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Take a culinary tour of Malaysia with Christina Arokiasamy

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Hawaii Reporter had the opportunity to interview chef Christina Arokiasamy, author of The Malaysian Kitchen: 150 Recipes for Simple Home Cooking , a new cookbook published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt New York.

Arokiasamy provides a tempting selection of Malaysian delights in this collection of recipes  which are influenced by the country’s main ethnic groups—Malay, Indian, Chinese, Nyonya, and Portuguese.

The book also includes a primer on Malaysian history and, a detailed chart that describes taste, aroma and health benefits of the spices and herbs you’ll need for your kitchen. I found this particularly valuable. (Hawaii residents have a leg up on mainlanders because it’s possible to grow many of the ingredients Arokiasamy lists, in our backyards. For example I grow ginger, curry leaves, limes and a few other items).

A former resident of Oahu, the author was raised in Kuala Lumpur. Among the high points in her CV was a stint as Malaysia’s first official Food Ambassador to the U.S. Formerly a chef at various Four Seasons resorts, she now teaches cooking classes in the Pacific Northwest, where she lives with her family.

Reading the book brought back great memories of Malaysia which has amazing hospitality. I can’t wait to get back to see old friends, make new ones and dig into the food.

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Q: Kudos on a great book. You mention in your introduction that you spent some time in Hawaii. Can you talk about that? 

In 1994, when I migrated to the United States, I settled for the stunning ocean views and plumeria trees in Makakilo then moved to Kailua on the beautiful windward side of Oahu, Hawaii. I was pleasantly surprised to see the ingredient in Malaysian cuisine growing on trees in people’s yard in Hawaii. Rambutan, coconut and makrut lime trees looked exactly like the ones I had in my own back yard in Malaysia. My favorite was the well acquainted Moringa Tree, with its bright green leaves growing so naturally in people’s yards. Moringa or drumsticks in Malaysia, are integral part of my family’s diet for years. We would pluck and cook these delicious foot long bean pods with lentil in a dish called sambar.

I will never forget when I first made rendang; braised beef with lemongrass coconut sauce and my Hawaiian neighbors remarked “is there a restaurant nearby” because of the fragrant aromas of galangal and coconut from my kitchen drifted into the air.

Over the years, I feel blessed to have great friends, my ohana in Hawaii. I remember spicing up Huli Huli chicken marinade with a touch of chili sambal as the chicken cooked away on the hibachi. Dessert was often Malaysian coconut binka or Haupia as they call it in Hawaii. The flavors were incredible. Everyone had seconds… of everything.

Rojak, my all time favorite Malaysian dish. There’s a recipe for this in the book. (photo by Rob Kay)

Q: How does Malaysian cuisine differ from other SE Asian styles of cooking?

While many of the foods found throughout Southeast Asia use spices such as turmeric, chilies, cumin, coriander and cardamom, Malaysian cuisine combines these spices with aromatics such as galangal, lemongrass, ginger, tamarind and curry leaves to create a deeply-layered, complex flavor without the spicy heat of other Southeast Asian cuisines. As the center of the world’s spice trade in the 15th century, Malaysia became a unique melting pot of Malay, Chinese, Indian and Nonya cooking styles. Malaysian food combines the best of these flavors into a single cuisine.

Q: What would you say are the signature dishes of the Malaysian Kitchen?  Do you have any favorite recipes in the book?

I have incorporated wonderful tropical ingredients and aromatics in stir-fries and fried-rice, noodles dishes, satay to seafood in my cookbook. There are so many Malaysian favorite signature dishes to choose: Penang Wok- Fried Char Kway Toew noodles, Nasi Lemak Coconut Rice with Sambal and Turmeric Fried Chicken, Hainanese Chicken Rice infused with ginger sesame sauce, Curry Laksa in Galangal Coconut Broth, Malaysian Chili Prawns, Satay-Style Marinated Lamb in sweet shoyu sauce, Mee Goreng, a Malay Indian stir-fried noodles in spicy peanut sauce to Five-Spiced Barbeque Pork. These are just a few to mention in this 150-recipe volume cookbook. At home, you will find yourself loving these cooking styles as they are easy to follow and the flavors are irresistible.

