fruits in this part of the world, it is seasonal and thus available only at a certain time of the year.  I was glad that it was available when I made my visit back recently.

DSC_0146.jpg8) Chempedak – this fruit is related to the Jackfruit and Breadfruit, but it grows only in the Southeast Asian region.  The flesh is a rich and sweet soft flesh, much like the texture of a ripe mango, but much sweeter and strong heady notes to accompany it.  The seeds are usually saved and boiled, tasting much like a richer water chestnut.  As a child, I would eat this fruit that has been battered and deep-fried, which made the seeds edible when well-cooked.  It is definitely missed due to its unavailability outside Southeast Asia.
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9) Starfruit – most homes in this tropical country would grow this fruit tree since they do well without much care.  When in season, the tree bears many fruits that need to be wrapped in paper to prevent the birds from ingesting them, as was in the case at my auntie’s home.  the skin is a a thin skin that protects a juicy insides, much like a soft apple.  However, it is slightly tart and sweet at the same time, providing a light crunch in each bite.  Strangely, Malaysians love to eat it by dipping it into a pool of salt.

DSC_0151.jpg10) Papaya – another commonly grown fruit tree in most homes is the papaya.  Like the starfruit, it is commonly vulnerable to birds that sense when the fruits are ripe and sweet, thus the common practice of wrapping them in paper as they ripen.  I really enjoy this soft and sweet fruit that exude a unique fructose flavor that is unmatchable.  It is one of my favorite breakfast fruits that is paired with a squeeze of lime.

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11) Mata Kuching – A long time favorite of mine.  It is a slightly leathery flesh that is very sweet, coating a hard black seed.  It bears the name of “cat’s eye” due to its similar appearance.  This fruit is very sweet and makes it completely irresistible, making heavy consumption of it possible.  However, the common warning is that consuming too much can over-tax the system.

DSC_0285.jpg12) Dragon Fruit – this fruit was not common more than 10 years ago.  This fruit is indigenous to Vietnam and it made its way to this part of the world.  It bears such name due to the leaves that emanate from the body of the fruit, looking like dragon scales.  But inside bears a richly colored fruit that is soft and sweet.  It has become a well sought-after fruit by the locals due to its wonderful flavor and exotic looks.

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13) Durian – I saved the King of Southeast Asian Fruits for last among the fruits.  How can I explain its flavor?  It is unique and extremely strong, yet illusive at the same time.  Some have described it as rotting garbage which does not make it exactly attractive to the novice.  But once you can get pass its strong odors, you will taste a flavor that is rich, custard-like, very heady, complex, slightly fermented, sweet, and mineral-like.  It is this mix of flavors that make it totally irresistible to many, much like an addict looking for a fix.  I have watched many locals sitting at stalls indulging in these fruits with glazed eyes – and I know why.

DSC_0047.jpg14) Tau Foo Fah –  One of my pleasures of going back to my childhood home is going to the morning market like I used to do so with my grandmother and later with my mother.  It was always a delight to see fresh ingredients among the array of spices and dry goods.  Among them are prepared foods that are readily available for consumption, including this Tofu dish which I came across a vendor selling this item.  Although it is a sweet dish, it is usually eaten as a snack or at any time of the day.  It is fresh soft silken tofu that is paired up with palm sugar spiked with fresh ginger.  This is indeed a healthy snack and has a cooling effect on the body even when consumed hot, as it is customarily done so.

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DSC_0632.jpg15) Kueh Lapis – While visiting my parents in Melbourne, Australia, we stumbled across these Nyonya cakes in a local Asian grocery store that caters to the local Malaysian community.  They are made of layers of rice flour dough that has been enriched with coconut milk, each layer steamed separately thus its name meaning “layer cake”.  Each layer is contrasted with a different colored layer to create such effect.  Eating this delight reminded me of my grandmother who was a master Nyonya cake maker, and I was glad to be the recipient of her wonderful gift.  They are usually eaten for afternoon tea rather than dessert after a meal.

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DSC_0657.jpg16) Ais Batu Campur (ABC) – This dessert/snack is a definite favorite among nearly all Malaysians.  It is basically shaved ice that is sitting on top of a melange of cooked red beans, cooked fresh corn kernels, different forms of jelly, and nuts.  The shaved ice is usually flavored with a sugar syrup, rose petal syrup and evaporated milk.  As a child, this was a frequent order during my school recess time as a way to cool down from the heat and the non air-conditioned classrooms.  I had this rendition with my parents and their friends in a Malaysian restaurant in Melbourne, even in the midst of their winter season.  I guess, for some, habits are hard to die as we were digging into it with gusto even after a big meal, much like little kids at the school canteen, albeit in cold weather.

