FINDING an all-Malay restaurant in Malaysia is rare, food writer Nancy Nash found when she compiled a dining guide to Malaysia in the mid-80s. Finding an authentic Malay restaurant is as futile as finding an authentic Cantonese one. What one finds are modern versions of both. While Danish businessman Steen Andersen recalls the exciting, spicy foods he enjoyed while living in Kuala Lumpur, he maintains you can find similar dishes here ''but they're toned down to suit the local tastes''. When one journalist explained he judged a good Indonesian restaurant by its vegetable curry in coconut milk, he said the dish could also be found in Malaysia. ''Does anyone really know what Malaysian food is, let alone where to find it?'' he quipped. What you expect from a multi-cultural society of Chinese, Indians and Malays is what you get on the table - a cuisine to match the richness of the cultures. Malay cooks rely on an abundance of tropical produce, and use a wide variety of herbs and spices, gravies of coconut milk, green lemons and tamarind pulp. No two cooks can make the same dish taste the same. But searching through the hawker centres of Singapore, Penang's Geary Drive or the night markets of Kota Kinabalu brings back fond memories. Hot-sour seafood combinations in clay pots, the prawns with black pepper keep you licking and dousing the flames with beer. Ayam kuzzi (chicken stuffed with fruits and nuts in spicy yogurt) coaxes your mind on a trip through India. Rarely do city-type restaurants offer lemang, uncooked glutinous rice wrapped in banana leaf and cooked with coconut milk and salt in bamboo. It is usually prepared over an open-fire and eaten with rendang or curry. The Minangkabau people brought the specialty to Malaysia from Sumatra. In the grand hotels of Kuala Lumpur (don't forget the Grand Hyatt or Peninsula Hotel here), you can re-live the colonial days by having tiffin-style lunch. You don't have to be a Dutch grandee to have an elaborate rijstafel. Just call ahead to a Malay home cook or any of the 12 or more Indonesian restaurants here and order one for your eating team. Expect rice and a variety of curries, so many coconut-milk-based gravies and satay (grilled, skewered pieces of meat). The Malaysian peanut sauce is zestier than that found in Indonesia. Sop up the luxurious gravy with bread: fried, baked or grilled - the only danger is to overdo, especially with roti canai, a flat bread, dipped in dahl or curry sauce. One person's eyes lit up at the mention of desserts. He recalled the sweet snack vendors lined up along Geary Drive in Penang. ''They were making ice kachang, '' he said, describing the refreshing, multi-hued dessert of shaved ice. Impossible to ignore were the vendors standing behind apothecary jars filled with ingredients including jelly, red beans, nuts, corn and evaporated milk and fruit syrups. Try Bali Restaurant in Kowloon, Indonesia Padang in Causeway Bay or any of the Banana Leaf Curry House restaurants and Satay Huts. The quest for pure Malay food reminds one Hong Kong businessman of the search for authentic Cantonese cooking. ''It is also disappearing because the food culture and the taste have changed,'' Anthony Cheung said. Of the seven restaurants owned by Mr Cheung and his brother Alex, the three Banana Leaf Curry Houses purport to be ''modern Malaysian.'' They serve modern Malaysian - Indian, Chinese, Malaysian, Singaporean. The Cheungs hired 30 cooks from Malaysia and India for their restaurants. The waitresses are Thai. Recruiting Malay waitresses is impossible. ''The popular cuisine is a mix of Indian and Malay,'' Mr Cheung said. Teaching locals to ''go native'' was a gradual process, however. Using your hands to eat instead of cutlery and eating off banana leaves instead of plates are accepted and enjoyed by the younger customers. ' Since being well-dressed is a part of the local culture, Cheung theorises, people don't want to get their clothes and hands dirty ''except when they are on holiday''.