There are few dishes that cross cultures as effortlessly as char-grilled chicken. In Japan, there's yakitori — skewers cooked over binchotan or oak charcoal. In Lebanon, there's farrouj meshwi, whole birds marinated in sumac and garlic, and best enjoyed with an assortment of pickles.
In Malaysia, there's ayam bakar, an aromatic dish from maritime Southeast Asia that features in both Malaysian and Indonesian cuisines often served with fiery sambal (chilli relish) and wrapped in banana leaves.
This culinary staple is also the highlight at Sharon Kwan Kitchen, an eatery doling out Malaysian street food from a Parramatta Road shopfront that's the handiwork of self-described home cook and entrepreneur Sharon Kwan.
"My thing is grilled chicken or ayam bakar — it's a Malay dish that you can't find in any of the night markets in Kuala Lumpur, it's in the small compounds where Malays predominantly live," says Kwan, who is originally from Kuala Lumpur and has lived in Sydney for thirty years.
"Malaysia is one of those countries that's crazy about food. After being here for so long, I realised that a lot of Malaysian restaurants in Sydney are not very authentic. But I wanted to something different and a friend said to me, 'there's no one doing Asian barbecue chicken'. I don't believe in dumbing down the flavours and cook the way that Malaysians want to eat."
"I don't believe in dumbing down the flavours and cook the way that Malaysians want to eat."
Even though Kwan had always relished cooking her favourite Malaysian dishes for herself, she branched into making them for other people after fielding requests at a takeaway shop she ran with a partner in Bondi. But she says opening Sharon Kwan Kitchen has given her culinary instincts the chance to take full flight.
She marinates her ayam bakar with curry powder and lemongrass, tamarind and coconut before grilling it using a gas-fired Radiant 2000 rotisserie. Then there's the all-important matter of sambal.
"When I started, I came up with two sauces – a Thai-style Nam Jim dressing and a satay sauce," says Kwan, who also offers classic dishes such as Malaysian chicken curry, char kway teow and beef rendang.
"But then I realised that ayam bakar is not ayam bakar without sambal and so I started experimenting with medium-spicy sambal.
"[In the future] I want to introduce Hainanese chicken rice and Cantonese fried noodles with egg sauce – and Malaysian Char Siu BBQ pork, which is really different. When you mention that to a Malaysian, they really salivate."
Malaysia is a melting pot and is home to Malay, Cantonese, Indian and Nyonya cooking traditions. Kwan also takes cues from Sydney’s own mishmash of flavours and cultures — her menu includes roti wraps as well as home-style Indian dishes like chickpea masala, curry puffs and beef keema.
There’s also an intriguing dish called Chairman Mao’s favourite braised pork.
Kwan says her food has also been influenced by the cultural diversity of Australia.
"I've lived in Australia for thirty years and now I’ve been here longer than I lived in Malaysia," she smiles.
"There's a big part of me that's Malaysian but I also get influenced by Sydney multiculturalism. I started out just with flame-grilled chicken, but now I also incorporate Vietnamese salad, a few Thai dishes and other cuisines that I love."
This Malaysian family favourite uses a whole fish head for maximum flavour and visual impact. Food Safari Water
Owing to diverse culinary influences, Malaysian cuisine is as varied as it is delicious. From the Indonesian-born rendang to the fiery curries of India, to the much loved laska lemak: Malaysian food has earned its reputation as one of the tastiest cuisines on the planet.
“Intensely flavourful and rich, this traditional Malay beef rendang is a classic favourite during Eid, when Muslims in Singapore break their fast with a feast. Rendang is a dry curry that originated among the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra and later spread throughout Indonesia, Malaysia and into Singapore.” Adam Liaw, Destination Flavour Singapore