Falling in Love with Malaysian Food

10 dishes that define Malay Cuisine

It’s not the most talked about country, but when it comes to dining, there is probably no other place with such an incredible – and mouthwatering – array of food choices in the whole region than Malaysia.

Saucy chicken cuts, vegetarian food, a plethora of rice dishes, all sorts of steamed and barbequed fish, and a paradise of noodles.  It is probably because of such an intricate variety – obvious reflection of the country’s diverse ethnic mélange – that most visitors may have a problem choosing what they like best, or what they should try first.

To help you get the best out of your Malaysian food experience, here are 10 of the most authentic, delicious, and readily available dishes you may find on offer at any Malaysian street corner and restaurant. Moreover, they are good to suit all sorts of travel budgets. Be advised, though: you will need to be comfortable around spicy food in order to fully appreciate the best that Malaysian cuisine has to offer. To help you, I have indicated a 1 to 5 point spice grading for each item.

There is definitely much more to be learned about Malaysian food. However, after reading the following 10 suggestions, you will be able to order confidently your favorite delicacies without making the locals queuing behind you go “gila”…

1: Nasi lemak

Spice-o-meter: 3 out of 5

If there is a quintessential Malay staple rice dish, that is nasi lemak. Literally meaning “butter rice,” it is a simple white rice dish spruced up with almonds, dried anchovies, cucumber, boiled eggs, and spicy sambal sauce. You may find it in two different varieties: the simple street version packed in a banana leaf and conceived to be swiftly consumed sitting on a stool at a street stall, or the more “up market” kind served in restaurants on a plate. The difference usually comes with pricing, where a street side nasi lemak may cost you as low as 1 ringgit (around $0.33USD), while the one served on a plate may reach up to 6 ringgit ($2), according to the quantity of side choices that are offered along with the rice. To many, this is the essential dish representing the Malay Muslim majority and is not to be confused with Nasi goreng, or better, the different fried rice variety.

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Trivial fact: Nasi lemak was chosen as “national dish” to be eaten in space by the first Malaysian astronaut… enough said.

2: Satay

Spice-o-meter: 1 out of 5

This is barbeque, Malaysian style.  Feast on different chicken, lamb, or beef mini skewers perfectly roasted on a fire grill and served together with a sweet-sour crumbled peanut sauce.

The most daring may try the cow intestines, definitely a bit more chewy than the others, but totally enjoyable. You may also try the squid satay, which is generally served at most street stalls lining the Malaysian coastline. The specialty of satay is the mildly spicy peanut sauce served with your skewers.  By skipping the dip, you would not really savor satay’s unique flavor. A perfect companionship for those long-lasting Malaysian sunsets spent sitting at a street stall or relaxing at a beach’s esplanade, preferably with Tiger beer in hand.

3: Char koay teow

Spice-o-meter: 2 out of 5

This kind of fried noodles is typically Malaysian: flat, wide noodles are served together with fried egg, green lettuce, bean sprouts, and seafood.  This constitutes one of the country’s not-to-miss dishes. It comes in a Chinese and Malay version – the former being drier and the latter heavier on prawn and minced seafood. Char koay teow differs in each region, and different cities provide a slightly different mix of the ingredients, with each one adding local flavor. One of the most delicious and famous is definitely Penang island’s, where you can literally find char koay teow anywhere you look for food.

4-Hokkien mee

Spice-o-meter: 4 out of 5

Typical noodle staple dish of the Malaysian Chinese community, hokkien mee is a hot bowl of steamy noodles cooked with prawn, boiled egg, chilies, and spices. To me, this is possibly the best, most representative noodle dish in the country. You can choose white, yellow, or glass noodles, or a mix of the three, to slightly modify the taste and the way your noodles will absorb the spicy broth. Make sure you have a drink and some tissues on you, as hokkien mee can literally “open up” your sinuses! Hokkien mee is recommended for hot nights and monsoon days. Again, Penang has some of the best in the country.