This ends the series of Malaysian food, from Noodles and Rice Dishes; Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner 1; and Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner 2.  I hope the series has shown you the essence of this Southeas Asian cuisine, the variety of dishes, and that it has inspired the reader to look out for the dishes that I have described, even though some dishes seem a bit off-putting by the descriptions, like the Durian fruit or the Buah Keluak.  But one has to take the leap and take the first bite.  That may just change your mind and make you an aficionado of the rather bizarre.  If not, there are many more dishes you will fall in love with.  Selamat makan (Happy eating).

Malaysian Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner2

Chilies & Lemongrass at the Morning MarketTo continue my series on Malaysian food that I managed to “catch up on” this summer which I have been writing about in the last couple of blogs, here are the other breakfast, lunch and dinner dishes that I savored on the course of my trip to Australia and Malaysia:

Soft-boiled Egg

1) Soft-boiled Egg  – This breakfast item is an all-time favorite of mine that was nearly wiped off the face of my memory bank.  I was mildly surprised to be presented this egg dish one morning while staying at my auntie’s place.  This delicately prepared and equally delicate tasting dish speaks of pure simplicity in the ingredient: a fresh golden-yolk egg that is barely cooked.  With a couple of drops of soy sauce and a dash of white pepper, it makes the perfect “sauce” to dunk a piece of toast – the perfect morning bliss for me and for my mother who also shares her love for this.

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2) Roast Duck – Walking around various neighborhoods in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, you will notice coffee shops everywhere that cater to the culinary needs of the residents in the vicinity and even to those from other neighborhoods, depending on the reputation of the food.  One such place was this eatery that served roast meats and its renowned Roast Duck.  What made this rendition superb was the complete rendering of the fat from the skin, which made it palatable, and the light seasoning of the flesh that had hints of 5 spice powder.  The accompanying sauces augmented the various flavors and spices found in the meat itself.  It was a good thing we got there just as the shop opened just before the huge crowd it tends to attract.

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3) Satay – On my way to meet up with an old college buddy in Kuala Lumpur, I came across a Satay vendor who was cooking these sticks of meat the traditional way, over some coals outdoors.  Although I had a serving of this in Sydney, I was rather disappointed by its lack of charcoal char and the rather weak peanut sauce.  But passing by this sight reminded me of the real flavors of this Malay favorite among Malaysians and others.  If weren’t for dinner plans, I would have taken a seat and placed an order of this sumptuous looking sight.

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4) Butter Prawns – This is truly a Malaysian seafood classic.  Unpeeled Prawns are deep-fried until the shell is completely edible.  A topping consisting of whispy bits of egg white fried in butter (hence its name) provides a rich flavor along with its crispy texture.  Slices of chili and curry leaves add the fragrant and spice elements to this dish that takes the dish to another level.  This is a must-order from a good seafood restaurant when in Malaysia, or a Malaysian restaurant anywhere else, like what I had in Melbourne, Australia.

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5) Sambal Kacang Panjang/Spiced Longbeans –  Longbeans are a favorite among most Asians for its versatility and taste.  Here it is cooked the Malay way with a spice paste consisting of shallots, dried shrimp and dried chilies.  This condiment adds the spice heat and flavor elements to the rather bland vegetable that can hold up to some serious wok searing. The addition of fried dried whitebait fish (Ikan Bilis) brings a contrasting textural element to the softer vegetables as well as additional flavor to this already flavor-packed dish.  Love my veggies cooked this way.

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6) Char Tau Kueh –  This Hokkien breakfast item cannot be classified as a noodle or rice dish although the main starch is made from rice flour that have been mixed with water and steamed until it has firmed up.  It is then cut into square pieces and wok seared with garlic, egg, beansprouts, and dried pickled vegetables. The bits of rice cake are rather bland but the addition of soy sauce and the pickles add the necessary flavorings to this dish.  This is one of my favorite breakfast dishes my mum would buy from the local morning market, and I glad I savored it a couple of times on this trip.

