South East Asian Ingredients

Feb 2010, amend dead links.

Following on the previous post on typical Chinese ingredients, here is quite a long list of ingredients/foods typical and local to S E Asian countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei. I am not too familiar with Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese or that part of SE Asian ingredients but I will throw in a few that I do know.

This is a LONG post if you get tired of it go and have a cup of tea and a biscuit then come back if you are interested to read on.

Note: Most of the non English words are in Malay (Bahasa Melayu) unless stated. Any Malay word spelled with a ‘c’ is read as ‘ch’ like belacan’ is read as ‘be-la-chan’ and not ‘be-la-can’ as how it should read in English ending as ‘can’ as a can of beer. I have heard Rick Stein referring to be-la-chan as be-la-can.

Before I start, there will be a lot of links relevant to the subjects mentioned, most of these links are not mine. Here to say thank you to the owners and if there is any objection let me know I will remove the link. Without these pictorial links, this post will be so boring to read and I will not bother to write this in the first place.

Fruits (buah-buahan)

Tropical fruits are in abundance in the far east, so many varieties are not heard of or available in the west.

attap seeds – a gummy like texture, semi transparent round seeds. Usually available in tins. Just eaten as they are or mixed with fruit salad or with agar agar jelly as dessert.

belimbing manis (starfruit or yang tao 楊桃 in Chinese) - angular segmented on the outside, once cut looks like star shape slices. When unripe usually green it can be quite sour with a bitter undertone, but once ripen usually turned yellowish and can be quite sweet and juicy.

buah belimbing asam (camias) - a cousin to starfruit, looks like a baby pale short green cucumber very tart, not eaten as a fruit but usually use to make pickles or sambal with chillies and belacan and eaten as a condiment.

breadfruit – a round green rough skin fruit with a white pulpy and bland flesh, high in carbohydrate, not eaten raw usually for cooking in stew or deep fried fritters.

cempedak – looks like jackfruit but smaller and slimmer. The fruit segments are a bit more fibrous and quite sweet and more pungent flavour than jackfruit.

ciko (naseberrry or sapodilla or ren xin guo人心果 in Chinese meaning human heart fruit probably because of its shape) – this fruit is similar in texture like a kiwi fruit, soft and juicy the skin is usually brown and the flesh is light brown and sometime with a hint of pink. Sugary sweet when ripen but don’t eat it if not ripe or it feels like cotton on your tongue similar to eating unripe sharon/persimmon fruit.

dragonfruit – usually the skin is fuchsia pink in colour, the flesh is either pure white or deep pink with tiny black seeds. The white flesh type is quite bland but the deep pink can be a lot sweeter.

durian – king of the tropical fruit, love it or hate it like marmite. Pungent sweet custard like flesh in segmented pods from a very hard and spiky fruit. True or not I don’t know, I was told from very young never mix durian with alcohol or you will get food poisoning or giving you a very bad head.

guava – can be the size of golf ball to quite large like a grapefruit, when unripe it is hard as rock with not much taste or fragrance, when ripen it has a lovely fragrance and getting very soft and usually sweet and sour taste. Skin usually light green and flesh ranging from white to beige to pale yellow to orange to deep pink when ripen and full of tiny tomato like seeds. In the far east some people like to eat the unripe crunchy guava with chinese preserved snack sweet/sour plums 話梅 like this

hog plum - I think this is also called Malay apple, like a large lime with dark green skin, when unripe it is hard as rock and tasteless, when ripen it could have a hint of yellow and slightly sweet and sour taste. It has a hard and fibrous stone. Unripe ones are suitable for pickling.

jambu air (rose apple) - a lovely bell shape looking fruit usually pink in colour or light pale green. The whole fruit can be eaten, taste not too sweet and refreshing, light and pulpy in texture. Do watch out for wriggly worms, they are a menace with this fruit. The word 'air' means water in malay and read as 'i-yer'

langsat (longkong in Thai) - like a brunch of custard yellow grapes, lovely to eat but don't bite the skin with your teeth, the white sap (juice) from the skin is sticky and bitter will also make you finger/nail sticky and staining grey to black, the flesh inside is segmented which is translucent white, sweet/sour depending on how ripe they are. The seeds if they are large can be quite bitter and not to be eaten.

limau kasturi (kalamansi) – small green round local limes about 1 inch wide. The skin is green when unripe and turn yellowish when ripen. The flesh is yellowish/ light orange, sour and tastes like a mixture of green lime with mandarin. Makes refreshing limesquash, great for making dressing like rojak, gado gado, kerabu (malay salad) etc.. or use just like common lime juice. Also wonderful for pickling or making salted limes.

limau nipis - common green limes that most people recognised. Common in all S E Asian countries.

Green oranges or clementines - looks like western orangy oranges or clementines but the skin is green and sometime very deep green and inside is ripe, sweet to sour.

limau bali (pomelo or 柚子 in Chinese)
- a large citrus very common in most S E Asia countries including Thailand and China.

kaffir lime - a knobbly looking green lime without much juice unique to Thai cooking but not so much in other S E Asian countries. I bought mine from Raan Thai freeze well and last for long time.

longan - This is a Chinese fruit but has spread all over S E Asia, plentiful in Thailand. Malays usually called this fruit mata kucing or cat's eye. Take a look at the opened fruit you will see why. The flesh does not taste much and usually sugary sweet and juicy.

lychee - similar to longan this is a chinese fruit and has spread to S E Asia. Colour of skin ranging from blush pink to deep pink, the flesh is also similar to longan but with hint of sourness in some to super sweet, the stone is oval and dark brown. Do not tempted to eat a bucket load of this fruit or you may end up having a sore throat and likely needing some Senokot for relief.

