Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Flavors of Malaysia: Family, Fusion & Fascination

The Malay language itself reflects our obsession with food..., I might greet a friend in Malaysia by saying 'sudah makan?' ('have you eaten?')."

I confess to having little familiarity with the cuisine of Malaysia, though I have dined a couple times at Penang, a Malaysian restaurant in Boston.  I certainly enjoyed my meals there but had not delved into the depths of information about the cuisine. Some of the food felt familiar while some of it was more unique. Thus, it was with eagerness that I read a review copy of a new Malaysian cookbook, hoping to garner a proper understanding.  And the book fascinated me from its opening pages to the very end.

The Flavors of Malaysia by Susheela Raghavan (Hippocrene Books, Ltd., September 2010, $40.00) is a hardcover book of 356 pages.  Susheela was born in Malaysia and received an MS in Food Science from the University of Reading. She worked for years in food product development, giving cooking demonstrations, and teaching at New York University before launching her own brand of spice blends, Taste of Malacca. She has also written numerous articles on food, especially ethnic cuisine and spices, for a wide variety of periodicals. 

Flavors of Malaysia feels like a very personal book, with Susheela sharing many details of her life growing up, such as watching her grandmother and mother cooking.  Her parents encouraged her to develop an adventurous palate and Susheela desired to honor her family with this cookbook, sharing the cuisine which has brought her so much joy. It is this passion, this underlying story, which makes this cookbook compelling.  It is certainly not a boring litany of soulless recipes, but instead is a culinary treasure, a marvel of family, fusion and fascination.

The book starts with a fifty-page introduction, an intriguing look at the history of Malaysia and a lengthy description of its various cuisines.  A short history emphasizes all the different countries which have impacted Malaysia, as well as its cuisine. It is thus a melting pot, a mega-fusion of cuisines, including Indian, Thai, Portuguese, Chinese and more. Yet, it has created its own identity.

The rest of the introduction goes into detail about the cuisines and culinary influences that have led to Malaysian cuisine, as well as descriptions of the regional cuisines of Malaysia.  Plus, there is information on food hawkers, cafes, and a typical day of meals for a Malaysian.  This is interesting reading, giving you a great background into their diverse cuisines.  You'll learn that rempah is the soul of their cuisine, a term referring to the wet and dry spices they often use. Curries are very important, and you'll find many varieties, including Indian, Chinese, Malay, Nonya and Eurasian. You will even understand why many people say that:  "Eating foods with cutlery is like making love through an interpreter."

The rest of the book is divided into 12 chapters, presenting over 150 recipes, divided into various food groups, such as Soups & Stews, Poultry & Eggs, Rice, Seafood, and Desserts & Beverages. Each chapter starts out with an informative introduction on the subject matter, including Susheela's own personal stories and experiences with the foods. The recipes have been specially designed to be relatively easy for most cooks, and the directions certainly seem simple enough. Many of the recipes look appealing to me, such as the Savory Rice Lentil Crepes, Spicy Coconut Soup, Chicken Vindaloo, Beef Rendang, Malay-Style Fried Rice and Spicy Tangy Simmered Fish.  With the diversity of recipes, you are sure to find something which will appeal to your own preferences.

The last two chapters are slightly different from a usual cookbook, which is a good thing.  Chapter 11 presents information about the feasts and festivals celebrated in Malaysia, along with recipes for some of the festive dishes eaten during these events.  I enjoyed this section, which is not something you see too often in other regional cookbooks.  Chapter 12 is also very interesting, as it presents ways to infuse a Malaysian flair into any recipe, making your own fusion cuisine.  From Curried Spaghetti to Nonya-Style Chicken Burgers, you'll get ideas on how you can experiment at home with Malaysian flavors. The book ends with a Glossary & Guide to Malaysian ingredients and cooking techniques, a worthy reference and addition to the cookbook.

I found this to be a superb, well-written, and comprehensive guide to the cuisines of Malaysia.  Susheela even took all of her own photos for the book. This was obviously a work of passion, and that is reflected on every page. This book could serve as a role model for other ethnic or regional cookbooks, with its fine balance of history, education, personal stories and recipes.  It gets my highest recommendation and shines the light on a cuisine which really should be highlighted.

For more information about Malaysian cuisine, as well as a directory of Malaysian restaurants in the U.S., check out this new website launched by Malaysia Kitchen for the World, called Malaysian Kitchen NYC

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