Fresh Tofu SaladFresh Tofu Salad –  Malaysians have a penchant for tofu, especially in the fresh form.  Staying at my auntie’s place in Kuala Lumpur, I was presented this cold dish for dinner which was served in my parents home weekly especially on our meatless Fridays.  It is soft fresh tofu that is topped with oyster and dark soy sauces, aromatic crispy fried shallot rings and topped with some green onions, and/or coriander leaves like how I prepare it.  This is truly a refreshing vegan dish and a true study of flavor and textural contrast.

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8) Assam Fish – this dish was already featured in the previous blog, but I wanted to show that in Malaysia, it is common to serve the fish whole with the head and eyeballs intact.  Most Asians are suspicious of restaurants that do not serve the fish in its entirety thus this common practice.  For most Westerners, this can be rather off-putting with the huge eyeballs staring at you especially when the head is pointing towards such eater at the dinner table.

DSC_0624.jpg9) Tofu Mixed Vegetables – For most Malaysians, a meal would be incomplete if a dish made with fresh vegetables is not ordered.  One of my favorite way of having the greens cooked is with a light sauce and with some fried tofu bits.  The frying of the tofu firms up the soy cakes and provides a rougher texture on the outside.  The addition of Chinese mushroom adds a depth in flavor to the sauce and a “meaty texture” to the quickly cooked and crunchy vegetable pieces.  This is Vegan Heaven here.

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10) Hor Chien/Oyster Pancake – When I was visiting my parents in Melbourne, we stopped at one of the many Malaysian eateries that dot their residential area – yes, they are never lacking in this culinary department.  One of the specials for that day was a dish that I had not eaten for many years – Hor Chien.  It is basically fresh small oysters that are fried in an egg/flour batter until the outside is slightly crispy and the interior still quite soft.  The obligatory sour chili sauce provides the necessary foil to cut through the richness of this seafood pancake.  This brings back memories of eating this during my childhood at seafood restaurants when my father used to take us back to his hometown in Melaka.

Sambal Bendi/Okra/Lady's Fingers11) Sambal Bendi/Okra – Here, we have Okra, or Lady’s Finger as it is known in Malaysia, which in this case, has been cooked the same way as the above Longbean dish, with a chili spice paste that adds tremendous flavors to this mild vegetable.  The secret to cooking this dish is to wok sear it very quickly so that the high heat cooks the okra bits while maintaining a slight crunch at the end.  As a child, I would pick these “lady’s fingers” growing in the backyard for this dish.  This is definitely not the slimy version that most Americans are used to and have an aversion for.

As you can see from this blog and the previous one, Malaysian Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner1, the food is a reflection of the bounty in a tropical climate: the abundance of seafood in its surrounding waters, the meat and poultry that are never lacking of feed around them, vegetables, herb and spices that grow without much effort that add the necessary fiery and flavorful complexity to the delicious dishes. With the influences of various culinary traditions arriving together at this intersection, the result is fresh food that is cooked in an unlimited number of ways that produce an amazing array of temptations. Resistance is just futile around this part of the world.

Malaysian Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner1

Fresh Fish at the Morning MarketMan cannot live on Noodles and Rice Dishes alone (see last blog), at least not for most Malaysians. Malaysia sits on a geographically strategic location in which historically it has received influences from different parts of the world due to trade from all directions and also stemming from being part of various empires, notably the South Indian Cholan and the Indonesian Srijavan empires, as well as its position as a Chinese vassal state for many centuries. Blessed with humid tropical climate in which literally anything will grow just by placing it in the soil, Malaysia is abundant with vegetables, fruits and herbs/spices that are incorporated into the cooking of an equally abundance of seafood, poultry and meat. Needless to say, Malaysian food is full-flavored, unique, and rather exotic even to some fellow Malaysians themselves. Here are the different breakfast, lunch, and dinner dishes that I managed to delight in during my recent visit to this part of the world.

Roti Chanai/Indian Pastry 1) Roti Chanai – This South Indian dish is a breakfast staple not only for the Indian community but for most Malaysians. Layers of finely stretched dough have been separated by clarified butter or margarine, much like an Asian version of Puff Pastry. After spending time on the flat griddle, it is usually served with some cooked dahl lentils and a light vegetable or fish curry. This dish brings back memories of stopping by roadside shacks and having this along with some hot pulled tea. A spicy start to the morning.