mangga (mangoes) - like banana there are numerous varieties. Some so sweet it's like sugar and some sweet with a sour tang. Different varieties have different skin from green to yellow to red, different flavours and textures can from very smooth to fibrous. My favourite varieties from my hometown is one variety we called dusun (not sure about spelling) and the other is beautful rounded shape apple mango the skin is normally bright orange when ripen.

mangga muda (young green mangoes - unripe) – usually from a variety which is very tart, usually the mangoes are picked while still they very young and the flesh is still white in colour, mainly used for sweet/sour/spicy pickles or pounded with chilli and belacan to make sambal mangga.

mangkis (mangosteen) – only fruit I know that has a blueish purplish thick skin and a white soft flesh inside the pod. The pod/skin will bruise easily and will turn brown. I was told from very young never mix sugar with this fruit or you will get tummy ache, true or not I don’t know I do what I was told.

nanas or pineapple – there are few varieties, some small some slender in shape and some huge as big as a large water melon.

nangka (jackfruit) – durian is the king of tropical fruit, jackfruit is the queen. This fruit can be huge. The yellowish segmented fruits inside have a rich sweet flavour and sometime quite crunchy. The seeds are edible boiled in salted water or roasted, taste like potato. Raw fruit can be used in curries.

tampoi – very similar to mangosteen but the skin is brown, with white or yellow segmented flesh and seeds similar to mangosteen.

nutmeg pulp - light beige colour flesh from the nutmeg fruit which the seed is a well known spice and the lacy red covering around the seed is mace another spice. The flesh is usually peeled and pickled with sugar or ground to make jam. Candied nutmeg flesh or manisan pala in Malay similar to this link is a famous product from Penang - Malaysia, usually beige in colour but colour may sometime added.

pisang (bananas) - In UK we probably seen may be less than 3 different kinds of bananas, in S E Asia there are so many kinds there are mini ones like pisang emas , thick skin and thin skin type and some with red skin. Beside these there are plantain green and ripen one too, great for curry and making banana fritter or pisang goreng.

rambutan – 紅毛丹 in chinese, hairy looking fruit ranging from deep red to orange to yellowish green when ripen. The flesh is opaque white like lychee and usually sweet with a hint of tartness, the stone is longish and not edible.

salak - distinguished by its brownish red snake skin. Once open looks like big cloves of garlic with similar garlic colour to light yellow, the texture is usually crunchy and tastes sweet and sour with an applely pineapple flavour, usually eaten raw as fruit but also can be pickled.

soursop (prickly custard apple) – Chinese called this 紅毛榴槤 ('red hair' aka western durian) usually green with a slightly prickly skin and odd shape with the end bit pointed. The flesh is pure white or yellowish with black seeds dotted around which are not edible, the taste is usually sweet and sour.

sweet granadilla (asian passion fruit) – much larger than the purplish passion fruits many people know, usually green to yellow to orangy in colour. Taste very similar to the common passion fruit. Usually for making drinks and sweet puddings.

sweetsop (sugar apple or sweet custard apple) – in Chinese is 番荔枝 or western lychee, knobby looking fruit usually green or pink on the outside. When ripen turned very soft and can be broken apart by hand, inside the flesh is usually white but yellow is also available and is very sweet sometime with a slightly sandy texture and full of black not edible seeds.

tarap – a very unusual fruit, similar size to durian with soft needle like thick skin, easy to tear open once ripen, inside packed with a very soft, sweet and quite slippery globules of white/beige looking flesh with seeds. The seeds can be eaten either boiled in salted water or roasted tastes like potatoes.

watermelon – various sizes round or oval, small to huge, seeded and seedless, varies colour ranging from the common pink – red to the unusual bright yellow. Super cooling to eat when the weather is scotching hot and many people would wipe the white part of the flesh on the skin and face to keep cool.

Sayur-sayuran (vegetables) also include roots, beans and other plant materials for food preparation

Kangkong (water spinach or ong choi or tung sum choi in Chinese)– cousin to the morning glory. This plant is either cultivated or grown among wet swampy areas. Dark green leaves with hollow stems. Great stir fried with chilli and belacan Malay style or with garlic chilli and white fermented beancurd Chinese style. Also an essential vegetable for making rojak a malay salad with a dressing made with udang petis a black sticky shrimp paste.

Banana flower/blossom – not commonly eaten but if available, great for adding to curry or added to salad. This beautiful flower bud from the banana tree is picked before any of the petal is opened and the individual banana buds are still beige/white in colour. Only the lighter colour part of the whole flower blossom is eaten not the outside red petals, once cut should be soaked in lemon or acidulated water to prevent from turning brown.

Thai pea aubergines - as the name suggested this is a unique Thai vegetable, looks like green peas usually added to green curries, they have a slight bitter taste, not really my favourite vegetable.

Thai apple aubergines - small aubergines just over 1 inch wide, usually pale green and eaten raw or added to thai curries, much nicer and sweeter than pea aubergines in my opinion. There are also other yellow or oval small Thai aubergines which I am not too familiar with their use, to buy some in UK, go to oriental or Thai supermarket or online from Raan Thai.

brinjal (aubergines) - usually the oriental long slender type either purple or green in colour. Used in some Malay dishes but mainly a vegetable for Chinese or maybe Thai.

kacang bendi (okra or lady fingers)
- common with Malay/Nyonya cooking stir fry with sambal belacan or in curries, a favourite vegetable by Chinese too. This is an internationally known vegetable love by many and hated by others because it can be slimy when cooked till very soft.

kacang botol (wingbean or four angled bean) - more of a quick stir fry vegetable to keep its crunchy texture. Malay cooking usually with sambal belacan, Thai also love this vegetable and sometime in salad.

