One small bite for man, one giant leap for reminiscing
We all have our food memories, some good and some bad. The taste, smell, and texture of food can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back memories not just of eating food itself but also of place and setting. Food is an effective trigger of deeper memories of feelings and emotions, internal states of the mind and body.
As it is often the case, our chosen comfort food is almost always the kind of dishes we grew up with, especially those cooked by our mothers or grandmothers or the kind that we frequently eat either at family functions or a café where friends used to gather (and gossip). Whether it’s a home-cooked meal or a favourite item at the neighbourhood mamak, there is nothing quite like the type of food that evokes warm and bittersweet memories from the days of innocence and youthful, carefree abandon.
From the first bite of the crunchiness of the still-smoking hot roti canai or the beautiful, delicious mess that is the pasembur, a flood of recollections from yesteryears immediately comes crashing down.
Here are ten of the most memorable Malaysian dishes from childhood:
If there was a single dish that could qualify as the de-facto national dish, it would be the nasi lemak. The origins of this classic dish dates a few centuries back, with a mention by Richard Olaf Winstedt as early as 1909. It is believed that the local Malay community that resided by the seafront, the ready availability of ingredients such as the coconut, as well as the flavourful outcome of adding it to rice, resulted in the innovation of nasi lemak.
Side dishes added to the rice came from the village’s natural resources: kangkong was plucked from the garden and anchovies were harvested from the sea. Others suggest that packets of rice wrapped in banana leaves were brought to padi fields (rice fields) for working farmers to consume.
Malay for “rice in cream”, the nasi lemak is unsurprisingly a staple diet for many; steamed and lightly salted rice cooked in cream, made fragrant with pandan leaves, bunched together with hot sambal and anchovies. In Malaysia, nasi lemak is also sold at transient road side stalls or even from vans. Today, it is a popular dish eaten not only at breakfast, but also throughout the day.
Ah, how could you go wrong with a plate of roti canai, some dhal and a strong cup of kopi-O. A classic favourite among Malaysians of all races, it’s also the cheapest meal in this list.
It’s very economical and takes little time to make, whether at the mamak or at home. Roti canai, or roti pratha, comes from the Mamak community (Muslim-Indians) and was modified by the hawkers in Malaysia.
Roti canai or roti chennai is a dish unique to Malaysia, with a history that goes all the way back to pre-colonial India. Roti means bread in both Hindi and Malay and the term ‘canai’ comes from ‘channa’, which is a mixture of boiled chickpeas in spicy gravy originating from Northern India.
This crispy and buttery flat bread is best served with curry, dhal or – a childhood favourite of many – condensed milk. It tastes best when taken for breakfast or morning tea, eaten with your hand, accompanied by curry or dhal and washed down a hot cup of kopi-O kampung.
Bak Kut Teh
There’s one type of dish that the Chinese community cooks exceedingly well and that is the soup, and nothing comes quite as close to perfection as the age-old bak kut teh. The name literally translates from Hokkien as “meat bone tea”, and at its simplest, consists of meaty pork ribs simmered in a complex broth of herbs and spices (including star anise, cinnamon, cloves, dang gui, fennel seeds and garlic) for hours. Although simple in its presentation, this soup fills the kitchen with evocative scents.
There’s quite a variety of different versions of bak kut teh, most famously the Teochew and the Hokkien versions whereby the main difference between the two is the Hokkien version uses more a little more dark soy sauce than the Teochew, thus making the soup base characteristically darker in colour.
It’s a favourite among the Chinese community and easily found at most non-Halal eateries. Not only is it one of their staple diets, but also often served to both children and adults as a highly nutritious supplement in times of sickness. And to those who used to frequent clubs in the days of Backroom or long happy hour sessions, they would know how bak kut teh makes for an excellent hangover cure.
Char Kuey Teow
The char kuey teow is the undisputed star of the Malaysian noodle hawker stall. The bread and butter of every Malaysian hawker center is noodles – brought to you by the Chinese community. A dish that can (almost) never go wrong, the “fried rice strips” can be found today at almost every open-air food courts, Asian cuisine restaurants, and even fancy 5-star hotels.