Ayam Buah Keluak/Peranakan Chicken Stew2) Ayam Buah Keluak – This dish is quite exotic even for some of my relatives as it hails from the Melaka Peranakan culture that traces its roots to Chinese migration to the area beginning in the 15th century. It is a stew that pairs chicken with the Keluak seed that grows in the island of Java. The seed is toxic in the raw form, but it produces a dark chocolate-like flesh after being cooked for some time. It can also be cooked with pork ribs, which my family prefers, or a firm flesh fish. I relish eating it when I am visiting my family since I do not get it anywhere else. This is soul food for me, despite its odd sounding description.

Asam Ikan/Spicy Sour Fish Stew

3) Asam Ikan – Again, like the above, this dish has its roots in the Peranakan culture, a subculture minority group that my family belongs to. It is fish that has been quickly simmered in a spicy and sour gravy made with tamarind along with a myriad of fragrant herbs and spices. The use of okra (Malaysia – “lady’s fingers”) is customary as well as eggplant at times. This reminds me of our weekly serving of this dish as I was growing up with my grandmothers, and the sipping of the sauce which we could not get enough of. Spicy and Sour flavors dominate many Peranakan dishes, as in this one.

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4) Pongteh – A classic Peranakan dish. Pieces of Belly Pork are paired with potato and simmered in a rich fermented soybean paste sauce that is made fragrant with tons of shallots and garlic. This dish takes on many variations according to the cook – my paternal grandmother used to add bamboo shoots, and my maternal grandmother Chinese mushrooms. This was the must-cook dish that we were served by my auntie when we used to go down to visit her in my father’s village in Melaka. The dish brings back lots of memories and nostalgia when it is in my presence.

Yau Chow Kwai/Deep Fried Dough

5) Yau Chow Kwai/Deep-Fried Dough – This breakfast dish literally translates as “Deep-fried Devils” since it resembles someone squirming in pain as the dough puffs and grows in the hot oil during the frying. This is a typical Chinese breakfast staple that is usually bought at the morning markets in the various neighborhoods in Kuala Lumpur, much like a slightly salty churro. The crispy exterior and soft inside make it the perfect vehicle for dunking into some strong chicory-brewed coffee. Another favorite way of eating it is by slathering some coconut jam (Kaya) on it. Or it is just perfect as it is.

Sambal Ikan/Fish with Chili Paste 6)Sambal Ikan – Again, this fish dish hails from the Peranakan culture, which shares a close affinity with the Malay group. Here we see a Malay style dish in which fish, in this case fresh mackerel, are fried with a spicy concoction of dried chilies, shallots, garlic, shrimp paste, and candlenuts to produce quite a fragrant and fiery dish. The use of tamarind in the paste adds the sourness to elevate the dish beyond piquancy. I can recall my grandmother eating this with her hand, the traditional way, as she pried the rather firm flesh away from the whole fish.

Woo Tau Koh/Steamed Taro Cake

7) Woo Tau Koh/Steamed Taro Cake – Another Chinese (Hokkien) breakfast staple. It is basically taro root (“yam” in Malaysia) that has been steamed with a flour mixture to produce a smooth potato-like savory cake. The seasonings are fried dried shrimp and shallots, with a topping of sweet hoisin and spicy chili sauces. Like most breakfast, this can be bought at the neighborhood morning market, which my mother would do on her frequent trips during the week.

Chinese Crispy Fried Chicken8) Chinese Crispy Fried Chicken – this sumptuous poultry dish is the result of a whole chicken that has been evenly wok-fried to produce a crispy skin while keeping the meat moist and succulent. It is customarily served with both a white pepper/salt combination and a sweet plum sauce. The clouds of prawn crackers around it mimic the same crispness of the chicken skin. This is definitely restaurant fare and I thoroughly enjoyed it with my uncle’s and cousin’s families.

 

Steamed Fish

 

 

9) Steamed Fish – Seafood plays a prominent role in Southeast Asian diet, especially the fresh kind. Matter of fact, no one buys any of the frozen kind, maybe the odd foreigner living there. One of my joys of going back to Malaysia is to go to the open markets and look at the abundance of seafood that come from the local waters. The Chinese prefer to have their fish simply steamed with a few aromatics like ginger and green onions, along with a light sauce made of soy sauce, sesame oil, and some rice wine – this was the case with this dish when I sampled it.

