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What is Malaysian Indian Food?

Malaysian Indian Food

The Malayan Peninsula with it's small kingdoms and chiefdoms had a long history of trade with merchants from India. These traders have come and gone over the centuries bringing with them Hindu influences, seen in the customs and rituals of local rulers. However it was not until the 19th century, after the Portuguese and Dutch colonists were eclipsed by the British, who took control of the Malayan Peninsula that mass Indian migration took place. Rubber seedlings from Brazil were found to grow successfully in this equatorial land, and much needed manpower were recruited from British East India for the burgeoning rubber industry. Road, waterworks as well as railway infrastructure were also breaking new ground in this equatorial jungle nation. 80% of Indians were Tamils from South India employed in the rubber industry, while Sri Lankan Tamils and Malayalees were employed in supervisory and clerical positions. Of the North Indians, the Punjabis were employed in the police force while the Gujaratis and Sindhis were in business, mainly textiles. Despite the mass exodus of Indians returning to India after Malaysia's independence from the British in 1957, many stayed on and today Indians constitute the third largest ethnic group, making up 8% of Malaysia's population of 27 million. 

Indian food is now not only very Malaysian; unique and new versions of Indian food, not found in India, have ultimately been created. Indian cuisine can be divided into two mainstreams, North Indian and South Indian cuisine.

North Indian cuisine - A typical North Indian meal would consist of breads - made from wheat flour such as Chapatis or Rotis [unleavened bread], Parathas [unleavened bread fried on a griddle] - served with vegetarian and non-vegetarian curries. North Indian cuisine boasts of a diet rich in meat. Grilled meat kebabs, koftas, spicy roasts of lamb, chicken and quails, are served alongside rich curries and kormas. North Indian curries are luxuriantly spiced with
distinctive aroma and taste of ground and whole spices. The curries are not particularly hot - rather it's intricate use of various blends of spices together with yogurt and ghee [clarified butter] makes for sophisticated Indian dishes - as in it's Mughlai cuisine. Mughlai cuisine is the cuisine that comes from the kitchens of the ancient Indian aristocracy of the Moghul Emperors!

South Indian cuisine - is mainly fish and vegetables, often cooked in coconut milk, an important ingredient in South Indian cooking. Rice is a staple in South India and served with seafood, mainly fish and vegetable dishes. Fish, prawns, crabs and squid are cooked in a variety of ways, most commonly in coconut milk, chilies and spices. Breads are lighter, made with rice flour instead of wheat - Dosas [thin rice pancakes], Vada [made from fermented rice and dhal], Appams [rice pancake] and Idli [steamed rice cakes]. Idli, with it's soft spongy texture, is especially ideal to eat with Sambar [also spelt Sambhar]. Sambars are stews made from pulses, usually dhal [lentils] cooked with vegetables - peas, potatoes, carrots, eggplant, okra, drumsticks and cabbage. South Indian cuisine boosts the very best fish and vegetarian meals!

Spices are the heart and soul of Indian cooking. The quantity and proportions vary with each geographical boundary. In true Indian cooking, curry powder is almost never used.  Spices are freshly grounded and added in many different combinations, giving each dish a unique and distinct taste. Spices commonly used are coriander, cumin, turmeric, fennel, mustard and fenugreek. Other fragrant spices added are cardamom, clove, cinnamon and star anise. Both fresh and dried chili peppers are used in varying degrees for different curries - from mild sambars to fiery hot curries such as Vindaloo and Madras curries.

There are numerous Indian restaurants in Malaysia serving authentic Northern and Southern Indian cuisine. Many cater to specialized regional Indian cuisine and customary needs. Indians in Malaysia come from different religious sects - Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Muslim and other religions. The most widespread local Indian stalls, eateries and restaurants you will find in Malaysia, are Indian-Muslim. Affectionately referred to by locals as Mamak stall or Mamak restaurant, they serve an extraordinary cuisine of Indian-Muslim food - a culinary assimilation of Indian and Malay cooking styles. The curries and entrees are unmistakably Indian, yet unlike those found in India. Mamak means 'Uncle' in Tamil. In spite of the equatorial climate, a hot beverage of Indian-style tea is very popular, called teh tarik. Teh is tea in Malay and tarik means to pull or to jerk or to tug. The milky tea is prepared by using out-stretched hands, pouring [pulling] the piping hot tea from one mug to another several times. The higher the pull, the thicker the froth, the thicker the froth, the yummier - kind of like a 'frappe'. Many of these Mamak stalls and restaurants are open 24 hours, much appreciated and well-loved by late-night owls! Good eats to be had at these round-the-clock joints are Tandoori Chicken, Murtabak and Roti Canai [pronounced Chan-nai]. Roti Canai is also called Roti Prata or Paratha [the original Indian name]. Roti Canai is now well-known as a popular 'Malaysian' appetizer - on menus in Malaysian restaurants all over the world. It is served with a side of curry, usually a Malaysian Chicken Curry. There are curries and there are curries... a Malaysian Chicken Curry, however, with it's unique formula and blend of spices - is distinctly 'Malaysian tasting'.


