Filipinos and Malaysians stem from common ancestry, and though both have evolved to form distinct cultures, we share many similarities in food: the love for noodles, rice, meat braised in rich sauces, condiments of the spicy, sour and salty, so I was excited to check out the Malaysian Winter Market Festival at Bryant Park last February.
The festival, sponsored by the Malaysian government through their Malaysian Kitchen of the World Project, focuses on promoting Malaysia through a persuasive ambassador food. At the two-day festival, Malaysian restaurants from New York and the Tri-state area set up booths and offer one or two dishes from their menus.
I had a sampling of Mee Goreng, stir-fried Chinese egg noodles in a sweet spicy sauce with mustard greens, bean sprouts,Chinese cabbage, garlic and shrimp. It was not as flavorful as I hoped it would be, Mee Goreng’s sauce features pungent belacan (shrimp paste), kecap manis (dark sweet soy sauce) and spicy chilies- flavors that were subtle in my Mee Goreng. Perhaps the flavor was lost from it being held on a chaffing dish too long, a limitation restaurants had to cope with at the fair. It was unfortunate, as Mee Goreng is best hot, straight out from the wok.
The fresh roti demonstrated by Chef Jeff of Bentara restaurant was not a disappointment. He twirled and stretched the unleavened dough into a transparent sheet, folded and brushed it with ghee (clarified butter), cooked it on a griddle till it puffed . It was light, crispy on the outside and doughy in the middle , an important feature to sop curry with.
Chef Jeff demonstrated the different ways roti is prepared, from plain to roti murtabak - stuffed roti with minced meat (traditionally mutton),onions and curry sauce. It was delicious, the last time I had good roti murtabak was in a hawker stall in Penang.
At the festival was representation from the Malaysian Tourism office, where I met Susheela Raghavan author of Flavors of Malaysia: A Journey Through Time, Tastes and Traditions. The book is a thorough and well-written exposition on Malaysian cuisine , it delves into Malaysia’s rich history and food culture skillfully, no small feat with a country whose cultural heritage is a mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Portuguese, Thai, Dutch and British influences.
The book covers dishes from the diverse ethnic groups and subcultures of Malaysia, from the Baba Nonyas (Chinese Malay) Cristaos (Portuguese Malay) or the Mamaks ( Indian Muslim Malay). Recipes are not “inspired” versions of traditional dishes, a composition I see often in some Asian cookbooks wooing an American audience. Recipes from these kind of books are so altered they bear not even a shadow of its original state. In Flavors of Malaysia, the food is presented in their authentic garb of pungency, flavor and spice. When there are options of modification, it is to temper heat, saltines or fat content, but the authenticity of the dish is there.
It was great to meet Susheela, the author of a book I refer to in my research for my Southeast Asian Street Food class at ICE. The recipes in her book are not only educational, they reflect her personal journey from her childhood, recipes from her mother and grandmother, and from the people she has met along the way.
In her final chapter, Fusion Malaysian, she muses on how the food of her home country has fused with the traditions of her life here in the United States. Her recipes in this final chapter incorporate the traditional Malaysian spices and sauces to the everyday American table. As an immigrant myself, I understand how this is, ingredients of our home cuisine is always present in our kitchens, it reminds us of who we are, living in a country so different from our own. Like marriage, we are our own but embrace the other obligingly.
I think of how the countries who came to our shores altered us, transformed our way of life, our beliefs and our food. Now in their shores, we bring ours and they too are transformed ….and hopefully, richer by it.