 

 

Chili Crab10) Chili Crab – this is the classic way of cooking this crustacean that has become a signature dish of the region. When I visited a seafood restaurant with my uncle and cousin, there were large tanks of seafood being displayed from which the live creatures were scooped up and whisked off to the kitchen. Everything served in that restaurant was alive just a few minutes before. The crabs here are cooked in a slightly spicy and sweet sauce that is enriched by the use of egg. Upon service, it is customary to lick off the delectable sauce from the shells before breaking them open to get to the sweet flesh. A side order of bread is provided to mop up every drop of that wonderful sauce.

Poh Piah/Fresh Spring Rolls

11) Poh Piah/Fresh Spring Rolls – My maternal grandmother used to make this labor-intensive dish for our Saturday lunches. On this trip, my auntie was gracious enough to cater to my request for this dish that traces its roots to the immigrants from the Fujian region of China. It is basically a fresh spring roll that is not deep-fried like the version most people know. The skin is a very thin sheet of dough that is completely cooked, and it is stuffed with cooked jicama along with some Chinese sausage and pieces of cooked shrimp, and the occasional crabmeat. The sweet sauce and chili paste on the other end of the crepe acts as the glue to seal the roll. I remember as kids, we would hold a competition to see how many we could roll without breakage and how many we could scoff our faces with. Unfortunately, I’m not able to consume as many, but not without the same amount of joy of yesteryear.

Hai Chou/Pork and Seafood Balls12) Hai Chou/Fried Pork, Fish and Shrimp Balls – During this last trip, I wanted to document some recipes that my maternal grandmother used to cook for us with the help of my auntie. One of the dishes was this surf and turf dish. It is basically meatballs consisting of minced pork, minced fish, and diced shrimp that have been rolled up into large sheets of tofu skin, steamed, and deep-fried. The use of cilantro, carrots, green onions, and water chestnuts adds crunch and fresh fragrance to the dish. It is customary to serve them with a sour chili sauce that cuts through the rich-tasting morsels. Eating this dish immediately erased its absence of 25 years from my diet since my grandmother last prepared it.

 

Leong Yee/Stuffed Fish13) Leong Yee/Stuffed Fish – Another dish that was on my list of documenting my grandmother’s recipes was this fish dish. A delicate process has to be taken to remove the spine without tearing the fillets while keeping them intact on the fish. The fillets are scrapped of the flesh, minced with some pork, mixed with aromatics, then stuffed back into the fish cavity, and fried until fully cooked. The whole fish is simmered in a soybean paste, garlic and ginger sauce until it is tender and has absorbed its savory flavors. Like the above offering, tasting this took me back 25 years when I last had this dish when grandma was still alive. Lots of memories, indeed.

A second installment on the rest of the dishes will follow soon. Hopefully, this blog has whet your appetite for more Malaysian delicacies and the myriad of wonderful dishes.

Malaysian Noodle and Rice Dishes

Petaling Street, Kuala LumpurSome of you must have been wondering where I have been the last few weeks due to my lack of posting. I just got back from a month’s trip to visit my family, relatives, and friends in Australia and in my country of origin, Malaysia. It was a chance for me to reconnect with them and to reestablish relationships across waters after a long period of little contact. Equally important was the opportunity to catch-up on the food that I grew up on which I longed to savor after being away for a number of years from my “childhood home” that forms a big part of my psyche, the repository of an early gustatory conditioning that is deeply imbedded in my palate. Although I spent most of my time with family members in Australia, I was equally treated to good Malaysian cuisine there due to the large Malaysian immigrant population that made their way due to its close proximity to this Southeast Asian nation. In other words, I was never lacking of good Malaysian treats during my whole trip. Here is the run down of the Noodle and Rice dishes from the plethora of dishes that I savored:

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1) Har Meen/Penang Prawn Mee: After dropping my bags off upon my arrival at Sydney, my sister took me out to a small Malaysian eatery and I had this noodle soup. The broth is a spicy and pungent shrimp stock paired with egg and rice noodles, bean sprouts, and topped with bits of pork and fresh shrimp. A dollop of cooked chili sambal is obligatory to add the extra heat and richness to this dish. A great start to my trip especially since I was arriving in the middle of winter Down Under.

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2) Chow Kueh Teow/Stir Fried Rice Noodles: This is a favorite among many Malaysians and it is usually the litmus test of the kitchen’s cooking level. Broad rice noodles are stir fried with egg, bean sprouts, Chinese sausage, and shrimp. The addition of light and dark soy sauces gives it the distinctive flavor, and the high heat searing in the wok results in the characteristic caramelization. In the old days, a sprinkling of crispy pork fat and the use of lard were standard, which add a certain unctuousness, but seldom practised these days – what a pity.