kacang panjang (yardlong bean or snake bean or dau kok in Cantonese) - a long thin straight bean sometime can be a bit wiggly, normally cut into pieces for stir fries or finely chopped for omelette, love by most S E Asian. In Thailand this is usually eaten raw, e.g. in green papaya salad called som tam.

petai (Stink beans or Parkia Beans) – grown in a fibrous long pod, the beens are stripped and skinned reviewing jade colour looking sulphuric smelling beans popular with Nyonya cooking such as Udang Tumis Petai i.e. stir fried stink beans with prawns or Sambal Udang Kering Petai i.e. stink beans with ground dried shrimp sambal. These beans have an acquired taste but once you have get used to them, it’s quite tasty. Like asparagus it could give you a whiffy urine.

ubi manis (sweet potato) – varies colours ranging from pure white to yellow to orange to deep purple. Some quite bland and some super sweet. Leaves from the plant are edible as a vegetable, a bit like spinach.

sayur bayam (chinese spinach/ amaranth/ 莧菜 yin choi in Chinese), a spinach like vegetable usually green but can also have red, pink patches on the leaves, stem or root. Chinese eaten this vegetable more usually stir fry or make soup, those with red patches will make the soup pink which is quite pretty.

ubi kayu (cassava) – a common root vegetable and easily grown in any back garden. One single plant can sometime produce over 10 kg of long starchy roots. The outside skin is thin and looks like wood bark, when peeled will reveal a second skin usually pink outside and white inside, the flesh is pure white with a string like fibre in the centre running from the top to bottom of the root. Can be eaten just steamed or boiled, added to stew or curries or grated to make sweet Malay kuih called bingka ubi kayu. In factory cassava are dried and processed to make tapioca starch.

mooli or daikon - not normally eaten by Malays, usually a Chinese vegetable or other S E Asian especially Korean and Japanese.

sayur paku (fiddlehead fern or Chinese called this paku chai), grown only in the wild in bushes or swampy areas, picked by local and sold in market or tamu (open space street market.). Tender and tasty green shoots (browned if bruised), usually stir fry with sambal belacan.

sayur manis (potato vegetable or she zai choi in chinese) – some people called this paku too (don’t know why) this is usually a Chinese vegetable either stir fry with scrambled egg or making soup with ribbon egg or Malay style with belacan.

ubi Sengkuang or mangkuang (yam bean or jicama or sa kok in cantonese) – a root vegetable, looks like a spinning top, with sandy brown skin once peeled will review a whitish flesh similar to daikon but with lightly sweet earthy taste and crunchy texture. This root vegetable is widely available and very cheap in the far east and in American especially Mexican supermarkets, but strangely very hard to find in England I have only seen them occasionally in Chinese supermarket and quite expensive. In Malaysia, Singapore or Brunei it is commonly refer to as mangkuang and use for filling for spring rolls or in malay salad like rojak.

taro or oriental yam – an oriental starchy root with a fibrous black/ brown skin, once peeled may see sap or juice appearing on the surface which some people can be allergic to so do wear gloves if you can before you found out you have itchy hands to deal with for hours to days. The flesh can be pure white or with speckles of purple vein once cooked will give this root vegetable a lovely light purple colour. Some especially those with a purplish colour has a distinctive lovely flavour. Taro can be used in all sorts of savoury dishes, Chinese dim sum, Malay sweet puddings or for sweet cakes. Widely used by Chinese, Malays, Thai, Vietnamese and Filipino. In Philippines they made a lovely purple ice cream with this taro and coconut milk, seriously yummy. The leaf stem of taro is edible and can be used to make a curry with lots or coconut milk, once cooked it is soft and slimy like okra. This leaf stem is quite a traditional ingredient for Vietnamese sour fish soup, canh chua ca.

kelapa (coconut) - coconut is probably one of the most important ingredient in Malaysian and most SE Asian cooking. Coconut is such a versatile plant, the tree provides shade and the leaves can be cut and use for thatched roof, string etc, individual leaf segment can be stripped and weaved into container for food cooking like these ketupat or rice dumplings, the spine of each leaf segment can be used as skewer for satay. The young green coconut (flesh and juice) is so refreshing as a drink and the jelly like flesh which has not hardened yet is great as a dessert. When the fruit is matured and turned brown, the husk has many uses like fuel, make into brooms etc.. and the inside tortoise like hard shell can be turned into eating bowls, the white hard flesh is most important to make santan (coconut milk in Malay) or coconut cream. When coconut milk is boiled to remove the water content and the milk solid condensed, separated and filtered, a rich oil with lovely nutty flavour can be made for cooking . In factory coconut oil is made by filtration technique without the nutty taste like homemade and widely used in baking and cosmetic industries. Coconut milk can also be dried to powder form which is widely available, a convenient material to use. In the west and also in Far East for convenient sake, coconut milk is widely available in tin which is one of my most essential cupboard ingredients. In the far east fresh matured coconut is normally grated at home or taken to grate in a shop and milk is then pressed with a cotton or muslin bag. Here is a gadget similar to the one my family had for years, it's a piece of metal with saw tooth fixed at one end of a piece of wood plank, the person grating the coconut will sit on the plank so it will not move and the coconut usually broken in half still with the hard shell on is then grated. Over in England I had successful process a fresh coconut at home using a Microplane grater see this post. You can also get coconut cream in a block like butter this is more of a Indian/ west indian cooking ingredient, not commonly used by S E Asian. Grated coconut also has many used, we have seen them in the shop dried as desiccated coconut or coconut flakes for making cakes and biscuits. Freshly grated coconut can also be fried till brown and ground to powder to make kerisik a typical Malay ingredient usually for curries like rendang.

