What to eat in Malaysia
The crossroads of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine, Malaysia is an excellent place to makan (eat in Malay). Look out for regional specialities and Nyonya (Peranakan) cuisine, the fusion between Malay and Chinese cooking. There is even unique Eurasian cooking to be found in the Portuguese Settlement in Malacca, the heartland of the Eurasian community of Portuguese descent.
Malaysians are very proud of their cooking and most towns or even villages have their own delicious specialities such as Penang char kway teow, Kajang satay, Ipoh bean sprout chicken, Sarawak laksa, Kelantanese nasi dagang, Sabahan hinava, and many, many more. Most of them rely on word of mouth for advertising and are frequently located in the most inconvenient, out-of-the-way places so you might want to try asking the locals for their personal recommendations.
If you intend to travel around Malaysia trying out the local food, don’t be fooled by the names. Sometimes two entirely different dishes from different parts of the country can be known by the same name. An example will be laksa, which refers to completely different noodle dishes in Penang and Sarawak.
Generally, you can eat pretty much anywhere in Malaysia. Food outlets are comparatively clean – the only thing you should avoid is ice for your drinks, when you frequent the street stalls since the blocks of ice used there might not be up to your hygienic standards. In actual restaurants this is not a problem. Also you might want to avoid ordering water from stalls or the mamak restaurants as they are usually unboiled tap water.
Cheaper places often do not display prices; most will charge tourists honestly but check prices before ordering to make sure.
Eating habits run the gamut, but most foods are eaten by fork and spoon: push and cut with the fork in the left hand, and eat with the spoon in the right.
As eating is a favorite ‘pastime’ of Malaysians, the majority are adept at using the chopsticks regardless of background. Noodles and Chinese dishes typically come with these, while Malay and Indian food can be eaten by hand, but nobody will blink an eye if you ask for a fork and spoon instead. If eating by hand, always use your right hand to pick your food as Malays and Indians traditionally use their left hand for dirty things like washing up after using the restroom. When eating with chopsticks at Chinese restaurants take note of the usual etiquette and most importantly, do not stick your chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice. This is reminiscent of incense sticks burning at the temple and has connotations of wishing death on those around you. If eating in a group, serving dishes are always shared, but you’ll get your own bowl of rice and soup.
Nasi lemak with sambal ikan bilis (curried dry anchovies), cucumber, chicken curry, and an egg
Subtlety is not a priority in Malaysian Malay cooking, as it is characterised by a liberal use of spices (the most important are star anise, cinnamon/cassia, cardamom and cloves – dubbed rempah empat beradik or the four spice siblings), pungent edible rhizomes (mainly galangal, ginger and turmeric), coconut milk (santan in Bahasa Malaysia), and occasionally fresh herbs (lemongrass, fresh coriander, pandan leaves and various kinds of wild herbs or ulam). Most Malaysian Malay dishes are curries, stews or dips of one kind or another, but all full of flavor.
Nasi lemak (lit. “Creamy rice”) is the definitive Malaysian Malay breakfast, consisting at its simplest of rice cooked in light coconut milk or coconut cream, some fried ikan bilis (anchovies), peanuts, slices of cucumber and a dab of chilli on the side. Originally, the ‘ikan bilis’ was cooked together with the chilli & spices to make “sambal tumis ikan bilis” but it makes more commercial sense to the business man to have them separated as it is easier to make & the fried anchovies will last longer. A larger fried fish or chicken wing are common accompaniments. More often than not, also combined with a variety of curries and/or sambal.
Rendang, occasionally dubbed “dry curry”, is meat stewed for hours on end in an intricately spiced (but rarely fiery) curry paste until almost all water is absorbed. Beef rendang is the most common, although relatively recent variations with chicken and mutton are not uncommon.
Sambal is the generic term for chilli-based sauces of many kinds. Sambal belacan is a common condiment made by mixing chilli with the shrimp paste belacan, while the popular dish sambal sotong consists of squid (sotong) cooked in red chilli sauce. Sambal ikan bilis, a common accompaniment to nasi lemak, consists of small dried fish with onions, chilli and sugar.
Satay are barbecued skewers of meat, typically chicken or beef. What separates satay from your ordinary kebab is the slightly spicy peanut-based dipping sauce.
