My Dad’s taste buds & a book review: The Flavors of Malaysia

Lamb Peratil curry with Malay fragrant rice

Though a resident of Singapore, then a part of Malaysia, during the early 1950s, I doubt very much if my father ever had much of an opportunity to experience its astonishing variety of cuisines. Confined mostly to the Changi district (now better known for its international airport) and the company of other expatriate British military families, his diet hardly differed from that of his older brother, Roger, who stayed in England at boarding school throughout the family’s four year sojourn in the east.

A child of the gastronomic wasteland of post-WWII rationing, when food was extracted from a can and then boiled to the point of annihilation, my Dad is still a picky eater, ever-ready to pull a face if served something strongly flavored. In the broader context of his early years, these culinary proclivities aren’t so surprising. Well into the 1990s (by which time rationing had been over for more than forty years), I remember visiting my paternal grandparents and noticing that their oven was spotless in spite of being nearly twenty years old, having been used exclusively as extra storage space for canned goods.

Widely read, well traveled and knowledgeable about many things, gastronomy is one of the few areas of which my Dad is entirely ignorant. Exposure, at such a tender age, to such perfumed and harmonious dishes as Singapore and Malaysia offer in abundance could have had a profoundly transformative influence on his tastebuds. Instead, the insipid and farty flavors of boiled beef and cabbage became the signature flavors of his youth.

All of which, to me at least, is a great shame since the laksas, curries, stir-fries, biryanis and sambals – culled from an ethnic and religious make-up as varied as any nation – that he could have tasted, are the signatures of a country that for milennia has been the regional cross-roads and melting-pot.

Lamb Peratil curry with Malay fragrant rice

Book Review:
Susheela Raghavan’s family, on the other hand, embraced this tantalizing concoction, and in her new book, The Flavors of Malaysia: A Journey Through Time, Tastes and Traditions, she draws together a collection of recipes from across the full range her country’s diversity into a harmonious whole that is as interesting and educational to read as it is jam-packed with deliciousness. From opening chapters that place her and her family at the heart of Malaysia’s ethnic variety, to much-needed ethnographic and geographic explanations of how it all came to be, to charming anecdotes of recollections and family stories, The Flavors of Malaysia really is a cook book you can read and learn from. In fact, as you read, what you really notice is what a tour de force Raghavan has performed in creating something coherent and comprehensive out of such marvelous diversity.

The Malay fragrant rice that accompanies the lamb peratil (a sort of dry curry) above perfectly encapsulates the depth and complexity of Malaysian cooking (which is why we chose to make it). Using the predominantly Indian spice blend almost as a tea to perfume the cooking liquid, the addition of garlic, ginger, sugar and soy sauce to the rice makes for as cross-cultural a dish as any I can think of. The lamb, on the other hand, is representative of the profound influence south Indian cooking has on Malaysian cuisine, demonstrating that although mixing and borrowing takes place, the country’s resident non-Malay groups have maintained their own traditions too.

If the recipes we made sound exotic, then they should. The food of Malaysia is perhaps the world’s most pungent, combining the abundant spices of Indian cuisine, the fragrance of Thai and Vietnamese herbs and rhizomes, the simplicity of local Malay techniques, the incorporation of Portuguese ingredients and Dutch or British implements, and rounding it out with the balance of sweet, salty, sour and spicy native to Chinese cooking. That this has become a fascinating and unique brew and not a toxic hodgepodge speaks to the generally harmonious philosophy of a country whose moderate Malay Muslim majority lives cheek by jowl with Indian Muslims, Indian Hindus, Eurasian Christians, Chinese and Thai Buddhists and native animist groups.

It would be easy to be intimidated by this exoticism, and certainly, it’s unlikely the average pantry will contain even half the required items – some spice mixes reading like an apothecary’s top shelf – but the spectacular results make it worth persevering. To be fair, though the recipes are remarkably easy to follow, this isn’t really the kind of tome the owner of an average pantry would seek out. One needs to be prepared for an experience quite unlike anything one may have tasted before, and while I would love to suggest this book will fly off the shelves, my feeling is that only the adventurous will seek it out. The fact that not all dishes are pictured convinces me of this (150 recipes, 16 pages of color photographs), as a leap of faith is necessary in making something you have no clue what it looks like. If there were a large Malaysian community in America where one could get accustomed to this kind of food things might be different. For those of us looking for something tantalizingly new for our taste buds though, I can heartily recommend this book. Not only will your house be filled with fascinating aromas, and your stomach filled with astonishing dishes, but your intellect will be stimulated by a country and people of marvelous history, culture and depth.

