Malaysian cuisine stands to benefit from America's changing tastes

  • Food News
  • Thursday, 06 Sep 2018

A hawker on Penang's Gurney Drive preparing a bowl of asam laksa. Photo: The Star

Some decades ago, the term “exotic” was used by many Americans as a euphemism to refer to most Asian food products which had then a narrow circle of die-hard fans of Asian cuisine and the more adventurous food experimenters.

America’s taste for the exotic has, meanwhile, undergone a volte-face, as it were, with many, particularly the adventurous millennials, willing to try out “exotic” foods. Malaysia’s cuisine is, meanwhile, attracting its own fan following among America gourmets and consumers alike. The metamorphosis has come about slowly, aided and abetted by a number of factors, including increased travel and trade, intra-cultural exposure, globalisation and what have you.

Laksa has a ring of popularity among those already familiar with Malaysia and its cuisine, but it is also becoming, albeit slowly, known to others whose familiarity with Asian cuisines was restricted, mainly, to Indian, Chinese or Thai food.

“After being introduced to asam laksa in Penang by a friend during a visit to that state, I’ve since realised that there is something inherently appealing about it ... it’s a great dish often involving a spicy broth, rice noodles, lemongrass, and some fish. I love eating it whenever I have an opportunity,” says Richard Kayser, a New York-based businessman who imports electronic products from Asia, including Malaysia.

malaysian food
A hawker on Penang's Gurney Drive preparing a bowl of asam laksa. Photo: The Star

“Laksa is a fascinating yet standard Malaysian dish, combining indigenous Malay – Chinese and Indian elements,” he explains, pointing out that standard ingredients include chillies, galangal and laksa leaves.

However, many Malaysian restaurants in New York offer a slightly modified version of the laksa to suit American palates.

Insisting on remaining anonymous, a Malaysian eatery owner in New York says: “I take inspiration from everything I ate in my childhood. Then I mix it up, and produce a new variant of the laksa dish which appears as a hybrid between the curry and asam laksa.”

What appeals to many American consumers is the fusion character of Malaysian food, which blends Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine. Malaysian food products, like their Indonesian, Singaporean, Thai and Vietnamese counterparts, are also showcased at US trade shows such as the recent New York Fancy Food Show (NYFFS). The US is the world’s biggest specialty food market in value terms.

Phil Kafarakis
Phil Kafarakis says that South-East Asian specialty foods has found a lucrative market in the US.

Indeed, Phil Kafarakis, the president of the US Specialty Food Association (SFA), which organises the NYFFS, spoke in an interview of the “special connection” which South-East Asia, including Malaysia, enjoyed with the west and east coast markets of the US, aided by the proliferation of South-East Asian restaurants and eateries catering to locals.

“Malaysian and other South-East Asian food suppliers, thanks to the popularity of their culinary products, find the US a very lucrative market which generated some US$140.3bil (RM575.8bil) in sales in 2017 for specialty foods whose growth outplaces by far the overall food industry,” Kafarakis maintained. Kafarakis observed that Asian foods, including Malaysian varieties, were becoming popular among American consumers, and this trend could help Malaysia assert its culinary culture in the US market.

Kafarakis also pointed out that although US consumers were becoming increasingly health conscious, they would continue to be most open to foreign food products, including Malaysian cuisine.

Muhd Shahrulmiza Zakaria, until recently the New York-based Malaysian Trade Commissioner attached to Malaysian External Trade Corporation (Matrade), had observed in an interview that Malaysian cuisine was getting increasingly popular.

“Curry laksa, or Malaysian noodles, as locals call it, is very popular. As Asian fare, it is served mainly in Asian/Malaysian restaurants which are patronised by Americans,” Shahrulmiza said.

Malaysian food “will continue to make greater inroads into the American market. This encouraging trend is gauged from the responses received from buyers and consumers to our food-promotion campaigns conducted under the Malaysia Kitchen USA programme”, Shahrulmiza explained.

new york fancy food show
Malaysian Trade Commissioner in New York, Muhd Shahrulmiza Zakaria (far right) with guests at the Malaysia Kitchen Programme in New York.

