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Malaysia: its People and its Cuisine

Malaysia, located in the heart of Southeast Asia, is a nation of diversity. Its population of about 24 million is a potpourri of cultures, traditions, religions and languages. Malays, Chinese, Indians, the indigenous and others live in total harmony. Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Christians and Sikhs practise their faiths side by side in total freedom.

Hundreds of years ago, the Malay kingdom in the Bujang Valley welcomed Indian and Chinese traders who brought gold and silk together with Hinduism and Buddhism. Later, Arab and Gujerati traders brought Islam to the port kingdom of Malacca. Then came the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch and the British.

The Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures have had the most striking influence on the Malaysian cultural mosaic. While maintaining the distinct multiracial structure, these cultures have blended together to produce the unique Malaysian cultural heritage. Underlying this marriage of civilisations is a longstanding tradition of tolerance and understanding.

This coming together of various cultures has given rise to what many people consider to be the most delicious cuisine in the entire world. The cuisine of China and that of southern India, together with that of Thailand, are significant sources of Malaysia's culinary heritage.

Coconut milk is ubiquitous in Malaysia, imparting a delicious smoothness to curries and other favourite dishes. And rice is the mainstay of every Malaysian meal.

The method of cooking varies from state to state. Using the same basic ingredients, the recipes are customised to each state's unique taste and special local produce.

The unchallenged Malaysian favourite is nasi lemak, a rice dish cooked in coconut milk and served with ikan bilis, sambal, boiled egg, fried peanuts and sliced cucumber. Other rice dishes include nasi kandar, nasi dagang, chicken rice and nasi goreng (fried rice). Among the other popular dishes are satay (skewered pieces of barbecued meat or chicken), roti canai (pancake made from wheat-flour), rojak (salad of fruits and egg with peanut sauce), kway teow (flat rice noodles), curry laksa (a noodle dish served in curry), rendang and steamboat.

All the above Malaysian dishes have their equivalents in vegetarian form, with the non-vegetarian ingredients ingeniously substituted with items prepared from flour, rice, legumes, soya and vegetables.

Tantalizing vegetarian dishes are served in Chinese vegetarian restaurants, which can be found in most Malaysian towns. There are also some Indian vegetarian restaurants operating in major Malaysian cities. Most South Indian banana-leaf restaurants serve a good range of vegetarian dishes, especially on Fridays. Vegetarian menus are also available in many of the other eateries, including Thai and Italian restaurants, and in most major hotels and clubhouses.

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