The author of ‘The Malaysian Kitchen’ was first fascinated with food as a child in Kuala Lumpur.
CHRISTINA AROKIASAMY’S tales are transporting, as when she talks about her childhood in Kuala Lumpur, picking fresh curry leaves on daily walks.
“Where I grew up, we had a vast yard with fruit trees,” she says. “Before harvest, the leaves would all grow out, and every part of the cinnamon tree or the jackfruit tree would smell sweet.
“I would be sleeping, and that soft whiff of sweet scent would brush against my window and, oh, you know it’s harvest time, you know it’s time the fruits are ripe.”
With recipes as evocative as her stories, it’s no wonder the Kent resident, a former chef at the Four Seasons in Thailand and Bali, was named Malaysia’s first “food ambassador” in 2013. The spice merchant’s daughter has shared culinary traditions through cookbooks (most recently “The Malaysian Kitchen,” $35, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Seattle-area cooking classes and shopping tours, a Cooking Channel show and travels.
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Alive with spices and fresh flavors, the cuisine is in short supply in this region (Kedai Makan on Capitol Hill and the Seattle Mamak food truck are welcome recent additions).
What is Malaysian food?
“Many cultures in a spoonful” is Arokiasamy’s short answer. Located on the spice route, the Southeast Asian country has been influenced by colonizers, traders and settlers over the years, absorbing flavors from Portugal to India to China to England and beyond. Cultures cross over in dishes such as Arokiasamy’s Kam Heong clams, containing both curry powder and oyster sauce.
“A dish so rich, so aromatic and flavorful in your mouth … but you would never find this in India, and you would never find this if you went back to China,” she says.
“Everybody was borrowing from each other’s cupboards and concocting all these unending culinary creations.”
Along with “simple home cooking” recipes and essays on ingredients, Arokiasamy’s latest book charts the flavor properties and health benefits of Malaysian seasonings, from nutty, cream-colored candlenuts to the “citrus and rose” scent of galangal to sour tamarind pods. Years ago, it was difficult to find her favorite ingredients in the United States; now readers can mail-order them all if they don’t live near Seattle’s wealth of markets.
Spices, to her, reach far beyond a bottle on the shelf. Cinnamon is the small evergreen tree whose bark was cut by skilled workers who “painstakingly rolled them into long pipes” and left them to dry in the sun.
“If the cinnamon could tell you a story, it would tell you of how that brown stick the world knows as cinnamon is beyond cinnamon itself,” she says. “It is healing for health … great in chai teas, sautéed in butter or oil, a beautiful starting flavor for layering your pilafs …
“Every ingredient, I feel, has a story to tell.”
Sweet Mango and Cashew Salad with Chili-Lime Dressing
¼ cup fresh lime juice
3½ teaspoons liquid palm sugar or honey
1 fresh bird’s eye chili, finely chopped
1 teaspoon salt or 2 teaspoons fish sauce
3 ripe mangoes (preferably golden Philippine mangoes), peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
¼ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
¼ cup roasted unsalted cashews
2 tablespoons fried shallots
1. Prepare the dressing by combining the lime juice, palm sugar or honey, chili, and salt or fish sauce in a small bowl, stirring well to blend the flavors.
2. Combine the mango and cilantro in a large bowl. Pour in the dressing, and toss to mix well. Toss in the cashews and fried shallots, mix well and serve.
To make palm sugar: Place a 17-ounce block of palm sugar in a small pot with 1 cup water, and bring to a boil over medium heat without stirring. After about 20 minutes (do not stir while it is boiling), the sugar should be completely melted. You will see large bubbles appearing on the surface, and the sugar will appear thicker. Cool and pour into a glass jar. It will keep in the refrigerator up to three months.
To make fried shallots: Combine 1 teaspoon salt and 1 cup water in a medium bowl. Add ½ pound shallots, and soak for five minutes to soften the skin and make peeling easier. Drain the shallots; dry them thoroughly on paper towels or a clean dishcloth. Peel and thinly slice. Place a wok or skillet over medium-high heat. When the wok is hot, add 1 cup peanut oil or extra-virgin olive oil. Add the shallots, and fry until golden brown and crisp, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove shallots with a slotted spoon, and allow to cool on a paper towel. Store shallots with one-quarter of the oil in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to three months.
From “The Malaysian Kitchen”