Author and chef Mandy Yin on the flavours of Malaysian cuisine

Rich, fragrant and diverse, Malaysian cuisine has been shaped by many culinary cultures.

By Mandy Yin
Published 1 Jan 2023, 11:00 GMT
Assam fish curry.

Assam fish curry.

Photograph by Louise Hagger

To understand Malaysian food, you have to understand how the country is made up. It consists largely of three races (at approximate percentages): Malays (60%), Chinese (25%) and Southern Indians (7%), with the remaining number made up of many Indigenous peoples imagine the array of flavours and influences from these four cultures alone.

Then there are also influences from neighbouring Thailand and Indonesia. Malaysian cuisine is a fusion of all these cultures; each has applied interesting features from the others to its own cuisine. Malays use lemongrass, chillies, onions, garlic and ginger to make fragrant spice pastes as the base of most of their dishes. They also use empat sekawan (four friends) cinnamon sticks, cardamom, star anise and cloves  to infuse soups and stews. These give the dishes an unmistakable warmth and depth.

The Chinese influence dates to the 1400s, when Chinese traders settled in Malaysia and brought with them their love of noodles, which explains the wide variety of noodle dishes across the country. They also introduced dishes such as Hainanese chicken rice, which the Malays adopted as their own, adding spice and grilling it instead of poaching.

South Indians, meanwhile, have migrated to Malaysia for work over the past two centuries and brought in the likes of roti canai, a flaky flatbread that’s now a ubiquitous snack. It’s served with curries that are embedded in every Malaysian’s taste menu: soothing, mild lentil; comforting chicken; rich mutton. Indians share with the Malays a love of charcoal-grilling fresh seafood.

When they moved to Malaysia, they started to use banana and pandan leaves to add flavour to their cooking. Malaysia also has a colonial past and some dishes have elements of Eurasian cooking, for example the use of tomato ketchup in sauces like ayam masak merah (red cooked chicken), or Worcestershire sauce in oxtail stews. Eurasians are people of any mixed-European and Asian ancestry, and their cooking deserves a book in its own right. Sambal Shiok by Mandy Yin is published by Quadrille, £25.

Mandy Yin is the author of Sambal Shiok and founder of the London restaurant of the same name.

Photograph by Louise Hagger

Key Ingredients 



Malaysian belacan (shrimp paste) is made from krill left to dry under the sun before being compressed into a block. In its raw state, it has a pungent aroma, but once fried in a spice paste, or simply toasted and used like salt, it adds a deep umami to sambals, curries and stir-fries.

Curry Leaves 

Curry leaf plants thrive across Malaysia. Their glossy, dark green leaves must be fried in oil or blitzed as part of a spice paste to release their sweet, nutty and slightly citrussy aroma. They’re in no way related to, or interchangeable with, curry powder.

Tamarind Paste 

This comes from soaking tamarind in water to dissolve the fruit’s flesh. It’s so ubiquitous as Malaysia’s go-to acidic hit that the Malay word assam, meaning ‘sour’, also means tamarind. It’s perfect for lifting rich, coconutty dishes or balancing chilli heat. It’s also used as a tenderising agent in dishes such as rendang.

Must-try dish 

Ikan bakar (grilled or burnt fish) is lathered in spicy sambal and spiked with tamarind and shrimp paste before being wrapped in a banana leaf. wen eaten with rice, it's heaven. 

Published in the Jan/Feb 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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