He said that Malaysian cuisine has been listed amongst the top five trending favourites in the US for two years in a row (2014 and 2015), based on the survey by the National Restaurant Association, the largest US restaurant and food service trade association. Indeed, Lonely Planet’s just-released top 20 food experiences lists curry laksa in Kuala Lumpur as the world’s second-most exciting food experience.

Shahrulmiza claimed that the Malaysia Kitchen USA programme, aimed at promoting Malaysia’s food exports, had created a “new wave of exciting range of food and beverages in the American market”. The first part of the two-phased programme was aimed at “creating a buzz” about Malaysian cuisine, capitalising on the proliferating number of Malaysian restaurants – over 80 – in the US; the second phase with the theme “Bringing Malaysian Food to Every American Homes” was aimed at promoting more Malaysia-made food products and beverages in the American market.

Malaysian food brands such as Julie’s, Lingham’s, Mamee, IEFI, S&P, Hernan and Delicoco, are visible on the shelves of Asian supermarkets in the US.

But Malaysian products also face fierce competition from Indonesian and Thai food products, spices, sauces and ingredients, including the organic varieties, which are visible in local ethnic stores.

Reza Pahlavi Chairul, Indonesia’s trade attache in Washington, describes the outlook for natural, organic, and non-GMO food varieties as “promising”.

auria abraham
Auria Abraham's food products are sold at mainstream and specialty shops in the US.

But Malaysian individuals have, meanwhile, succeeded in penetrating the US mainstream market, as illustrated by the example of an enterprising young Malaysian female chef, Auria Abraham, who markets her products under her company’s brand name, Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen, based in Brooklyn, New York.

“Americans, who are open to foreign cuisines, are also intrigued by the colourful packaging of Malaysian food products and names of dishes, and want to know more about them,” she said in an interview.

The US mainstream Foodtown supermarket franchise recently launched Abraham’s products in its outlets in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania for the first time. Other mainstream specialty stores such as Dean & Deluca, Greene Grape and Kalustyan will also sell her products. This is a rare breakthrough for Malaysian products and also for Malaysian cuisine in the US.

Abraham, who was born in Seremban and arrived in the US in the early 1990s, nostalgically remembered how she grew up in the midst of flavours and foods of her hometown, inspired by Malaysia’s diverse culinary and multi-ethnic makeup.

At the recent NYFFS 2018, two of her products won the prestigious “sofi” (specialty outstanding food innovation) bronze and silver awards. Her lime leaf sambal won the bronze prize in the cooking sauce (marinade) category, while the pandan kaya (coconut jam) garnered the silver prize in the jam preserves category. Her entries were judged by experts for flavour, appearance, texture and aroma, ingredient quality and innovation.

Auria Abraham's award-winning pandan kaya.
One of the sambals under the Auria's Malaysian Kitchen brand.

“Our lime leaf sambal is a green chilli paste flavoured with makrut (kaffir) lime leaves that can be used as a cooking sauce, marinade or straight out of the jar as a condiment. Our pandan kaya is a popular Malaysian breakfast spread that can be used on toast, pancakes, waffles, etc,” Abraham said, adding that US consumers who have tasted green curry, for example, in Thai restaurants, may find her green sambal similar in taste.

According to the annual Flavour Forecast Report for 2016 of McCormick, the US spice company which sources spices from around the world, including Malaysia, the popularity of spicy foods such as sambal, rendang, haldi (turmeric) and sriracha-flavoured dishes is likely to increase.

The red fiery sambal will likely make a mark on US food culture in the future.

McCormick believes that American consumers will become adventurous enough to try out Malaysian dishes such as rendang. Indeed, recorded a 70% surge in orders for the curry between 2014 and 2015 compared to the earlier corresponding period.

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