Mistress of spices brings Malaysian food to S.F. 

click to enlarge Aromatic spices are central in cooking Malaysian food. - COURTESY CHLOE JACKMAN PHOTOGRAPHY
  • COURTESY CHLOE JACKMAN PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Aromatic spices are central in cooking Malaysian food.
Move over Chinese food and step aside Thai cuisine – there's a new spice in town and it's ready for its close up on your dinner table.

According to the National Restaurant Association, Malaysian cuisine is one of the trending flavors, especially in bigger cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. So popular, in fact, the first ever Malaysian food ambassador to the U.S., Christina Arokiasamy, a Seattle-based chef and author, was appointed last year by the Malaysian government and the Malaysian External Trade Development Corporation.

Charged with whetting the country's appetite for a cuisine that is flavorful, accessible, and easier than you think to prepare at home, Arokiasamy was recently at San Francisco's Betelnut on Union Street and shared insights and tips on Malaysian food and preparing it at home.

What are the key flavors and ingredients in Malaysian cuisine?

Traditional Malaysian cuisine is a unique melting pot of Malay, Indian, Chinese and Nonya cultures. Spices and aromatics such as turmeric, coriander, cardamom, cumin and chilies infuse Malaysian dishes to create a complex, deeply layered flavor palate.

What does the taste of Malaysian conjure up for you?

Malaysian cuisine is a taste of home and family. The spices are in my blood. My mother was a spice merchant and my father an Ayurvedic physician. As a little girl, this is all I knew. The merchants in the central market, my mother's spices, the bins of lentils with their chains of garlic hanging over them. The chatter of the merchants, the incense: It's a magical kingdom, the kingdom of spices. It was my Disneyland.

Do you have a favorite dish from childhood?

My family's Cardamom Butter Pilaf with Cashews and Raisins is a favorite because it has been in my family for generations. The cardamom-scented butter coats the rice like perfume. It's quick and easy to prepare, and the buttered rice pilaf recipe goes well with fried chicken or fish or curried dishes. The contrasting colors make me feel as though I have fed my eyes before my mouth.

What are some other traditional or modern Malaysian dishes?

Roti canai (flatbread with curry), curry laksa (coconut curry spicy noodle soup), and ayam goreng (turmeric curry spiced fried chicken), amongst others.

You recently chose Betelnut to for a cooking demonstration. Why there?

Malaysian cuisine is still a burgeoning flavor profile at restaurants. Betelnut spotlights traditional and modern dishes that appeal to diners. Chef Mario (Tolentino) crafts dishes that are approachable for those both familiar and unfamiliar with Malaysian cuisine, and the décor also reminds me of a few cafés in Kuala Lumpur.

What essential ingredients should we stock in our pantries if we want to try Malaysian cooking?

Curry leaves, lemongrass, cardamom, turmeric, star anise. They are so fragrant and these ingredients are also recognized for their health benefits, from lowering cholesterol to anti-cancer properties.

Any tips on where to buy these key ingredients in San Francisco?

Visit your local Asian market or grocery store (there are plenty in San Francisco). Places such as Whole Foods and Cost Plus World Market are also great for spices and Malaysian meal starters such as Brahim's curries, and other sauces and marinades. And Malaysian breakfast staple, Roti Canai, can often be found in the frozen section of major grocery stores.

What will surprise readers to learn about Malaysian cuisine?

Malaysian cuisine uses a lot of spices to develop layered flavors, but unlike other Southeast Asian cuisines, is not spicy hot. Americans tend to think that certain Southeast Asian ingredients such as lemongrass, ginger and tamarind are associated with Thai food, but they are also the stars of Malaysian cuisine. You'll be surprised at how the same ingredients create such a unique flavor profile.

For online recipes and ingredients, visit www.malaysiakitchen.us.

Bay Area restaurants

Betelnut: 2030 Union St., S.F.; www.betelenutrestaurant.com

Kopitiam Café: 1535 Landess Ave., #147, Milpitas; www.kopi-cafe.com

Layang Layang: 1480 South De Anza Blvd., San Jose; www.layanglayang.us

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