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.
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 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.
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’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, Delivery.com recorded a 70% surge in orders for the curry between 2014 and 2015 compared to the earlier corresponding period.
From a professional photographer to restaurant owner, Sharon Lam of GLASS Tartines & Tipples has certainly taken an interesting culinary path.
“I studied fine art photography at Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne, Australia. I don’t think that there was a specific ambition growing up – I certainly didn’t expect to be doing what I’m doing today,” says Lam.
According to the youthful-looking 40-something, she discovered a passion for food as a student Down Under.
“When I was living in Australia – like any other student – I couldn’t afford to eat out too much. So, you’re forced to learn how to cook. When I was in university, I worked in two cafes that were really different in their food offerings. This, I suppose, sparked my interest in food.
“Being in Australia also exposed me to their approach to food and their interest in using fresh local produce.”
Lam describes GLASS as a loosely-inspired French restaurant. “Our menu is quite varied – it has something for everyone. The premise of our food sets us apart; wherever possible, our product is made on site. From the dressings to soup bases, dips and meatballs, we make everything that we can ourselves. We believe that one should eat well – and that translates into the ingredients that we select and use.”
Sharon Lam believes that one should eat well – and that translates into the ingredients that her restaurant selects and uses. Photos: Sharon Lam
“We are the only outlet on the strip that serves a wide range of craft beers and BBQs both on Friday evenings and Sundays as brunch.”
Bestsellers on its menu, says Lam, include truffle scrambled eggs which are a hit with breakfast regulars, and the smoked salmon salad, which comes with lychee and fresh house cilantro dressing.
“Our Asian meat platter is a new favourite. Served on a wooden platter, it includes char siew chicken with our house made chilli sauce, peppered oxtail and chicken ball bites with crisp sesame cucumber noodles. It’s perfect for sharing.”
An all-time favourite is the coffee rubbed Australian ribeye, which sees a good cut of steak with a coffee crust served with gorgonzola sauce. “It sounds like such a strange combination but it works deliciously well,” enthuses Lam.
Lam can talk at length about food. “I am interested in the process of, firstly, making use of interesting ingredients. A dish is a final outcome of the combination of many ingredients coming together well, sourcing for produce and experimenting with it to create flavour through infusion, smoking and other methods. We make our own salts, rubs, syrups and alcohol infusions, using mainly local produce.
“It’s an interesting process to discover smells and tastes through different stages. And then to incorporate that into the dish.”
When it comes to food creations, Lam says: “We mainly start from the ingredient that we’d like to include in a dish or even in a drink. I discuss with the chef how to incorporate a certain flavour, herb or texture, whether it’s subtle or strong.
“Sometimes we try to reinvent a sauce that’s fairly common – like our char siew chicken chilli sauce – it may be basic but we’ve put our own spin on it.”
She adds: “We love experimenting with slightly different combinations. For instance, our blended juices comprise orange, cherry tomatoes and thyme, or roasted pumpkin and our house roasted granola.
“We make our own syrups too; our coolers such as pandan and mint include the old time local favourite biji selasih (basil seeds).”
The smoked salmon salad with lychee and fresh house cilantro dressing is a favourite with customers.
From Monday to Friday, GLASS offers value-for-money set lunches at RM22+. Lam adds that GLASS is open to hosting private events.
“The BBQ is a favourite to have for events. We are able to put together something special for customers such as whole fish baked in salt or tea smoked meats,” she says.
GLASS TARTINES & TIPPLES
A-0-6 Ground Floor, St Mary Residences
No 1 Jalan Tengah, off Jalan Sultan Ismail
50450 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03-2022 1477
Except for a few countries in Asia, bread isn’t a staple food in much of the continent. Perhaps that’s why when food vendors do come up with sandwiches, they are quite unusual – and excellent. Here are seven to try around the region. (And if you can’t get around, try making them yourself at home. Search for the recipes and techniques on YouTube – that’s where we learnt how to make all the sandwiches for this article.)
Don’t forget the soft-boiled eggs.
This is one of those great kopitiam (coffee shop) breakfasts – well toasted slices of Hainanese bread, spread with margarine or butter and generously slathered with kaya (coconut egg jam). The sandwich is cut into thirds or quarters and often eaten with one or two soft-boiled eggs (which we call “half-boiled”, for some reason) seasoned with soy sauce and white pepper. It goes nicely with a cup of milk coffee.
Kaya toast can be traced to the Hainanese, many of whom worked on British ships as cooks in the 19th century. When they settled in Malaya, they came up with the sandwich by replacing western jams with local kaya.
But who was John?
This is a go-to sandwich at Ramadan food bazaars, and a popular offering at Ramly burger stalls in Malaysia.
Roti John is said to have been invented in Singapore sometime in the late 1960s by a stall vendor plying his trade at the Botanic Gardens in central Singapore. He used the name John, the nickname for Caucasian men, as it was a popular sandwich with western customers.
According to one story the sandwich made its way to Malaysia via Tanjung Kling, Melaka, in the 1970s.