When there’s no rice at home, the char kuey teow is almost always the next best choice; it’s easy to cook, ingredients are cheap and it can be whipped up so fast that it might as well be called a fast-food (minus the excessive use of MSG and GMOs). And when it’s late in Malaysia and you’re hungry and tired, you want char kuey teow cooked by a sweaty hawker, in a well seasoned wok over a charcoal fire.
The Japanese have their yakitori, the Turks with their sheesh kebab, the Caucasus and their shashliks. But right here in Malaysia we have the best of them all – the incomparable satay. Originating from Java in the early 19th century, the satay is a popular dish served around Southeast Asia with a wide variety of types.
It is often served during celebrations, especially weddings and Hari Raya festivities, the satay is made of chicken, beef or mutton chunks pierced through a wooden stick, cooked over charcoal or wood fire, and served with rice cakes and dipped in a savoury peanut sauce.
Not forgetting, satays were often part of the menu of family barbeques and gatherings. A favourite among children for its flavourful bite-sized chunks and soothing contrasting taste with its side dishes of rice cakes and cucumber.
A traditional dish, the Malays, being originally fishermen and living by the sea, found inspiration for the roti jala snack from the nets they used for fishing, thus the name. The ingredients consist of flour, eggs, milk, and turmeric, which gives its yellow hues.
They are combined with water to form a runny batter, then carefully poured in drizzles onto a hot pan in a circular motion. A specialized utensil that resembles a cup with multiple holes beneath is used, which allows for the creation of the roti jala’s unique look of nets.
Roti jala is a whole lot of fun to make, but it’s most definitely more fun to eat it. And if it’s paired with a well-made curry, it tastes absolutely heavenly. Just like satays, the roti jala is often served at celebrations and functions. And it’s one of the kind of dishes that almost always evokes memories of family gatherings.
The cendol is truly the quintessential Malaysian dessert. Best found at humble roadside stalls and often operated by Indian-Muslims, cendols are popular especially during the dry and hot post-monsoon season in Malaysia. The traditional dessert is made of shaved ice, coconut milk, rice flour jelly with pandan leaves juice, and gula melaka.
It’s interesting to note that it has become a favourite post-prayer activity of Muslims exiting Friday prayers to drop by at a nearby cendol stall for a cooling slurp of the classic dessert while catching up with friends. Didn’t you used to do just that with your schoolmates, on the way while walking back home from school? Ah, the memories.
A hot delicious mess disguised as a salad (or is it the other way around?)
Most cendol stalls almost always serves pasembur as well, a hot delicious mess disguised as a salad (or is it the other way around?). The dish consists of shredded cucumber, potatoes, beancurd, turnip, bean sprouts, prawn fritters, spicy fried crab, fried octopus or other seafoods and served with a sweet and spicy nut sauce. And somehow magically compliments having a cendol after pretty well.
The pasembur – or rojak mamak as it’s more popularly termed – is an exciting and interesting dish that was born out of a rojak culture. A truly muhibbah and timeless dish.
Ramlee burger sits in a special place among the shortlist of favourite Malaysian dishes as a modern modification of the classic American burger with a Malaysian-made patty (branded as Ramlee) that is both the messiest yet one of the most finger-licking good burgers. And all at a cost of under RM10 and can be made faster than you can say “Abang, burger super special extra cheese satu!”
It doesn’t have a long history like the nasi lemak, but it’s definitely a favourite snack among many youths growing up in the 90s. And the best part is that the snack was created and popularized by youth entrepreneurs running their own burger stalls.
Roti & Milo
Do you remember waiting in giddy anticipation as the Milo van arrived at school and patiently queuing up under the blazing hot sun just for a cold cup of Milo? It sure does bring back lots of warm memories. The world famous cocoa drink goes great with almost anything – biscuits, crackers, bread, and others. But if you could pick the perfect combo, it would definitely be Milo and roti.
These are the two things that most of us has had since we were kids right through puberty and likely till we are old and grey. They’re both great on its own, but it turns into magic as soon as you lather up either butter or condensed milk on a slice of roti and dip it in a cup of hot Milo.
It’s the kind of snack you wouldn’t need to wake up either your helper or mum past midnight and good for anytime of the day, be it early in the morning or while it’s cold and raining outside. It’s one of those snacks that never seem to grow old, and never fails to make you feel young again.