Ethnic Pantry: Malaysia
Before exploring any ethnic cuisine in your own kitchen, it's essential to have a well-stocked pantry.
Here we'll describe some of the some key ingredients to keep in your Malaysian pantry. You can find most of these items at your local Asian grocer or from an online gourmet retailer.
To start, you'll need several varieties of noodles, including wide rice noodles and round egg noodles.
These noodles usually come dried, and you may need to soak or parboil them before cooking.
The round egg noodles resemble spaghetti, and the wide rice noodles may come in sheets, which you'll need to cut into noodles.
In terms of produce, some essentials include galangal, lemongrass, water spinach, kaffir lime leaves and Thai chiles.
Galangal looks a little like ginger but has a peppery, citrus aroma. You can usually find galangal fresh or frozen.
Lemongrass has a strong citrus flavor and can be found fresh in whole stalks or frozen. Be sure to throw away the root end of the woody stalk as well as the outer leaf.
Water spinach, which has a very delicate flavor, is perfect for stir-fries. Buy it fresh and wash the leaves carefully.
Kaffir lime leaves impart an amazingly fragrant citrus flavor to any dish, especially stir-fries. Try to get them fresh if you can, but don't worry if you can't find them - frozen kaffir lime leaves are perfectly acceptable.
Thai chiles, otherwise known as Thai bird peppers, are intensely hot little peppers. They are elongated and thin, usually only an inch or so in length. If you can't find Thai chiles, you can substitute 1/4 of a Scotch bonnet for a whole Thai chile.
Some other important Malaysian ingredients include tamarind concentrate, pandan leaves, kecap manis, tempeh and tofu.
Tamarind concentrate or paste can be found in jars in most Asian markets. Tamarind imparts a sour flavor and is used frequently in curries and chutneys.
Pandan leaves, otherwise known as screwpine, are often available fresh or dried. These leaves add a piney nuance to dishes.
Kecap manis is an Indonesian sweet soy sauce, sweetened by palm sugar. In addition to kecap manis, dark soy sauce is common in Malaysian dishes.
Tempeh is a formed cake made from whole or chopped fermented soybeans. It can be used in stir-fries or in stews and curries. Tempeh is crunchy and a little dense.
Tofu comes in many degrees of firmness, but firm tofu holds up the best in stir-fries. Tofu is available in the refrigerated section of just about any grocery store. Fried tofu can often substitute in Malaysian recipes that call for fried dough.
To achieve the most authentic flavors when cooking Malaysian cuisine, it's well worth it to seek out these unique ingredients.