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3) Hainanese Chicken Rice – Another popular dish. Chicken is lightly simmered to a point which the collagen under the skin is still intact and not cooked out. The broth is used to make the rice and the soup that are served together with the meat pieces. The sauces also take a prominent role since they are instrumental in adding flavor to the rather bland pieces of chicken: ginger chili sauce and thick soy sauce.  A perfect lunch.

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4) Nasi Lemak/ Coconut Rice – This national dish’s main star is rice cooked with coconut milk and galangal root. The sides are usually dried whitebait and peanuts, cooked chili paste, boiled egg, fresh cucumber, chicken or fish curry. A simple version of this dish is usually a breakfast staple – a spicy start to the day! My flights on AirAsia to Malaysia had a delectable rendition of this national dish and I ordered it on both ways. Sedap! (Yummm)

DSC_9556.jpg5) Chee Cheong Fun/Pig Intestine Noodles – OK, these are not porcine guts! They are steamed sheets of rice noodles that are rolled up and cut to resemble that animal part. The sides of cooked soybean sheets stuffed with fish paste and a few fish balls make this quite a complete meal. The dousing of sweet hoisin and chili sauces add the sweet, salty and spicy notes to this breakfast dish. This brings back memories of my mother buying it from the morning market for our breakfasts.

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6) Wat Ton Hor Fun/Cantonese Style Noodles in Sauce – Pan-seared rice noodles are doused in a light broth that has been enriched with egg whites, thus giving its name of “smooth egg sauce”. Bits of shrimp, squid, pork, and fresh vegetables make this dish well-balanced in flavor and as a complete meal. The addition of pickled green chilis aids in cutting through the savory sauce as well as providing the spicy note to this otherwise mild dish.

DSC_9792.jpg7) Kueh Chang Nyonya/Nyonya Stuffed Rice Dumplings – This rice dumpling comes specifically from the Peranakan culture to which I belong. It is glutinous rice stuffed with a savory and fragrant concoction of pork, chinese mushrooms, candied melon, and coriander powder. The dumpling is wrapped in bamboo leaves and boiled until completely cooked with the dumpling having absorbed the aroma imparted by the leaves. The customary light blue coloring comes the use of a pea flower. This was a favorite of mine growing up and it reminds me of watching my paternal grandmother making these dumplings specifically for the Summer Solstice, June 22nd.
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DSC_0001.jpg8) Banana Leaf Rice – With a rather sizable South Indian population in Malaysia, many folks have taken a liking to this tasty meal that is served on Banana leaves. Servers will come around and pile on top of the rice scoops of curries, meat, fish, vegetables, pickles, and crackers. It is one of the rare opportunities when I get to “play” with my food with my hands and eat it with no utensils. Unfortunately, the use of banana leaves has fallen to the wayside and they have been replaced by paper made to look like the leaves themselves. Thanks to my college buddy, Vijay (yes, that’s him stuffing his face), and his wife, Yvonne, for taking me out for this great treat.

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9) Thousand-Year Egg and Pork Rice Congee – This breakfast staple is a rather humble and simple dish that has been elevated to a more refined version found in Dim Sum houses. This rendition has a smoother texture that has been enriched by the use of meat stock and the addition of lean pork meat and the strong-tasting thousand-year egg. The addition of fried Chinese croutons adds the textural contrast to the gruel-like dish. This reminds me of a raw fish version that my grandmother used to take us to in Petaling Street for breakfast when I was a young child. Simple yet soulful.

DSC_0362.jpg10) Ngow Nam Meen/Beef Noodle – This famous dish has been served at the same location, Lai Foong Coffee shop (see first photo), for as long as I recall, on the edge of Chinatown. Slices of beef with beef balls are paired with noodles, salted radish, pickled mustard green, all tied-in by a rich beefy broth. The chili sauce side is mandatory to cut through the richness of the dish. However, during my last visit, I was a bit disappointed by the slight insipidness of the broth and the lack of the sour mustard green that I recall from yesteryear. But it was definitely worth the visit just for memory sake.
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11) Mee Suah – This dish hails from my Peranakan roots and I was pleasantly surprised by its presence for breakfast one morning at my aunt’s place. It is very fine vermicelli noodles cooked in a meat broth and served with some minced meat, white pepper and fried shallots. That morning, it was served with fluffy eggs mixed with dried shrimp, which was equally delectable. This was a rare treat for me and a great start for the day.

