Heritage foods in Malaysia


Sambal tempoyak daun kayu is a creamy, tangy, herbaceous delight. — Filepic

In many countries, food is a point of pride and a way of binding people together. In Malaysia, the national obsession with food is nothing short of a country-wide pastime.

But with the passage of time, many traditional and multi-generational foods have fallen by the wayside – either nearly forgotten or entirely lodged in the embers of the past. And equally, there are many that are popular but have no formal acknowledgement that they are singularly Malaysian foods.

This is why the Malaysian Department of National Heritage (Jabatan Warisan Negara), which was established in 2006, has the task of gazetting which dishes fall under the category of heritage foods – for preservation in a national context under the category of cultural heritage. This was established under Act 645 of the National Heritage Act 2005.

In 2020, famed cookbook author Datin Kalsom Taib arranged the list of heritage foods into an award-winning cookbook called Malaysia’s Culinary Heritage, describing the over 213 national heritage dishes at the time in Malaysia as well as 17 extra ones that she felt deserved attention, with recipes to boot.

“At the time, the Heritage Department didn’t have any recipes for people to know how to make these foods, so I wanted to include recipes so people could make it at home,” she says.

Since the publication of that book, more heritage foods have been added to the Department of National Heritage’s list and if you’ve been following the news lately, you might have read about this year’s inclusion of bak kut teh (alongside other dishes like kuih lapis, uthappam, nasi ambeng and kolo mee) as a national heritage dish – and the split opinions that have resulted from it.

What is bak kut teh? Many believe that it originated in the 19th century in Klang, Selangor when Chinese harbour workers would collect scraps of spices and herbs scattered in harbour storerooms and then get pork bones from the butchers (often for free, as poverty was common) to make into a healing, nourishing tonic, often boiled with garlic. These days, many traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) shops sell the spice mixtures as a set, so that bak kut teh can more readily be made at home.

Bak kut teh has been in the news a lot since it was named a Malaysian heritage food. — FilepicBak kut teh has been in the news a lot since it was named a Malaysian heritage food. — Filepic

So what inspired the questions and controversy? The biggest point of dissention is that the main component in classic bak kut teh is pork, which means the majority of Malaysians aren’t able to sample bak kut teh in its original form, although of course poultry versions of the dish do exist.

What is interesting is that there are other Malaysian heritage foods whose traditional components often include ingredients that not all Malaysians are able to consume. Char kway teow has iterations that include the addition of lap cheong (Chinese waxed sausages made out of pork) and is a gazetted heritage food as is ambila, a Kristang dish that traditionally makes use of pork. Then there is tuak (rice wine), a traditional alcoholic drink which is also recognised as a Malaysian heritage food.

Also, as all these foods are deemed to have met the required criteria set by the Department of National Heritage, there is little point in arguing over the merits of the dish or lack thereof.

What is perhaps more important is that credit is given to a meal birthed and crafted on Malaysian soil, which is seemingly the whole point of bak kut teh’s addition as a national heritage food.

In 2020, Kalsom wrote a cookbook that listed all the heritage foods in Malaysia at the time and says she believes that bak kut teh deserves to be added to the list.In 2020, Kalsom wrote a cookbook that listed all the heritage foods in Malaysia at the time and says she believes that bak kut teh deserves to be added to the list.

“I agree with the inclusion of bak kut teh because it is a signature dish in Selangor. In fact, before they designated it a heritage food, I included 17 extra dishes that I felt were deserving of being heritage foods in my cookbook.

“In that, I included bak kut teh, although the recipe I shared was for chi kut teh (the version that uses chicken as a substitute). The thing is, if you can’t eat bak kut teh, you can just find alternative versions like chi kut teh. I made it with chicken and it is so sedap!” says Kalsom.

While that culinary debate continues to gain traction, it is perhaps time to turn the limelight on the many other well-known and lesser-known Malaysian dishes that are also recognised as heritage foods that haven’t had quite as much attention shone upon them. Chances are high you’ve probably never heard of at least some of them!

Well-known Malaysian heritage foods

Nasi ulam

Although relatively popular, nasi ulam in its most traditional sense is rarely made these days. A traditional Malay and Straits Chinese (Peranakan) dish, nasi ulam once consisted of up to 50 different kinds of shoots, leaves, herbs and roots, either blanched or steamed and chopped finely or simply julienned raw.

Traditionally, nasi ulam often had up to 50 shoots, leaves and herbs but now is made up of about only eight herbs and leaves.  — FilepicTraditionally, nasi ulam often had up to 50 shoots, leaves and herbs but now is made up of about only eight herbs and leaves. — Filepic

As the years have passed, many of these herbaceous elements have disappeared from the local culinary topography and these days, the most commonly utilised leaves and shoots include daun kesum (torch ginger bud), Vietnamese mint leaves, lemongrass, turmeric, galangal, daun kesum and daun mengkudu.