5-Tandoori chicken

Spice-o-meter: 2 out of 5

An imported Indian specialty, this chicken is cooked inside of a traditional tandoori bread oven and is served together with fresh nan bread, onions, and chutney dipping sauce. If you are a meat lover, this is what you will remember Malaysia for the most. The meat gets steamed to perfection and made softer by spreading a reddish spicy sauce layer on the outside. The more it gets cooked, the crunchier it gets on the outside: if you see that the meat’s corners are burnt black, do not panic as that is just a symptom of tandoori awesomeness. Again, Tiger beer and a room filled with chatty Indians eating with hands is the best setting to sink your teeth into some tandoori chicken’s sweetness.

6-Roti canai and dosai varieties

Spice-o-meter: depends on how much red curry or chutney sauce you are willing to dip it in

Of all the different kinds of breads Malaysia has to offer, Roti Canai – soft, buttery round bread served with red curry – is the most popular. It comes in a simple variety – roti canai biasa – without any topping, or in several other types – roti telur – with fried egg, roti pisang – with banana, roti kaya – mixed vegetables or sugary variations like kaya (traditional coconut jam), or roti sugar - sprinkled with sugar. Whatever the choice, it is ideal for breakfast and washed down with traditional Malaysian milk tea – tarik – or coffee. It is also important to remember the Indian dosai bread variety: a crispy lentil crepe which can be rolled around different kinds of vegetables such as mashed potatoes, or served empty to be dipped into chutney and coconut sauces. Ideal as an appetizer, especially before feasting on a vegetarian Indian dinner.

7-Ais kacang

Spice-o-meter: not spicy, and I seriously do not recommend to add chili to it

Ais kacang is ice cream Malaysian style.  A blend of shaved ice, red beans, sweet corn, grass jelly, and less common, aloe-vera, cendol and coconut juice. As strange and a tad disgusting as it may sound, it is a refreshing, tasty, and unique Malaysian dessert you cannot forget to sample. Though it may sound odd, mixing red beans and sweet corn with ice is not as crazy as it sounds. Try it after a spicy meal to cool off your taste buds, and you will not regret your choice.

8-Rojak

 

Spice-o-meter: 4 out of 5

A mix of bean curds, fried dough fritters, cuttlefish, and cucumbers mixed with a sweet-spicy, thick peanut sauce, this Malaysian dish represents the country’s cultural mélange.  It’s definitely not for everybody, and it is definitely not my favorite, but it has to get on this list because many Malaysians really love it. Try to wash it down with beer or coke as it is deep fried, and you can also drown it in an ocean of spicy peanut sauce.

9-Laksa

Spice-o-meter: 3 out of 5

Laksa is a coconut-based rice noodle soup unique to the Australasian archipelago.  It has a particular sour taste resulting by mixing together ginger torch flower, mint, shrimp paste, and fish cuts. Laksa is a very special culinary experience to be enjoyed in Malaysia. It is sour, and the strong taste may not be too appealing for everybody. It can be found in the coconut curry or sour fish soup variety – asam laksa – depending on the different regions and cities.  For example, one of the most famous is “Penang Laksa”, cooked with mackerel fish cuts, lemongrass, and chili.  Laksa may produce quite different taste in different Malaysian cities or regions, therefore I recommend you try as much as you can in order to get a better idea of this very peculiar tropical dish.

10-Rendang

Spice-o-meter: 3 out of 5

Again, meat lovers, this slowly roasted chicken, dipped into a mixture of ground spices curry paste and coconut milk is possibly the best import from Indonesian West Sumatra. A very popular dish to prepare for religious festivities and holidays, rendang is mostly popular among Malays and is one of the most delicious ways to cook meat in the country. Try to eat it traditionally with your right hand, eating it with some type of roti, or you can mix it with rice as is customary among many Malaysians. In this way you will discover another tropical meaning for “finger-lickin’ good”. Do yourself a favor: when in Malaysia, if offered rendang, please just say YES and hand over your plate.

