The Beginner’s Malaysian Pantry

Learning to cook Malaysian can be somewhat like trying to learn a new language, especially where ingredients are concerned.

Many ‘Malaysian’ recipes published by prominent chefs based outside of Malaysia call for an incredibly long list of ingredients for each dish. This can be intimidating for someone just starting out or trying to recreate the dishes they remember from childhood, and one has to wonder if it’s because the chefs are purists and like to make things from scratch, or if they don’t in fact know that most Malaysians use many shortcuts in their cooking.

For example, rather than stocking up on 20 different spices then roasting and blending them yourself, it’s often much easier to simply buy commercially-prepared spice mixes. Believe it or not, many signature curries continually praised as being the best people have ever tasted use these commercial blends.

Learning this new culinary language can be further complicated by the fact that Malaysia is an ethnically diverse country with cuisine contributions from different cultural groups each having their own take on what is indispensable, and what they would seldom use.

In addition, many ingredients go by different names depending on the country from which they originate (the herb Malaysians call ‘laksa leaves’ is known to others as ‘Vietnamese mint’), while some ingredients with the same name are quite different depending on the country of origin (palm sugar in Thai recipes is a different product from the palm sugar used in Malaysian desserts).

This Beginner Pantry list is by no means definitive, and to be honest it is not short – just shorter – but I hope that it will simplify things to a large extent. Even if you don’t have all these items on hand, knowing where to get them means you will be able to cook most Malaysian dishes you come across.


  • Brown onions
  • Garlic, fresh peeled and dry granulated
  • Lemongrass, fresh or frozen minced
  • Ginger, fresh or dry powder
  • Pandan leaves, fresh or frozen
  • Curry leaves, fresh or frozen
  • Kaffir Lime leaves, fresh or dried
  • Laksa leaves aka Vietnamese Mint, Daun Kesum or Polygonum, fresh only
  • Chillies, large and small varieties, fresh or dried
  • Coriander aka Cilantro, fresh

Spices, Seasonings and Dried Goods

  • Meat Curry powder
  • Fish Curry powder
  • Turmeric powder
  • Coconut milk and coconut cream
  • Tamarind, pulp or concentrate
  • Belacan (shrimp paste), granulated or block-style
  • Petis Udang aka Hei Ko (prawn paste), thick molasses
  • Chicken stock, cubes or granules
  • Ikan bilis (anchovy), dried
  • Udang kering (small shrimp), dried
  • Palm sugar, Malaysian-style in logs specifically Indonesian-made versions labelled Gula Aren or Gula Jawa (Thai version are lighter and not recommended for Malaysian recipes)


  • Kicap Cair, light soy sauce
  • Kicap Pekat, thick soy or thick caramel sauce
  • Oyster sauce
  • Hoisin sauce
  • Ground bean paste
  • Fish Sauce
  • Red Palm or vegetable oil

Flours, grains and noodles

  • Rice, usually jasmine
  • Glutinous rice
  • Rice flour
  • Glutinous rice flour
  • Tapioca flour
  • Toor dhal
  • Rice sticks aka rice vermicelli
  • Fresh rice noodles aka Hor Fun or Kway Teow
  • Fresh egg noodles aka Hokkien noodles or Mein

Shopping for ingredients outside Malaysia

It is unlikely you will find a ‘Malaysian’ grocery store, no matter the concentration of Malaysians in an area, so aim for stores from Malaysia’s closest Southeast Asian neighbours.

  • Vietnamese, Indonesian, Thai and Laotian: the widest range and cuisines that are the closest match to that of Malaysia

  • Indian: best bet for the spices such as cardamom or asafoetida

  • Chinese grocery stores: thick or thin soy, rice, noodles, hoisin sauce

If you can’t find Malaysian-made ingredients, aim for those coming in from other Southeast Asian countries, for example Indonesian palm sugar and durian from Thailand. For Chinese-made ingredients, where possible look for Hong Kong or Singaporean products.

Brands trusted for quality by Jackie M (this is non-definitive)

  • Mak Siti
  • Carotino oil
  • Habhal
  • Cheong Chan
  • Lee Kum Kee
  • Kara
  • Chang’s
  • Pun Chun 


  • Different brands of sauce – soya sauce, oyster sauce, tamarind concentrate, etc. – have different levels of salt/sugar/sourness. Don’t be afraid to experiment and adjust recipes to suit your tastes.




  • Coriander: A popular herb used in soups and for garnish
  • Brown onion: Pureed and used as a base for Malaysian spice paste (rempah) in place of shallots
  • Dried anchovies: Most often fried for Nasi Lemak, or used to make a great soup base
  • Kaffir lime leaves: Commonly used in Malay and Nyonya recipes to impart fragrant lime undertones
  • Garlic: A key ingredient in curries and stir-fries, usually minced
  • Lemongrass: Used fresh and minced or bruised and knotted before being added to curry for an herbal lemon fragrance
  • Curry Leaves: Adds a peppery flavour to curry dishes and some stir-fries
  • Pandan Leaves: Paired with coconut milk in both sweet and savoury dishes, often described as ‘Asian vanilla’

Cans and Jars

  • Palm Sugar: Indispensable in Malaysian sweets and desserts, dissolved in boiling water or grated before use
  • Tamarind puree: Imparts sourness in dishes, using concentrate or puree is quicker than extracting pulp from seeds
  • Meat Curry Powder: Mix of spices tailored for meat-based curries
  • Fish Curry Powder: Mix of spices most suitable for fish or seafood curries
  • Shrimp (Prawn) Paste: A thick molasses liquid used in rojak and Chee Cheong Fun, not to be confused with belacan, which is a pungent and dry or semi-dry product
  • Belacan: Also known as Shrimp Paste, belacan is sold in blocks or granules and is commonly used in curries
  • Coconut Cream: A must-have ingredient made from coconut flesh blended with water then strained, it forms the base of most Malaysian curries
  • Chicken Powder: Often used in place of salt, stock powder (or cubes) give a more rounded flavour to all kinds of dishes
  • Ground Bean Sauce: A Chinese ingredient that’s found its way into Malaysian dishes such as Mee Siam and stir-fries

Bottles pic

  • Carotino Red Palm Oil: A healthy oil produced from sustainable plantations in Malaysia, it’s flavour neutral and perfect for Malaysian cooking
  • Salty Soya Sauce: Chinese sauce that’s used as a base in many noodle dishes and in stir-fries
  • Sweet Soya Sauce: Kicap Manis is used in some Malay dishes to add sweetness and depth of flavour
  • Thick Caramel Sauce: Kicap Pekat, a treacly, dark sauce often used in noodle dishes like Kuala Lumpur Hokkien Mee and non-Penang Char Kway Teow
  • Fish Sauce: The use of this salty liquid, especially in Penang dishes, shows the influence of Malaysia’s northern neighbours
  • Chilli Sauce: Thick, spicy and slightly sweet, a great condiment for fried rice and noodle dishes
  • Oyster Sauce: A Chinese ingredient commonly used as a base in sauces, marinades and stir-fries

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