• A teh tarik competition is one of many events on at M Fest (M Fest)Source: M Fest
This annual festival is a love letter to the depth and breadth of Malaysian cuisine.
Neha Kale

12 Sep 2019 - 12:25 PM  UPDATED 24 Sep 2019 - 10:49 AM

For Sylvia Liaw, culinary memories are made from much-loved childhood treats. When Liaw, who's the founder of Borneo Snacks, was growing up in Sarawak, a state blanketed in rainforest on Malaysian Borneo, she was a fan of apam balik, a turnover pancake laced with crushed peanuts and sugar. She’s bringing this confection to the Malaysia Festival or M Fest, a yearly tribute to Malaysian food, art and culture. The two-day festival, unfolding at Sydney’s Tumbalong Park later this month, showcases the culinary diversity that’s typical of Malaysia, a country that spans multiple religions, ethnicities and geographies.

“As a child, I used to eat apam balik over the weekend and for breakfast, high tea and supper – any time of day,” laughs Liaw, who will also be selling tau fu fah, soy bean pudding with palm sugar ginger syrup, and muachi, glutinous rice balls coated with peanuts, at the event.

 “I have a background as a pastry chef and have lived here for ten years. I craved something from my hometown so in 2016, I started testing out the [apam balik] recipe. [In Malaysia] The pancake comes with peanut and sugar, but I’ve twisted this to include hazelnut, Nutella and cheese options. People often tell me that they can’t remember the last time they could find this in Sydney.”

You can find street hawkers turning out versions of apam balik across Malaysia, Indonesia and parts of China. The turnover pancake, which can be crispy or fluffy, may have been introduced to Malaysia by Hokkien Chinese immigrants.

Liaw’s version will be one of many Malaysian food treasures on offer at M Fest. The festival, which runs on September 21 and 22, will have stalls offering everything from noodles to bottles of sweet, rich kaya, as well as competitions - including a teh tarik, or 'pulled tea' competition - music and other entertainment. 

At the Surry Hills eatery Cafe Rumah, Riszal Nawawi channels the spirit of the kopitiam – the white-walled coffee shops endemic to the backstreets of Kuala Lumpur – via coffee and home-style kaya toast.

“I started the café with my wife and her brother three and-half years ago and the kaya jam is my wife’s grandmother’s recipe,” he says. “We also make kaya madeleines – combining Malaysian food with French pastry.”

Kaya, a sweet, piquant jam originally created with eggs, pandan and coconut leaves, dates back to the Hainan cooks working on British ships in the 1930s. At Malaysia Festival, as well as selling bottles of kaya, plus a traditional Malaysian fried banana fritter, kuih kodok, and a traditional Malay sweet called pandan kuih bakar (“imagine a baked custard texture with pandan and coconut flavour,” he says), Riszal is also trialling a more modern culinary invention: his take on the Ramly burger, a Malaysian fast-food favourite created in the late ‘70s by Ramly Mokni at a family kiosk that operated on a Kuala Lumpur street.

“The Ramly burger is my favourite thing to eat when I go back to Malaysia – it’s a late-night snack and the beef burger is encased in an omelette with chilli and mayo and you can gobble it up at two or three am,” Riszal says. “We’ll also be serving a dry-style curry chicken served with potato gems.”

Gavin Ooi’s Malaysia Festival offering will be a little more traditional. The owner of May’s Malaysian Hawker, a Malaysian food stall that has roots in a one-time North Sydney institution called May’s Laksa House, and now serves night markets across Sydney and Brisbane, focusses on the classics: sizzling stir-fries and iconic noodle dishes such as mee and nasi goreng.

Look for fresh noodles and sweet desserts

For Ooi, working events such as Malaysia Festival offer an opportunity to refine the smoky flavour and texture that can elevate a well-known Malaysian culinary staple.

“When you serve noodles in a restaurant there is usually a waiting time of about ten minutes but with street food, it’s often straight from the wok,” he tells SBS. “We use a high-pressure burner or our wok because it’s all about the smokiness. That’s what makes it delicious.”

His mee goreng is also proof that food can cut across cultures.

“Over the last ten years, we’ve honed and tweaked our mee goreng,” he says. “Australia is so multicultural – we have Anglo-Australians, Indians, Muslims. We’ve managed to come up with a recipe that’s very appealing.”

Malaysia Festival

Tumbalong Park, Sydney

September 21-22.

Flavours of Malaysia
Sambal fish (sambal ikan)

Simple and spicy, there’s nothing not to love about this Malaysian classic. If you prefer, you could use an oily fish, say  mackerel or even tuna steaks. You don’t strictly need to remove the seeds from the chillies but bear in mind that if you don’t, the chilli-heat will dial up considerably.

Coconut-palm sugar pancakes (kueh dadar)

If you can’t get fresh pandan leaves for the pancakes, substitute 1 teaspoon pandan paste, which you can easily purchase from Asian or Indian food stores. It will make the pancakes very green!

Turnover with spiced minced meat and cabbage (murtabak)

A variation of roti canai, these savoury breads are filled with a spiced lamb mixture. The special ingredient, Malaysian meat curry powder, contains a variety of spices including cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric and coriander, and is available from Asian food shops.

Food Safari's char kway teow

This recipe for char kway teow is everything a good dish should be – full of great flavour and contrasting textures.