MALAYSIA'S national cuisine reflects the ethnic diversity of its population. Drawing on the culinary traditions of China and India and on the halal food of the Malay Muslims, prepared according to religious prescription, the Malaysians have developed their own distinctive style. Malaysian food is not exactly haute cuisine. The national staples, like those of Indonesia, stress relatively simple preparation and many of the most delicious dishes are sold by street hawkers. Although less spicy than, for example, Thai food, Malaysian cuisine uses plenty of chilli, the other dominant ingredients being rice, noodles, coconut, meat, and seafood. According to halal rules, no pork is permitted. Soups are a Malaysian specialty. Soto is a dish borrowed from Indonesia and based on chicken stock, while Laksa, a particularly popular dish in Penang, combines noodles, fish stock and sometimes coconut milk. Satay - chicken, beef or seafood on skewers cooked over charcoal - is available from street hawkers and in restaurants everywhere. The peanut sauce that comes with satay is an essential condiment and the slices of cucumber help to balance the spices. Noodles range from the thick yellow Mee to the flat white Kway Teow to the thin white Mee Hoon and are prepared in a variety of ways in different parts of the country. Rojak is a salad of cuttlefish, fruits and vegetables, including mango, pineapple, and yam with a dressing of chilli, prawn, paste and ground nuts. Rendang is based on meats preserved in spices and coconut milk served with rice, sometimes in the form of Nasi Padang, a method of presentation rather like that of the Dutch and Indonesian Rijsttafel. Indian food is widely available in Malaysia, and curries and Indian breads are favourites. Regional Chinese cuisines are also popular and Cantonese, Hokkien, Chiu Chow, Sichuan and Hakka food are all part of the national board of fare. The Straits Chinese in Johor, Malacca and Penang came up with their own variation on Chinese food known as Nonya cuisine which stresses fresh local ingredients. Malaysian desserts tend to be very sweet indeed, particularly if they involve the famous Gula Melaka syrup. For most of the nation's dishes, tea is the best accompaniment. A good Muslim will eschew wine or beer, but infidels may find suitable matches. Ideally, Malaysian food should be eaten in the open air and in Malaysia, but if that is not possible there are a number of restaurants in which it can be sampled in Hong Kong. Malaysian curries, milder than many Indian equivalents but spicy nevertheless, are a specialty at Spices in Repulse Bay and at Pacific Place. The Banana Leaf restaurants in Wan Chai and Kowloon City are modelled on Malaysian-style fast food preparation, and food is served, as it would be on location, on a banana leaf rather than a plate. The atmosphere is not really quite there, but prices are reasonable and the food is surprisingly good.