Indian traders, sailors and religious missionaries have been travelling to Malaysia for millennia, their passage still marked by the remains of Hindu and Buddhist shrines that are found all over south-east Asia. In the nineteenth century, when Malaysia was under British rule, many more people from the Indian subcontinent came to find work on plantations, in businesses and in the government bureaucracy. Malaysia today has a large Hindu population, with a majority having roots in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
The Batu caves, located just outside Kuala Lumpur, are home to a Hindu temple that is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. The temple is built inside naturally occurring rock formations in the limestone hills that rise north of the city.
it was in 1890 that a wealthy Indian trader first installed statues of Hindu deities in the caves, dedicating it as a shrine. Since then several more temples have been built, along with a 140 ft high statue of the god Murugan near the entrance to the caves. The temple complex has become an important pilgrimage site for Hindus, especially during festivals.
You have to climb about 300 steps cut into the mountainside to reach the caves. Once you have climbed to the top, an impressive view of the city spread out below greets you. The main temple in its cavernous hall and vaulted ceiling is also an impressive sight.
One of the first things you notice before you even get to the caves are the monkeys. Considered sacred, the monkeys are allowed to roam freely all over the temple complex and you will see them scampering everywhere.
These monkeys keep a watchful eye on tourists and pilgrims. At first we thought they were cute but after we saw them impudently snatching at food and grabbing bags, they stopped being adorable! This little fella knows a thing or two about good ice cream but isn't quite sure which way to hold the cone!
At the base of the steps leading up to the caves are a small collection of shops selling fresh flower garlands and a variety of sweets to offer in the temples, as well as green coconut water to quench your thirst and delicious south Indian snacks such as chaklis (deep fried rice flour pretzels) and pakoras to revive you after the arduous climb!
Malaysian food is an intriguing blend of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisines with unusual dishes such as Nasi Biryani or curry noodles that are hard to find elsewhere. Arab and Indian traders introduced spicy curries and biryanis to Malaysia and over time local ingredients and cooking techniques were incorporated to create uniquely Malay dishes. We tried nasi biryani in a hawker food center just after visiting the caves and it's carb rich, spicy flavours went a long way towards restoring our flagging energy levels!
This colourful biryani is like a burst of radiant sunshine at the dinner table. Cooked just the way it is in India, this style of biryani, layered with meat or poultry, is usually reserved for special occasions. In most Malaysian restaurants, Nasi Biryani or Beriani refers to just the spiced rice cooked without meat, with a variety of curries offered on the side.
Follow the same recipe to make vegetarian briyani by substituting assorted vegetables or paneer for the chicken. To save time, make the curry beforehand. Nasi Biryani is good served with Nyonya Chicken Curry Kapitan or Lamb Rendang.
Read more about saffron in The Glory Of Saffron.
1 medium cooking onion, quartered
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 inch piece ginger
2 green chilies
6 large whole canned plum tomatoes with juices
2 tbsp oil
2 each, whole spices: cardamom, cloves, star anise,
1/2 inch piece each, whole spices: cinnamon stick, mace flowers, nutmeg
1/2 tsp each: cumin seeds, cayenne pepper
8 boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite sized pieces
1 medium raw potato, peeled and cubed into bite sized pieces
1 tsp each, ground spices: garam masala, coriander, cumin, fennel, turmeric, dried fenugreek leaves
Salt to taste
2 tbsp each: plain full fat yogurt, lemon juice, chopped fresh coriander leaves
2 cups basmati rice
2 tbsp each: oil, melted butter, slivered almonds, raisins
A generous pinch of saffron strands or food colouring
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 boiled eggs, peeled and quartered
For chicken curry:
Combine onions, garlic, ginger and chilies in food processor. Process until well minced. Transfer to a bowl.
Add tomatoes with juices to processor and puree until smooth. Transfer to another bowl and keep handy near stove.
Warm oil in deep skillet over medium heat. Add whole cardamom, cloves, star anise, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg and cumin seeds. Sizzle for about 30 sec, then add reserved minced onion mixture. Saute for 5-7 min until onions no longer smell raw. Add chicken pieces and potato, brown for 5 min.
Add reserved tomato puree and cook for 5 min until slightly thickened.
Add cayenne pepper, salt and ground spices - garam masala, coriander, cumin, fennel, turmeric and dried fenugreek leaves. Stir 1 min, then add yogurt, stirring all the while.
Cover skillet, reduce heat to low and cook for 30 min or until chicken is done and sauce is very thick. Uncover skillet, mix in lemon juice and fresh coriander. Curry can be made up to 3 days ahead of time and kept refrigerated until needed.
Meanwhile, cook rice. Bring 8 cups of water to boil in large saucepan over high heat. Add rice, reduce heat to medium and cook for about 8 min until rice is just done but not mushy. Drain rice and spread on a tray to cool until needed.
Heat oven to 325F. Lightly grease a large flat oven safe dish, big enough to fit the briyani comfortably.
Combine melted butter and saffron or food colouring.
Heat 2 tbsp oil in non stick frying pan. Add sliced onions and cook for about 8 min or until they are lightly browned. Add almonds and raisins to the onions and cook for 2 min. Reserve in bowl.
Spread half the reserved chicken curry on bottom of biryani dish. Top with half the rice. Spoon out remaining chicken curry over rice and spread remaining rice over. Lightly embed boiled egg pieces all over. Scatter fried onions, raisins and almonds over top. Drizzle saffron butter all over. Cover dish tightly with foil and bake for 1 hour.
Let biryani sit, covered for an additional 15 min. Then uncover and transfer it to a serving platter, mixing it gently as you go.