Century after century, the spice trade beckoned those hungry for flavor, profit or adventure. Peppercorns from Pondicherry, Sumatran cinnamon from around Padang, cloves from the Moluccas — all spoke of faraway ports-of-call ripe with the promise of tantalizing tastes and tempting smells.
That sense of excitement can still be discovered, if one is willing to see the possibilities inherent in those little bottles and jars crowding the spice shelves. Look, then, to Malaysia. For if there is any country built and shaped by spice, it is this Southeast Asian nation.
"Over centuries, traders and conquerors from Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic and Christian empires infused Malaysia with great cultural, linguistic, religious and culinary influences. Malaysia's cuisine is a creation of this historical and cultural alchemy," writes Susheela Raghavan in her new book, "Flavors of Malaysia: A Journey through Time, Tastes and Traditions" (Hippocrene, $40).
Seasoned by generations of Malays, Chinese, Indians, Thais, Indonesians and Europeans, today's Malaysian cuisine is ripe for discovery by a wider world still hungry for flavors that spark the palate and the imagination.
What is Malaysian food? Satay, those skewers of seasoned and grilled chicken served with a lively peanut sauce, is arguably the country's most famous dish. But there are others: sambal shrimp, a stir-fry in a spicy chili-tomato sauce; beef rendang, the meat simmered with coconut milk, chilies and grated coconut; lively and fragrant noodle and rice dishes; aromatic curries; and a diverse array of condiments to jazz up a meal.
Spices are the soul of Malaysian recipes, Raghavan said. What she calls "dry spices" include: cumin, coriander, turmeric, fennel seed, star anise, cinnamon, cardamom, clove and fenugreek. "Wet spices" are lemongrass, ginger root, garlic, shallots, chilies, cilantro, curry leaves and pandan leaves. Tamarind, coconut milk, limes, belacan (fermented dried shrimp paste), palm sugar and preserved soybean paste (taucheo) are also found in Malaysian kitchens.
That abundance of spices and other flavorings may seem intimidating to home chefs new to Asian-style cooking but don't be daunted. Most recipes don't taste too spicy or bitter or overwhelming, said Raghavan, who describes her recipes as being easy to follow and prepare, for even the novice cook.
"Malaysian cuisine is so special," she said, "as it is both familiar and yet exciting and new."
Stir-fried sambal shrimp
Prep: 40 minutes
Cook: 25 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
"Sambals are the ubiquitous chile-based sauces of Malaysia and for most Malaysians the 'soul' of a meal," writes Susheela Raghavan in "Flavors of Malaysia." Serve with coconut rice. Sambal oelek is a chili-based condiment; look for it, tamarind and shrimp paste in Asian markets.
1 pound shrimp, shelled, deveined, tails intact
1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/4 cup oil
1 cup chopped, pureed tomatoes
2 tablespoons tamarind concentrate
3 to 4 teaspoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sliced garlic
1 piece (1/2-inch long) ginger root, sliced
2 cups sliced shallots or onions
1 1/2 tablespoons sambal oelek
4 to 6 fresh red chilies, deseeded, sliced
1 stalk lemon grass, 1/2-inch dice
1 teaspoon dried shrimp paste, toasted 15 minutes in a 400-degree oven
1/4 cup water
2 teaspoons ground fennel seeds
1 star anise
1 cinnamon stick, 1 inch long
Chopped cilantro or thinly sliced Kaffir lime leaves
1. Rub shrimp with turmeric powder. Set aside. Process spice paste ingredients to a paste in a food processor.
2. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a wok or skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the spice blend ingredients, 30 seconds. Add remaining oil and the spice paste. Cook, stirring, until the oil begins to seep out of the paste, 10 to 15 minutes.
3. Stir in tomato puree, tamarind juice, sugar and salt; cook, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the shrimp; cook, stirring until shrimp are cooked and coated with sauce, 4 minutes. Garnish with cilantro or lime leaves.
Per serving: 485 calories, 36% of calories from fat, 19 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 170 mg cholesterol, 58 g carbohydrates, 29 g protein, 510 mg sodium, 14 g fiberCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun