Eating is a favourite pastime in Malaysia. I don’t know if it was a Malaysian who coined the term ‘live to eat’, but other than visiting the mall, Malaysians eat, eat and eat. In fact, we eat at anytime of the day. Or night. Or even midnight. Yes, there are plenty of 24 hours restaurants called ‘mamaks’ that cater to our midnight hunger pangs. In fact, the stereotype of a Malaysian is that he eats not just during breakfast, lunch and dinner, but in between as well! This used to be such a problem in civil service that the government had to eliminate brunch time in order to increase productivity!
In fact, in Malaysia, very often people do not say, “How are you?”. Instead, they say, “Sudah makan?”, which means, “Have you eaten?”
It’s not surprising that Malaysia is truly a paradise for food lovers. Being a multi cultural and multi racial society, not only do we have the best food from each culture, cultural integration produces even more types of foods.
Let me introduce to you the cuisines of the three main races in Malaysia- Malay, Chinese and Indian. If you have tried Chinese or Indian food before and think you’ve tasted it all, think again. Malaysian Chinese and Indian food have adapted to the local palate and have evolved into cuisines of their own. And like other cuisines, there are many regional variations, but here I will give you a general overview.
Let’s begin with Malay food. Malay cuisine uses many types of fresh aromatic herbs and roots such as lemongrass, ginger, garlic, shallots and chillies. Many of these herbs and roots are native to this region. Spices are also important and they are called ‘rempah’. Another important ingredient is coconut milk, which is added to make a dish creamy and rich. There is also a key ingredient called ‘belacan’, which is a fermented paste made from tiny baby shrimps mixed with salt and chillies.
You can find Malay food everywhere in Malaysia. A typical meal that you might order is a rice dish with dried anchovies, cucumber, peanuts and a hard boiled egg, together with the meat of your choice, called ‘nasi lemak’. The rice is cooked in coconut milk. You might even order plain rice and usually accompanied by three side dishes of your choice, such as chicken, mutton, or beef and a variety of vegetables- all cooked in Malay style. Accompanying your dish, you could have beef soup which is called ‘sup lembu’; or mutton soup which is called ‘sup kambing’ – two very popular Malay soups. To wash it down, you may order a refreshing cordial drink called ‘air sirap’; or a cordial drink with condensed milk called ‘ais bandung’.
Other Malay delicacies include fish mousse, grilled slowly over a fire, called ‘otak-otak’ and a noodle dish garnished with cucumber, onion, and lettuce served in savoury fish soup called ‘laksa’. There are many regional variations of ‘laksa’, so try one in every state. There is also a Malay salad, which is called ‘ulam’; consisting of a combination of fresh aromatic herbs; mint, basil, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric leaves, and raw vegetables like bean sprouts, long green beans, shallots, and cucumber. Instead of Thousand Island dressing, the topping is a combination of salted fish, dried prawns, fish crackers, fried grated coconut, and other savory garnishes.
If you’re in Kelantan, which is the north-eastern state of the Peninsula, try this regional dish that serves blue rice with a variety of side dishes, It’s called Nasi Kerabu. The blue colour is a result of the cooking process, where certain types of herbs are thrown into the water during the cooking of the rice
For dessert, try a bread-like puff with sugar, corn, and coarsely chopped nuts in the middle called ‘apam balik’.
Next, we move onto Chinese food. Chinese food is typically considered milder in spiciness, but Chinese cuisine in Malaysia has taken a spicier touch. Chinese cuisine is varied, but in Malaysia the style is generally the Cantonese style of cooking. A common way of cooking is stir fry. Cantonese cuisine balances the yin and the yang, of food, a difficult concept to describe. You may hear people refer to it as the cooling or “heaty” effects of food. For example vegetables, some fruits and soup are considered cooling and meat is considered heaty.
A typical Chinese meal can be found easily in many restaurants and hawker stalls in Malaysia. You can also go to a ‘kopitiam’, which is a traditional Chinese cafe. You might order ‘economy rice’, which has rice and a variety of side dishes. A common practice is to choose three side dishes- one meat, one vegetable and the last, a dish like tofu or egg. You might also order a noodle dish. There are many styles of cooking noodles such as Cantonese or Hokkien style. You can try the fried noodle with eggs, cockles and bean sprouts called ‘char kuey tiao’, or Chinese noodles with dumplings and roast pork called ‘wan tan mee’. You could also order thick noodles fried with black sauce and pork lard called ‘hokkien mee’. Chicken rice is also very popular in Malaysia. To wash it down, you could order Chinese tea, or herbal tea.
