Chinese culture is highly diverse, and this also applies to culinary traditions. The Malaysian Chinese community can be divided into several cultural subgroups; the largest being the Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese, Teochew and Hainanese.
Each of these subgroups has its own cuisine and unique style of cooking and delicacies.
Here are the cuisines of the five biggest Malaysian Chinese subgroups:
The Hainanese are one of the smaller subgroups from southern China. They were also relatively late arrivals to Malaysia.
These Hainanese settlers created some of the most loved dishes that many Malaysians still enjoy today.
However, it should be noted that Hainanese food in Malaysia differs completely from Hainanese food in China. Hainan is an island off the southwest coast of China and seafood is a staple there, garnished with minimal oil or spices.
By the time Hainanese migrants arrived in Malaya, the tin mines and rubber plantations were dominated by bigger Chinese subgroups.
Hence, many chose to work as chefs in British colonial households, creating their own unique style of cooking, combining Western preferences with Hainanese traditional cuisine.
From this was born Hainanese chicken chops, Hainanese bread and Hainanese chicken rice – all uniquely Malaysian delights.
More than one-fifth of the Malaysian Chinese population are Hakka, and their cuisine can largely be described as simple but tasty.
Hakka meat dishes must have three principle flavours – salty, fatty and fragrant. Meat dishes are often stewed, fried or braised and the dishes are often described as aromatic with a delicious taste.
Staples of the Hakka cuisine include rice, pork, bean curd and soy sauce while favoured preservatives and flavourings include rice wine, ginger, garlic and salt.
Steamed meats are often served alongside preserved vegetables, which further enhances the variety of flavours one can get in a single meal.
Hakka cooks value the skill of cooking meat to complete tenderness without changing its natural taste.
Lei Cha is a dish that is unique to the Hakka and it can be described as a salad of vegetables and beans served in a bowl of tea.
The Cantonese form the third largest subgroup and mainly live in the Klang Valley and Ipoh, Perak.
Generally, Cantonese cuisine refers to food not only from Guangzhou (formerly Canton), but also Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong and Macau.
Steaming and stir-frying are the favoured cooking methods and a dish must have balanced flavours.
Roast meats are also a Cantonese speciality, as evidenced by roast duck and roast pork being must-haves at banquets.
Unlike certain other Chinese cuisines, herbs and spices are used sparingly, with sauces and pastes being favoured instead.
Notably, preserved foods are a Cantonese mainstay, sometimes combined with fresh food to enhance the taste of a dish.
Chinese sausages and century eggs are perfect examples of these preserved Cantonese foods, as are dried shrimps and salted duck eggs.
Seafood is also an important part of Cantonese cuisine, with the freshest of seafood almost always being steamed and requiring minimal seasoning.
Due to their geographical proximity to Hokkien and Cantonese-dominated regions, the Teochew people of the Chaoshan region have a cuisine that is influenced by their neighbours.
Teochew love seafood and vegetarian dishes, using the freshest and high-quality ingredients to get the most flavour out of them.
Steaming, stir-frying and braising are the favoured methods of cooking, and porridge is particularly prominent in Teochew cuisine.
In most Chinese cuisines, several ingredients are used specifically because their names or shapes have an auspicious meaning behind them. For this reason, leeks hold an important place in Teochew cooking, as their name is homophonic to the Teochew word that means “to count”.
Hence, to the Teochew, leeks signify a blessing of good fortune with much wealth to be counted.
Tieguanyin tea is also a common sight in authentic Teochew restaurants, notable for its thick bittersweet taste that helps to cleanse the palate.
Interestingly, Teochew restaurants are also likely to have a dessert section on their menus, unlike most other Chinese subgroups.
The Hokkiens are the largest Chinese subgroup in the country and their cuisine is a prominent part of local cuisine. Typically, Hokkien cuisine favours lighter flavours with a strong fondness for soups and stews.
There is even a traditional saying that goes, “It is unacceptable for a meal to not have soup.”
This fondness can be seen in one of the highlights of Malaysian Hokkien food, Bak Kut Teh, a non-halal herbal soup of pork ribs.
Another favourite soup, with the extraordinary name of Buddha Jumps over the Wall, also has Hokkien origins.
An important rule in the Hokkien kitchen is how the flavour of the individual ingredients used in making the dishes should be maintained throughout the cooking process.
Perhaps this explains popiah, a Hokkien dish that involves minimal cooking and relies on the freshness of the ingredients to give the dish its taste.