Several months ago we put up a post called Smart Indonesian Kitchen. Since we’ve been here we realize that this list hardly suffices. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to update the list in order to reflect Malaysia as well, and to recognize influences from Indian and Chinese cooking in the local cuisine. So here’s a list of things for a “Smart Archipelago Kitchen.”
Salt, black peppercorns, nutmeg, coriander, cloves, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, cinnamon, cardamom, sugar, peanuts, wheat flour, rice, vegetable oil, eggs, shallots, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, coconut milk, red chilies, green chilies, dried red chilies, limes
Banana leaves – We had a tough time finding these in Indonesia, but have had a better time in Malaysia. We think that they are available fairly easily in the US though, probably at Hispanic markets. In local cooking, banana leaves are used to wrap things for steaming, in particular fish, rice, and sweets. You can get around not having them by using aluminum foil or wax paper, but you won’t get the same taste and it won’t steam just right.
Bihun – These are spelled bee hoon in Singapore and Malaysia; sometimes mee hoon. They may or may not be the same thing as rice vermicelli. They are often served stirfried or in soups, but you can also deep fry them while still dry to make a crunchy garnish. You can find them at any Asian market.
Candlenuts – These are like macadamia nuts, and they can be used interchangeably. We have always seen them mashed into spice pastes. Apparently, raw candlenuts, which they sell in the stores here, are poisonous, so don’t forget to toast them.
Chinese celery – These have a very concentrated celery flavor, and are much smaller. In Malay, they translate as daun sup, which literally means “soup leaf.” You could find them at a Chinese grocery store. You can use the Western kind if you can’t find them, though.
Curry leaves – These are available at South Asian grocery stores. You use them to make curries by frying them in oil along with other spices. We don’t know of an obvious substitute.
Curry powder – When we arrived in Malaysia we were surprised to learn that there are many kinds of curry powder, not just one. Our grocery store sells meat curry powder, chicken curry powder, vegetable curry powder, and fish curry powder. A South Asian grocery store would probably stock all of these.
Galangal – This is like ginger, but different. It looks like ginger and has a similar taste, but its consistency is a little more woody and its taste is less spicy and more earthy. You should be able to find it in South Asian grocery stores, but often only in powdered form. If you can’t find it, just use more ginger.
Garam masala – This is used in many Indian-influenced dishes in Malaysia. It’s a spice powder combining black pepper, cloves, cinnamon, brown cardamom, cumin, bay leaves, and coriander, according to one internet source. You can find it premixed, though, at most any grocery store.
Ghee – Ghee is clarified butter, most commonly used in Indian cooking in Malaysia.
Ikan bilis – These are itty bitty salted dried fish. There are many types of ikan bilis available here, from almost microscopic little fish all the way up to big ones just a big smaller than a pinkie finger. One translation that we heard renders them as sardines, but that may not be accurate. You might be able to find these at a Chinese grocery store, but if not, you could probably use salt cod cut up really small.
Kaffir lime leaves – These can be hard to find in the States. They freeze very well, though, so if you find them, buy a ton of them and save them. Sometimes you find them dried. These are used to flavor stews.
Kecap manis – This is sweet soy sauce. You can find this at most Asian grocery stores, especially those that sell Filipino food, and is an essential part of almost all stir-fries, sauces, and also as a general condiment.
Krupuk – In Malaysia, these are called keropok. We ate these almost every day in Indonesia, and we’ve found them in Malaysia a bunch too. They are basically chips made up of some sort of puffed grain that you deep fry until they’re crispy. A reliable sources says that his aunt makes them by pounding together sago and fish, then drying that mixture until hard. Other than the fish variety, they come in several flavors, including garlic, tempe, and shrimp. In some places you can find them with peanuts embedded in them. We think that you might find them at a store that sells Filipino foods.
Kway Teow – In Indonesia, these are kwe tiauw. They are very thick and flat and white, and we think they are made of rice flour. What’s interesting is that you don’t have to cook them first. They are so soft and squishy that you can just add them right to your stir-fry.
