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.


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.

Lunar New Year Celebration

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 such meal. With half of my family members living in Australia and the other half on the West coast, Midwest, and I on the East coast, such gathering is close to impossible with our busy lives, let alone the long distance in between my siblings and parents. The last time our whole family came together for the celebration was just before I left home for high school in England when I was just 13 years old.

For the meal, I decided to prepare a few of my grandmothers’ Nyonya dishes. Nyonya is the term given to the women of the Peranakan culture, a hybrid culture that formed as a result of Chinese men migrating to tropical Southeast Asia, beginning in the 15th century, and marrying the local women folk. It can be considered the first mixed culture whose beginnings predates the arrival of the Spanish to the Americas and the formation of the Spanish mestizo culture. My grandmothers were truly amazing cooks, and I was blessed to have spent a lot of time with them in the kitchen as a child suffering from migraine headaches as a result of sun exposure – the kitchen became my refuge and daycare center. I grew up watching all food-related activities, smelling the cooking, handling all the ingredients when I was put to work, and tasting all the dishes before they ended up on the dinner table. Each nightly meal consisted of at least 8 dishes that were made from scratch, beginning from the early morning visit to the open market. Preparing dinner for a Peranakan family was always a tall-order that had no room for error – all partakers would sit down with great anticipation, high expectations, and a well-honed critical palate.

Yee Sung/Lo Hei ingredients

As the starter for my dinner celebration, I decided to offer a Malaysian-Chinese tradition that is both unique and delectable. Yee Sung or Lo Hei is a vibrant raw fish salad that consists of pomelo (like a sweet grapefruit), apple, raw fish (which I substituted for smoked salmon), jellyfish (which I omitted as to not weird my friends out), candied fruits, different spices like cinnamon and five-spice powder, a wide variety of Chinese pickles, aromatics like Kaffir lime leaves and cilantro/coriander leaves, shaved daikon radish, shaved carrots, sliced fresh chili, peanuts and sesame seeds, fried wanton-skin strips, and topped with sauces like plum sauce and fresh lime juice – a total of 25 ingredients in all! According to Wikipedia, this dish was created in 1952 in Malaysia, and it is an adaptation of a Southern Chinese tradition in which fishermen would celebrate their catch on the 7th day of the New Year.

"Lo Hei" -Ready, get set, go!

"Lo Hei" - Tossing Prosperity

Following customary practices, all my guests gathered around the well-assembled plate of ingredients, and with their chopsticks, they tossed and mixed the different elements together while shouting out “Lo Hei” which means “Tossing Prosperity”. The idea of such an act is to attract and invigorate the energy of prosperity and good fortune to one’s life for the year. Although foreign to my American friends, they enjoy this activity with great enthusiasm and the salad with savoring mouths, and they look forward to this interactive and playful dish at every New Year’s celebration.

Preparing the main 4 courses was quite a daunting task. If were not my local Korean grocery store, I would be running around the city trying to find the fresh ingredients that were necessary and prominent in the dishes’ flavor profile. I had spotted the pomelo for the appetizer dish a couple of weeks before hand, and I grabbed it when I saw that it was at the right level of ripeness – storing it in the fridge was necessary to preventing it from spoiling. I bought a fresh pineapple for two of the main dishes a week before, and I chose the ripest looking one and further ripened it on my kitchen counter until its scent of sweetness was oozing out of its tough skin – these were necessary steps taken by my grandmothers for assuring success in their cooking, and I was just following their finickiness for such details. I managed to find shallots, fresh lemongrass, fresh turmeric, wood fungus, beanthread noodle, coconut milk, chili paste, shrimp paste, peanut brittle, lily buds, and the various different sauces all under one roof. I love my Korean grocery store!

Shrimp & Pineapple Curry

Spice Paste for Shrimp Pineapple Curry
Just preparing the spice paste for Shrimp and Pineapple in Coconut Sauce (Udang Lemak Nenas) took around an hour. It is the main flavor base of this rather intriguing and complex dish – the list is rather long consisting of 8 roots and aromatics. In addition to this base, the sauce is made up of coconut milk, dried fish, and tamarind juice, to which large sweet shrimp and chunks of fruity pineapple are added. As disparate shrimp and pineapple are and an unlikely pair, it is this rich and full-flavored sauce that becomes their liaison like a good matchmaker. For me, this was the most challenging dish to make due to its complexity and list of fresh spice ingredients, and due to this fact, I recreate this dish probably only once every three years. However, it was worth the effort judging by the complements that I received from my guests who savored it with gusto and satisfaction.

Chicken Pongteh

Shallots and Garlic for Pongteh
Chicken, Chinese Mushrooms, and Potato Stew (Pongteh) is one of the most recognized Nyonya dishes by those familiar with the culture. The ingredients are stewed in a sauce that consists of copious amounts of crushed shallots and garlic, which is then flavored by a brown bean paste. I had cooked the dish the night before until the chicken was about to fall of the bone, and I allowed it to soak up the savory sauce overnight. This dish is standard fare in all Peranakan home dinner tables especially during festive days. It was served with the obligatory hot sauce of chili paste, fish paste, and lime juice (Sambal Belacan); this chili mixture adds a contrasting spiking spicy citrus element to the mild-flavored chicken. The stew was well-received by many guests for its subtle yet soulful flavors.