Mamak stalls and eateries, also specialize in what is called Nasi Kandar. Nasi Kandar basically, is a meal of steamed rice which can be plain or mildly flavored such as nasi biryani, and served with a variety of curries and side dishes. Indian-Muslim style curries in Malaysia are quite distinctive in taste. One such unique culinary creation, is Malaysia's famed Fish Head Curry. The word Nasi Kandar, came about from a time when nasi [rice] hawkers or vendors would kandar [balance] a pole on the shoulder with two huge containers of rice meals. The name has remained and today the word Nasi Kandar is seen on most Indian restaurants and Mamak stalls offering rice meals. Eaten with fingers, rice or bread is served on a thali or circular metal tray, on which small metal bowls called katori are placed with your choice of entrees and curries. Nowadays, a regular dinner plate and several small bowls, usually made of melamine, are the norm. Cutlery is provided but diners still have the option to eat & enjoy the food with their fingers.

There are also Indian restaurants, specializing in an all vegetarian or non-meat cuisine, mainly South Indian style. Food is quaintly served on fresh banana leaves, instead of plates, in some restaurants. Aptly called Banana Leaf restaurants, they specialize in some of the most delicious vegetarian and non-meat entrees one can ever taste! Rice is served in the center of a banana leave, followed by various curries, sambars and dhals  ladled around the rice - and the meal is typically eaten with fingers. Banana Leaf restaurants have now become trendy, serving more hearty Indian fare, including meat dishes. Although it is quite the norm to eat with fingers in many homes in Malaysia, eating food with fingers served on a banana leave in a Banana Leaf Restaurant, has become quite trendy, and a novelty to try for many 'fork & spoon' diners.


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What Are Malaysian Indian Dishes?

Nasi Biryani : Indian style Rice Dish - Basmati rice is first saute'ed in ghee [clarified butter] and cooked with the world's most expensive spice, saffron. The dish is assembled by layering the flavorful rice with tender pieces of spiced-cooked lamb, mutton or chicken, with a  garnishing of slivered almonds and raisins. This 'delicacy' dish is served as a main course on special occasions, such as weddings and celebrations. In Nasi Kandar restaurants [local Indian-Muslim restaurants], nasi biryani refers to the rice only cooked without the meat, and is a choice of rice [instead of plain steamed rice], to eat with your selection of curries and side dishes. Nasi Biryani is also sometimes spelt Nasi Beriani.



Mutton Korma : Korma, usually spelt Kurma in Malaysia, is a comparatively mild [not hot] curry. Usually mutton [goat] or lamb is slow cooked in a medley of spices and coconut milk. Kurma is popular as an alternative to hot or fiery curries, especially at special occasions such as weddings - to please the palates of all guests especially those who are not accustomed to hot foods. This flavorful curry can be served with plain steamed rice, biryani rice, nasi minyak [ghee rice] or roti [bread]. It is also delicious with the famous Malay 'lacy' crepes called Roti Jala.

Tandoori Chicken : Indian Clay-oven Chicken - an all-time favorite, tandoori chicken is served 24 hr at 24 hr Mamak eateries [local Indian restaurants]. Great for those late-night munchies! Mildly-spiced spring chicken quarters are baked to tender succulence in a tandoor - a traditional Indian clay oven. A spicy mint sauce is usually served on the side with plain or garlic Naan bread.

Fish Head Curry : a fish head, usually from large sized groupers, cods, salmons or red snappers, is cooked in fish curry powder, spices, chilies, tamarind and coconut milk. This weird and wonderful dish has gained popularity especially with fish aficionados, who know that the sweetest meat of the fish is from the head and cheeks!

Pineapple Shrimp Curry : A delicious mix of curry, shrimp and pineapples. The pineapples add a touch of tart sweetness and complements seafood very well, especially fresh shrimp or prawns, langoustines, crabs and fish.

Fish Molee : South Indian Fish Curry - this popular fish dish, originated from the South Indian area of Kerala, where coconut is abundant and used in most of it's cuisine. Fresh fish, usually King fish [King Mackerel], which is sometimes lightly fried first, is cooked in a mild coconut-y gravy. Excellent for any kind of fish steaks.

