Food in Malaysia
At the crossroads of Malaysian, Chinese and Indian cuisine, Malaysia is an ideal place to make makan (to eat in Malay). Discover the regional specialities and cuisine of Nyonya (Peranakan), the fusion of Malay and Chinese cuisine. You can even find unique Eurasian cuisine in the Portuguese colony of Malacca, the heart of the Eurasian community of Portuguese origin.
Malaysians are very proud of their cuisine and most towns or even villages have their own delicious specialties such as Penang char kway teow, Kajang satay, Ipoh bean sprout chicken, Sarawak laksa, Kelantanese nasi dagang, Sabahan hinava, and many more. Most of them are based on word of mouth and are often found in the most difficult to reach places, so you can try asking locals for personal recommendations.
If you plan to travel to Malaysia and sample the local food, don’t be fooled by the names. Sometimes two completely different dishes from different parts of the country can be known by the same name. One example is laksa, which refers to completely different noodle dishes in Penang and Sarawak.
In general, you can eat just about anywhere in Malaysia. Grocery shops are relatively clean – the only thing you should avoid is ice for your drinks if you go to the street or street vendors’ stalls, as the blocks of ice used there may not meet your hygiene standards. This is not a problem in today’s restaurants. You should also avoid ordering water from hawkers’ stalls or mamak’s restaurants, as it is usually unboiled tap water.
Often the cheapest places don’t display prices; most of them charge tourists honestly, but check the prices before ordering to be sure.
Eating habits vary a lot, but most foods are eaten with a fork and a spoon: The fork in the left hand is used to push and cut, and the spoon in the right hand to eat.
Food being the favourite “pastime” of Malaysians, most of them are adept at using chopsticks, whatever their origins. Noodles and Chinese dishes are usually eaten with them, while Malay and Indian dishes can be eaten by hand, but no one will bat an eyelid if you ask for a fork and spoon instead.
When you eat by hand, always use your right hand to put your food in your mouth, as Malaysians and Indians traditionally use their left hand for dirty things like washing up after going to the toilet. When eating with chopsticks in Chinese restaurants, follow the usual etiquette and don’t stick your chopsticks vertically in a bowl of rice. This is reminiscent of the incense sticks that are burned in temples and the smell of wishing death to your neighbour. If you eat in a group, the serving bowls are always shared, but you receive your own bowl of rice and soup.
Where to eat in Malaysia
The cheapest places to eat are street vendors and cafes known as kedai kopi in Bahasa Malaysia or kopitiam in Chinese. These shops sell coffee as well as many other types of food and drinks. Particularly popular and tasty are the mamak stands, run by Indian Muslims, which offer local Indian dishes such as roti canai. Most of the stands are open late at night and some even operate on a rotating basis, so you can find the same stand offering different foods at different times of the day. You can also pick up something from each stall, just ask for bungkus (Bahasa Malaysia) or ta pao (Chinese). A hawker’s meal rarely costs more than RM5. Hygiene standards in Malaysia, although not as high as those in Singapore or neighbouring Western countries, are still reasonable and much better than those in China or most other Southeast Asian countries. Just be careful, and in general, if a stall is frequented by locals, it should be safe to eat there.
The kedai makanan, or more western-style restorer, is a further step. One type of restaurant to watch out for is the nasi kandar (also known as nasi campur or nasi padang), with a wide choice of curries and toppings to spoon over your rice.
Seafood restaurants (makanan laut) are relatively expensive, but are still very good value for money by most standards; however, check prices before ordering. The local prawns are huge, Chinese steamed fish is delicious, and crab in sticky chili sauce is particularly popular.
Finally, some less adventurous options. Shopping centre food courts are an excellent way to sample local delicacies in air-conditioned comfort, paying only a small premium over the prices charged by street vendors. And yes, you can also find McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut and the usual suspects and imitators all over Malaysia.
Dietary restrictions in Malaysia
As Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country, it is easy to find halal food, but most Chinese stalls and restaurants are not halal. If in doubt, ask. Meals in Malaysian restaurants and Western fast food outlets such as McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut are halal. Restaurants in large hotels are not certified “Halal” because they also serve alcohol, but they do not usually serve pork. Local Muslims eat in Western, Chinese and Indian restaurants if there is a halal sign on the walls. Most restaurants tend to display their halal certification or a halal sign on their premises. Halal certification is granted and enforced by a government agency, usually JAKIM.
Vegetarianism is well understood by Chinese and Indian communities (which is not the case for Muslim Malays and other indigenous minorities) and many restaurants or hawkers’ stalls will be able to offer something on request (specify: “no meat, no fish, no seafood – ask for vegetables and/or eggs ONLY”), but don’t rely solely on menu descriptions: dishes that seem harmless such as “fried vegetables”, etc. often contain pieces of pork, crab paste (belacan, often used in spicy Malay and Chinese dishes), fish sauce, etc. in non-halal Chinese restaurants. Indian restaurants generally offer very good vegetarian choices – roti (Indian flat bread – all kinds; including roti canai, roti naan, capati, tosai) are a good choice, and insist on dhal (lentil curry sauce), otherwise you will get fish curry sauce. Purely vegetarian Chinese restaurants (which often serve remarkable “meat imitations” based on tofu, gluten, etc.) are fairly easy to find in large urban areas where there is a large population of Chinese origin. In rural areas, especially near fishing villages or in areas with a predominantly Muslim or Malay background, vegetarian food may be harder to come by, but learning some basic Malaysian Bahasa vocabulary will go a long way in getting your message across. High-end Western restaurants, such as those serving Italian cuisine, usually offer good vegetarian options.