pandan leaf (pandanus) - a green long leaf plant mainly used to extract the juice for flavouring sweets and cakes in S E Asia, so popular it is commonly known as S E Asian vanilla, here is a chiffon cake recipe I insist on using the real juice. Can also used for savoury dishes, the leaf is popular to use as is for wrapping pandan chicken to give that unique flavour or as a wrapper with bamboo leaves to wrap Nyonya zhong (Chinese style glutinous rice dumplings with meat filling). Artificial pandan essence is also available, this one is commonly used by S E Asian which also has colouring added. I always use fresh leaves when available, quite easy to find these days in UK oriental supermarkets. Will freeze but IMO the flavour will disappear quite rapidly during freezing.

banana leaf - the leaf from the banana tree, not edible on its own but usually use as a wrapper or use to serve food with as a liner. Very versatile materials will imparts a nice light fragrant when bbq or chargrilled, here is one example how I would use it for some sticky rice rolls or pulut panggang , also great to wrap fish and put on a barbie. Can also use to wrap all sorts of food like lontong a Malay banana leaf wrapped rice log, or sweet dumpling type cakes like this pulut inti a Malay sweet rice cake. For Thai food great to make a container for hor mok a steamed fish/seafood/chicken with spices and coconut milk

Herbs and rempah ingredients

The word rempah is a malay word for spice mix.

daun ketumbar (fresh coriander or cilantro) - not commonly used in Malay cooking, use a lot by Thai and Vietnamese and occasionally by Chinese (not a favourite Chinese herb)

daun bawang (spring onion) - not commonly used in Malay but widely used by Chinese, Vietnamese and maybe Thai.

thai sweet basil - this herb has a aniseed sweet flavour with purplish stem and flowers, as the name suggested it is mainly used in Thai cooking not so much by other S E Asians. Chinese called this herb 九層塔 jiu chen tat literally means 9 storeys high pagoda, I have no idea why. There is a famous Taiwanese dish called 3 cup chicken or Sanbeiji 三杯雞 see recipe.

thai holy basil - similar to sweet basil but the flavour is different more minty and spicier, dominantly used by Thai, maybe Vietnamese, Cambodian cooking but not a common herbs for Malaysian, Indonesian or Singaporean.

saw tooth coriander/cilantro (pak chii farang in Thai or ngo gai in Vietnamese) - widely used by Vietnamese essential herb for pho noodles and also used by Thai. Not used by Chinese or Malay.

bawang merah (shallots) - usually refers to asian red shallots. Can also use western shallots when making rempah in the west, much cheaper than buying the oriental types from oriental supermarkets.

bawang or bawang besar (onion) - besar means large. Refers to common onion.

bawan putih (garlic)

halia (ginger) - common ginger with sandy brown skin. In the far east very young ginger which looks like this picture do not have the sandy brown skin is also common, less spicy and less fibrous excellent for making sweet pickles like those serving with sushi.

lengkuas (galangal or lam keong 藍薑 in Chinese) - similar stem tuber like common ginger but much harder with a very different fragrance, not spicy hot like common ginger. An essential herb for many Malay curries, Thai curries and Chinese also use it for braising meat especially for duck which gives a lovely flavour. Buy fresh root whenever you can, cut into pieces and freeze will last a long time. Don't bother with powder form or dried roots, not the same taste as fresh, root is rock hard very difficult to process.

kunyit (turmeric) - finger shape ginger like tubers, thin sandy colour skin and the flesh is deep orange will stain anything they touch, so wear gloves if you don't want yellow finger and fingernails when handling them and wash everything with a thin bleach later to remove the stain. In S E Asia the fresh root is commonly used whereas in the west it is less easily available and the powder is more common. I love the fresh root more than the powder it has more flavour. Over here in England I bought mine from Raan Thai online, also quite easy to find these days in London China Town.

Serai (lemongrass) - grown like a wide bush of grass few feet tall in most S E Asian Countries as well as other hot countries in the world. A lemony or citronella smelling herb, essential in lot of Malay, Thai and even some Vietnamese cooking. Don't buy the powder form waste of money, it's like sawdust.

daun kunyit (leaf from the turmeric plant) - the young leaves are edible normally sliced very very fine and add to curries like rendang.

daun salam (Indonesian bay leaf) - leaves from a very large tropical tree with a nice spicy fragrance, though many people said sub with normal common bay leaves or curry leaves, the flavour is not compatible. Can be found dried in the west.

daun kari (curry leaves) - before cooking these leaves do smell smoky. Usually fried in oil to release the flavour will boost the flavour of curries. Widely used in Malay curries and also Indian curries. An essential herb for making Malaysian yummy Butter Prawns to give that unique flavour. In UK, easily available from most Asian stores or some Chinese supermarkets. Not really used by Thai or Vietnamese. Fresh leaves can be frozen and no deterioration for a long time in freezer. Don't buy dried useless.

bunga kantan (pink touch ginger bud) - gorgeous pink flower buds from a ginger family. Only the unopened buds are used for cooking, which has a floral light gingery fragrance and taste. Impossible to find in the west. If you are lucky to get some, use it in asam laksa, some Malay/Nyonya kerabu (salad), and in some curries.

daun kadok – wild betel leaves, typically used for Malaysian otak otak, think it is also called la lot in Vietnamese, especially for bo la lot, beef wrapped in a sausage roll with this leaf and fried. This leaf is also used in Thai laab (beef salad dish) and Thai appetiser called Mieng Kham (bits of all sorts like lime pieces, dried shrimps, peanuts, shallots, ginger, coconuts, etc with a spicy chilli sauce all wrapped up with this betel leaf and chew till all the flavours mingled together, a fabulously fragrant self serving appetizer).

perilla (ze so yip 紫蘇葉 in Chinese) - beautiful leaves, popular salad leaf or herb for Vietnamese and Thai too. Japanese also use this quite a lot and they also have purple colour perilla. Chinese use this mainly as herbal medicine and not really for cooking or eating as herb but it is essential to steam hairy crabs dai jap hai 大閘蟹 (very expensive Chinese autumn/winter crabs full of red oily roes) with these leaves give a lovely smell and said to reduce sensitivity or allergy eating these crabs.

