Malaysian cuisine with Anis Nabilah
and her recipe for masak lemak daging salai

Market in Malaysia

Malaysia

Malaysia is one of the world’s 17 megadiverse countries: those that are home to a high total number of plant and animal species, a significant proportion of them endemic. However, its diversity stretches further than its biological composition; Malaysia is a multi-cultural country where people cook using many techniques and ingredients. TV chef Anis Nabilah is proud of the evolution of Malaysia’s varied cuisine, and she has one traditional dish in particular she wants to highlight: smoked beef in a spicy coconut curry, or masak lemak daging salai.

What food did you grow up eating?
“We have northern Indian/Pakistani influences in our family so I grew up with many curries, to such an extent that I didn’t want to eat a single curry again when I went to culinary school. You explore all these new ingredients, flavours and cuisines in culinary school, so my focus really shifted for a while, but I’ve turned back around; I really appreciate the curries again now.

“The curries I grew up with were not Indian or Pakistani style but a Malaysian adaptation. Every family has their own curry paste or spice blend and my family does too. Apart from common ingredients like garlic, ginger and onion, we use candlenuts [a waxy nut] and this thing that’s banned in certain countries called kas-kas [polished poppy seeds, banned in some countries as they’re derived from the opium plant].

“My late grandmother made the curry paste using a batu giling, which means something like ‘rolling stone’ in Malay. It’s a curved slab and rolling pin made of stone. You put all the ingredients on the slab and crush it with the pin. Not many people use it today, and when I tried the shallots flew everywhere. Using a mortar and pestle or mixer doesn’t give the same texture. I’m sad I cannot reproduce it!”

What made you want to become a chef?
“In the beginning I didn’t want to, because it wasn’t something people thought highly of. If you fail at everything else, you can always become a tugang masak [a cook]. I wanted to study law instead, but my mother said: why don’t you do something you love – cooking, for example? But I thought I didn’t want to grow old in the kitchen. Cooking was therapeutic for me and I didn’t want it to be my job instead. My mum said: do you know how many people hate their job? You’d be lucky to have your hobby as your job! I went to culinary school and fell in love with it already in the first week. I started cooking when I was nine, but actually learning about it is so different. You learn all the French terms, all the techniques, and I realised I could fuse my new knowledge with the culinary heritage of my family.”

Market in Malaysia

Good choice! What inspires you?
“I think that my travels contributed to my creative side, but I also feel blessed living in Malaysia where I can be inspired by so many different cultures and ethnicities. We are no longer segregated; everything is a mix. There’s not just the Chinese cuisine, Malay cuisine, Indian cuisine – everything is connected now, and everyone eats everything. You can still find the authentic foods but the things people make, buy or enjoy are a lot more diverse. That plays a part when I create recipes too.

“A recent dish that I was really happy with was a (I hate the word) fusion dish. I call it murtabak lasagne. Murtabak is a street food here in Malaysia, made using roti canai [a flaky flatbread]. The dough is stuffed with beaten eggs, spiced minced meat, chilli and onions. I created my own version of that dish using lasagne skins instead of the roti, and added cream and cheese to make it lasagne-like. It’s so good!”

What about non-fusion dishes, could you highlight a dish you love?
Rendang! [Meat, usually beef, stewed in coconut milk.] Some might argue it’s an Indonesian dish, and we’ll probably never truly know, but we’ve got many variations of rendang in Malaysia as well. It takes ages to make and has a hundred ingredients, but it’s super delicious. Some versions are really dry, others are saucier; some are spicier. But the one my mum makes is my favourite.

Murtabak

"Murtabak is a street food here in Malaysia, made using roti canai. The dough is stuffed with beaten eggs, spiced minced meat, chilli and onions."

Anis Nabilah

“She uses a lot of fresh ingredients. Onions, shallots, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, galangal. She then simmers the beef and flavourings together with the coconut milk, palm sugar, dried chilli paste and fresh chillies for 24 hours until it’s super tender. You can just cut the meat with a fork and it melts in your mouth.”

That sounds delicious! Which Malaysian ingredients do you hold dearest?
“There are so many, but I think I’d pick chillies if I had to choose. We’re not known for our chillies – the spiciest one we have here comes from Thailand, but we do use chillies in almost all of our dishes. For most dishes, we use dried chillies. They’re actually rather tricky to use.

“There’s a specific way to cook the dried chillies: you rehydrate them with a bit of water, then sauté in oil until all the water has evaporated. If you don’t do that, your chilli paste gets bitter. The sautéing is done when you see the oil separate from the chilli paste, and this takes different amounts of time for different chillies. In Malaysia, we always say: when you cook your curry or spice mix, make sure to sauté it properly to ensure it has the best taste. You see on western channels that they throw everything in a crock-pot and make a curry. I’m not sure that actually is curry unless it’s sauteed properly.”

Skyline of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Evgeny_V / Shutterstock.com

Are there many Malaysian ingredients that are difficult to get outside of Malaysia?
Belacan is an example, it’s our shrimp paste. They’ve got shrimp paste in Thailand, but it’s very different to ours. The one in Thailand is white, whereas ours is a super dark block of smelliness. Cincalok is another example, it’s a condiment made of fermented krill [small shrimps]. You don’t actually eat it like that, you mix it with lime juice, chopped chillies and shallots that you have with your rice."