Kangkung belacan is water spinach wok-fried in shrimp paste (belacan) and hot chilli peppers.
Mee rebus is egg noodles served in a sweet and slightly spicy sweet potato-based gravy, usually with a slice of hardboiled egg and some lime.
Lontong is vegetables, tempeh and soohoon cooked in a yellow (from turmeric) coconut-based gravy, eaten with nasi himpit (cubed overcooked rice)– one of the few vegetarian dishes in Malay cuisine!
Many regional terms and the odd euphemism tend to crop up in notionally English menus. A few of the more common ones:
- tamarind (Bahasa Malaysia)
- bee hoon
- vermicelli, thin white noodles made from rice
- grouper, a type of fish (Portuguese)
- a type of conch (Chinese)
- hor fun
- very wide, flat rice noodles (Cantonese)
- water spinach, an aquatic vegetable (Bahasa Malaysia)
- coconut (Bahasa Malaysia)
- kway teow(hor fun)
- flat rice noodles, slang derived from the common chinese dish”char kway teow”
- turmeric (Bahasa Malaysia)
- blue ginger (Bahasa Malaysia)
- thick egg noodles
- rice (Bahasa Malaysia)
- lemon grass (Bahasa Malaysia)
- squid/cuttlefish (Bahasa Malaysia)
- spare parts
- giblets; offal such as liver, heart, gizzard
- tang hoon
- thin, transparent starch noodles, also known to many as glass noodles
- ‘knee’ or shin part of cow
The most identifiable cuisine in the region is Peranakan or Nonya cuisine, born from the mixed Malay and Chinese communities of what were once the British colonies of the Straits Settlements (modern-day Singapore, Penang and Malacca).
Ayam pongteh is a chicken dish flavored with fermented soy bean paste, dark soy sauce, sugar and other ingredients. This mild and slightly sweet is made daily in some Nyonya households.
Ayam Buah Keluak is a distinctive dish combining chicken pieces with black nuts from the Pangium edule or kepayang tree to produce a rich sauce.
Chilli crab originally a Malaysian specialty which is now available in Singapore as well, is a whole crab ladled with oodles of sticky, tangy chili sauce. Notoriously difficult to eat but irresistibly delicious: don’t wear a white shirt! For a less messy but equally tasty alternative, ask for black pepper crab.
Enche Kabin is bite-sized pieces of fried chicken marinated in soy sauce, five-spice powder, black pepper, ginger and scallions.
Itek Tim is a soup containing duck, tomatoes, green peppers, salted vegetables, and preserved sour plums simmered gently together.
Kaya is a jam-like spread made from egg and coconut, an odd-sounding but tasty combination. Served on toast for breakfast, canonically accompanied by runny eggs and strong, sweet coffee (kopi).
Laksa in Malaysia comes in many wildly different styles, and every state seems to have its signature style. Laksa lemak is a fragrant soup of noodles in a coconut-based curry broth, topped with cockles or shrimp, while Penang’s assam laksa is made with a tamarind-infused broth instead of coconut, and has a spicy sourish taste. Kelantanese laksam, on the other hand, comes with wide, flat rice noodles and a very coconutty broth.
Mee siam is rice flour noodles served with sour gravy made from tamarind, dried shrimp and fermented beans. Usually served with tau pok (bean curd) cubes and hard boiled eggs.
Popiah or spring rolls come fresh or fried. They consist of boiled turnips, fried tofu, fried shallots and garlic, chopped omelet, chopped stir fried long beans and (optional) chilli sauce, wrapped in a thin rice skin covering and eaten like a fajita.
Rojak means a mixture of everything in Bahasa Malaysia, and there are two very different types. Chinese rojak is a salad of pineapple, white turnip, cucumber, tau pok (fried bean curd) with thin tiny slices of bunga kantan (torch ginger flower buds), tossed in shrimp paste sauce and sugar, then sprinkled with crushed peanuts. Indian rojak consists of mainly fried fritters made from flour and various pulses with cucumber and tofu, with sweet & spicy peanut sauce.
Acar (achar) is thinly sliced vegetables and fruits (cucumber, carrot, pineapple) lightly pickled with vinegar, chili and peanuts, a common side dish. Not nearly as pungent as Indian-style pickles which happen to bear the same name.