Rice paddy herb (ngo om in Vietnamese)
- a small leafy citrusy flavoured herb with tiny purple trumpet flowers predominantly used in Vietnamese cooking, especially with their sour fish soup
canh chua ca.

chillies - what will happen if there are no chillies in S E Asian cooking? That will be unthinkable. There are several names for chillies in Malaysia and Indonesia, common names are lada, biji lada, cili (as in chilli), lombok (more likely used in Indonesia). In Thailand chilli is called prik.

cili merah (red large chilli) - big long red chillies of various heat depending of species.

cili hijau (green chilli)
- same as above but chillies are picked when unripe.

cili padi or cili api (bird’s eye chilli) - chilli api literally means chilli of fire, some can be moderately hot and some superhot.

buah keras (candle nuts or kemiri nuts) - looks like large macademia nuts, usually blended in rempah to make curries. Not to be eaten raw though it looks tempting as edible nuts, may give you stomach upset. Reason why it is called candle nuts because they will burn like wax if you crush them and put a wick to it.

jintan manis (aniseeds)

jintan putih (cumin)

bunga lawang (star anise)

bunga chengkih (cloves)

kayu manis (cinnamon)

buah pala (nutmeg)

ketumbar (coriander the seeds)

cili kering or lada kering (dried chillies)
- dried chillies are widely used in rempah, they give a much redder and richer colour than fresh chillies. Most of the dried chillies used for malay curries are from large red chillies. I bought large dried chillies from oriental supermarkets in large bag, will last ages. If in US, Californian Mexican style dried chillies (unsmoked) are good substitute.

serbuk lada or serbuk cili (chilli powder) - can be used instead of dried or fresh chillies in cooking.

and other sauces

sambals is the quintessential condiments or mixture of spices that embellished or add superb flavour to Malaysian cookings. There are so many different types and recipes for different uses. I will just list a few common ones.

sambal Ulek or Oelek - this sambal is just a minced chilli paste with few ingredients, normally just minced or pounded red hot chillies, salt and some vinegar. I have seen recipes with garlic added too. Once made you can add anything you like to it like tamarind, lime juice or soy sauce etc....

sambal belacan or sambal terasi - in my opinion the mother of all sambals the most important and widely used sambal, every other sambals do seem to derive from sambal belacan paste with something else added. Normally only contain lots of dried and fresh red chillies and dry roasted shrimp paste or belacan all mixed up together in a pestle or mortar or blended in a mini blender. There is a recipe on this post.

sambal asam -
similar to sambal belacan but with added tamarind juice.

sambal mangga - finely shredded or pounded young green sour mango with added sambal belacan. Used normally as a condiments not for cooking.

sambal belimbing - sour belimbing is crushed witha pestle and mortar then add in enough sambal belacan to tas.

sambal ikan bilis - dried ikan bilis cooked with sambal belacan and minced shallots and maybe garlic, stir fried with oil till dried and fragrant.

sambal udang - minced/ pounded soaked dried shrimps cooked in the same way as sambal ikan bilis. Can be eaten with rice or filling for pulut panggang or stir fry with kangkong or spinach or yard long beans.

sambal tumis - this is a cooked chilli sauce and will last for quite sometime in the fridge. Usual ingredients are soaked dried chillies, garlic, shallots, belacan, tamarind juice, salt and sugar to taste plus cooking oil all blended together and cooked till the oil beginning to float on top or split from the mixture.

sambal manis - never heard of this one before in the far east. It is available in the west by an Indo Dutch company called Conimex so I guess it's a product made for the western taste. You can get it online in UK from Wai Yee Hong

kecap manis - kecap manis is a sweet soy sauce made with ordinary dark soy with caramel added and maybe a bit of spices. Very commonly used in Malay stir fries like rice and noodles etc.

Soy sauce - light and dark same varieties for the Chinese.

fish sauce - used predominantly by Vietnamese and Thai cooking, occasionally by Chinese and hardly by Malay.

nam prik pao - is a thai chilli paste made with roasted dried chillies, dried shrimp and spices.

Other flavouring ingredients

gula Melaka (gula jawa in Indonesia, palm sugar as common name or jaggery in India) - Malaysian gula melaka is usually very dark like this with a deep caramel taste, whereas Thai palm sugar is usually lighter in colour and taste, usually in a block like this or in a jar or tub. Sugar melaka is used in many Malaysian sweet cooking such as ondeh ondeh a soft sticky green dumplings with gula melaka filling and rolled in fresh grated coconut, others like bubur caca (a sweet potato, yam and coconut milk sweet soup), and in Thailand and Vietnam for many savoury and sweet cooking.

asam jawa or tamarind - a sour agent very common in most S E Asian countries. Made from a brown looking pod with pulpy brown flesh which can be very sweet to very sour. The sweet type is mainly sold as snack food as they are in pods. The sour type usually stripped, the brown pulp with or without seeds is pressed into semi wet block as sold as tamarind or concentrate in tub. Tamarind has a lovely earthy sour taste not so sharp like lemon juice.

asam gelugor or asam keping (asam skin) - another common sour agent in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesian and Brunei, not the same as tamarind but from a sour fruit that looks like this , sliced and dried. Use more or less the same as tamarind and in some cases for a clearer soup like itik tim or Asam laksa (sour fish laksa).

daun limau pulut another common name is kaffir lime leaf, leaf from the same tree as kaffir lime, a common herb used in most S E Asian Countries, including Malaysian, Thai and Vietnamese

daun kesum (daun laksa, laksa leaf, polygonum leaf, Vietnamese coriander, Vietnamese mint or rau ram) numerous different names. A essential herb for asam laksa how its name is from, otak otak (Malay bbq spicy fish paste) and several S E Asian noodle like soups as a fragrant herb. Occasionally available in oriental or Thai /Vietnamese supermarkets in the west.

