The buzzword on the mouth of fervent foodies around the world is Malaysia. Prestigious travel site, Agoda.com, recently voted Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, number one in its Asia’s Fresh Destinations 2014 list, above other revered tourist havens like Mandalay in Myanmar, Lombok in Indonesia, and Osaka in Japan. The reasons for KK’s victory are plentiful – they include its stunning beaches, fascinating wildlife and of course, its excellent gastronomy, since visitors can freely indulge both in traditional Malaysian delights and in creative cuisine which reflects a myriad of international influences.
Meanwhile, in New York, word has it that the new ‘it place’ for trendy urbanites is Malaysian restaurant, Rasa, owned by Michelin-starred chef, Tommy Lai, and his sister, Camie. Here, guests tuck into everything from a tangy assam laksa to soul-soothing Malaysian cupcakes, curried wings and bite-sized curry puffs. Malaysian cuisine is tantalising taste buds around the world, owing in no small part to its sophisticated blend of Malay, Chinese and Indian culinary traditions (to name just a few - Thailand, Borneo, Portugal and many other nations have also made their mark). It’s not just all about flavour, though; savvy diners are aiming to do more than impress their palates, turning to Malaysian cuisine for the wealth of health benefits it affords. These are just a few of Malaysian cuisine’s most revered powerhouse ingredients:
- Tofu and Tempeh: Tofu is made by curdling fresh, hot soymilk, while tempeh is made by fermenting cooked soybeans. Both are excellent sources of protein (tofu contains around 10.1 grams of protein per ½ cup serving, and around 0.5 grams of fibre, while tempeh is even more nutritious, boasting 15.4 grams of protein per half cup serving and 3.5 grams of fibre for the same amount). These foods put to rest the myth that those on a vegetarian diet are missing out on vital protein. Kwikmed.org notes, “It is widely believed that when eating a vegetarian diet, you will struggle to obtain enough protein to meet your body’s needs, owing to a poor understanding of where protein comes from and the amount we actually need.” In fact, a study carried out by scientists from The National University of Malaysia (published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 2010) has proven that tempeh in particular offers excellent calcium bioavailability, making it an ideal food for those seeking to keep osteoporosis at bay. Additional benefits of tofu and tempeh (which are found in an array of Malaysian dishes, including ayam penyet) include their rich quotient of phytonutrients, which are key in fighting off free radicals, promoting cardiovascular health, and keeping cancer at bay.
- Chilli: A key ingredient in everything from beef rendang to sambal udang, chilli spices up our lives but also fights inflammation thanks to a substance it contains called capsaicin. Inflammation is a key process in heart disease in ageing, which is why it is so vital to combat it through our diet and lifestyle. Capsaicin is currently being studied as a possible treatment for sensory nerve fibre disorders and for relieving pain associated with inflammatory conditions like arthritis, psoriasis and diabetic neuropathy. It is already a recognized treatment for pain caused by osteoarthritis. Chilli has also been found to boost the immunity, lower the risk of contracting Type 2 diabetes, and prevent stomach ulcers. Capsaicin has likewise been found to halt the progress of prostate cancer.
- Ginger: Used in soups, salads and sauces, this aromatic, spicy underground treasure has a long history of alleviating gastrointestinal symptoms, since it helps the body rid itself of intestinal gas and relaxes the intestinal tract. Like chilli, ginger is a power anti-inflammatory – it is rich in compunds called gingerols, which have been proven to alleviate pain and/or swelling in arthritis patients. Ginger has also been proven to keep colorectal cancer at bay, to induce programmed cell death in ovarian cancer cells, and to boost the immunity.
- Garlic: Garlic, present in everything from curries to stir-fries and soups in Malaysian cuisine, promotes heart health by lowering blood triglycerides and cholesterol levels. It is also rich in a host of powerful sulphur compounds like allicin, which keep oxidative stress at bay. Garlic is also rich in Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, selenium and manganese, each of which exerts its own beneficial effects on heart health (Vitamin C, for instance, lowers cholesterol levels, while manganese keeps HDL (‘good cholesterol’ levels up).
We have mentioned just a few of Malaysian cuisine’s healthiest (and most flavourful) ingredients, though the list is endless – protein-packed prawns, antioxidant virgin coconut oil, phytochemical-rich curry blends (did you know that cumin alone can block the hormone actions and metabolic processes associated with the onset of cancer and heart disease?). Gourmets often hail Malaysian cuisine as uniquely flavourful, owing to the wealth of herbs and spices it contains, and it could well be this ample variety that also makes it one of the world’s healthiest cuisines.