What are the common spices that are used in Malaysian cooking?


What are the common spices that are used in Malaysian cooking?


Agar Agar

This is a type of gelatine that is made from seaweed and can set without refrigeration. Available in strand which must be soaked in water for 1/2 hour before use or powder. If using powder, pre-soaking is not necessary. Ordinary gelatine should not be used as a substitute.


A gum derived from a Persian plant that is used in tiny amounts in Indian cooking to give it flavor. Available in small rectangular blocks from Indian spice shops. Also known as hing in India and perankayam in Tamil.

Asam Gelugur

Malay name for the sweet and sour garcinia fruit. This fruit resembles a dried apple. It is usually sliced and used in place of tarmarind pulp in some Malay or Nonya dishes.

Asam Keping (Tamarind)

Thinly sliced and dried until shrivelled and brownish black. Widely grown in tropical & sub-tropical climate. Tamarind fruit and leaves have reported to have medicinal qualities.


In most savory dishes, non-sweet bananas similar to plantains are sued (e.g. pisang kepok, pisang kari, pisang nipah). Be sure not to substitute with sweet dessert bananas. Banana leaf is frequently used to wrap cakes and fish. Foil can be substituted in most cases but you will miss out on the flavor.

Banana Buds

Are unopened flowers of the banana plant. They taste a bit like artichokes and are quite popular as part of a salad dish. To prepare the buds for eating, remove the coarse outer petals of the bud then quarter the heart and slice lengthwise. If you choose not to use immediately, soak the slices in cold water and sprinkle lime juice.


Fragrant long-grain rice usually from Pakistan. It has a delicious nutty flavor. Sometimes sold as Patna Rice.

Balacan (Belachan/Blacan)

Common use in Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia as flavoring for vegetables. Indispensable dish in Nyonya cuisine. Made from red chillie, roasted balacan and kalamansi. If using this, it is better to roast it in a toaster oven or in a pan before adding unless used as part of a paste otherwise flavor will be bitter. Be aware than when you are doing this, will emit a smell so open all windows and use a well-ventilated area.

Biji Sawi (Mustard Seeds)

Mixed with various herbs and powder will produce varying flavors, mixed with water will produce a hotter and sharper flavor. Mixing with vinegar gets you milder effect. Prevent biji sawi from deteriorating by cooking it in hot oil until it turns crisps.

Buah Pelaga (Cardamon)

Native to India and Southeast Asia, the fruit is a small capsule with 8 to 16 brown seeds; the seeds are used as a spice. Available at most Indian grocery stores. Store in a cool, dry place, away from any moisture.

Buah Keras (Candlenut)

Fruits of the Candlenut, Candle-berry, or Varnish tree from India, Phillipine and Pacific Islands. Copntains large amount of of oil, will become rancid if kept too long. Toxin found in nuts unsuitable for eating raw but vanishes during cooking. Subsitute: macadamia or cashew nuts


The hottest variety is known as birds-eye chili or chili padi (birds eye chillies) and are about 2 cm long. Chill-tairu are green chillies preserved in salted yogurt, store in tins and usually deep-fry in hot oil for a few seconds before use.

Chinese Plum Sauce

This is a reddish to brown condiment that is made from salted plums, vinegar, sugar and a dash of chillies. You can usually get them in jars or cans in supermarkets. Used for dipping sauce with spring rolls.


Myrtle family. Very strong, aromatic and intense flavor. Use sparingly. Medicinal properties: warm spleen and stomach. Used in many Asian dishes from curry to flavoring tea.

Coriander Seeds

Present in almost most blends of curry spices. Of the parsley family. Most come from Morocco, India and Romania. Store in cool, dark place. When planted in good soil and full sunlight, you can actually grow coriander plants.

Cumin Seeds (Jintan Putih)

Are pale to brown to black seeds in color and are ridged on the outside. They impart an wonderful earthly flavor and are used whole, roasted or ground into fine powder. Cumin seeds are usually partnered with coriander seeds in basic Malaysian spice mixture and are often dry-roasted in oil to enhance their flavor.

