NEW YORK Southeast Asian chef and author Christina Arokiasamy likes to say that when the flavors dance, that’s Malaysia, and she’s on a mission to awaken palates to the unique pleasures of her native cuisine.
“Americans tell me they love the Asian flavors of India, Japan and Vietnam but they don’t know what Malaysian is and now they're discovering it,” she said after a tasting event in New York.
Last year the Malaysian government appointed the 46-year-old, who was born in Kuala Lumpur, trained in Bali and Thailand and now lives in Seattle, Washington, their food ambassador to the United States.
Arokiasamy, who wrote the part memoir, part cookbook “The Spice Merchant’s Daughter,” spoke about Malaysia’s melting-pot cuisine, the ginger and lemongrass growing in her garden in Malaysia where she also has a home, and how Asians will travel for good peanut sauce.
Q: How did you learn to cook?
A: I trained in Bali, Indonesia, at the Four Seasons and in Thailand, at the Four Seasons as well ... but my mother was the best culinary artist I could ever find in the whole wide world and taught me everything I needed to know about the underpinnings of our cuisine. She was a spice merchant and she could whip up any spice you could imagine as if she had a wand.
Q: Why did the Malaysian government appoint you food ambassador to the United States?
A: Marriage brought me to the United States. While I was writing my book I had a cooking school in Seattle, Washington ... I have taught everybody, from mothers to CEOs, to cook Malaysian foods and understand the underpinnings, which is why the government of Malaysia came to me.
Q: What makes Malaysian cuisine unique?
A: Malaysia is beautifully situated. For over 500 years seafarers, missionaries and other travelers passed this peninsula on the way to their destination and many broke the journey there. Ships converged and bartered, sharing ingredients they carried, so spices were going from Chinese ships to English ships. Then came the colonizations: in 1611 the Portuguese, in 1641 the Dutch and then in 1824 to 1957 the British. This area has had so many different cultures coming together ... When you’re tasting a dish from Malaysia you are really tasting a melting pot of these cultures coming together in one cuisine.
Q: Why do spices play such a large role in Malaysian cuisine?
A: Tucked between Thailand and Singapore, Malaysia was the spice Mecca of the world. Even Christopher Columbus came searching for the spices.
Q: What grows in your Malaysian garden?
A: If you walk into my garden you understand you are walking into a little green spa. In my area you would see lemon grass planted all along the streets. And ginger flowers just blooming so beautifully. You can’t escape the perfumes, and that’s how we cook.
Q: What are some staples of a Malaysian pantry?
A: If you want to marinate a chicken or a fish, then ginger, lemongrass, shallots and garlic ... and we all have peanut sauce. Just as New Yorkers will travel for the best pizza, Asians would travel to find the best peanut sauce. Malaysian peanut sauce is unique. It has a pinch of tamarind that lingers in your mouth.
Malaysian Chili Sesame Prawn
1/4 cup Lingham’s chili sauce
1/4 cup tomato ketchup
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
5 tbsps peanut or canola oil
4 fresh garlic cloves, minced
3-8 red chili, finely chopped
1 lb Tiger prawns, cleaned and shelled
1/2 cup low-sodium quality chicken broth
1 tbsp cornstarch or rice starch mixed with 3 tablespoons water
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp sesame seeds
Make the sauce by combining chili sauce, ketchup, soy sauce, sesame oil and keep aside.
Place wok over medium heat for 30 seconds, pour hot oil around the perimeter of the wok. Add garlic and chilies and stir-fry until the garlic is golden in color.
Add in the chili sauce mixture into the wok and mix well. Allow the sauce to simmer for 1 to 2 minutes.
Put tiger prawns into the wok and stir-fry on high heat, pressing the prawns against the hot wok. Pour in the chicken broth, mix well and cook for 2 minutes over high heat.
Add the cornstarch mixture and lightly beaten egg. Stir-fry for another 1 minute until the sauce thickens. Remove from heat. Garnish with sesame seeds and serve.