Other delicacies include Chinese spring rolls stuffed with steamed vegetables, bean sprouts, turnip and carrot, called ‘popiah’. Another popular dish here is the pork rib soup called ‘bak kut the’. The soup is cooked for many hours with garlic, pork ribs and a variety of herbs. Chinese dumplings are also a must-try. They are glutinous rice wrapped in a leaf along with pork, mushrooms, nuts and salted duck egg yolk. if you have heard of ‘dim sum’ before, you must try the Malaysian version. It is basically an assortment of bite size dishes, including seafood, meat and vegetables. Dim sum is usually eaten in the morning.
For dessert, a well-loved Chinese dessert is curdled soy bean milk topped with syrup called ‘tao foo fah’.
Indian cooking is of course, very spicy and hot. it has also adapted to the local culture to create a new type of cuisine. Most of the Indian food in Malaysia (comes from) from Southern India, but North Indian food is also widely available. Spices are the heart and soul of Indian cooking. Spices like coriander, cumin, turmeric, fennel, cardamom, clove, cinnamon and star anise are widely used.
Indian food is easily available in Malaysia. For a typical meal, you might want to have rice served on a banana leaf, accompanied by a variety of spicy hot dishes such as mutton, chicken, fish, squid and crabs. Or you might order bread, and there are many types of them. To name a few, thin rice pancakes or ‘thosai’, fermented rice and dhal or ‘vadai’, wheat bread or ‘chapati’, flour bread or ‘roti canai’. Or you may also be interested in chicken tandoori- that’s chicken slowly grilled in a clay oven.
There are 24 hour restaurants open if you’re suffering from a midnight hunger pang. Affectionately called ‘mamak’, they have been institutionalized as a Malaysian icon. Mamaks are run usually by Indian Muslims. If Westerners hang out at bars, Malaysians hang out mamaks. Mamak food is distinct, and a popular drink here is the ‘the tarik’, or tea with condensed milk. Other popular food you can order in a mamak is the ‘maggie goreng’, which is fried Maggi instant noodle with eggs, vegetables and meat.
For dessert, you may be interested in a sweet dish of rice noodles topped with coconut and coconut palm sugar called ‘putu mayam.’
There are many other types of cuisines in Malaysia, such as Nyonya cuisine, which is the cooking of the Straits Chinese. Straits Chinese trace their ancestors to Malays and Chinese, and their cooking combines the styles of these two races. I’d recommend a chicken stew cooked with salted soy beans and coconut palm sugar called ‘ayam pongteh’; and a chicken dish cooked with nuts from a type of mangrove tree found in Malaysia, which is called ‘ayam buah keluak’.
The Portuguese, one of the many colonialists who set foot in Malaysia, left their mark too on local cooking. One (example) is the Devil’s Curry, a dish made from vinegar, herbs and nuts and plenty of chilli- hence its name Devil’s Curry.
Top Ten Must Eats
Alright. It’s now time for the top ten must try foods in Malaysia. As with all cuisines, it is very difficult to compile a list of only ten, especially in Malaysia where there are definitely more than ten foods you must try!
However, if I were to compile a list, it would look like this:
Number One.Nasi lemak. This is the national dish of Malaysia. Nasi lemak literally means ‘rice in cream’. There are many regional variations, but the most common ones consist of steamed rice that is cooked with coconut milk and pandan leaves, which is a kind of plant indigenous to this region. Traditionally served on banana leaf, the rice is topped with cucumber slices, dried anchovies, roasted nuts and hard-boiled egg. But the most important ingredient is the ‘sambal’, a kind of hot spicy sauce made from chilli, pepper and spices. In fact, how delicious a nasi lemak is really depends on how well the ‘sambal’ is made! Most people will eat nasi lemak accompanied by a dish like chicken, cuttle fish, cockles, beef, or beef rendang which is beef cooked in dried spices, and vegetables.
Number Two. Bak Kut Teh. The name translates into ‘meat bone tea’. This Chinese dish is a soup with pork ribs, herbs and garlic cooked for many hours. Other ingredients include mushrooms, internal organs, and dried tofu. Green onions and fried shallots are sometimes added in as well. Bak Kut Teh is served with rice and ‘you tiao’, which are long fried pieces of dough. Chopped garlic and chilli in soy sauce served in tiny plates often accompany this dish. Chinese tea is a very important part of this dish and is drunk to balance the taste. Try Bak Kut Teh for an authentic Chinese meal.
