By R. O’neil Edwards
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Containing easily prepared, yet flavorful recipes, “The Malaysian Kitchen” combines personal reflection, cultural perspective, and a useful introduction to Malaysian home cooking. The recipes are surprisingly simple in a good way, giving the reader a sense of “I can actually make this.” In the Pacific Northwest, we are blessed with access to most of the ingredients, but the book accounts for those not so fortunate. By giving alternative ingredients that actually work well, Christina Arokiasamy removes many of the obstacles novices stumble over when trying new cuisine types without sacrificing a sense of authenticity.
If I could describe the book in one word, it would be “useful.” I have many cookbooks where I simply look at the index and find the recipe I want. For people just beginning to explore Malaysian cuisine, the words between the recipes are not only enjoyable, but actually add value. The included spice chart and commentary on using a mortar and pestle are worth the read regardless of cuisine type. Arokiasamy’s attention to history — her own as well as Malaysian history — is quite useful to understanding the food.
Influenced by the diverse influences of Malaysian cuisine (Indonesian, Chinese, Indian, and Portuguese), recipes range from preparation of simple sauces like sambal (an Indonesian/Malaysian hot sauce) to popular Penang street food like mee goreng (fried noodles), to tandoori broiled salmon. After a gentle but informative foundation section, the recipes are logically grouped into basic core groups like soups, salads, vegetables, rice and noodles, meats, etc. There is even a fascinating section on health benefits of various spices.
Fortunate enough to live near Arokiasamy, I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon of conversation, learning, and cooking with her. Talk about an author standing by her book. She not only explained what we were doing, but the far more useful why we were doing it. Arokiasamy made the wok-fried spaghetti with kale and sambal, a modern take on the classic comfort food mee goreng. She then had me use the exact same dish. The only difference is that she used a wok and I used a non-stick skillet found in most kitchens, which shows that these simple, yet flavorful meals could be done in any kitchen by a cook of modest skill. Not only did I understand what she was doing (in part thanks to reading the book), I found myself believing I could make the dish before I even put on an apron. Before cooking, I sat down and asked her a few questions over tea and edamame.
Q: What is your personal favorite dish to eat and prepare?
A: I have a lot of favorites. I could never pin down just one. Every dish is a memory preserved. Memories of my mother’s school box lunches. Memories of family gatherings on Saturdays. Some of my favorites are the Malaysian laksas. It’s noodles. It’s warm and sustaining. It encompasses all of Malaysian aromatics. There are layers of flavors — shallots, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, and more. When I am cutting and preparing, it brings back memories of plucking from our garden. If this was my last meal, I would be very happy. Not something I would make every day, but something I would make if I wanted to indulge myself.
Q: How would your mother feel about some of the non-traditional ingredients used in the book?
A: I was once die-hard “authentic.” This is the way my mother cooked. My grandmothers cooked. As I traveled, I realized not everyone is able to park their car, go into an Asian shop, beat traffic, get a ticket just to get one ingredient. I learned that if I take everyday ingredients that are in most homes, like dried pasta and cook it softer, it becomes very much like Asian noodles. The beauty of Malaysian food is, it is so multicultural. My book teaches you the difference between how my mother cooked and how the Western world cooks. They would learn to cook with all the joy and the authentic flavor using familiar ingredients. I think my mother and grandmothers would be very proud because I literally took their recipes and translated it for new generations and generations to come.
Q: Do you worry as Malaysian food gains more popularity, it may experience a “watering down” to cater to American tastes?
A: You have to have a broad look. Whenever you take something authentic and dilute it, there is danger it can lose its soul. However, safeguarding to the point where people won’t approach it is not good either. The beauty of Malaysian food is, it is many cultures in a spoonful. Someone who has tasted Indian food will say “I taste that.” Someone who has eaten Chinese food will recognize the influence, already a beautiful tapestry of flavors. If a creative person wants to add touches of their own, it makes the food more interesting. Food is not a restriction.
Q: With so many influences, what would distinguish something like Malaysian fried rice (nasi goreng) and say Chinese fried rice?
A: The layering of flavors is unique. From the shallots, to the sambal to the sweet soy sauce, there is a familiarity of flavors going on that is unique to Malaysian fried rice. It’s like your palate is at a party.
The thing I appreciated most about Arokiasamy’s hospitality and willingness to share her insights on food was how similar her in-person style was to her writing. Gentle, friendly, patient, her instructional style will make a serviceable cook out of the willing. With minimal frustration. I am looking forward to trying every recipe in this book and adding my own unique twists (stir-fried bok choy with bacon and garlic being my next meal). ■
The Malaysian Kitchen will be released on March 21, 2017.
Russell can be reached at email@example.com.