Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Malaysian-Indian food experience

On of the things I love about food is its cultural significance and history. The story of food is also the story of its people. When legendary gastronome Jean Brillat-Savarin said "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are", he was on to something.
While 3 meals can hardly represent the several million Malaysians of subcontinental ancestry, you can learn a lot about people from their food. In a single day, I took a journey through Indian food in Malaysia, exploring the diversity of this cuisine in the peninsula.

Which is really just a fancy way of saying I stuffed my big fat face and am now trying to justify it on anthropological grounds. Here goes:


When it comes to Western breakfasts - porridge, cereal, toast with jam, etc - they're okay once in a while, but none that I would like to eat every single day. Toasted cheese sandwiches, perhaps, but generally speaking, breakfast in the Western world is not an overly exciting idea.
But if I had to eat one breakfast combo every day, the only one I think I could choose would be Malaysian: roti chanai with dhal and curry sauce, accompanied by a hot frothy mug of teh tarik. Purchased at your local mamak joint for a measly RM3 or less (about US$1) and whipped up in a jiffy, it's a great way to start the day.

That said, regular consumption of said meal has not helped my waistline at all. But I'm on holiday, dammit.

This is a quintessentially Malaysian dish, but definitely not Malay. It's roots are clearly Indian, yet you won't find it in India, exactly.

Roti chanai and teh tarik are the best-known examples of mamak cuisine. The term mamak (from the Tamil word for "uncle") refers to Indian Muslims who migrated to Malaysia over the last couple of hundred years. As they were mostly male, there was considerable intermarriage with Malay women. Mamak food reflects these origins, with some Chinese influence creeping in as well. Murthaba (a roti chanai filled with mutton, egg and onions) is typical of this cuisine, while the nomenclature of Indian mee goreng says it all: an Indianized take on a Malay dish which has Chinese origins. Mamak stalls have developed a culture of their own, and congregating there until the wee hours is one of the most common pastimes for young Malaysians.

The roti chanai itself (or roti prata in Singapore) is a flaky and delicious flatbread, made from white flour and laden with more grease than you want to think about. (If its not oily enough, you can always order roti planta, which is roti with ghee or margarine poured over it.) The term chanai (or more properly canai) means to knead in Malay, but some believe that the name actually refers to the Indian city of Chennai (Madras), from where so many Malaysian Indians ultimately hail. One of the pleasures of ordering roti chanai is watching the chef prepare it, flipping and twirling the dough to achieve its characteristic texture. Youtube has plenty of videos if you care to watch it.

Teh tarek (literally, pulled tea) and its close cousin the ginger-laced teh halia also is clearly Indian in origin but with a telltale Southeast Asian twist: condensed milk. There has never been much of a dairy industry in the region, so milk-in-a-can flavours your tea and coffee from Vietnam to Thailand to Indonesia. Its sickly sweetness is balanced by the strength of the tea. Well, a bit. The term tarek (to pull) refers to the theatrical pouring from jug to jug in order to mix and aerate the tea. Unfortunately many places are trying to get away with packet-mix teh tarek these days. It's sad.

Roti with curry, and a mug of condensed milk with some tea in it. Utterly delicious, cheap, and the best way in the world to begin your day. Particularly if your day is going to involve a mid-morning nap.


The vast majority of Malaysian Indians are from South India - principally Tamils, with Malayalees a distant second. While the mamak phenomenon stems from Muslim Tamils, the Hindu majority Tamils have given Malaysia another culinary tradition - the banana leaf meal. Served traditionally on a banana leaf, or less traditionally on a green plate masquerading as a banana leaf, it starts with a big helping of rice, with a wide variety of curries, largely vegetarian, arranged around it. Papadams, pickles, fried chilies and yoghurt complete the picture. You can eat this with utensils if you must, but it marks you out as a tourist. The right hand is a far better option, with the added bonus that it makes the meal more memorable (since your hand will reek of it for the rest of the day).

In the myriad of things that appear on your plate, or should I say leaf, all are very tasty without really standing out from the pack. It's all about the dizzying array of ingredients, subtle flavour combinations, and not-so-subtle chili kick, that make it an impressive overall meal. Kinda like a team with no star player but great chemistry.

While being very authentically South Indian, there are still touches that remind you that you're still in Southeast Asia. Vegetables like Chinese cabbage and oyster mushrooms turn up frequently, as do Chinese-style mock meats; yet all cooked Indian-style.

There are restaurants serving this kind of food everywhere; my personal favourite is Restoran Sri Kortumalai Pillayar (215, Jln Tun Sambathan) in Brickfields, central KL's Indian heartland.


Punjabis and Sindhis are a smaller but significant part of Malaysia's Indian community. While the more obvious north Indian dishes - tandoori chicken, biryani, naan bread - can be found at every mamak, to experience real north Indian food in Malaysia requires a bit more sniffing around. This is in contrast to Australia, where 99% of Indian restaurants are north Indian.

This sniffing around led us to Sagar Restaurant (One Bangsar, Jln Ara, Bangsar Baru, 59100 KL), which my Punjabi friend Jeevna recommends as one of the very top north Indian joints in KL.

Sniffing around is about right, because upon alighting from our car across the road, the heady smell of kasuri methi (dried fenugreek leaves) and tandoor smoke is everywhere. It is this smell which soon attached itself to my clothes and seeped from my armpits until the following day. It's also expensive, moreso than any Indian place in Australia. But it was well, well worth it. For Sagar is the best Indian food I have ever tasted. Admittedly I've never been to India, but I've still eaten enough of the stuff to know my kachoris from my pudina paranthas.

Their menu is massive and features things you don't often see in your average Indian restaurant. Forget mango lassi; try instead an apple lassi, or a Kashmiri lassi with dried fruit and crushed nuts. The tawa pindi (ladies fingers stuffed with masala and pan-fried) were delicious and different, while their exhaustive selection of paneer (cottage cheese) dishes is a highlight. Their black pepper paneer was hands-down the best dish I ate in my two weeks in Malaysia, and that's saying a lot; while my better half claims to have dreams about the chicken tikka roll.

North Indian food seems to be more swanky, special-occasion food in comparison to the cheap, ubiquitous south Indian and mamak joints; this reflects not just the smaller north Indian population, but also perhaps the comparatively wealthier status of northerners in Malaysia.

While there is clearly some overlap between these three culinary traditions, they are worlds apart in some aspects. Mamak stalls with their Arab and Malay influences, based largely around meat and carbs; south Indian cuisine, heavily rice-and-vegetable-focused, blisteringly spicy; and north Indian, with its rich gravies and smoky delights from the tandoor oven. When people blithely regard Indian food as little more than "curry", they are missing a whole lot.


For more on food in Malaysia, try:


  1. Excellent write up. You sure do have a style of narrating.

    I just chanced upon this article while browzing on a laid back sunday evening.. (well U can't do much while it is raining outside...and browzing was certainly better than listening to the chattering of better half).

    My escapades have taken me around a bit.. Middle East, Africa, Europe, North America.. but not beyond Thailand ,Singapore on the east.. And I enjoy food too..So your write up was indeed very informative and induced me to read more on your blog.

    Keep up the good job mate. All the best

    Los Angeles

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

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  4. It was great to get familiar with the cuisines in Malaysia specially the North Indian Platter. Indian food is definitely more than it' curries. You would be happy to know that Indian restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney in Australia for example lists around 230 Indian restaurants. I am happy to know that Indian food is making it's part in every nook and corner of the world.

  5. Hi,

    You can find roti canai in india..its called paratha