You talked about the different types of cuisines in Malaysia, but are there many regional differences too?
“Yes. Malaysia is divided in states and every state has a different traditional cuisine. If you go to Kelantan or Terengganu, close to Thailand, you’ll see many Thai influences such as the use of coconut, lemongrass and many aromatics that you’ll usually find in Thai cuisine.

“Penang in the northwest, on the other hand, was an important spice trading post where many Indians settled. The dishes there are heavily influenced by Indian cuisine, but even by Dutch and Portuguese cuisine because of the colonial history. Many states also have unique dishes, of which masak lemak daging salai from Negeri Sebilan is a great example.”

Masak lemak daging salai

© norazlitaaziz.blogspot.com

The Dish

Yes, masak lemak daging salai! Why did you pick this dish?
“I love it so much. I’m a little obsessed with it because it’s such an amazing dish. Many dishes in Malaysia are influenced by other cuisines or other dishes, but I can safely say that this dish is truly Malaysian. You cannot find this anywhere else in the world.

”The easiest way to explain it is by deciphering the name. Masak lemak is used for dishes with coconut milk, daging means beef and salai means smoked. Smoked beef cooked in a spicy coconut curry!”

Do you know the history of this dish?
“Yes! And I love to share the story! The cool thing is that it happened completely by accident. Back in the days, beef was too expensive to eat often, so they would normally slaughter a cow during Eid or for weddings but you cannot slaughter a cow on the same have to do it a few days in advance. There were no refrigerators and Malaysia is a hot country, so you can’t just slaughter the cow and leave the meat in the sun for a few days. So what’s the best way of preserving? Cooking it! But instead of going to the jungle to look for wood, they figured: we might as well use coconut shells and husk. But what they didn’t realise is that coconut shells contain a lot of liquid. So it produces a lot more smoke, and it turned out to produce this amazing smoky, coconutty flavour. The meat is then sliced and braised in fresh spices. It was so good that they decided to stick with that process.”

That sounds amazing! What if coconut shells are hard to come by?
“You can also smoke the western way by adding woodchips to the barbecue and keeping the rest of the recipe the same. The taste won’t be as strong as when you do it the traditional way, but it’ll still be good. Just don’t use liquid smoke!”

Is it popular throughout the country now?
“It’s definitely a dish that is loved everywhere in Malaysia, but it’s a staple only in Negeri Sembilan where it originated. There are not many restaurants serving it, unfortunately. I don’t make it often, but if I do, I use up to eight kilos of meat so that it lasts a while!”

Are there other varieties? Maybe even vegetarian?
“It’s amazing with duck instead of beef. In Negeri Sembilan they even use fish; mackerel is a good choice. As for a vegetarian alternative: green/unripe jackfruit would definitely work, although I haven’t tried that.”

The Ingredients

1 kg
beef, chuck or topside, sliced with the grain into 1"/2.5cm thick slices
1
white or yellow onion, peeled
6
shallots, peeled
0.5
thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled
2.5 cm
piece of fresh turmeric, peeled
13-18
cili padi (bird's eye chillies)
1 bunch
fresh coriander, cleaned and roots removed
2-3
Garcinia Atroviridis (or sliced dried tamarind)
1-2
fresh turmeric leaves, tied in knot (optional)
4-6
(makrut) lime leaves
7.5 cm
galangal, bruised
500 ml
coconut milk
1.5 l
water
1 tbsp
turmeric (powder)
sugar
salt
1 kg
coconut husks and coconut shells (alternative: wood chips for smoking), soak a third of it overnight
2.2 lbs
beef, chuck or topside, sliced with the grain into 1"/2.5cm thick slices
1
white or yellow onion, peeled
6
shallots, peeled
0.5
thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled
1 in
piece of fresh turmeric, peeled
13-18
cili padi (bird's eye chillies)
1 bunch
fresh coriander, cleaned and roots removed
2-3
Garcinia Atroviridis (or sliced dried tamarind)
1-2
fresh turmeric leaves, tied in knot (optional)
4-6
(makrut) lime leaves
3 in
galangal, bruised
2 cups
coconut milk
6.5 cups
water
1 tbsp
turmeric (powder)
sugar
salt
2 lbs
coconut husks and coconut shells (alternative: wood chips for smoking), soak a third of it overnight

The Recipe

Total preparation time: 3 hours | Yield: 4 servings | Category: main

  1. Season beef with salt and turmeric powder and leave to marinate for half an hour in the fridge.
  2. Place dry coconut husks and shells in a BBQ pit and light it up. Once you get the fire going, place soaked coconut shells over. Smoke beef for 45 minutes to an hour or until cooked entirely. Slice smoked beef against the grain at 1cm thickness.
  3. In a blender add yellow onion, shallots, ginger, garlic, bird’s eye chillies and fresh turmeric with a splash of water. Blend to a fine paste.
  4. Pour the paste in a pot with the water and bring it to a simmer. Add smoked beef, dried tamarind, turmeric leaf, makrut lime leaf, lemongrass, coriander roots and galangal and simmer for half an hour to 45 minutes, adding more water if it dries up.
  5. Add in the coconut milk and coriander, and season with sugar and salt to taste. Serve with fragrant rice.
< American Mustard and turnip greens with smoked turkey Zambian Dry fish stew >