“The Food Of Malaysia”

When I started thinking about this cookbook giveaway project, I didn’t realize that it would be an exercise in grief.  Not that I’m so attached to the pages themselves, it’s all about what they represent to me.

This beautiful mango pudding didn’t come from “The Food of Malaysia: Authentic Recipes From The Crossroads Of Asia,”  although it very well could have.  Nor did I test it for you today.  It’s been a long time since I made it, and I’ll most likely never make it again.  Just as I’ll never again make anything from this lovely book.

I picked up this book today because just looking at it gave me a swift and sharp craving for Malaysian food.  I’m used to doing a lot of vicarious traveling with food, and I love shopping in little hole in the wall stores where not all of the food is labelled in English, taking home my mystery ingredients and whipping up a dish that transports me instantly to places I’ve never been.  Malaysian food is perfect for that, it’s exotic, savory, intriguing, full of umami, and sadly, sweet.  Every single recipe has sugar, or starch, most often both.  Leafing through the book makes me realize that now I can never visit Malaysia.  There would be nothing at all for me to eat.  It makes me cry to hear that door slam.  I wonder what Malaysian diabetics do eat?

It’s true that the book has a daunting list of ingredients: candlenuts, cloud ear fungus, daun kesum, ikan bilis, pandan leaf, belacan. Fortunately, living near Seattle, I can find those things.  What puts me off though, and why you may have this book if you’d like it,  is the sugar. Lots of the recipes contain no more that a teaspoon, or a tablespoon, of the stuff, so someone might admonish me to just leave it out.  But no, Asian cooking is predicated on the balance of subtle flavors, and even a teaspoon of sugar will transform a dish.

Someone else might admonish me that a few grains of sugar or a bit of rice aren’t going to hurt me.  And they might be right.  But as I think we all know, that’s a slippery slope, one I’m not inclined to step onto.  And so for now, and maybe forever, no Malaysian food for me.  No Thai food, my hands-down favorite cuisine in the world.  No Japanese food and precious little Chinese food.

I could keep the book, and others based on the forbidden cuisines, hoping that someday my world might change and I’d be able to plunge back into these favorite foods.  Just like deep in the garage I have a box of clothes that are too small, kept in case I’d ever be able to wear them again.  Some of those garments I’ve had for 20 years, without being able to bear giving them up.  Hope dies an aching, invisible death.  So which is better, to fan the flames with constant reminders, or to just walk away?

But on a more practical note, my bookcases are overflowing, and if Malaysian food speaks to you like it does to me, don’t be afraid of this book.  There are stories about the various cuisines that have come together in ethnically diverse Malaysia to create its special food, pictures and explanations of ingredients and techniques, nice pictures of the finished dishes, everything you need to get started. If you live in a small town without access to Asian ingredients this probably isn’t the book for you, because the ingredients are pretty hardcore.  But if you’re brave and have a good Asian market near you, have at it, it’s well worth it.

If you’re ready for a trip to Malaysia, just leave a comment saying so.  If several people would like this book, I’ll put your names in a mixing bowl, give them a good stir, and draw one.  I’ll send it to you and I’ll ask you to pay for the postage, if you can, via PayPal.  For security and anti-spam reasons, please don’t put your email address or snail mail address in the Comments section.  When you comment I see your email address and I’ll contact you soon if I draw your name.  Give this book a good home, make something delicious from it, and I’ll be happy.

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10 Comments on ““The Food Of Malaysia””

  1. Judy Kroon Says:

    That seems like a wonderful book, I would love to own it. We were in Singapore this winter, but didn’t have time to make a trip into Malaysia. From what I have read Malaysia (especially Penang) is “the new Singapore” as far as quality street food. It is so sad that you cannot eat the food.
    I love your blog, your writing and photos are fabulous. Sorry it took a book to get me to comment.

  2. Wolfgang Says:

    No Sushi, you got to be kidding?
    I understand Tempura is a no no !

    The Malayian food I got made by a native was not really sweet and rich with carbohydrates, in fact it was chicken and not fat at all but so spicy hot that I guess the beer added the calories 😉

    Since we got no decent Asia deli/supermarket with fresh produccts here, the next is based in Frankfurt 60 miles away, reluctantly I pass this round.

    Cordialemnt W

  3. Debra Lane Says:

    Abra, I know you don’t want to hear this but taking diabetic meds and being enjoying fruit and the occasional sweet is not a horrible thing. To me, living my life being denied such pleasures like a ripe nectarine in summer or the heavy perfume of a fresh fig is almost like losing a limb. You are a stronger person than I am apparently!

  4. Abra Bennett Says:

    But Deb, I’m taking meds and they’re not doing anything appreciable. That’s why I don’t eat what you do. YMMV is the watchword of diabetes. Sad but true..

  5. Tamara Says:

    Abra – I think you hit on something really interesting….what do diabetics in Malaysia, or in any of those hot, sour, salty, sweet countries (or the people who love their food) eat? Are there books to help them? Are they available in translation?

    PS Please put me in the hat. Malaysia has long been one of our fantasies.

  6. Abra, I would love to have that book. I make lots and lots of Asian food. It would a great addition to my collection of Asian cookbooks.

  7. heidih Says:

    Thank you for sharing your cookbooks. I was making a SE Asian inspired marinade yesterday and dropped the garlic mid peel to run and call a friend whose 18 year old with a peanut allergy is going to Thailand, Phillipines and Singapore in a few weeks. I do not think she had any idea how peanuts sneak in everywhere and yes, sugar or starch as well. When I divorced a few years ago I took all the Amex points and took my son to Singapore (safest for single woman and child I thought though Malaysia and Thailand called to me) for 3 days. We live in Los Angeles! People thought I was insane but it was worth it. I would treasure the book.

  8. Nancy Says:

    How many of us hang on to the evidence of old dreams, reluctant to let them go? Just last night I had friends over for dinner and drinks – nothing special, but it was an excuse to break out some of the good glassware. As I was putting it away later I realized that I have dishes and glassware to throw a party far larger than my house will accommodate. And yet – I don’t want to give up that dream of big feasts, parties, spontaneous gatherings.

    And yes, there are the clothes that I may never again wear….

    I do not want my name in this particular hat, but I do want to thank you for yet another evocative blog entry.

  9. Anis Laila Says:

    The hotel in Malaysia where I stayed served some really delicious Malay food and I did pick up a couple of cookbooks to try out at home. The main problem is getting fresh ingredients.

  10. Elly Says:


    I came across your entry on Malaysian food… thing is, not all recipes should have sugar in it (though I wonder which recipe you’re referring to) but I was taught recently of my favourite dish ‘ikan bilis goreng dengan bawang’ (fried anchovies with onion).
    I would usually prepare the anchovies and chopped red onions fried with a pinch of salt, but a friend of mine taught me to add a pinch of sugar (in her case a spoonful of sugar!) which turned out well! Instead of soggy and dry, my humble dish ‘caramalised’ and tasted better than the origional =)

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