According to Kalsom in her cookbook, some of the herbs that were previously used included buah jering (jering beans), petai belalang, cemperai leaves, guava leaves and even the curiously-named sambung nyawa (purple passion vine leaves). In the Peranakan iteration, flaked fish is often included in the dish as well. The resulting herbaceous dish is healthy and oh-so flavourful, which is why it is little wonder it is a national heritage dish.

Laksa Johor

There is plenty of lore surrounding how the many components that make up laksa Johor came to be, but the most consistent story is that 19th century Johor ruler Sultan Abu Bakar was visiting Europe and became entranced with spaghetti, which is how the original laksa beras (rice flour) gave way to spaghetti.

The rest of the components that make up laksa Johor are formed through the kuah laksa, which is often composed of ikan parang (wolf herring), coconut milk, curry powder and dried prawns. This is topped with fresh accompaniments like bean sprouts, cucumbers and mint leaves, to name a few.

Laksa Johor is unique in that it utilises spaghetti alongside kuah laksa and a range of fresh accompaniments.  — FilepicLaksa Johor is unique in that it utilises spaghetti alongside kuah laksa and a range of fresh accompaniments. — Filepic

The final dish is meant to be eaten using hands as an implement and offers a combustive explosion of flavours with an aquatic underbelly, fresh, fiery elements and the slick, cool spaghetti to tide everything through.

Char kway teow

The quintessential Malaysian hawker food, char kway teow is often associated with the concept of ‘wok hei’ or the ‘kiss of the fire’. This is implicit in the way the noodle dish is cooked, traditionally over charcoal with just enough stirring and heat to send small sparks (not enough to set off a fire, of course).

The dish is made up of flat, wide noodles, garlic, soy sauce, a chilli paste, bean sprouts, spring onions, cockles, eggs, prawns and lap cheong (which is often omitted in modern times for health reasons).

Making good char kway teow is a skill that is highly dependent on attaining that elusive ‘wok hei’. — FilepicMaking good char kway teow is a skill that is highly dependent on attaining that elusive ‘wok hei’. — Filepic

The true test of a good char kway teow is the slight char established in the dish, that hint of smokiness, the surge of spiciness and the oiliness – which should be omnipresent but not overwhelming.

There is a certain mastery required to tackle this dish, which also explains why Penang’s famed Siam Road Char Koay Teow – reputed to be one of the best in Malaysia – boasts queues that trail for miles.

Roti canai

Have you ever met a Malaysian who hates roti canai? I haven’t either. Because that person simply doesn’t exist, I think.

Roti canai is a nationally beloved dish believed to have been introduced by Indian Muslim migrants who came from India in the early 19th century.

Roti canai is universally beloved by all Malaysians, which is why it is rightfully a Malaysian heritage dish. — FilepicRoti canai is universally beloved by all Malaysians, which is why it is rightfully a Malaysian heritage dish. — Filepic

The flatbread is made out of dough fashioned out of flour, ghee, water and salt which is then placed on a hot griddle, topped with more ghee and flipped at appropriate intervals. The resulting bread has a soft, doughy interior and a flaky, crusty exterior and is appealing on its own, although it is even better when served with dhal or any kind of curry.

Onde-onde

Believed to be a Nyonya sweet treat, these round green balls are made from glutinous rice flour and coloured with pandan juice. The balls are filled with cubes of palm sugar (gula Melaka) and plopped into boiling hot water, then removed. The entire concoction is then topped with fresh grated coconut.

Making good onde-onde is highly dependent on the skill of the maker and the quality of the gula Melaka. Good quality gula Melaka can truly elevate onde-onde, and this is precariously balanced by the quantity used which has to be enough to explode in the mouth, one of the aspects of onde-onde that truly makes it special.

Lesser-known Malaysian heritage foods

Sambal biji getah

Literally translated into ‘rubber seeds sambal’, this particular sambal is not a sambal in its truest sense because to make it, a mixture of rubber seeds, cili padi and salt have to be pounded into a paste, kneaded into a dough, flattened into discs and fried until it forms a golden brown crust, which is broken off and eaten with hot rice and ulam. The dish is traditional in Jerantut, Pahang, from which it originates.

Sambal tempoyak daun kayu

It is quite a job cutting the leaves required for the tempoyak daun kayu into thin strips, which is why the younger generation are not keen to make it. — FilepicIt is quite a job cutting the leaves required for the tempoyak daun kayu into thin strips, which is why the younger generation are not keen to make it. — Filepic

Originally from Bentong, Pahang, making this sambal has become a dying art simply because of the laborious work involved in chopping or finely shredding the various herbs and leaves required to make the dish. In the past, many iterations involved as many as 16 different kinds of leaves (carefully selected to balance the dish without overpowering) but modern adaptations use as little as seven herbs and shoots as a time-saving measure.

The leaves are cooked with tempoyak (fermented durian paste) and coconut milk, resulting in a funky, jubilantly rich dish with overlaying herbaceous undertones.