Number Three. Laksa. Yet another favourite Malaysian dish, laksa has many different regional variations. The more common one is the asam laksa. It is a sour fish- based soup where the main ingredients are shredded fish, usually mackerel, and finely sliced vegetables including cucumbers, onions, red chillis, pineapple, lettuce, mint, and ginger buds. Thick white noodles are then added into the soup. To top it off, a thick sweet shrimp paste is added. Other variations of laksa are Laksa Sarawak, Laksa Penang, Laksa Kedah, Laksa Ipoh, Laksa Kuala Kangsar, Laksa Kari, Laksa Johor, Laksa Kelantan, Laksam, Laksa Lemak and many more.
Number Four. Satay. You might have heard of this one before. It’s basically skewered meat served with peanut sauce, cucumber, onions and rice cakes. The choice of meat is varied- you can choose deer meat, rabbit meat and even fish, but the most common are chicken and beef. The marinated meat is skewered on bamboo sticks and grilled over charcoal.
Number Five. Char Kway Teow. It literally means ‘stir fried rice cake strips’. Flat rice noodles are fried together with chilli, prawns, cockles, eggs, bean sprouts and vegetables. Sometimes it is fried with pork lard. It also has many regional variations, but the most famous one is the Penang Char Kway Teow.
Number Six. Nasi Kandar. A popular north Malaysia meal that originated in Penang, nasi kandar is widely available. It has rice, and a variety of spicy side dishes to choose from. In fact, it is the spices that make nasi kandar so unique. The dishes are laid like a buffet and you have to point to the side dishes that you want. After you have chosen your side dishes, the waiter will pour a variety of curries onto your plate, and this process is called ‘banjir’ or ‘to flood’. If you can’t take spicy food, ask for less curry.
Number Seven. Roti Canai. One of the most (widely consumed foods) in Malaysia, roti canai is a type of flatbread that is available everywhere. It is round and flat, and is eaten with lentil curry called ‘dhal’. You can ask for your roti canai to be made in many ways. The more popular variations are: with eggs or roti telur, with banana or roti pisang, made smaller but thicker or roti bom, made thin and flaky like tissue paper or roti tisu. You can even be more adventurous and ask for roti kaya, spread with Malaysian jam made from coconut; or roti Milo, with chocolate powder sprinkled on top. Try a few and find your favourite roti!
Number Eight. Cendol. An all time favourite Malaysian dessert, cendol consists of shaved ice, smooth green rice noodles in chilled coconut milk and coconut palm sugar, or gula Melaka. Sometimes, red beans, glutinous rice and corn are added. If you have a sweet tooth, ask for more gula Melaka, as many Malaysians do!
Number Nine. Teh Tarik. The national drink of Malaysia. It is tea sweetened with condensed milk, and can be ordered hot or iced. Teh means tea in Malay and tarik means to pull, jerk or tug. The milky tea is prepared by using out-stretched hands, pouring the piping hot tea from one mug to another several times. The higher the pull, the thicker the froth, the thicker the froth, the more delicious it is.
Number Ten. I’ve saved this until the last because there are few things more divisive than this fruit. It is the durian. Known as the King of Fruits, you either love the durian or you hate it. Its smell has been described as sweet, heavenly, fragrant, or disgusting, revolting and downright offensive. The smell evokes either deep appreciation or intense disgust. Some have compared the smell of the durian to the civet, sewage, stale vomit, skunk spray and used surgical swabs. The British novelist Anthony Burgess describes the durian as, “like eating sweet raspberry blancmange in the lavatory”. Chef Andrew Zimmern compares the taste to “completely rotten, mushy onions.” Anthony Bourdain, while himself a lover of durian, says of it: “Its taste can only be described as…indescribable, something you will either love or despise. Your breath will smell as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother.” Travel and food writer Richard Sterling says that its odor is best described as “pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock that can be smelled from yards away.” It’s no wonder durian is banned in most hotels and airlines.
The durian is green in colour and has sharp thorns on the outside. Inside, the flesh of the fruit is usually yellow, but the colour varies from species to species. Durians used to be seasonal fruits, but with genetic modification, durians are now available all year around. This is either good news or bad news, depending on your feelings towards durians. The best place to get durians is directly from the orchards, but if you’d like to just sample a bite or two, you can get them at major supermarkets. Just ask around.
I encourage you to be adventurous and try the durian. However, if you are too overpowered by the strong smell, you can always try durian ice cream or durian cakes, though purists will swear it is not the same at all.
So there you have it. The top ten must eats in Malaysia. I hope you’ll manage to try all ten.
Go out and explore. Ask the locals where to find the best nasi lemak or bak kut the. Everyone would have their favourites. It’s time to find some Malaysian food and start digging in. Or as we say in Malaysia, ‘makan-makan’ or ‘let’s start eating’.
This is the end of Malaysian Food guide. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Malaysian food. Hopefully, this will give you a better understanding of the cuisines in Malaysia, and a deeper appreciation of its food.