Lumpia skins – These are the Indonesian versions of eggroll wrappers. In Malaysia, unfried lumpia are known as popia. They are the same as Filipino eggroll wrappers too. If you can’t find the special Filipino kind, you can substitute with the Chinese kind available at any Asian grocery store.
Mee hokkien – These are big fat noodles that are, if you go by their name, of Hokkien Chinese origin. They have a bright yellow color and a distinct eggy taste, and we suspect that they contain tons of egg yolks.
Mee kuning – This literally translates and “yellow noodles”. These noodles are are long, yellow, and sort of curly, and they are available either fresh or dried. We think that these have egg in them. Dry versions will definitely be available at any Asian market, but try to find the fresh ones if possible.
Melinjo fruit – We actually don’t know what these are. They act and taste sort of like eggplants, but they’re a different plant. The Indonesian word is melinjo, and our dictionary translates it as “melinjo”; we’ve not seen them in Malaysia, but we may not have looked hard enough. Since they are so much like eggplants, little round eggplants would be a good substitute.
Palm sugar – You can find this at any Hispanic grocery store. It is red and comes sold in blocks that you can shave with a knife. It’s really sweet. There are all different kinds of palm sugar available here, but their flavors are mostly the same. In Malaysia palm sugar is called gula Melaka (Malacca sugar) and in Indonesia the same thing is called gula Jawa (Java sugar). In both places it is also called as gula merah (red sugar). A good substitute would be dark brown sugar, but it’s so cheap that you should really try to find it. On a side note, palm sugar is a fantastic topping for oatmeal.
Pan mee – These are small, long, flat noodles that remind us of fresh Italian pasta. Aside from their shape and not being bright yellow like mee hokkien and mee kuning, the major difference is that they are made from wheat.
Pandan leaves – These are called daun pandan here, and we’ve seen some translations that give the English term as “screwpine leaves”. They lend a certain flavor and a pale green color to sweet desserts around here. As a substitute, we have read that you can use some ginger juice (squeezed from fresh ginger) and green food coloring. You might look for these at a Filipino or South Asian grocery store.
Rice flour and tapioca flour – These are used to make a number of local snacks. They are available at any Asian grocery store, and possibly at health food or vegetarian stores.
Salam leaves – These are the local equivalent of bay leaves, used to flavor soups and curries. The name here is daun salam. We suspect that you cannot find these outside of SE Asia though, and there really is no substitute.
Shrimp paste – Called terasi in Indonesian and belacan in Malay, this is salted, dried, concentrate shrimp. It goes in almost every dish here, but we never use it ourselves, as TP is allergic to shrimp. Yet for some reason, even though we eat out, we’ve never had a problem. We know how you’re supposed to cook it, though: you have to toast it over medium heat before adding it to anything. It’s probably available at Chinese grocery stores, although with a different name. If you don’t want to use it, just leave it out.
Sour carambola – This is like a starfruit, but sour, and goes into curry dishes and stews. It’s local name is asam belimbing (sour starfruit). You might be able to find these at a South Indian or Filipino market, but you can use tamarind paste as a substitute.
Tamarind – This is another sour fruit, usually sold in a pulp form. To make tamarind water, take 1 part tamarind paste and 2 parts water, mix together and let stand for 15 minutes. It name here is asam jawa, which literally means “Javanese sourness”. This is usually available in Hispanic or South Asian grocery stores.
Tauco – This is a fermented salted soybean paste which has a very pungent smell. It’s good once fried, though, and flavors many dishes influenced by Straits Chinese cooking. Maybe one of our friends who is familiar with some Chinese dialect can tell us if this is present in some regional Chinese cuisine (it’s pronounced “tow cho”). You can find this at East Asian grocery stores.
Torch ginger bud – This is the translation that we have for something called bunga kantan. It grows on wild ginger plans here, and has a very interesting and distinct favor. There is no substitute.
Turmeric – Fresh tumeric is nothing like the neutral yellow powder you find in the West. It’s a root and it looks like ginger or galangal, but once you peel it it’s bright orange inside with a distinct, subtle flavor. Beware, though, it will dye your cutting board, fingers, and clothes a bright yellow. If you can’t find this, just use the powdered stuff.