DSC_0024.jpg12) Kari Mee/ Curry Noodles – Malaysians never get enough of spiciness especially the curries that have been influenced by the Malay and Indian cultures. Here, we see a marriage of a curry dish with Chinese noodles. But this version takes it another level with the addition of roast pork, cockles and braised chicken feet. Yes! I love chicken feet and most of you will be grossed out by this, especially the fact that I enjoy it for breakfast too. The squeeze of Kalamansi lime provides the citrus hit that cuts through the richness and spiciness.
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DSC_0105.jpg13) Lam Meen – My auntie took me to a coffee shop for breakfast after paying respects to our ancestors at the cemetery. This place is reputed to serve the best Lam Meen in town. It is thick wheat noodles, cooked al dente, enveloped by a thick tasty broth studded with pieces of chicken and shrimp. This reminded me of my maternal grandmother’s version that she would cook for our Saturday lunches – a classic Cantonese noodle dish.

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14) How can you spot a Malaysian? By the amount of fresh-cut chilies that he/she is consuming with the noodle and rice dishes. A bowl of cut chilies is de rigueur with the meal and they are served in both coffee shops and high-end restaurants. My maternal grandmother even brought a jar of this condiment to Hong Kong years ago to spice up the rather mild Cantonese dishes. No doubt she inculcated the love for pickled green chilies in me – can’t get enough of them!

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15) Nga Po Kai Fan/ Clay Pot Chicken Rice – This is one dish that was a must-have on my trip to Malaysia and they are served in local coffee shops around the city. Cooked white rice is served in searing-hot clay pots, topped with pieces of chicken, Chinese sausage, and seasoned with light and dark soy sauces. The mixture is mixed well before serving, while the heat from the pot crisps up the bottom of the rice, much like a Asian savory rice krispies. Bits of sweet raw onions and green onions provide the fresh flavors to this rich-tasting dish. I’m glad my cousin took me all the way across town when another eatery was not open during lunch.

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16) Laksa Lemak/Curry Noodle Soup – The quintessential lunch noodle dish encapsulates Southeast Asian flavors with a spicy broth enriched by coconut milk, and spiced by lemongrass and Kafir lime leaves. The bowl I had while I was visiting my parents in Melbourne was replete with bits of squid, shrimp, mussels and fresh vegetables, which made it a seafood delight. Bits of fried tofu are obligatory in this dish that add a lightness to this rich dish.

DSC_0642.jpg17) Hokkien Mee – This noodle dish traces its roots to the Fujian area from which many Malaysian Chinese can claim their roots. It is thick wheat noodles and rice vermicelli that are wok-seared with lard, seafood and the distinctive dark soy sauce that adds a slight sweetness from the molasses flavored sauce. The addition of crispy pork fat adds the necessary richness to the dish, as how it was served to me in Australia. This dish brings back memories of my father driving to downtown Kuala Lumpur and parking on the main street as we waited for our late night supper, usually after a badminton game – such maneuver is not possible anymore with the crazy traffic nowadays.
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DSC_0660.jpg18) Chow Toong Fun/Fried Beanthread Noodles – This is a dish that I have not eaten much of but I appreciate its lightness due to the use of noodles made from Mung beans, those used to make bean sprouts. Again, like most noodles, we get Surf and Turf here with the use of Chinese sausage and shrimp. The addition of bean sprouts adds the necessary crunch to the delicate noodles.
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19) Assam Laksa – This complex tasting dish hails from the northern island of Penang where there is a strong Thai influence from its neighboring territories. The soup is spicy, fragrant, and sour from the use of tamarind as its base. The use of Spanish mackerel or sardines adds to the rich flavors, while the use of mint, pineapple and cucumber brings fresh qualities to this rather “dark” soup. It is a favorite of mine and I definitely miss my grandmother’s rendition that she would whip up for our wonderful Saturday lunches.

Oodles of noodles and plates filled with flavored rice. As you can see, we can’t get enough of these staples, considering the variety of dishes that they come in and the myriad of flavors that satiate the hungry eater. Just don’t forget to ask for another serving of fresh chilies or chili paste that will make this culinary experience both fiery and complete. When in Malaysia, eat like a Malaysian, which means with lots of chilies. No doubt!