The Flavors of Malaysia: A Journey through Time, Tastes & Traditions
by Susheela Raghavan
Hippocrene Cookbook Library, hardcover, September 2010, 353 pages
List price: $40

13 thoughts on “My Dad’s taste buds & a book review: The Flavors of Malaysia

  1. I grew up in the land of bland and have eschewed it for the rest of my life.
    Now that I am grown, I love spice and heat and highly fragranced foods with complex taste profiles. This is right up my alley… I have never been to Malaysia but would love to get a preview with the food in your book… sounds perfect!

  2. Well I suppose if you live in Spain then Malaysian is considered quite adventurous (or any Asian really) and you will probably not have too many spices in your pantry nor know where to purchase them. But if you live in a cosmopolitan city in the US or somewhere like London, you will probably be more familiar with Asian food and have been to a Malaysian restaurant at least once. I dont think everyone would consider Malaysian cuisine to be so out of reach.

  3. I love Malaysian food. Even the trashy stuff from mini-malls is great – it hits that sweet spot between Chinese and Indian just perfectly. $40 is the going rate for cookbooks these days, innit (if they have decent photography, anyway)? I’ll look for it at the library, I guess.

  4. @LG – Unfortunately, perhaps, the majority of people do not live in either Spain, New York or London, so I stand by my remark that for the vast majority of people Malaysian cuisine, and the ingredients to make it, are unfeasibly exotic. The fact that I did have curry leaves, cardamom pods, cumin seeds, coriander seeds and black onion seeds in my pantry without trailing all over town to find them is because I am a keen hobbyist cook. Of course, all of it is available on the internet too, but the point I was trying to make is that unlike say the art of french cooking, which is reasonably approachable even to complete novices, this book represents a challenge that not everyone would be willing to take.

    @Heather – you’re not wrong, love, cookbooks are pricey, even ones that aren’t in full color. I’m guessing this one is more expensive though because of it’s likely limited appeal.

  5. Excellent review! Such a shame your dad missed out on the experience! Wonder what he makes out of the incredible variety of flsvours and cuisines we now have in the UK. I, personally have always been fascinated by the Vietnamese and Malaysian cuisines.

  6. My Dad grew up in England during and after rationing and to this day cannot cook his way out of a paper bag. Somewhat ironically, though, as a poor student he ate a ton of curry and so he’s a pretty adventurous eater. I remember when I lived at the British School in Rome that many of the fellows would sit around drinking G&Ts and complaining about how nobody in Italy knew how to make a proper cup of tea.

    Do you know Nyonya on Grand St.? I enjoy eating there. The flavors of Malaysian food are unlike anything else. I’m going to look into getting this book.

  7. It’s actually not easy to eat Malaysian (or Indonesian, or Singaporean) food here in Vancouver; there aren’t many places that serve them (or, serve them well). And, I believe the ingredients are not all that available as well. [sigh]

    Thanks for the book recommendation. I am also intrigued by _Cradle of Flavor_, James Oseland’s book. Have you had the chance to take a look at/cook from it?

    I seriously need to go to Southeast Asia and taste the dishes there in person.

  8. Living in Hawaii’s melting pot of diverse ethnicity, I have come to love and acquire all those spices, and an ancient Malaysian cookbook, as well as C. Solomon’s Asian one (which includes Malaysia) but it’s about time to update. This book sounds wonderful.

  9. I have never had Malaysian food, but I definitely want to check it out. I love Indian and Thai and other spicy cuisines.

    My MIL is not much of a cook by her own admission, so my husband grew up in a bland food world. I managed to sway him to the dark side (too bad I couldn’t do that with beef and pork) and convince him that spicy food is GOOD. His brother never changed his tune though.

  10. @Peter – you just articulated the very reason why Spain’s Costa del Sol is so popular with the English. They serve Carling lager, make tea from imported PG Tips, and offer a fried breakfast!
    @Emiglia – you’re too kind.
    @TS – we’ll meet you there and eat our faces off. The heat, the humidity, the lushness and all the diverse food, it would be a feast for the sense.

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