Bubur anak lebah

Its sweet-sounding name is evocative of the dish itself which consists of rice flour coloured with pandan juice and shaped into little baby bee shaped figures. This is then cooked in coconut milk and gula Melaka. Glutinous rice is added to the mixture, which is traditionally served at weddings, where it remains an old-fashioned favourite.

Bubur anak lebah is a firm favourite at weddings and the little mounds of dough are meant to be shaped like baby bees. — MALAYSIA’S CULINARY HERITAGEBubur anak lebah is a firm favourite at weddings and the little mounds of dough are meant to be shaped like baby bees. — MALAYSIA’S CULINARY HERITAGE

Kuih kasidah

This kuih is an interesting mix of sweet-and-savoury interspersed together. Made in Perlis and Terengganu, it uses flour, coconut milk, lime water and eggs to form a batter, which is then topped with – curiously – fried shallots! The dish is lesser-known among younger folk but remains a firm favourite among the elderly, many of whom grew up eating this.

Sambal rong

A Pahang-style condiment, sambal rong was once fashioned out of the fruit of the perah tree (buah perah) but these trees often grow in dense jungle areas, which is why the current variation of the sambal often uses rubber seeds instead.

To make sambal rong, rubber seeds have to be dried for a few days, pounded with chilli and salt and left to ferment for up to a week. — MALAYSIA’S CULINARY HERITAGETo make sambal rong, rubber seeds have to be dried for a few days, pounded with chilli and salt and left to ferment for up to a week. — MALAYSIA’S CULINARY HERITAGE

To make the sambal, rubber tree seeds need to be de-seeded and dried under the sun for a few days until completely dry. The dried seeds are then pounded with chillies and salt and left to ferment for a few days or a week. This sambal is traditionally eaten with rice and ulam.

Masak ikan dan pisang dalam buluh

Popular among indigenous communities in Sabah and Sarawak, this traditional dish makes use of eels, rice and unripe bananas, which all sounds so odd in theory but work well in reality. The dish is cooked in a bamboo cyclinder, which helps preserve it for longer – which works out well for indigenous communities when they are out hunting or foraging in the forest.

Who would have thought eels, rice and unripe bananas cooked in bamboo would make for such an appetising meal? — MALAYSIA’S CULINARY HERITAGEWho would have thought eels, rice and unripe bananas cooked in bamboo would make for such an appetising meal? — MALAYSIA’S CULINARY HERITAGE

Burasak

One of this year’s new heritage food additions, burasak is a traditional staple among the Bugis community, most notably in Johor. The dish is said to have originated as a travelling meal for Bugis sailors, according to an article in The Star. To make the dish, rice and coconut milk are boiled together. The cooked rice is then wrapped in banana leaves and boiled for hours, sometimes overnight, sometimes for less, but most often for at least eight hours. Burasak is traditionally served during Hari Raya or at weddings alongside other savoury dishes like ayam masak merah.

Burasak is a traditional Bugis dish, most often made during Hari Raya or at weddings. — FilepicBurasak is a traditional Bugis dish, most often made during Hari Raya or at weddings. — Filepic

Ubi gadong parut masak dalam buluh

Like buah keluak (which has trace amount of cyanide), ubi gadong is another poisonous ingredient which requires careful preparation before it can be consumed. According to Kalsom in her book, the tuber is “about the size of a small coconut, covered with numerous hair-like roots”.

Ubi gadong is poisonous if not prepared properly. — MALAYSIA’S CULINARY HERITAGEUbi gadong is poisonous if not prepared properly. — MALAYSIA’S CULINARY HERITAGE

In the past, it was eaten as a breakfast dish in the northern part of Peninsular Malaysia, often cooked in a bamboo cyclinder. To cook ubi gadong, the skin HAS to be removed, then the flesh should be sliced thinly and soaked for three hours before being boiled until tender.

Ambila

This Kristang dish emerged from the Dutch and Portuguese community in Melaka and is traditionally made using pork, although Kalsom says chicken and sting ray are worthy substitutes.

The dish is normally made at Christmas time and uses pork hock, chillies and long beans and is left to simmer for a few hours until the meat tenderises and the stew thickens. The overall dish has a slightly sourish tang to it.

Tebaloi

Associated with the Melanau people in Sarawak, tebaloi is made of sago flour, grated coconut, sugar and eggs. This dough is then put in the oven atop a banana leaf and flattened into a thin sheet. After this, it is cut into squares before being baked again until it is crispy. The starchy-sweet concoction is often eaten at breakfast or even dipped in hot drinks in Sarawak.

Tebaloi is associated with the Melanau in Sarawak and is often eaten for breakfast. — MALAYSIA'S CULINARY HERITAGETebaloi is associated with the Melanau in Sarawak and is often eaten for breakfast. — MALAYSIA'S CULINARY HERITAGE

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