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A guide to Malaysian spices with Norman Musa

by Norman Musa

published on 15 February 2016

Spices are essential in Malaysian cooking and are central to the recipes in my cookbook, Amazing Malaysian. I keep a spice tin in my kitchen cupboard that I always take with me on my travels whenever I have cooking demos. Here are some of the spices I’m never without.

Cloves – Cengkih

A good friend of mine, Mark, who is an experienced and knowledgeable tour guide in Penang, recently told me that my hometown in Penang produces one of the best quality cloves in the world. Cloves are brilliant to infuse rice, like the tomato-based rice dish in Amazing Malaysian, and when added into tea. It’s also my favourite spice to add to jelly desserts. When buying cloves, get the one that has a round bulb at the tip, which is the best quality.

Mixed Spices (Panch Poran) – Halba Campur

This spice mix, known as panch poran, comprises mustard seeds, nigella seeds, fennel or sometimes carom seeds and fenugreek. You can mix it yourself if you have all the spices handy but can get this in most Asian grocery stores. It is used for the fish curry recipe in my cookbook. You only need about a teaspoon for the recipe and if you add more, the mustard seeds and fenugreek will make your dish slightly bitter.

Nutmeg – Biji Buah Pala

In Penang, the flesh of nutmeg is turned to pickle, the mace into ointment, and the seed into ground spice. At home, I prefer to keep the whole nutmeg in my kitchen cupboard and grate it fresh whenever I need it, instead of ready ground in a jar. Freshly grated nutmeg is strong so you only need a little as the flavour can overpower other spices.

Cinnamon – Kulit Kayu Manis

I had never seen a cinnamon tree until the famous Auntie Aini in Nilai showed me. I remember my first visit to her café; she picked the cinnamon leaf, bruised it with her fingers and told me to smell and guess to which plant it belonged. Luckily I guessed right! Knowing her she would have had a go at me for getting it wrong. Auntie Aini is so knowledgeable and never fails to share her knowledge with others who are keen to learn. The sweet smell of cinnamon makes it one of my favourite spices. The best cinnamon is the rolled type, which is more expensive than the bark.

Star Anise – Bunga Lawang

This is one of my late mum’s favourite spices. To honour her for the amazing recipes she passed down to me, which I have included in the book, I chose it for the book cover design. In the kitchen, I break the petals into smaller pieces before toasting and grinding them with other spices. Star anise is great for seasoning both savoury and sweet dishes and works particularly well for infusing rice.

Ground Five Spice – fennel, cinnamon, star anise, cloves and peppercorns.

Whoever created this spice mixture is a genius. It is perfectly balanced with each spice complementing one another and is so aromatic. I like to add this 1sp of this spice to 2 tbsp hoisin sauce and a pinch of salt and use it to marinate 400g chicken pieces. I then fry them with a little oil on a low heat until cooked and serve them thinly sliced with a salad. Delicious.

Green Cardamom – Buah Pelaga

If you accidentally chew on a cardamom pod – you’ll know about it! If I use whole cardamoms in my cooking, I count how many I put in the dish and, once cooked, make sure I remove them all because biting into them can be unpleasant. In my restaurant kitchen, where a dish is cooked in a big batch, we use a muslin cloth to make a spice pouch, and then all the spices can be removed easily. I don’t usually bruise cardamom pods before adding to a dish unless they are toasted with other spices.

Ready to start experimenting with Malaysian spices in your own kitchen? Order your copy of Amazing Malaysian.

From the book


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