Daun Limou Purut (Kaffir Lime Leaves)

Wonderful fragrant leaf from a variety of citrus. Any young citrus leaves can be substituted though their flavor is nowhere near as lovely and fragrant. Can be bought fresh then freeze in freezer and taken out as needed.

Daun Kari (Curry Leave)

sed abundantly by South Indian cooks, curry leaves (karuvapillai in Tamil) must not be confused with Indonesian daun salam, a type of bay leaf. Curry leaves are about 1 inch long, dark green in color and have a pungent smell. Dried leaves can be used if fresh ones are not available.

Gula Melaka

Also known as palm sugar. It is a hard brown sugar block made from the sap of the aren palm. If not available, subsitute with soft brown sugar with a touch of maple syrup.

Glutinous Rice

A variety of rice which becomes very sticky when cooked, used mostly for cakes and known as pulot. Avaible in most Chinese grocery stores.


The Malay name for this vegetable is terong and the Indian name is brinjal. The Asian varieties are much smaller than European eggplant or aubergine. Another variety is the longer Asian eggplant also known as Chinese Egg Plant.

Hokkien Noodles

Also known as stir-fry noodles, these are fresh egg noodles that resemble thick yellow brown spaghetti that does not need to be pre-cook before use.

Ikan Bilis (Dried Anchovies)

Range in sizes from very tiny varieties (known as silver fish) to the larger variety often about 2 cm long. If using large, you must discard the heads and intestine otherwise it will leave a bitter flavor. Fish have to be salted before dried. Before using ikan bilis, you should wash them under cold water then put them out to dry otherwise it will leave a salty residue on your tongue.

Jintan Manis (Fennel)

Of parsley family. Mainly comes from Egypt and India. Sweet, mild flavor - used in most cooking (usually with fish) but also for medicinal purposes. (diuretic & breast feeding).


White lime used as part of a betel quid.

Kayu Manis (Cinnamon)

Cinnamon sticks are made from long pieces of bark that are rolled, pressed, and dried. Most common in dried powder form. Storage: Cool, dry and dark places. Do not boil dry form - will loose flavor. Can be bought in bark pieces as well.

Kecap Manis (Sweet Soy Sauce)

Also known as ketijap manis with origins from Indonesia. This sweet, thick soy sauce has sugar (hence the name) and spices added. Usually used in stir-fries.

Kim Chiam (Dried Lily Buds)

Sometimes called Golden Needles and are slender golden-brown strips.

Kunyit Powder (Turmeric Powder)

Indian name: (Haldi) also known as 'Indian Saffron'. Used mostly in Indian dishes for coloring. Do not add too much or it will overwhelm most flavors. Buy only in dry prepared form.

Laksa Paste

Is a ready-made curry paste which contains a combination of spices, dried shrimp and peanuts. It is cooked with coconut milk and seafood or chicken to make Malaysian laksa.

Lengkuas (Galangal Ginger)

Galangal is vailable in many forms: fresh, dried, frozen, powdered (small quantities only). Ginger may be substituted but recipe may loose some flavors. Indonesian name is laos. If using in pieces, remove from dish before serving.


Two types of limes: large green lime (shaped like lemon) and small round lime which is known as limau kesturi. The small lime has more fragrance. Substitute with half-ripe kumquats if possible, otherwise use lemon juice.

Mint Leaves

Usually sold as fresh sprigs or dried then minced. If you choose to buy fresh, store the mint leaves in the refrigerator, wrap them in paper towels then sealed in a plastic bag. Bottles of dried mint leaves should be stored away from light, heat and moisture. Just before use, crush the dried leaves in your hand to release the flavor.


A minute spice resembling parsley seed and is used to flavor dishes like murruku and other Indian dishes. Botanical name is carom. Indians call it ajwain. No substitute.