Rice Noodle and shrimp–seafood in Malaysia is fantastic.

Q: You mention that the most “beloved salad” in Malaysia is rojak. I really enjoyed it too while in Ipoh. Can you recommend other street foods that a visitor might want to try?

I like for everyone to try the Malaysian-style hamburger called Roti John (page 220). This roti first appeared in the ‘60s when an Englishman asked a Malaysian hawker for a hamburger. Having no hamburger to offer, the hawker had the ingenious idea to fry minced lamb and onions with eggs into a loaf. Thus, Roti John was born but the dish did not have an official name. The street vendor gave the scrumptious sandwich to the Englishman and said, “Silakan makan roti, John.” This translates to “Please eat this bread, John”.

Portuguese Debal Prawn has its origins in Goa but has found a home in Malacca, Malaysia’s former Portuguese settlement.

John is the name given to Westerners in the region. Our legendary “John” loved the panini-like sandwich, filled with meat, egg and onion mixture and thus it became part of the Malaysian street food scene.

Also, there is a 5th generation Rojak vendor in gurney drive Penang, who cuts the fruits and vegetables into small, uneven chunks and serves his specialty in disposable plates to hungry patrons everyday. Hawaiian favorite sweet tropical pineapples, tart green mangos, papayas and cucumbers which are tossed in a tangy sauce made of palm sugar, tamarind, glistening black molasses paste and coarsely ground peanuts. Another favorite is Miniature Fried Rolls (page 244) like Lumpia a popular snack often eaten on a journey home after work. Chicken and Sweet Potato Curry Puffs (page 242) a savory snack during afternoon tea. All these delicious recipes are found in the Malaysian Kitchen Cookbook so home cooks can cook and enjoy with more authentic taste than eating it in a restaurant.

Shoppers at Pulau Tikus market, Penang

Q: You mentioned the influence of Portuguese in Malaysian cuisine. As you know there are many descendants of Portuguese in Hawaii. Can you recommend a destination for a Hawaii visitor to sample Portuguese-influenced dishes?

Malacca would be an interesting place to visit despite the scorching heat of the afternoon sun. This is where it all started when Malacca fell into Portuguese rule in 1511. The Portuguese came to the East to capture the spice trade led by Alfonso de Albuquerque. They built a fort called Formosa to protect their fleet and to expand their domination over the spice trade. Not too far from the historical Formosa is the “Portuguese community settlement, where the descendants still speak creole and name their quaint restaurants after their last name such as “Sequiera, Aranjo, Pinto, San Pedro and Da Silva”. In these restaurants, the Portuguese-influenced dishes are flavored with common ingredients such as chilies, soy sauce and vinegar. Some of my favorite classic recipes are vindahlo. The name vindalho is derived from the Portuguese dish named Carne de vinha d’alhos, which is meat that has been marinated for hours in garlic and wine and cooked to a stew. It’s quite tasty.

Kopitiam or coffee shop in George Town, Penang, where you’ll find an array of restaurants offering every one of Malaysia’s ethnic specialties. 

Q: You said in your book that Malacca was your favorite place for seafood. Can you elaborate on that? Got any other suggestions for seafood lovers?

A boulevard of Portuguese seafood stalls can be found on Danjaro Street, a place you won’t find in tourist guide books. This place goes back in history as early as 1930s, when a British Resident, at the request of a French missionary, allowed the establishment of a fishing village of wooden huts in an area of swampy land next to the sea. It was originally called St. John’s Village and became a bastion for those with Portuguese ancestry to preserve their religion, language, culture and traditions. Fiesta San Pedro “feast of Saint Peter” is celebrated each year here to showcase the bounty of the sea. They make tasty Debal Prawns, buttery tasting prawns infused with the tangy chili sauce which is simply addictive. Then there’s Malaccan Portuguese Spicy Halibut Soup with Great Northern Beans. These are my favorite recipes are found in the seafood chapter and will provide the home cook a gastronomic experience that traces the journey of the Portuguese in the 1500s from Portugal to Goa to Malacca.