Sup kambing is a hearty mutton soup slow simmered with aromatic herbs and spices, and garnished with fried shallots and fresh cilantro.
Keropok lekor, a specialty of the state of Terengganu on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, is a savory cake made from a combination of batter and shredded fish. Sliced and fried just before serving, it is eaten with hot sauce.
Tempoyak is fermented durian paste, served as a side accompaniment to a main meal.
Durian, the King of Fruits
Malaysian Malay desserts, especially the sweet pastries and jellies, are mostly based on coconut and palm sugar (gula melaka, named after Melaka). Kuih (or kueh) refer to a plethora of steamed cake-like sweetmeats, mostly made with coconut milk, grated coconut flesh, glutinous rice or tapioca. Labor-intensive to make, they are often very colourful (made so with either natural or synthetic food colorings), and cut into fanciful shapes. Try the onde-onde, small round balls made from glutinous rice flour that has been colored and flavored with pandan leaves, filled with palm sugar and rolled in grated coconut. A delight to eat as it pops in your mouth with a sweet sensation of oozing palm syrup.
Ais kacang literally means “ice bean” in Bahasa Malaysia, or in another name of ABC means Air Batu Campur, is a good clue to the two major ingredients: shaved ice and red adzuki beans. However, more often than not you’ll also get gula melaka (palm sugar), grass jelly, sweet corn, kidney beans, black eyed peas, attap palm seeds and anything else on hand thrown in, and the whole thing is then drizzled with canned condensed milk or coconut cream and coloured syrups. The end result tastes very interesting and refreshing.
Apam balik, also called “Terang Bulan” in some states, is a rich pancake-like dish slathered with liberal amounts of butter or margarine, and sprinkled with sugar, coarse nut and sometimes corn.
Bubur cha-cha consists of cubed yam, sweet potato and sago added into a pandan-infused coconut milk soup. This can be served warm or cold and can be a breakfast or a dessert.
Cendol is made with green pea noodles, served in a sweet broth of palm sugar and coconut milk. Usually served chilled, and a great respite in the sweltering tropical heat.
Pisang goreng literally means fried bananas, encased in batter. A common street food, it can be eaten for afternoon tea, dessert, or as a snack anytime of the day.
Pulut Hitam is a rice pudding made from black glutinous rice sweetened with brown palm sugar. Creamy coconut milk is swirled over the rice pudding before it is served.
Pulut Inti is a kind of rice cake made from glutinous rice & coconut milk. It is steamed and topped with fresh grated coconut sweetened with palm sugar. It is traditionally wrapped in banana leaves folded into a pyramid shape.
Sago gula melaka is a simple sago pudding served with gula melaka (palm sugar) syrup and coconut milk.
Chinese food as eaten in Malaysia commonly originates from southern China, particularly Fujian and Guangdong. While authentic fare that is relatively unchanged from its Mainland Chinese origins is certainly available, especially in fancier restaurants, the daily fare served on the streets has absorbed a number of tropical touches, most notably the fairly heavy use of chilli and belachan (shrimp paste) as condiments. Noodles can also be served not just in soup (? tang), but also “dry” (? kan), meaning that your noodles will be served tossed with chilli and spices in one bowl, and the soup will come in a separate bowl.
Bak chor mee is essentially noodles with minced pork, tossed in a chilli-based sauce with lard, ikan bilis (fried anchovies), vegetables and mushrooms.
Bak kut teh, lit. “Pork bone tea”, is a simple-sounding soup of pork ribs simmered for hours in broth until they’re ready to fall off the bone. It’s typically eaten with white rice, mui choy (pickled vegetables) and a pot of strong Chinese tea, hence the name — the broth itself doesn’t contain any tea. To impress the locals, order some you tiao fritters from a nearby stall and cut them up into bite-sized chunks to dip into your soup. The port town of Klang is said to be original home of the dish.
Char kui teow is a favorite noodle type at Penang. Some flat egg noddle fried with soya source, prawn, cockles, bean sprouts, chives & bak you (Pork’s Oil), though this last ingredient is sometimes absent due to the popularity & demand of this dish from the Malays & Indians who traditionally shun pork.