Other dried ingredients

sago pearls and sago flour - the pearls can very fine or much larger balls mainly for sweet puddings or sweet soups. Many people in the west hate them and called them frog spawns. The pearls are mainly made from tapioca starch now these days. In the old days they are made from real sago palm starch/ flour from sago palm. The process of extracting sago flour/starch from palm tree is labourious and a labour of love, EatingAsia has written a fantastic post for this process. where the tree trunk is ground then mix with water to form a slurry and filter to remove the starch. Genuine sago pearls and sago flour/starch are still available but mainly only found in the S E Asia. If I can find real sago flour I would make kuih bangkit a very traditional melt in your mouth Malaysian biscuits. Tapioca flour can also make kuih bangkit but IMO the texture and taste is no way near real sago flour.

tapioca starch/ tapioca pearls - mainly made from cassava or ubi kayu. The starch
is a thickening agent similar to corn starch in many Chinese cooking. Malay and Thai also use it for cakes savoury and sweet. This starch also make tapioca/sago pearls as mentioned earlier.

agar agar - extracted from sea weeds, formed into long thin strips available in most oriental supermarkets either plain or coloured. Can be eaten just soaked and mixed in salad or more commonly boiled with plenty of water to make jelly like oriental/malay puddings. Texture is not exactly the same as gelatine less wobbly and more brittle, don't mix well or taste nice with sour flavour or fruit juice, best use a neutral sweet base flavour or coconut milk. Common pudding mix with coconut milk and pandan juice. In our family we like to use grenadine syrup and coconut milk to make the jelly pudding. Agar agar is also available in powder form which I think is a lot more concentrate then the strips.

konnyaku - thanks to the Japanese, a fairly new jelly ingredient only available in the market last 8 - 10 year in the far east. Make super clear jellies usually individually moulded with fruits. Don't mix well with coconut milk or a sour flavour like fruit juice. The texture is not the same as gelatine or agar agar, more like soft and chewy. I have not seen the powder sachet available in England supermarkets yet.


Babi (pork) - pork or pork products are generally forbidden in public in Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia due to majority of population are Muslims. In these countries, restaurant has to have licence to sell pork or non halal products. In halal restaurants including Chinese and hotels, dishes normally made with pork like dim sum siu mai, bacon, sausages etc are all made with chicken.
Pork is still widely used by the Chinese at home and non Chinese communities like Penarakans concentrated in some parts of West Malaysia and Singapore, they are Chinese-Malay mix of which Nyonya are the ladies and baba are the men and their cookings are famously delicious. Others indigenous tribes who may eat pork are Dusun, Iban and dayak mainly from Borneo island including Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Indonesia if they are not converted to Muslims.

Daging (beef) - the meaning of daging is meat in general but in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia, it is commonly recognised as beef. If anyone wants to be specific or pedantic, beef is called daging lembu. Most widely used meat other than chicken.

kambing (goat, lamb or mutton) - there is no distinction and the word kambing is interchangeable for all three different kinds of meat.

Ayam (chicken) - Muslims will only buy halal chicken.

Itik or itek (duck) - not a common poultry for the Muslim communities but widely used by Chinese and Nyonya cooking.


ikan kembong - a small fish similar to mackerel, great marinated with sambal belacan and put on bbq, fried or make sweet hot and sour fish curries (asam ikan kembong). A great fish to use for asam laksa.

ikan parang (wolf herring) sai toh yu in chinese
- usually for making Chinese fish cake/fish balls etc

ikan pari (stingray or skate wings) – excellent for bbq (plain or slathered with sambal belacan before bbq, wrapped in banana leaf then bbq or steamed Chinese style with lots of ginger, spring onion etc. Yum yum.

ikan tenggiri (Spanish mackerel) – smaller and medium size under 1 kg each are suitable for making Chinese fish cake/balls, larger fish is suitable for frying or making fish curries.

fresh ikan bilis (S E Asian anchovies) – ikan bilis is normally dried see more information under preserved food. Fresh ikan bilis is great to eat too if you can find them in S E Asian fish market, we usually filleted the tiny fish and mix with batter, spring onion and chillies and deep fried as fritters, great finger food.

Sotong (squid) - baby size to quite large, usually available fresh from the fish market, not frozen. Very sweet tasting so much better than frozen from the supermarket. Along with squids, medium size cuttlefish is also available, with thicker flesh same taste. Babies squids are usually deep fried till crunchy, few inches long ones could be stuffed and cooked in curry or asam curry sauce, big squids can be seasoned with spices and throw on the bbq or cut and stir fry or make curries Malay or Chinese style. Thai and Vietnamese also have lot of wonder recipes with fresh squids.