Indian Mee Goreng : Indian Fried Noodles - fresh yellow egg noodles [chow mein], dried squid [that has been reconstituted], potatoes, fried tofu, eggs and bean sprouts are stir fried. The addition of certain spices is what gives this fried noodle dish a distinctly unique Indian flavor!

Lamb Cashew Korma : Korma, usually spelt Kurma in Malaysia, is a slow cooked flavorful curry with lamb or mutton [goat], cooked in a medley of spices. Cashew nuts add a creamy richness to the dish. It can be served with plain steamed rice, biryani rice, nasi minyak [ghee rice] or roti [bread]. It is also excellent served with the famous Malay 'lacy' crepes called Roti Jala.

Mee Rebus : Indian 'Sweet Potato Gravy' Noodles -a rich gravy made out of sweet potatoes, is ladled over fresh yellow egg noodles [chow mein] and bean sprouts. It is garnished with cooked squid, prawn fritters, boiled egg and fried shallots. A squeeze of a fresh local lime called limau kasturi [kalamansi lime] - brings it all together.

Coconut Crab Curry : This dish draws influence from the South Indian area of Kerala, where coconut is abundant and used in most of it's cuisine. Fresh Blue crabs, Mud crabs or Dungeness crabs are cooked in an easy curry of spices and coconut milk. A must-try for crab lovers!

Vegetable Curry : a staple for many of the country's Indian vegetarians, and enjoyed by everybody. This easy dish uses a local Made in Malaysia Fish Curry Powder - it's slight 'tang' makes for a tasty vegetable curry!

"Poverty is the worst form of violence" -Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

Malaysian Chicken Curry : is a typical chicken curry cooked in almost all Malaysian homes. This basic recipe uses a Made in Malaysia Meat Curry Powder. It has just the right blend of spices for an authentic 'Malaysian-tasting' curry! Some ingredients vary - Indian homes might cook with ghee [clarified butter], add whole spices like star anise, cinnamon stick, cloves, mustard seeds or fresh curry leaves.

Malaysian Fish Curry : is a typical fish curry cooked in almost all Malaysian homes. This basic recipe uses a Made in Malaysia Fish Curry Powder. It has just the right blend of spices for an authentic 'Malaysian-tasting' fish curry! Some ingredients vary - Indian homes might cook with ghee [clarified butter], whole spices like mustard seeds, caraway seeds and cumin seeds, fresh curry leaves, tamarind juice, coconut milk and yoghurt.


What Are Malaysian Indian Breads? 

Roti Canai : Indian Pastry Pancake - Indian in origin, this popular pastry pancake is an all-time favorite appetizer on menus in Malaysian eateries all around the globe. Roti Canai [pronounced Chan-nai], it's name originating from the region of Chennai in India, is also known as Roti Prata [also spelt Paratha]. A side of curry is served for dipping the flaky pancake, usually a Malaysian Chicken Curry.

Roti TelurEgg Pastry Pancake - is a variation of a Roti Canai. It is filled with eggs, chopped onions and cilantro. Popular for breakfast or as a snack, it is usually served with a side of curry gravy.

Murtabak : Meat & Egg Turnover - is another variation of the famous Roti Canai. It is filled with lightly beaten eggs, onions, cilantro and minced lamb, mutton or beef. Served all day, it's one of the most popular late-night snack served at 24-hour Mamak restaurants [Indian-Muslim restaurants].

Idli : Sponge Buns - shaped like a flying saucer, this steamed fluffy bread is soft, dense & spongy; ideal for sopping up Sambar [also spelt sambhar] - a savory gravy or stew made with vegetables and dhal [lentils]. A fresh chutney of some sort, usually a coconut & green chili chutney, is also served. Popular for breakfast, it can also be a satisfying vegetarian meal for lunch or dinner.

Thosai : Sourdough Flatbread - also called Dosai or Dosa, are wafer thin pancakes made from black gram [black lentils], rice flour and rice soaked in water for several hours or overnight - for it's sourdough taste. Served with sambar [also spelt sambhar] - a savory gravy or stew made with vegetables and dhal [yellow lentils], and a chutney of some sort, usually a fresh coconut chutney. It can also be stuffed with spiced potatoes and stewed vegetables; called Masala Thosai or Masala Dosai.

Naan : Whole-wheat Flatbread - soft bread made from whole wheat flour. The dough is rolled out and then slapped on the inside of the tandoor or clay oven, near the top where it cooks very quickly in the fierce heat. It is sometimes sprinkled with chopped garlic; Garlic Naan.

Chapati : Whole-wheat Flatbread - resembling flat discs, this is another type of whole-wheat flatbread. It has a delightful flavor and chewy texture.







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