Chee cheong fun is a favorite breakfast consisting of lasagna-type rice noodles rolled up and various types of fried meats including fish balls and fried tofu. The dish is usually topped with a generous amount of sauce.
Chwee kway is a dish consisting of rice cakes topped with chai po (salted fermented turnips), usually served with some chili sauce.
Fish ball noodles come in many forms, but the type most often seen is mee pok, which consists of flat egg noodles tossed in chili sauce, with the fish balls floating in a separate bowl of soup on the side.
Hainanese chicken rice is poached chicken served with rice cooked in chicken stock and fat, and tasty ginger and chilli dipping sauces. The chicken has a delicate taste, but it’s the quality of the rice and the dipping sauces that connoseurs get passionate about. Perhaps better known in Singapore, there is an interesting local variant found in Malacca and Muar, Johor, with the rice cooked until it is sticky and rolled into balls.
Hokkien mee refers to at least three separate dishes. In Kuala Lumpur, this gets you thick noodles fried in dark soy sauce, while in Penang you’ll get a very spicy shrimp soup. Interestingly, neither of them bears any resemblance to the dish of the same name served in neighboring Singapore.
Kway chap is essentially sheets made of rice flour served in some brownish soup, accompanied by a plate of braised pork and pig organs (usually intestines).
Lok-lok consists of skewers of fish, meat and vegetables, cooked in boiling broth and eaten with sauces, the most popular being the “kuah kacang”, which interestingly is a Malay sauce made from peanuts & traditionally served with satay and ketupat (compressed rice cubes eaten during Eid).
Steamboat also known as hot pot, is do-it-yourself soup Chinese style. You get a pot of broth bubbling on a tabletop burner, pick meat, fish and veggies to your liking from a menu or buffet table, then cook it to your liking. When finished, add in noodles or ask for rice to fill you up. This usually requires a minimum of two people, and the more the merrier.
Wantan mee is thin noodles topped with wantan dumplings of seasoned minced pork. Unlike the soupy Hong Kong version, it is usually served dry.
Yong tau foo literally means “stuffed tofu”, but it’s more exciting than it sounds. The diner selects their favorites from a vast assortment of tofu, fish paste, seafood and vegetables and they are then sliced into bite-size pieces, cooked briefly in boiling water and then served either in broth as soup or “dry” with the broth in a separate bowl. The dish can be eaten by itself or with any choice of noodles. Essential accompaniments are spicy chili sauce and a distinctive brown sweet sauce for dipping.
The smallest of Malaysia’s ‘Big 3’, the Indians have had a disproportionately large impact on the culinary scene, with the mamak (Indian Muslim, see below) stall having acquired in every Malaysian city and town, and nasi kandar restaurants offering a wide variety of these to ladle onto your rice. Authentic Indian food in Malaysia includes typical South Indian specialties such as dosai, idli, sambhar, uttapam; as well as some north Indian meals like naan bread, korma, and tandoori chicken. In addition, however, a number of Indian dishes have been “Malaysianized” and adopted by the entire population, including:
Fish head curry is, true to the name, a gigantic curried fish head cooked whole until it’s ready to fall apart. The head itself is not eaten, as there’s plenty of meat to be found inside and all around. Note that there are two distinct styles, the fiery Indian and the milder Chinese kind (the latter is sometimes served as a broth for vermicelli noodles).
“Mamak-style” mee goreng is a ubiquitous dish found at mamak stalls, a stir-fried noodle dish loved by Malaysians.
Nasi briyani (sometimes spelled nasi beriani) is assembled by layering the flavorful rice with tender pieces of spiced-cooked lamb, mutton or chicken. At nasi kandar restaurants, it refers to rice that is cooked without the meat, and is merely a choice of rice [instead of plain steamed rice] to eat with your selection of curries and side dishes.
Roti canai is the Malaysian adaptation of the South Indian parotta, flat bread tossed in the air like pizza, fried in oil, and eaten dipped in curry. Eaten plain with sides of dal gravy, curry sauce or both, it is usually dubbed “roti kosong”. Variations include include roti telur (with egg) and murtabak (stuffed with chicken, mutton or fish), roti boom (with condensed milk) and roti tisu (made very thin like tissue paper, and laced with caramelized sugar).