Preserved food

belacan (kerasi in Indonesia, commonly known as shrimp paste in the west or kapi in Thai) - many people in the west now are familiar with shrimp paste, a very savoury and pungent (almost foul) smelling paste for making many typical malay and thai dishes. Smells like dirty socks will stink the whole house during cooking, but gives a wonderful savoury and irreplaceable flavour to many distinguished dishes. Shrimp paste is made with tiny baby shrimps just hatched called bubuk , salted and dried under the sun for few hours to a day then ground to a paste and let to ferment under the sun for weeks to develop that strong pungent flavour before shaping and packing, ready to use fresh or mature a bit more during storage. Malaysian shrimp paste bought in the shop usually come in a block like this or processed and come in granules form, whereas Thai style shrimp paste is usually in a plastic tub . Personally I like Malaysian block style it is much stronger in flavour than Thai and harder in a block which can be cut into slices and dry roast in a frying pan which is usually the normal practice for Malay cooking but not Thai cooking. Thai shrimp paste is usually quite soft and not suitable for cutting and roasting on dry pan. Chinese also has a shrimp paste called hum ha 鹹蝦 or salty shrimp , a much runnier and oilier paste similar flavour to the other two. I had just bought a jar from Wai Yee Hong, quite expensive though for what it is, a pungent ingredient for some typical Chinese dishes.

Petis udang - can be labelled as shrimp paste, not to be confused with belacan. Petis udang is a shrimp shells reduction looks like a black sticky paste similar in texture to marmite. Quite strong flavour needs getting used to if you don't like marmite you probably don't like this sauce. Normally for making dressing for Rojak or stirred into asam fish laksa.

cincalok - baby shrimps bubuk same as those for belacan are fermented with salt and local rice wine yeast then jarred and eaten as sambal or condiment mixed with plenty of lime juice, ground red chilli and sliced shallots. Also an essential ingredient for the famous Nyonya cincalok fried rice.

ikan masin
- salted dried fish various types of fish from small to large, mackerel and red snapper are very common. Malaysian style salted fish are normally let to ferment a bit under the sun to develop a pungent flavour. Large snapper salted fish head is common to make curries by the Chinese communities.

ikan bilis - dried - this is S E Asian anchovies normally salted and dried, then either eaten as whole or de-headed and deboned, used as they are to make sambal ikan bilis famously to go with Nasi Lemak, or mixed with spices then deep fried or baked to make ikan bilis goreng to be eaten as a crunchy snack on its own or with fried peanuts. Ikan bilis is very common to use as flavouring for stock/soup, there is ikan bilis stock granules or stock cubes available in most oriental supermarkets. Ikan bilis is also great stir fried with dark soy and onion. There is also a super fine and much smaller ikan bilis from a different variety of fish called silver fish in Chinese.

udang kering (dried shrimps or ha mai 蝦米 in Cantonese/Chinese or hae bee in Hokkien) - another popular fishy dried ingredient found in many Chinese and Malay cooking. For Malay cooking there is sambal udang kering which I love a lot. Chinese mainly used it boost the savoury flavour for food like lo mai fun (steamed glutinous rice cake), lo bak koh (radish cake) etc....

sotong kering (dried squid) - a lot of squids are salted and dried in the far east. They are then processed to make snacks like this and this famously found in Thailand. Dried squids are also soaked and finely shredded to make many chinese dishes and maybe other oriental dish, I think Vietnamese and Thai love them charred on direct fire and then use to make stock or other cooking.

Dried ingredients for the cupboard

beras (plain rice uncooked) - when cooked rice is called nasi in malay

beras jasmine (jasmine rice) - a lovely fragrance and softer rice mostly produced by Thailand and love by nearly all S E Asians.

pulut (glutinous rice) - widely used in most S E Asian countries like Thailand, Vietnamese, Malaysia, Singapore and not forgetting the Chinese all over the world using a bucket lot of it for savoury and sweet recipes.

pulut hitam (black glutinous rice) - use mainly as a pudding/ dessert rice in Thailand and some Malaysian, Singaporean, Vietnamese and Chinese. e.g. is Thai famous black glutinous rice pudding with a sweet coconut/palm sugar sauce and sweet mango slices, yum yum pudding.

tepung gandum (plain flour)

tepung naik sendiri (S R flour)

tepung beras (rice flour) - oriental rice flour

tepung pulut (glutinous flour)

serbuk pernaik (baking powder)

keropok udang - prawn crackers S E Asian style, very similar to those in Chinese restaurants or takeaways but much more flavourful as they contain a much higher prawn content. They are made with tapioca starch, finely ground prawn paste, salt and water mix into a dough, steamed, cooled, sliced and dry till crisp. These dried uncooked prawn crackers will last for a long time in the cupboard, before ready to eat just deep fried till they puff up 3 -4 times its original size and enjoy as they are or eaten with acar a spicy vegetable pickle or with beer. If I do fried some I will be eating them non stop, see this big boxful already fried. Other than prawns, keropok can also be made with fish paste and taro paste which is vegetarian.

deep fried shallots - can be bought ready deep fried without the oil, just sprinkle on curry rice, nasi lemak, noodle soups etc. Or I like deep frying fresh shallots at home and leaving the browned shallots in the oil, both the shallots and oil is great flavouring ingredients for all noodles soup, congee and general cooking. Very popular with Chinese, Malay, Vietnamese and Thai.

rice sheet or rice paper - Vietnamese style brittle rice paper, soaked then make Vietnamese style summer rolls or deep fried for crunchy springrolls type and eaten with Vietnamese style chilli sauce nuoc cham.

Ingredients for the fridge and freezer

popiah or some people called them lumpia (spring rolls wrapper) - this is chinese style spring roll wrappers, usually available frozen very popular with the Malays too. If you are clever enough you can make this tissue thin wrappers at home with a stretchy wet dough. I am not going to go into details it's not easy. In many Malaysian/Nyonya families, they made their own wrappers with a pancake like batter with plain flour, water and eggs. Wrapper can be eaten like Vietnamese summer rolls without frying or deep fried to make crunchy spring rolls.