Roti John is also found in Brunei and Indonesia.
The sandwich is made with a French baguette and spread with an omelette of minced meat, onion and chillies. Sardine and cheese are also options.
The garnish is usually mayonnaise, tomato sauce and sweet chilli sauce.
Many people say this is the best sandwich in the world. Do you agree? Photo: The Star/Ivy Soon
This is one of those foods whose popularity has grown beyond their original country – it’s now a firm favourite across the world.
The bánh mì (translated as wheat bread) started out, sometime in the 1880s when the French made their way into Indochina, as a baguette with a bit of butter, ham or pate. When the French rule ended in 1954, the Vietnamese kept the bread but made the sandwich more substantial – and certainly raised its delicious factor – with flavourful meat, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs.
An inside-out omelette sandwich.
The egg is flavoured with onion, chillies, garam masala, curry powder. It is poured into a skillet and spread out a little. Slices of bread are then placed on top of the egg and allowed to soak in it for a while before the whole thing is flipped to cook the other side. Customers can ask for a slice of cheese to be included.
When it’s done, the sandwich is folded in an unusual way: The slices of bread are on the inside of the omelette! The sandwich is cut into pieces before serving.
Could this have been the predecessor to the Western burger?
Rou Jia Mo
In 2016, rou jia mo, which translates as “meat in a bun”, was named Shaanxi Province’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Often referred to as the Chinese hamburger, this sandwich of northern China is in a yeast-raised wheat bun that is shaped into a spiral before rolling it into a disc and then cooked. Instead of steaming the buns like a mantou, they are usually “baked” in a pan on the stove.
Rou jia mo is said to have been around for at least 2,000 years.
The filling is most commonly pork, specifically the belly. In Muslim areas in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province, beef is used.
So much cabbage and carrot.
Gaeran To Su Tu
Korean street toast is a sandwich stuffed with an omelette made with shredded cabbage and carrot. Along with it is usually a slice of ham and cheese drizzled with ketchup and mayonnaise. The large slices of white bread are toasted on the same skillet.
Some street vendors fold the sandwich on the diagonal and serve it in a paper cup.
Noodles AND bread together, woohoo!
Talk about carb on carb! This popular lunch and snack in Japan is a combination of noodles and bread.
The stir-fried egg noodles are seasoned with soy and Worcestershire sauce, and unadorned with meat or vegetables. This is so that there is not too much moisture which will make the bread soggy since the sandwich is usually not eaten immediately. A hotdog bun is commonly used.
The sandwich is finished with strips of pickled ginger, dried seaweed and sweetened mayo.
STAR2.COM EXCLUSIVE: This is the first in our online series documenting the food chefs prepare at home.
Malcolm Goh has just come off a surgical procedure, but when I meet him, he is all smiles and says, “No lah, I’m fine!” to my anxious queries about the state of his health.
It is this affable quality that has endeared Goh to Malaysians, who first saw him on television on Asian Food Channel (AFC) shows like Great Dinners of the World and Back to the Streets.
It is interesting that Goh’s foray into the F&B industry didn’t happen organically. After he flunked his O-Levels, his mother took him to a local college and enrolled him in a culinary arts course. He promptly failed his first two semesters, before deciding to just buck up and get on with it.
“My whole journey has been me forcing myself to learn and get skills because I’m not a natural prodigy – I didn’t know anything about cooking until I went to college when I was 16. Now I feel that cooking has helped me learn that it’s very fulfilling when people enjoy your food,” he says.
These days, you’ll find Goh helming the kitchen of Define: Food, a popular restaurant in Mid Valley City that serves up all sorts of delicious Western-influenced comfort food.
Like the eatery’s sinfully hedonistic epicurean burger, which features a generous slab of foie gras atop a wagyu patty, truffle jus, caramelised onions and sautéed mushrooms. The burger is pure perfection – the petal-soft tenderness of the foie gras offers sexy, earthy flavours that provide the perfect opening act to the main star – perfectly cooked wagyu patty that is so malleable, it practically glides down your throat unaided by mastication.
The sumptuous epicurean burger at Define: Food represents the sort of food Goh has become adept at making. The burger features a wonderful alchemy of flavours and textures and is simply delicious.
“We did it because we wanted something a bit more luxurious. We know anything you put foie gras on, most people will enjoy,” says Goh.
Then there is his eight-hour braised lamb, featuring meat that is tender and so pliant, it’s almost like swallowing silk.
“It’s a very straightforward dish, we take lamb shoulder and braise it whole for eight to 10 hours. Then we portion it out so all the juices are still intact inside the meat,” says Goh.
The eatery has also introduced a whole range of avocado toasts with various accoutrements, from smoked salmon to beef bacon. The toasts are delicious – the bread is soft and pillowy and the avocado spread is decadent and oh-so yummy!