Putu mayam is composed of vermicelli-like rice noodles usually mixed with shredded coconut and some jaggery.
East Malaysia, especially Sarawak, also offers a wide range of local dishes, but these are very rarely seen in peninsular Malaysia.
Where to eat
The cheapest places to eat are hawker stalls and coffee shops, known as kedai kopi in Bahasa Malaysia or kopitiam in Chinese. These shops sell, besides coffee, many other types of food and drinks. Particularly popular and tasty are mamak stalls, run by Indian Muslims and serving up localized Indian fare like roti canai. Most hawker stalls stay open till late and some even operate on shifts so you can find the same stall offering different food at different points throughout the day, and some mamak stalls are open 24/7. You can also do take away from any stall, just ask for bungkus (Bahasa Malaysia) or ta pao (Chinese). Hygiene standards in Malaysia, while not up to that of neighboring Singapore, are still much better than China or the majority of South East Asian countries. Just be observant, and generally speaking, if a stall is patronized by locals, it should be safe to eat there. If in doubt, opt for food that is cooked to order, not food that has been left on a tray.
One step up on the scale is the kedai makanan or the more Western-style restoran. A type to look out for is the nasi kandar restaurant (also known as nasi campur or nasi padang), with a vast range of curries and toppings to ladle on top of your rice.
Seafood restaurants (makanan laut) are comparatively pricy but still excellent value by most standards; do check prices before ordering though. Local prawns are gigantic, Chinese-style steamed fish is a treat and crab served with sticky chilli sauce or salted egg yolk is particularly popular.
Last but not least, some less adventurous options. Food courts in shopping malls are a good way to sample local delicacies in air-conditioned comfort, paying only a small premium over hawker prices. And yes, you can also find McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut and the usual suspects plus imitators throughout Malaysia.
Being a Muslim-majority country, finding halal food in Malaysia is easy, but most Chinese stalls and restaurants are not halal. Ask if in doubt. Meals at Malay restaurants and Western fast food restaurants like McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Pizza Hut are halal. Restaurants at major hotels are not certified ‘Halal’ as they serve alcohol as well, but they generally don’t serve pork. Local Muslims will eat at Western, Chinese and Indian eateries if there is a halal sign on the walls. Most of the restaurants tend to display their halal certification or halal sign on their places. Halal certification was awarded and enforced by government agency usually JAKIM.
Vegetarianism is well-understood by the Chinese and Indian communities (not so by the Muslim Malays and other indigenous minorities) and many restaurants or hawker stalls will be able to come up with something on request (DO state “no meat, no fish, no seafood – ASK for vegetables and/or eggs ONLY”), but don’t rely entirely on menu descriptions: innocuous-seeming dishes like “fried vegetables” etc will often contain pork bits, shrimp paste (belacan, commonly used in Malay and spicy Chinese dishes), fish sauce, etc. Indian restaurants usually have very good vegetarian selections – the roti (Indian flat bread – any kind; including roti canai, roti naan, capati, tosai) are good choices, and DO insist on being given dhal (lentil-based curry dip) lest you’ll be given a fish curry dip. Purely vegetarian Chinese restaurants (often serving remarkable “mock meat” products made from tofu, gluten etc.) are quite easy to find in big urban areas with a large ethnic Chinese population. Getting vegetarian food in rural areas, especially those near fishing villages or in Muslim/Malay-dominated regions, may be more difficult, but learning some basic Bahasa Malaysia vocabulary will go a long way to help you get your message across — see the Bahasa Malaysia phrasebook. Upmarket Western restaurants, such as those serving Italian cuisine will normally have some good vegetarian options.
Veganism is rarely understood in this part of the world and is largely mistaken as a synonym for vegetarianism, yet the safest bet for a vegan is to patronize a Chinese Buddhist vegetarian restaurant (most Chinese vegetarian restaurants are essentially vegan and operated on Buddhist principles of non-killing and compassion, and thus they abstain from using dairy products, eggs, and the 5 fetid vegetables [onions, garlic, leeks, etc.] discouraged in Mahayana Buddhism). And if you’re still feeling uneasy or unsure, do not hesitate to ask.