PETALING JAYA: Along with Malay and Indian food, Chinese food is one of the cornerstones of Malaysian cuisine.
From simple roadside stalls to fancy seafood restaurants, Malaysian Chinese food offers a great variety of flavours, certain to satisfy almost everyone’s taste.
Just like the local Chinese community, the cuisine has taken on a life of its own over the centuries and developed unique flavours that can only be found within Malaysia’s borders.
Some common Malaysian Chinese dishes are, in fact, a foreign concept to people from China, who flock to food lover hot spots such as Ipoh in Perak, and George Town in Penang, just for a taste.
What are these dishes that have a truly Malaysian identity?
1. Yee Sang
Better known by its Cantonese name than the Mandarin “yusheng”, Yee Sang is synonymous with Chinese New Year celebrations in Malaysia.
A Cantonese dish, it is often described as a vegetable salad of sorts with strips of fish, crackers and sauce tossed into the mix.
An important tradition first observed by Malaysian Chinese, and now by Malaysians of all races, involves diners tossing the ingredients into the air while wishing everyone good luck for the new year.
Tradition has it that the higher one tosses the Yee Sang, the more luck they can expect in the coming year.
Yee Sang is one of those dishes at the centre of the cultural food war between Malaysians and Singaporeans – it was invented by either a Seremban man or a Singaporean restaurant, depending on who one is talking to.
2. Bak Kut Teh
The name of this Hokkien dish means “meat bone tea” and it is made with pork ribs simmered in a savoury herbal soup. It is often served in a clay pot. The soup consists of a variety of herbs and spices, including star anise, cinnamon, cloves and garlic.
Often eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner or supper, Bak Kut Teh is frequently served with fried dough strips called You Char Kway.
Klang locals often claim that the royal town is the birthplace of Bak Kut Teh and, unsurprisingly, Bak Kut Teh stalls are abundant there.
While some suggest that a Chinese doctor invented the dish, others subscribe to the theory that Bak Kut Teh was a cheap but healthy dish served to Hokkien dock workers.
3. Ipoh White Coffee
A popular drink throughout Malaysia, Ipoh White Coffee is a part of Ipoh’s history and is just one of the many delicacies the city offers.
It is said to have been invented by Hainanese migrants who enhanced Western coffee to suit their own taste. Legend has it, they forced themselves to drink coffee while making business deals with Westerners and found the drink a little hard to swallow.
By slowly roasting coffee beans in margarine, they came up with a coffee with a distinctly strong aroma that can be detected from a good distance away. It is traditionally served with condensed milk.
The taste of Ipoh White Coffee is the result of mixing different types of coffee beans, resulting in a smooth coffee.
4. Char Kuey Teow
It’s greasy. It’s delicious. It’s popular. And it’s a dietician’s nightmare. A particularly beloved dish in Malaysia and Singapore, Char Kuey Teow consists of flat rice noodles fried in a hot wok in soy sauce with chilli paste, prawns, cockles, beansprouts, eggs and fishcake. It is often served on top a banana leaf, which is supposed to enhance the aroma.
It used to be a cheap dish to feed blue-collar workers, and its high fat content gave them energy to get through the day.
Penang, in particular, is famous for its Char Kuey Teow and it is common for Malaysians from other states to make the pilgrimage to the state to get a plate for themselves.
5. Hainanese Chicken Rice
Hainanese Chicken Rice is yet another dish that is in the middle of a culinary tug of war between Malaysians and Singaporeans. The only thing they agree on is its Hainanese origins.
The Hainanese are one of the smaller southern Chinese groups who, like their Cantonese and Hokkien counterparts, migrated to Malaya during colonial times.
They were particularly known for their culinary skills and it was common for Hainanese to open a restaurant or become a personal chef in a Western household.
Served with poached, steamed or roast chicken, Hainanese chicken rice is almost always garnished with cucumber, together with a side of chicken liver or roast pork.
Chicken rice balls are a special variant of the dish that can mostly be found in Melaka and Johor.