By now, I hope many of you are more familiar with Malaysian cooking and have a well-stocked cupboard of Malaysian staples to supply the arsenal of delicious and simple Malaysian dishes at your disposal. (If not, you've got some revising to do! Go read my old blog posts and recipes.) But of course, variety is the spice of life, and I can't expect you to cook Malaysian food for every meal. However, even if you cook Malaysian meals only occasionally, Malaysian ingredients should find a happy home in your kitchen as you find ways to work them into your culinary repertoire – regardless of what sort of cuisine you usually cook.
Take kecap manis and kecap masin, for instance. I often think of these two Malaysian soy sauces as a duo of superheroes, like the Batman and Robin of flavour, here to save food from the perils of blandness. Used in conjunction, they add an incredible depth of flavour to a wide range of foods; salty, umami tang from the lighter kecap masin, and a rich, deep sweetness from the kecap manis. Add a few teaspoons of both to stews, ragouts, or pies, and see what a difference they make. With a clove or two of garlic and some fresh herbs, they also make a stupid-simple marinade for meat – they're especially good with pork – and lend an intriguing, moreish, savoury quality to all manner of stocks, soups, and sauces. A bit of both in your spaghetti bolognese isn't going to win you any authenticity points with Italian mammas, but it will win you big flavour points with your family. And the almost treacle-like sweetness of kecap manis even works in desserts, underlining the richness of chocolate brownies or salt caramel sauce.
Then there are the aromatics. Kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, galangal, chilli, tamarind, and curry powders are what give Malaysian food so much of its complexity and irresistible fragrance, and they can have the same effect on your everyday cooking. Lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf freeze well, and can be thawed out quickly to lend another dimension of flavour to all kinds of dishes – simply add a few pieces to your stock when you make a risotto, or infuse into milk to make pannacotta, crème brûlée, or custard. Or you can create a devilish homemade liqueur by infusing them for a week or two into some vodka with sugar (Malaccan palm sugar if you have it), to be served straight from the freezer as an aperitif or digestif at a dinner party or barbecue. The sweet and sour tang of tamarind makes a perfect ingredient for simple vinaigrettes or seafood marinades (fantastic on prawn kebabs), and curry powders can be rubbed directly onto your meat for a Sunday roast or dusted over potatoes as they come out of the oven. Malaysian herbs and spices may seem like they only belong in Malaysian dishes, but in actuality their applications are limitless. All you need is a little creativity.
I must also mention belacan. With its tremendously pungent aroma, belacan may strike you as a difficult ingredient to work with. But when it's cooked, that pungency transforms into a mellow yet intense base note of umami, amplifying the inherent savouriness of meaty dishes. One of my favourite ways to use belacan is to mash it up with a little vegetable oil until it forms a workable paste, which I rub into the surface of steak or lamb before grilling or frying. The strong, deep flavour of the shrimp paste marries beautifully to the richness of the meat for an exquisitely lush and satisfying mouthful. A little belacan added to the cooking oil will also add leagues of flavour to stir fries and fried rice, as well as simple pasta dishes like vongole or puttanesca – use it as you would anchovies.
One of my favourite things about learning about Malaysian food has been finding new, exciting ingredients that I can use to enhance my cooking or come up with new dishes altogether. Having a good stockpile of Malaysian ingredients on hand is of course useful for making authentic Malaysian food, but you may be surprised at just how versatile they are in all kinds of cookery.
Trust your senses and don't be afraid to experiment!