To celebrate the oneness of Malaysia also means to fete its delicious diversity. In this series, we take a closer look at the iconic foods of the country's states and territories.
Click the link for all the stories in this series on Great Malaysian dishes
Illustration: Zulhaimi Baharuddin
The northern state of Perlis is the smallest state in Malaysia, with a population somewhere in the region of 250,000. Perlis borders Thailand in the north and Kedah in the south.
In the early 19th century, Perlis was a part of Kedah, but fell under Siamese rule in the mid-19th century, before the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 forced Siam to give Perlis to the British rulers of the time.
Although Perlis was temporarily returned to Siam, it eventually came under British rule, and officially became a part of the Federation of Malaya in 1957.
These days, Perlis still maintains close ties with Thailand through the border towns of Padang Besar and Wang Kelian, which means there is no break in the cross-border culinary and cultural exchanges.
Perlis folk love sticky rice as much as their Thai neighbours and dishes like mango sticky rice are hugely popular this side of the border as well – except that here it is called pulut mempelam and when in season, harum manis mango replaces the white lily variety popular in Thailand. Another sticky rice dish popular in Perlis is the pulut panggang, a savoury-spicy snack.
Ikan bakar is a particularly iconic food of the state.
Stalls and restaurants selling charcoal-grilled seafood dot Kuala Perlis, especially in the areas where the many fishing boats dock.
Hanis Nordin, sous chef at Hilton Kuala Lumpur’s Vasco’s Restaurant grew up in Perlis. He says that many restaurant and stall owners come to meet the fishermen at the docks from 5pm onwards, being the first to buy the day's catch straight from the boats. The fishermen often sell their day's catch this way right up until midnight.
To taste the smoky speciality of the state, drop in at the two famous ikan bakar eateries, Lynda Ikan Bakar and Mona Ikan Bakar.
Fish bound for the grill here are marinated using only three ingredients – turmeric, salt and pepper.
The grilled seafood is served with two dipping sauces: air asam and a special chilli sauce.
While air asam is generally proffered with ikan bakar in many states, this special chilli sauce is a truly Perlis creation made up of red chillies, salt, pepper, light soy and oyster sauces, fish sauce and Thai chilli sauce – a melting pot of Malay, Chinese and Thai influences.
More dishes from Perlis
Made from small freshwater fish like sepat, puyu and lampam which are found in paddy fields, pekasam is slightly sour because it is fermented – hence its name, a play on "masam". The fish is coated in sea salt and left to ferment for two weeks. After rinsing, it is crusted with ground, dry-fried rice and left in a chiller for one to eight months. To serve, the fish is fried until the crust is crisp, then topped with fried onions and cili padi.
Laksa Kuala Perlis
This sour, hot fresh rice noodle dish is redolent of fish (selayang, kembung or sometimes, belut or eel) and a paste of dried chillies, belacan, shallots, asam gelugor, torch ginger bud and daun kesum. In Kuala Perlis, they like to eat laksa with pulut panggang (grilled glutinous rice stuffed with a crumbly floss of dried shrimp, coconut, turmeric and chilli), which is dunked into the gravy. In the port town, try this dish at Laksa Beras Kak Su.
Pulut mempelam is pretty much the same as Thai mango sticky rice but made with the local mempelam (mango) that Perlis is famous for. Harum manis mangoes grown only in certain parts of Perlis bear fruit between April and June. With a skin that is dark green even when ripe, the mango has deep yellow flesh which is luscious, rich, sweet and highly perfumed.