The weird and unusual

chewing betel nuts - some older folks in the rural areas of Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Thailand and Vietnamese , there is this addicted habit of chewing betel nuts mix with lime powder (the mineral not fruit) and wrap in betel leaf, once the content is chewed for a while in the mouth the remain is spitted out and the chewer's mouth looks like they have sucked blood. With regular chewing you can notice their teeth are badly stained with reddish colour.

Balut is a delicacy in some part of S E Asia like Philippines and Vietnam, not for the squeamish. Balut is egg embryo usually duck eggs which are about to hatch and the whole eggs are hard boiled and eaten as they are with or without some chilli and soy sauce.

Some of the famous Malay/Nyonya dishes I love

nasi lemak - a rich rice made with coconut milk and flavoured with pandan leaf, with all the trimmings like sambal ikan bilis, deep fried ikan bilis, deep fried peanuts, hard boiled eggs. Sometime without ikan bilis but with a piece of rich curried chicken or beef rendang pieces.

rendang - rich coconut curries usually beef but can also be chicken or lamb. Best serve with lacy pancakes or roti jala or

laksa lemak or Nyonya laksa - curry soup laksa usually with rice
vermicelli or thick rice noodles (lai fun) or yellow hokkien noodles, cooked prawns, shredded chicken, boiled egg, fish cake slice/ fish balls, bean sprouts and herbs on top.

Penang laksa or sour fish laksa - sour curry soup flavoured with fish stock and tamarind with rice
vermicelli, lai fun, yellow hokkien noodles, and shredded fish, extra lime and dollop of the rich dark udang petis sauce and any available fragrant and suitable herbs.

udang pulut panggang - sticky rice rolls with spicy minced dried shrimp filling or sometime with some grated coconut combined and wrapped in banana leaf then bbq or chargrilled.

sambal telur - hard boiled eggs cooked in a rich sambal belacan sauce.

asam ikan pedas - hot and sour fish curry with tamarind sometime with added tomatoes or pineapple chunks.

kerabu mee hoon - a nyonya style rice vermicelli salad.

Gado gado - a Malay/ Indonesian style salad

rojak - similar to gado gado but the dressing is using petis udang the black thick sticky prawn paste. With rojak there is usually a reconstituted dried large squid not available in the west but can be bought in the market in Malaysia or Singapore ready to use just blanched, cut and added to whatever you want. This is eaten for the texture only the soaked squid does not really taste much, colour is light brown and texture is like a soft rubber.

mee rebus - a Malay style noodle dish with spicy mashed sweet potato gravy and garnish with all sorts like fried tofu and other bits and pieces.

mee siam
- a noodle dish with Thai influence, normally stir fried rice vermicelli Nyonya style or with a bit spicy gravy or soup, usually with lots of prawns, beansprouts, boiled eggs etc. Squeeze with limau kasturi or lime and stir in sambal belacan before serving.

soto Ayam - lightly spiced chicken soup eaten with rice vermicelli or pressed rice cake like lontong or ketupat.

satay - yum yum bubble gum, my favourite malay food. Can be any meat chicken, beef or lamb but no pork for me. If done right and grilled on narrow bbq griller, it is superb. Usually eaten with all the trimmings like a good spicy peanut sauce, chunks of rice cake like lontong, ketupat, cucumber, pineapple, raw onion rings etc to dip into the sauce other then the meat satay.

mutakbak/matarbak/roti canai/roti paratha - an indian-malay roti can be plain, with beaten egg or stuffed with keema, fried and eaten with a plain curry sauce. My favourite is either plain or with eggs.

Curry puff - small pasties with very flaky pastry and a curried meat and potato filling

Singapore bbq pork or jerky 肉干 - Originated from Singapore now available in most S E Asia countries. This sweet savoury mahogany thin bbq pork is really yummy especially when they are freshly grilled. In Singapore you can find this in most shopping centres, many of which are grilling them in front of the store and you can smell the bbq from miles. Fantastic also sandwiched with soft white bread. Yum yum, I really want some NOW! Used to smuggle them through custom in UK. Very strict rule in US custom and quite impossible to bring them in. Other than the big squares they are also available in round patties, and beef jerky are also very tasty.

For sweet pudding, sweet soup and cakes,

Cendol - green noodles made with mung bean flour mixed with a coconut milk, gula melaka syrup and lots of shaved ice. Sometime boiled aduki beans or black glass jelly can be added to this dessert too.

pandan chiffon - a feather like tube cake with coconut milk and pandan leaf juice.

kuih lapis spekkoek or kuih legit - a super rich cake made with a ton of eggs, butter, sugar and some spices. The layers are labouriously baked layer by layer. Superb cake but very bad for the waistline that is why I hardly make it.

I got so many more the favourites but I will stop here before I bored everyone to tears. Thank you for reading. Hope you are inspired to go and cook something Malaysian or S E Asian.

The above post is supported by this peanut butter cookies recipe. 


  1. thanks for that Sunflower. I always need to look these ingredients up

  2. Another great and interesting ingredients post, Sunflower! Thanks!

  3. What a great list Sunflower, thank you for posting! I signed up for a south east asian cookery course a while back but they switched to Thai at the last minute, still good but ingredients seem quite basic compared to your list! :)

  4. Hi Anne,
    Where did you have the cookery course? Did they teach you many recipes? If you want anymore S E Asian Cooking or ingredients I have not listed ask, I may know or recipe to go with.

  5. Hello sunflower,
    What a list !! You put shame on me ... I am a Malaysian/Chinese, but I must sady I do not spent so much time on cooking like you do.

    It so happened I live in the Netherlands for the past 40 years. Sambal Manis -- I think is an Indonesian sambal? It is a little bit like Badjak but sweeter.


Post a Comment

Thank you for reading and leaving your comments or suggestions.
Spam or link to suggested sales will be removed.