Kuala Lumpur - Mamak me up

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Written by James
Published on 24th February 2015 at 08:05 • No comments yet, be the first!

If there was a league table of countries ranked by the quality of their food, Malaysia would have to be right at the very top, or in the Champions League places at the very least. The combination of slightly sweet and intensely savoury flavours, sometimes a little bit fatty (in a good way!) and a generous hand with the spices means the food here really hits the spot.


Modern Malaysian food is a reflection of the population - native Malays and the ingredients that grow locally (lemongrass, lime leaves, ginger, fresh turmeric plus all the fantastic fruits and vegetables that grow so well there), lots of Chinese immigrants who introduced soy sauce, tofu and noodles, a high proportion of Indians who brought all their expertise with dried spices, flatbreads and curries, plus some strong European influences all stewed together for a few centuries makes for a pretty heady mix.

A Malaysian Spicery 

Every local market seems to have a stall selling all the ingredients you need to put your meal together at home. You can tell the stall owner what you plan to cook and for how many, and she'll put together a pack with all the ingredients you need to cook it. She makes up a mix of dried spices, taking a tsp of this, a pinch of that.....


... a handful of fresh ingredients (curry leaves, lemongrass, lime leaves), plus some freshly made pastes of ginger, garlic, onion, chilli etc to make up your mix so you only need to buy exactly what you need for dinner that night. 

As well as the herbs and spices, the other key flavouring for Malaysian food are all the various kinds of dried fish and shrimps that can be fairly pungent but give an incredible savoury depth of flavour, and it's this mix of the fragrant fresh ingredients together with the intensity of all the dried spices and seasonings that makes Malaysian food so delicious, unusual and interesting for us at the spicery.



The iconic Malaysian food outlets are the Mamak stalls. Often open 24 hours a day, these unpretentious restaurants sell the food that every Malaysian knows and loves: mee goreng (fried noodles), rojak (fruit and vegetable salad), roti canai (flatbreads with curry sauce), biryanimurtabak.....They're run by Malaysian Indians, often originally from Tamil Nadu, and are a great social leveller - people from every ethnic group and level of society can be seen eating at a mamak stall.


Egg rotifor breakfast with some sambarand curry sauce on the side; Making Teh Tarik(pulled tea)

Roti are wafer-thin breads that are crispy and pretty oily (and rather moreish!) You can get them with all kinds of different fillings - banana roti with a splash of condensed milk in the middle was a particular highlight.

Teh Tarik (pulled tea) is basically sweet milky tea that can be flavoured with fresh ginger and poured between 2 glasses until it's got a thick frothy top - a sort of tea-accino.


Nasi Lemakbeef rendang

Nasi Lemak- literally translates as fatty rice.  It's a dish of rice cooked in coconut milk flavoured with pandan leaves, then served with chilli sambal, egg, peanuts, cucumber, fried anchovies and sometimes a spoonful of curry or a piece of fried chicken. Served wrapped up in a banana leaf it's a popular breakfast but many people seem to eat it at any time of day. 

You might get a bit of fried chicken, tamarind fish curry, beef rendang, and many more all served with pilau rice, vegetables and chilli sambal. Just pour curry sauce all over the rice (called banjir or flooding) and dig in!




Nasi Kandar is the core offering of many Mamak stalls. Nasi Kandar is a buffet-style selection of all sorts of different curries with a range of vegetable dishes, rice and chilli sambal.


Fish head curryEurasian Devil Curry

A favourite dish in Malaysia and Singapore is fish head curry. There's a surprising amount of very tender flesh on a fish's head and when cooked in a hot peppery sauce and served with plain rice it's a real delicacy.

Eurasian Devil Curry - just the name alone makes this curry something special. It's not quite as hot as the name suggests but the sour taste from the use of vinegar is a legacy of the Portuguese prescence in Malacca. It's served here with an okra kerabu (a salad of okra pieces with fried shallots and lime leaves) and a blue rice unique to the area known as nasi kerabu.

As well as the Mamak stalls and the Eurasians, some of the most famous Malaysian dishes are from the Nyonya community. This group were originally Chinese migrants who settled in the trading ports and intermarried with local Malays. Their cooking mixed Chinese ingredients with what was available locally and now the food is world renowned for being complex, often tangy and spicy with a rich fragrance.


Asam Laksa; Fresh fruit for dessert with spicy sugar mixed with tamarind powder and a spoonful of soy sauce flavoured with chopped green chillies

Asam Laksa - a noodle soup with a fish broth made sour with lots of tamarind and fresh pineapple. Served here with an extra bowl of sweet belacan paste that tasted a bit like a sweet, fishy marmite that you stir into the soup for extra flavour (tastes better than it sounds!) 

How to make a Nyonya Fish Curry:



Firstly a good handful of fresh lemongrass is pounded to a paste together with a thumb-sized piece of fresh turmeric and a sprinkle of belacan (dried shrimp powder). Once that's all crushed up you pound up 3 or 4 fresh shallots, a couple of red chillies and a little piece of ginger and mix it all together to make the curry paste.


Fry it all together until fragrant then add 1 tbsp curry powder and 2 tsp of a seed mix (fennel, cumin, mustard and fenugreek known as the four sisters) similar to the Indian spice blend panch pooran. Add salt, soy, water and tamarind paste then cook until rich and thick. Add the fish, a bit of sliced okra and a few fresh curry leaves then serve with rice, a belacan chilli sambal and a salad of fresh herbs that you dress with a smear of the chilli sambal. Delicious!



Many thanks to Darren, Iyra and Mark for taking the time to show me round and if you ever  get the chance to visit Malaysia I'd recommend the food as some of the  best you'll find anywhere!        

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