Pandan Leaves

Versatile, common in many Malaysian cooking. Used for coloring and flavoring (slightly nutty) of desserts and cakes. From the screwpine family. Easily grown in a tropical garden.

Serai (Lemon Grass)

Lemon scented herb. The whitish stem can be used for seasoning. Mashing or chopping up this herb before cooking will spread the flavor.

Rempah Tumis Ikan (Fish Curry Spices)

A mixture of whole spices including brown mustard seed, funugreek, cumin, fennel and husked blackgram dhal (biji sawi, alba, jintan puteh, jintan manis, urad dhal) If you cannot obtain this ready-mixed mixture, mix your own using 1 tsp of each spice except for fenugreek (1/2 tsp).

Rice Flour

Made from ground uncooked rice grains. Used to make doughs and batters for many Malaysian desserts. Fresh rice flour was traditionally made by soaking the rice overnight then slowly grinding in a stone mill. The same result may be achieved by using a blender instead. Sold in packages.

Rose Water

Rose water essence is a wonderful evocative flavor with Arabian origin. Used in some Indian and Malay dishes. If you are using the concentrated rose essence, be sure to use less the amount required than rose water which is diluted.

Salted Soya Beans

Soft brown salty beans in a thick paste called taucheo. In North America, sold in bottles as "Black Bean Sauce".

Sago Pearls

Dried beads of sago starch obtained by grinding the pith of the sago palm tree to a paste then pressing it through a sieve. Pearls are glutinous with little taste, often used in Asian desserts. May be rinsed in water and drained to remove excess starch before use. Sold in various sizes and colors, in plastic packets.

Sambal Olek

Or ulek or olek. Is Indonesian in origin. This is a salty paste made from ground chillies.


Or dark fine cumin. Generally used in Northern Indian cuisine. It is roasted, ground and used sparingly.


Small mackerels that are usually packed in tomato sauce, brine or olive oil. Much longer than and different flavor from the European sardines. If you are not using sardines from a Malaysian or Singaporean brand, buy mackerel, snoek or herring in tomato sauce instead.


Malay name is bawang merah meaning 'red onion' for these pinkish-purple marble sized onions. Taste slightly 'sweeter' than the bigger variety. If not available, use the purple Bombay onions or the brown skinned onions.

Soy Sauce

Two types: light thin soy sauce and thick dark soya sauce. Dark and light soy sauce are used for seasoning. The light sauce is generally saltier than the dark and is used in stir-fries and with light meats. The dark soy sauce adds a rich flavor and color to braised and red meat dishes and is generally thicker in texture.

Spring onions

Slender green stalks with a white base. Not to be confused with shallots which are small round pink onions. Use as part of a dish or as garnish, spring onions are the mainstay in Malaysian cuisine.


Is not actually tofu but made from fermented soy beans which become solid. It can be sliced or cut into cubes and steamed, baked or fried. You can also use it as part of a dip.

Tofu (Bean Curd)

Soya bean is one of the most versatile products in Asia. Made from soya bean and is available in several forms. Firm tofu is known as taukwa, soft tofu is tahu and dried bean curd skins is fu chook in sticks or tin chook in sheets.

Wild Ginger Buds (Bunga Kantan)

Are the pink buds of wild ginger plants, also known as Torch Ginger. Highly aromatic and lend a subtle but distinct fragrance to Malay and Nonya dishes.

Yam Beans

Yam beans also known as jicama is a crunchy white vegetable. Known as bangkwang in Malay. Has a flavor that is a crossed between apple and potato. If none is available or out of season, you can usually substitute with canned water chestnuts.

Young Ginger

Comparing to other spices, the taste and smell of young ginger is weaker. It is crisp and with no dregs. When peeling ginger, use the back of a spoon. You can also keep ginger root frozen in your freezer - this will allow you to grate the ginger easier and faster.

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