Cucumber Pineapple Salad

To complement the above dishes, I made a couple of side Nyonya dishes. The first was a simple Cucumber and Pineapple Salad (Sambal Nenas Timun). In addition to the fore mentioned ingredients, the sauce consists of chili paste, dried shrimp, salt, shrimp paste, and an odd ingredient – crushed peanut brittle. The fresh ingredients are spiced up by the chili concoction, slightly brined by the dried shrimp and shrimp paste, and the peanut brittle brings notes of rich nuttiness and caramel sweetness to the dish. I have prepared this dish often since it is quite easy to put together, and it is a favorite at many of my dinners. As usual, it did not disappoint my guests this time as there was not much leftovers at the end of the meal.

Chap Chai

The other side dish was a melange of Cabbage, Beancurd skin, Beanthread Noodles, Lily buds, and Wood Fungus in a garlic and fermented beancurd sauce (Chap Chai). This recipe is the closest that identifies the Peranakans as Chinese immigrants, even though they are centuries removed from the motherland. The various ingredients are purely Chinese and one has to seek out these imported ingredients to make the dish successfully. Many of my guests exclaimed how much they enjoyed the dish especially the slippery and slightly crunchy wood fungus, which I found it to be odd and amusing!

After such a rich and wide offering of dishes, I decided to make dessert simple – Fruit Cocktail. However, it was not just your plain old fruit cocktail but one with a Chinese and Southeast Asian twist. I opened cans of Lychee, Rambutans stuffed with Pineapple, Jackfruit, and Almond Jelly. Just as in most Asian desserts, the accompanying syrup was not cloying sweet, and there were only a few ladleful scoops left by the end of the meal. It was just the perfect ending.

The end of the Lunar New Year, called Chap Goh Meh in the Peranakan culture, was an ocassion in which one used to parade an unmarried daughter to potential eligible suitors in hope of securing a well-matched marriage. The end of the fortnight was also a time to have one last festive bang before resuming daily life, hoping for a fortuitous year. I was glad that I could share my treasured grandmothers’ dishes with my close friends and continue the tradition of Lo Hei. I only wished that I had more hands in the kitchen just like how my older relatives would come together for a couple of weeks in preparation for the New Year. Perhaps I should have also thrown in a session of speed-dating for both my hopelessly single straight and gay friends, much like the Chap Goh Meh, in hope of finding them a suitor for the New Year. But, there is so much I can do for them, especially when one is cooking a monumental Peranakan dinner like this one! Maybe they should have matched me with someone special for all the effort that I put into and the dishes that my guests stuffed themselves with that night. The Peranakan saying that a young lady’s marriage worthiness is reflected by the skillfulnes of her cooking should still hold true to this day and to anyone, either female or male, as it is in my case!

Addendum 2013:

CNY 2013 027.jpg

For this year’s celebration, I was out of the ingredients for the Lo Hei/Yee Sang salad featured above since I did not have the various pickles and ingredients that my mother would usually send to me during to her trips here. In lieu of that, I decided to make a dish that hails itself as the only appetizer found in the Peranakan/Nyonya cuisine – Kueh Pie Tee or fondly known as Top Hats. To make the shells, I needed a brass mold that I had not picked up in over 10 years. After heating it up in some hot oil, I dipped it in a pool of thin rice and flour batter, and return it into the oil to fry as the top of the shells spreaded out, hence its moniker Top Hats. I must admit that it was rather time-consuming since it took me around 2 hours to make around 45 shells, knowing that my guests would scoff down an average of three even before the main meal.


As the stuffing, I had to hunt down some Jicama root, as known as Bangkuang in the Peranakan dialect. For many years, I would find them in the local Mexican stores, and this piqued my curiosity about its origin. After doing some research on Wikipedia, I discovered that the root vegetable is indigenous to Mexico, and it was brought over by the Spanish conquistadores to the Philippines, one of her colonies, before it spreaded in Southeast Asia. The Pie Tee stuffing consists of the shredded and dry-squeezed Jicama, diced chicken breast, and diced shrimp. What elevates these ingredients and ties them together is a sauce made from garlic, fermented bean sauce, 5-spice powder, soy sauce, and white pepper. Along with this mixture, the crispy shells are stuffed with fresh lettuce, and topped with egg strips, fried shallots, and a dap of tangy chili sauce. A single mouthful of this dish is a study of contrasting textures and flavors, all coming together to make it a truly satisfying bite. Watching my guests enjoy these stuffed shells made it worth while standing at the stove for those couple of hours.


Another dish that I made for the occasion which I had not made in some time was my maternal grandmother’s pickles – Achar Ahwak. Since it was a pickle dish, I had to make it in advance, and the process was quite laborious. I had to salt pieces of sliced cucumber, squeeze the water out, then dry them in the oven for around 1 1/2 hours until the pieces were dry and shriveled. Traditionally, these pieces were placed in the hot sun until the right dried state. Along with the cucumber are pieces of carrot, longbean, red chilies, and large ribbons of cabbage, all parboiled and squeezed dry. The pickling sauce consisted of tons of shallots, a bit of fresh turmeric, dried chili paste, white vinegar, salt, sugar, and a touch of sesame oil. What makes this pickle unique is the addition of a copious amount of crushed Peanut/Sesame Brittle that added the rich nuttiness as well as the necessary sweet element to compensate for the acidity. My grandmother would make a vat full of this and we would scoop a bowl full every night for our dinners until we ran out of it. Similarly, I made a large bowlful, and I’m still enjoying the remnants to this day, weeks after the celebration dinner. It truly was worthwhile and an honor to recreate my grandmother’s dish and to maintain this tradition alive.

Watch: Click on the following link to view a brief video on Peranakan Culture – Click here