I’ll be honest; before moving to Asia, I had zero experience with Malaysian cuisine (in fact, my first introduction came through my amazing hairdresser Eddie Tham in Taipei). Although I’d spent many years reading about and cooking Japanese, Thai, and some Chinese cuisine, Malaysia remained a nebulous culinary mystery. But when Amazon UK offered me a fantastic price on Norman Musa’s “Amazing Malaysian,” I couldn’t pass it up. Shortly after that, I discovered Ping Coombes “Malaysia: Recipes from a Family Kitchen” and was eager to compare the two. This is Bundt’s first double-header review!
Malaysia’s cuisine is fusion of several distinct traditions: Malay, Chinese, and Indian. Peranakan / Nyonya cuisine combines Chinese ingredients using a Malay cooking method; Nyonya cuisine is spicy, tangy and aromatic and features large amounts of chilies, lemongrass, lime, dried shrimp, and tamarind. Malaysian Mamak dishes come from Malaysia’s Muslim community; famous examples include Roti Canai, a flaky flatbread and Mee Goreng Mamak.
First up: “Malaysia: Recipes from a Family Kitchen.” Ping Coombes was the 2014 winner of MasterChef. She grew up in Ipoh, Malaysia, with her Chinese-born mum and grandmother, who were responsible for most of the cooking. Her grandmother cooked with many Hakka influences in particular.
Ping’s book starts out with a very helpful illustrated Malaysian pantry, from herbs and spices (Kaffir lime leaves, curry leaves, lemongrass, Pandan leaves, dried chilies, curry powder) to cupboard essentials (black beans, coconut milk, dried seafood and mushrooms, salted eggs) and a particularly good section on soy products and noodles.
You’ll begin by making basic pastes (curry, laksa, sambals) used to give flavor to dishes during and after cooking, as well as dips and sauces (thai basil and sweet chili, bird’s eye chili and soy, peanut sauce) and pickles (shallots, green chilies). Next up are appetizers and small plates that you normally might find as street food in Malaysia, from prawn fritters (cucur udang), roti canai, and chicken satay to delicious soft-boiled eggs, pickled veg, and charred leeks.
Main dishes include Nyonya soy-braised whole chicken, caramel pork belly, steamed minced pork rice, claypot chicken rice, fried rice, and noodle dishes. There are hearty curries (chicken, mutton, beef), as well as more delicate fish dishes (steamed hake, pan-fried seabass, chili crab). Veggie sides include stir-fried lettuce, morning glory, choi sum, and mushrooms.
Desserts include many Western-inspired creations, such as Malaysian mess, pandan and coconut panna cotta with mango and pineapple, and peanut butter and kaya French toast.
The book is beautifully photographed and includes matte photographs as well as easy-to-read font; ingredient lists are generally short and quite manageable. This would be a great first introduction if you are interested in Chinese-style dishes.
It’s important to note that as this is Chinese Malaysian cuisine, pork features heavily, and nearly the entire book features Chinese-style pork dishes in many guises (roast pork, minced pork, pork with mushrooms, braised pork ribs, etc.). If you keep kosher or halal, this is NOT the cookbook for you and I instead recommend Norman Musa’s “Amazing Malaysian,” which features Malaysian dishes free of pork.
However, now when I think of Malaysian dishes, it’s the spicy, layered flavors of Norman Musa’s “Amazing Malaysian” that I think of.
Arranged similarly to Ping’s book, it opens with street food and snacks, and moves on to seafood, meat, vegetables, rice and noodles, pudding and drinks, and the Malaysian pantry. This is more like what I expected a Malaysian cookbook to be. Gorgeous photos of street scenes in Malaysia pepper the pages, while the gold-embossed cover looks great sitting out on a table or countertop.
Like Ping’s book, you’ll find street snack favorites like chicken satay, net pancakes, roti canai, and fried spring rolls, along with Indian lentil patties, grilled fish paste in banana leaf, tofu stuffed with crunchy vegetables, and the gorgeous Kak Besah’s curry puffs. The seafood dishes reminded me of many preparations I had last year while working in Taiwan; whole fish steamed with lemongrass, ginger and chilies, squid stir fry, and scrambled eggs with oysters. The meat dishes featured are mostly chicken and beef (no pork unlike Ping’s book), with lamb curry, beef rendang, and numerous chicken dishes.
One of my new favorite recipes is the Nyonya Vermicelli Noodle Salad, which features rice noodles, tofu beansprouts, and ginger with plenty of lime juice and fresh herbs (if you are vegetarian, leave out the shrimp paste and prawns). I also loved the Malay Vegetable Dhal Curry, pumpkin in turmeric and coconut milk, and eggs in chili sambal (think shakshuka).
Rice and noodle dishes include tomato rice (nasi tomato), wok-fried flat noodles, curry laksa, chicken rice, herbal rice, and several egg-fried rices in addition to fried noodles. Desserts range from the effortless (fresh mango, honey and coconut, tropical fruit salad) to the more elaborate (pandan custard and sticky rice layered sweet, sticky rice balls, soy panna cotta with passion fruit and crushed chocolate cookies. And you’ll find any number of refreshing drinks, from lemongrass and honey tea and rose syrup drink to pulled sweet tea and iced fresh lime juice.
At the end are several staple condiments, from the ubiquitous chili paste and ginger soy sauce to sambals (chili, coconut), sauces, and vegetable pickles.
Although some of the dishes are the same across both books, Norman Musa’s recipes tend to be a bit more advanced but also result in more complex, nuanced flavors. Also, he includes many more of the Malay Muslim dishes that I associate with the region (I’ll admit I was surprised when I looked through Ping’s book and saw so many pork dishes as the Malaysian students I’ve taught were all Muslim!).
Verdict: Ping’s book is a great starting point if you want to get your feet wet experiencing some of the more basic street foods and basic flavor profiles (especially of Chinese-style dishes and stir fries), but if you’re looking to recreate nuanced, flavorful curries, stews, and sambals, I would recommend “Amazing Malaysian.”