Malaysian food can’t really be considered one kind of food. It’s a melting pot that reflects the melange of cultures that live side by side throughout the country – Indians, Chinese, native Malays. Just as mosques and temples live happily side by side on the streets, Malaysian cuisine cheerily combines flavours and influences, resulting in a uniquely varied foodie culture where you can eat Indian for breakfast, Malay for lunch and Chinese for dinner. During our month or so in the country, we also quit booze (it’s pretty pricey and not many people drink due to religious beliefs) so we spent a lot of time hanging out in coffee shops eating and drinking iced coffee, so we got to know the food pretty well!
This is a longer than usual list, but given the variety on offer I just couldn’t bring myself to cut anything out! Here are just some of our favourite Malaysian foods:
1. Indian Thali
Thali was definitely our primary food obsessions. We scoped out a few different Indian restaurants in each city until we found the one that offered the best Thali – then we’d return every day for this deliciousness. Essentially a selection of curries, sides, and veggies (sometimes up to 11 dishes!) served on a banana leaf that you eat with your hands, adding extra sauces as you wish. At a good restaurant, they’ll keep giving you more and more rice until you finally admit defeat and fold over the corner of your banana leaf, signalling that you’re done! As well as being a great way to try out lots of curries at once (and the quality was as good as those I’ve had in India, if not better!!), thalis offer unrivalled value, and we’d normally be full all day from just one meal!
2. Nasi campur (buffet)
This is a pretty common way to eat in Malaysia – if you wonder into any local cafe at lunch time you’ll see a buffet on offer – with fried meats/fish, fried eggs, veggies and rice. You just take a plate, pile up your rice and add whichever toppings you want, then they’ll charge you afterwards. At first we were suspect of this, thinking it would end up really pricey, but we always found it to be cheaper than ordering off the menu, and given everyone’s English is great in Malaysia it was always easy to understand what all the dishes are. After a while, we got to know the classics – from sweet spicy chicken, to fish curries, – and which dishes to avoid, like bitter morning glory!
3. Roti Canai
OH MY GOD, Roti Canai was the food that we daydreamed about most, and for good reason. Often people eat it as a late-night snack at coffee shops, but we would eat this for breakfast or lunch (alongside Thali) – and we even worked out what hours this insanely moreish treat was served in each Indian restaurant, as they’re normally restricted to breakfast/dinner time. Meaning ‘flying dough’, Roti Canai is a kind of fried greasy doughy wonder, similar to a naan/paratha but much oiler, hotter, and flakier, served with a saucer of incredibly flavoursome curry sauce. Super cheap, and available everywhere – this is one of the things I miss the most now we’re back home. Eat as many as you can!!
Malaysians know how to do great satay. Barbecued over an open grill, marinated chicken is served with diced red onion, cucumber and the most incredible sweet/spicy peanut sauce, and sometimes glutinous rice cubes. You’ll find this at all food markets, and you’ll no doubt become addicted to the peanut sauce as I did! Sam’s allergic to peanuts so he just had to tolerate me sitting there waxing lyrical about how good the sauce is! A must try.
Laksa is a classic Malaysia dish, and it really varies in style depending on where you are in the country. My favourite Laksa was found in either Melaka (mainland Malaysia) or Kuching (Malaysian Borneo) – both of which included a tangy coconut-based broth, with plenty of chili and an aromatic kick, with chicken, noodles and salad. In Kuching it’s served with a spoon of chilli/fish sauce blend, a fresh kaffir lime, (for additional punch) and the addition of tofu cubes. Beware of laksa served in the Highlands region, as I was horribly surprised by the Laksa there which is a sour fish noodle soup!
6. Nasi Lemak
This is undoubtedly considered Malaysia’s ‘national dish’ so I’m including it here, but to be honest I’d say there are far more interesting things to eat! It’s basically a combination of fried chicken, rice in coconut milk, boiled egg, and usually cucumber and fried anchovies. I found it a little bland, but maybe I’m biased by my love of Indian and Chinese food!
Meaning ‘an eclectic mix’, Rojak is an unusual sweet/savoury salad consisting of fruits, vegetables, sometimes even meat or fish, and a tangy peanut sauce. Much like many dishes in Malaysia this again varies by region, but generally you’ll have a sweet/savoury element, and you can get some that are more fruit based or vegetable based.
8. Poh Pia Lwee and Lumpia (spring rolls)
Poh Pia are a speciality of Dutch-influenced town Melaka. Kind of like a soft crepe wrapped into a spring roll formation, filled with delicious crunchy fried veggies and meat. And (obviously!) the ever popular lumpia, or spring roll, feature in Malaysian food as a side dish with Chinese foods.
9. Hokkien Mee
Delicious sambal noodles with a combination of egg and rice noodles, loaded up with prawns squid and pork, sometimes with the addition of a tasty spicey chili broth. Garnished with fish for extra kick, and best eaten on the side of a buzzy foodie street like those found in Georgetown.
10. Carrot Cake (Chai tow kway)
Moreish Singapore influenced dish that bears no resemblance to the sweet treat, carrot cake is a deliciously carby dish made of ‘radish cake’ (steamed rice flour and radish cubes) stir fried with egg, spring onions and other veggies in a soy based sauce. Nicer than it sounds! The gooeyness of the rice cakes are really filling and comforting – kind of like the Asian version of mash potato.
11. Kolo Mee
Speciality noodle dish of Malaysian Borneo district Sarawak, this is a simple dish consisting of thick noodles, spring onions, pak choi, and incredibly tender pork tenderloin, pork mince and pork skins (oink!). The whole dish is held together by a meaty soy stock, and the effect is melt-in-your-mouth noodle soup. Add chili, lime, and dig in!
12. Kek Lapis
Layer cake! This is again a speciality of Sarawak but can be found elsewhere in Malaysia. It’s pretty pricey so we just snaffled a few free samples from markets, but it’s a very beautifully presented cake – thin delicate layers of cake formed into a bar, often dyed in multiple colours per layer – forming a sweet cake that comes in a million different shades and flavours.
13. Es cendol and ABC (air batu campung)
Given the overpowering heat of Malaysia (and the country’s obsession with all things sweet… they’re one of the top countries for diabetes!), it’s unsurprising they’re obsessed with ice based treats. Cendol is a classic dish – a sweet icey soup of died green glutinous rice flour worms, red beans, coconut milk and palm sugar with melting ice. ABC is an even crazier version – like Es Cendol on acid – with additions of grass jelly cubes, sweetcorn, ice cream, condensed milk, and sometimes durian.
14. Ice Bandung
Delicious (and diabetes inducing) rose water and condensed milk infusion served over ice in most Indian restaurants. A much needed jolt of energy, but it will probably harden up your arteries pretty quickly so indulge within limits!
15. Kopi / Teh Tarik
Malaysians spend hours each day sat in coffee shops – largely because of the absence of boozing and bars. Coffee and tea therefore are the cornerstone of conversation – men sit chatting and chain smoking over iced coffees, families take time out, ladies catch up. It’s social lubrication. In our month or so in Malaysia, we got firmly into this habit as coffee is delicious and super cheap at about 20p a cup. It’s essentially filter coffee mixed with condensed milk on ice – and the warm version packs even more of a punch (though it’s harder to handle in the heat!) Teh tarik or ‘pulled tea’ is a pretty cool drinks – tea and UHT milk, frothed in a crazy process of pouring from one cup to another by hand (how do they not spill it everywhere?!) – really fast, until it’s all bubbly, served over ice or warm. Pretty cool!