To read more about travel Malaysia, check out the following articles and resources:

Photos by: polytikus, avlxyz, Cecil Lee, avlxyz, Xin Li 88, avlxyz, goosmurf, MD@foto.deraman.com
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Leave a Comment

  • Aidah 'Ted' Tajuddin said at 2013-11-27T01:00:58+0000: Great article in listing Malaysian staple favourites, but I'm afraid there are some inaccuracies in the descriptions.For example, rendang is not cooked by roasting the meat at all, its actual cooking method is simmering and stewing everything in a big pot /wok until it is reduced to a preferred consistency.Almonds is definitely not a normal thing to have with nasi lemak, it should be fried peanuts instead.I wonder where you had the rojak that it warrants a 4 out of 5 spiciness ratings, as I'd say normally it's more of a 2 or 3. Laksa is normally a 2, unless asam laksa variant which can be a 3 or 4.And erm roti canai can be pretty filling and is usually a meal on its own at breakfast or supper...you don't really hear of locals having it as an appetizer, what more preceding a full lunch :)
  • Roy Wong said at 2012-12-11T16:28:31+0000: I'm from Penang and seeing your food's photos really makes me missing home more...
  • Heels and Wheels said at 2012-11-13T15:35:28+0000: Great article! I just visited Malaysia for the first time last month. Like you say at the start of this article-the country is not talked much about-but its food is. I absolutely love Malaysian food. Satay and Tandoori chicken are probably my favorite dishes.
  • said at 2012-12-26T02:21:41+0000: Oh how can you forget Keropok Lekor (snacks that looks like sausages made from fish paste first boiled then fried) and Pisang Goreng (banana fritters)! Terengganu is the state known to produce the nation's best Keropok Lekor, most notably the ones coming from Losong or Seberang Takir. However both Keropok Lekor and Pisang Goreng can be find nationwide usually from roadside stalls past afternoon as they're normally consumed during tea time. Also, if you ever happen to be in East Malaysia, please try to include Mee Kolok, Laksa Sarawak and their famous Kek Batik into your diet. They are absolutely to die for.
  • Jannah Tajuddin said at 2012-11-13T15:09:21+0000: Well done. You've covered all the right food. However, I think I should tell you that Nasi Lemak doesn't translate to "butter rice". Nasi is rice and lemak means fat (uh oh, alarm bells for those who want to go on a diet). The rice is cooked using coconut milk and that's where all the 'lemak' comes from, not butter :)
  • Ivy Manalansan-Casagnap said at 2012-11-23T11:38:30+0000: Poor me. I have only tasted Nasi Lemak and Satay.
  • Leticia Zero said at 2012-11-13T15:39:50+0000: I lived in Malaysia for a whole year and you mentioned my absolute favourites. Memory and taste buds get all worked by the simople mention of a nasi lemak and a roti canai dish - both of which you fail to mention are typical breakfast fare over there. It was not long before I ditched the cereals for those dishes. The satay stall in the higway near the office was the one I asked my co-workers to take me to for my last meal before my contract was over. And asam laksa remind me of tuesday evenings at the pasar malam (night market) in my neighbourhood - it was my meal of choice alongside a couple of popiahs for starters. In fact if there were a few additional dishes I could mention, they would be Popiah - kind of a malaysian spring roll - Bak kuh teh - aromatic chinese influenced pork soup , Hainanese chicken rice - a milder but not less flavourful contrast to the spiciness of most dishes found in malaysia, CLaypot chicken rice and Belaccan fried rice, or anything prepared with belaccan, the aged fermented shrimp paste that is uniqe in Malaysia.
  • Kher Ying Tey said at 2012-11-19T00:46:46+0000: Ciao Marco, Great article but I've noticed that I'm actually not familiar with your version of Hokkien Noodles.. Hokkien Noodles are typically fried and greasy with dark and light soya sauce. Perhaps in Penang, dishes may be called differently but I'm a huge fan of Hokkien Mee and they're all thick, dark and slick with sauce and oil, and incredibly yummy!