Q: Can you recommend any destinations for Indian cuisine? What about local Indian dishes that we should sample while visiting?

There is a suburb called Brickfields or little India in Kuala Lumpur, again another destination never mentioned in tourist guidebooks. As a child, my father used to take our family to Brickfields every Sunday to enjoy simple staple dishes like dosa or griddle rice pancakes with lentils and fish curry. In Brickfields, the curries are cooked with masalas and fragrant curry leaves in clay pots the old fashion way insisted by the Malaysian Indian community. Dishes such as Lamb Korma, Butter Chicken Masala, Tamarind Fish Curry, Cabbage with Curry leaves are served smorgasbord style at the famous “Banana Leaf Restaurants” throughout the country.

Making char koay teow, Pulau Tikus, Penang

Q: Our publication published a piece on the cuisine of Ipoh (Eating Your Way Through Ipoh) which had a wonderful array of Malay, Indian and Chinese dining. Can you recommend a destination where a visitor could sample any number of local dishes?  

I think this would-be Penang, a little island situated off the northwestern coast of Peninsula Malaysia fronting the Indian Ocean. Penang is Malaysia’s culinary capital, and I share stories about Culinary and the splendor of Penang in my cookbook. The street food, or hawker food, as it’s locally known, is part of the fabric of the city. Here you can sample a variety creation that attract food hunters and tourists alike. Each dish is created with influence of Indian, Chinese, Nyonya and Malay cultures ingredients.

The author, Christina Arokiasamy, teaching one of her cooking classes.

Q: Let’s say a visitor would like to combine taking cooking classes on a visit to Malaysia. Can you recommend some cooking schools in KL or perhaps other destinations?

Hawaiian foodies might like to join me sometime in my personalized culinary tours I lead to Southeast Asian Destinations. Many of the people that teach do not necessarily have a cooking school but do this out of passion for the cuisine in the homes. I always say the best foods comes from multi-generational cooks who have handed down their time-honored recipes and cooking style from one generation to another.

Q: Any other comments or suggestions for visitors who would like to get most out of their culinary experience in Malaysia?

I have woven captivating stories about food vendors and created these authentic recipes in the street food chapter and Malaysian cuisine for the American cook in The Malaysian Kitchen cookbook. For those food lovers who don’t mind travelling a shorter distance can learn to cook these handed down dishes along with me in The Spice Merchant’s Daughter Cooking School in Kent, Washington State.

Air Asia now serves Honolulu (via Osaka). It’s about 16 hours to get there but well worth the effort.

Getting to Malaysia

Conclusion: It’s hard to find destinations that haven’t been tromped and stomped over by tourists. If authenticity is important in your culinary explorations, a visit to Malaysia will not disappoint.

Getting there:  The least expensive way to get to Malaysia from Honolulu is via Air Asia, which just began service to Hawaii this year. It’s a no frills carrier that operates scheduled domestic and international flights to 100 destinations in 22 countries.

I flew this carrier two years ago, before its Hawaii service began and was very pleased. Service was great, flight attendants were efficient and friendly. Food was tasty and a vegetarian Indian curry cost an extra $8.

A round trip flight between Honolulu and Kuala Lumpur is currently around $800. Once there you can easily grab a flight to Penang, Ipoh or one of the other culinary destinations. Malacca is a short bus ride from Kuala Lumpur.

They offer several types of Y class fares and we opted for a slightly higher “premium” class that allows one to change dates without paying a penalty. It came in handy because we need to extend the trip.

Travel photos of Penang courtesy of David Hagerman. Food shot (except for rojak photo) goes to Penny De Los Santos.

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