Goh’s culinary oeuvre at Define: Food is food that is by his definition “rustic”. He leans heavily towards comfort food with bold flavours, all underscored by his signature attention to detail. Every dish is perfectly assembled and looks appetising but isn’t overwhelmed by window dressing. It is food you can eat (and eat again!) because it is cooked well but also because it doesn’t feel fancy or like it requires a special occasion to be sampled.
“Our style of cooking is very rustic, not too fussy, not too fiddly. Every cook or chef reaches a stage where they want to do something avant-garde and artsy, but after awhile, most cooks feel it’s too much effort to put food into an arrangement where it’s very unnatural.
“So I’ve passed that stage of wanting to do Michelin-star stuff so now I do just honest food that everyone is comfortable eating. But my team and I try to make sure that no matter how easy it is, we do it consistently well,” he says.
Define: Food’s eight-hour braised lamb is sublime, with pull-apart tender meat that is oh-so-easy to eat.
Goh’s dedication to comfort food makes you wonder just what he cooks up at home, away from the hustle and bustle of the restaurant. It always fascinates me how chefs can have polar opposite approaches at home and in the kitchen. Like celebrity chef Jason Atherton, who runs Michelin-starred restaurants like Pollen Street Social and has said that his favourite meal at home is a simple bacon sandwich!
Goh is inclined to feel the same way and says the moment he is at home, he switches off as he doesn’t want to think about all the technical aspects of cooking.
“In a restaurant, you have to be precise and consistent because you are catering to guests who are comparing your food with other restaurants. Cooking at home is different, the pressure isn’t there, you have more time to prepare and buy groceries. So to be honest, what I cook at home is to throw something in a wok with a bit of garlic and soya sauce and stir-fry everything. Most of the time, I cook Asian food at home,” he says.
It is an interesting contrast, as Goh’s offerings at Define: Food are largely Western-tinged, so it is ironic that his culinary output at home is largely Asian. But perhaps some of this has to do with the fact that he grew up eating his mother’s Hakka and nonya fare. Some days this translates to an inclination to cook the food of his childhood, like his mother’s alluring soon pan (Hakka steamed dumplings).
I believe cooks and chefs, whether they’re in a Michelin restaurant or not, still go back to simple, honest, straightforward food at home.
“My mother would make soon pan less often than I would have liked to have it. But when she made it, she would leave it under a bowl and when I came back from school, I would eat it cold. It is something which has a very warm feeling for me,” he says.
His mother’s loh shee fun is another dish that he cooks up when he misses her food. “It’s just something simple that every household would have, so it’s nothing fancy. And even now, I’m a grown man and she cooks it once in a while and I’ll happily eat it. These are my fondest memories with my mother,” he says.
Goh says ultimately he feels that most chefs like to kick back and relax when they’re at home and this is reflected in the food they churn out on their days off as well.
“Cooking is tiring, so I don’t think many chefs spend a lot of time at home cooking – it’s just fresh salads, or boiled, sautéed stuff, that’s it. I believe cooks and chefs, whether they’re in a Michelin restaurant or not, still go back to simple, honest, straightforward food at home,” he says.
LOH SHEE FUN WITH MINCED CHICKEN
For the loh shee fun
100g chopped garlic
250g minced chicken
4 tbsp light soy sauce
3 tbsp dark soy sauce
1 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp white pepper
4 tbsp sliced spring onions
400g loh shee fun
For the garnish
a handful of sliced spring onions
a sprig of fresh coriander leaves
1 tsp fried garlic
Sauté the chopped garlic in oil and lightly brown. Add the minced chicken and break up into pieces with the back of a spoon. Season with soy sauces, oyster sauce, sugar and white pepper. Add some water and stew for 6 to 8 minutes. Add sliced spring onions and mix well.
Blanch loh shee fun and mix well with the minced chicken sauce. Garnish with sliced spring onions, coriander leaves and fried garlic.
Makes 6 to 8
For the filling
40g soaked dry shrimp
oil, for sautéing
300g julienned Chinese turnip
100g sliced shiitake mushrooms
100g deep-fried sliced hard tofu
light soy sauce to taste
sugar to taste
salt to taste
white pepper to taste
sesame oil to taste
For the dough
2 cups tapioca starch
4 tbsp glutinous rice flour
2 tbsp plain flour
3 tbsp corn oil
2 cups hot water
garlic oil, for brushing
To make the filling
Drain soaked shrimp and chop roughly. Sauté in oil until fragrant. Add turnip and shiitake mushrooms. Cook for 5 minutes.
Add in deep-fried tofu, season with light soya sauce, sugar, salt and white pepper to taste. Cover with water and braise until turnips are tender. Add in sesame oil. Once done, leave mixture to cool.
To make the dough
Combine all the ingredients (except garlic oil). Knead well into pliable dough (add more water, if necessary) and allow to cool.
To make soon pans
Once the soon pan dough has cooled, portion it into golf ball sizes, dust with some plain flour and roll out into circles. Place filling in centre and fold over and press the edges together.
Lightly brush soon pan skin with garlic oil and steam in bamboo steamer for 6 minutes. Serve hot.