Veganism is misunderstood in this part of the world and widely misunderstood as a synonym for vegetarianism, but the safest place for a vegan is to visit a Chinese Buddhist vegetarian restaurant (most Chinese vegetarian restaurants are essentially vegan and operate according to Buddhist principles of non-killing and compassion, and therefore refrain from using dairy products, eggs and the five fetid vegetables (onions, garlic, leeks, etc.), which are rejected in Mahayana Buddhism). And if you still feel uncomfortable or unsure, don’t hesitate to ask.
Subtlety is not a priority in Malaysian cuisine, which is characterised by a generous use of spices (the main ones being star anise, cinnamon/cassie, cardamom and cloves – called rempah empat beradik or the four sister spices), spicy edible rhizomes (mainly galangal, ginger and turmeric), coconut milk (santan in Bahasa Malaysia) and sometimes fresh herbs (lemongrass, fresh coriander, pandan leaves and various kinds of wild herbs or ulam). Most Malaysian dishes are curries, stews or dips of one kind or another, but all full of flavour.
- Nasi lemak (literally “fat rice”) is the ultimate Malaysian breakfast. In its simplest form, it consists of rice cooked in light coconut milk or coconut cream, a little fried “ikan bilis” (anchovies), peanuts, sliced cucumber and a hint of chilli pepper on the side. Originally, “ikan bilis” were cooked with the chilli and spices to make “sambal tumis ikan bilis”, but it makes more sense for the businessman to have them separately as they are easier to prepare and the fried anchovies last longer. Larger fried fish or chicken wings are common accompaniments. They are also often combined with various curries and/or sambal (see below).
- Rendang, sometimes called “dry curry”, is meat that is simmered for hours in a refined and spicy (but rarely hot) curry paste until almost all the 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 many types of chilli-based sauces. Sambal belacan is a common condiment made by mixing chili with belacan shrimp paste, while the popular sambal sotong dish is made of squid (sotong) cooked in a red chili sauce. Sambal ikan bilis, a common side dish with nasi lemak, consists of small dried fish with onions, chili and sugar.
- Satays are skewers of grilled meat, usually chicken or beef. What distinguishes satay from a regular kebab is the slightly spicy peanut-based dipping sauce.
- Kangkung belacan is a mixture of boiled spinach sautéed in shrimp paste (belacan) and hot peppers.
- Mee rebus are egg noodles served in a mildly spicy sweet potato sauce, usually with a slice of hard-boiled egg and a little lime.
- Lontong consists of vegetables, tempeh and soohoon cooked in a yellow (turmeric-based) coconut sauce, eaten with nasi himpit (diced overcooked rice) – one of the few vegetarian dishes in Malaysian cuisine!
- The acar (achar) is a vegetable and fruit (cucumber, carrot, pineapple) cut into thin slices and lightly marinated with vinegar, chili and peanuts, a common side dish. Not as spicy as Indian pickles, which have the same name.
- Sup kambing is a goat or sheep soup, cooked slowly with aromatic herbs and spices and garnished with fried shallots and fresh coriander.
- Keropok lekor, a speciality of the state of Terengganu on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, is a tasty cake made from a combination of batter and chopped fish. Sliced and fried just before serving, it is eaten with a spicy sauce.
- Tempoyak is a fermented durian paste served as an accompaniment to a main meal.
Malaysian desserts, especially pastries and sweet jellies, are usually made with coconut and palm sugar (gula melaka, named after Melaka). Kuih (or kueh) refers to a plethora of steamed, cake-like desserts, usually made with coconut milk, grated coconut, sticky rice or tapioca. They are very labour-intensive to make, often highly coloured (using natural or synthetic food colouring agents) and cut into fanciful shapes. Try wave waves, small round balls of sticky rice flour coloured and flavoured with pandan leaves, filled with palm sugar and rolled in grated coconut. A delight when they burst in your mouth with the sweet sensation of oozing palm syrup.
- Ais kacang literally means “ice bean” in Bahasa Malaysia, or in another name ABC means Air Batu Campur, is a good indication of the two main ingredients: crushed ice and red adzuki beans. But more often than not, gula melaka (palm sugar), grass jelly, sweet corn, red beans, black-eyed peas, attapalm seeds and whatever else you have on hand are also added. The whole thing is then sprinkled with canned condensed milk or coconut cream and coloured syrups. The final result has a very interesting and refreshing taste.
- Apam balik, also called “terang bulan” in some states, is a rich pancake-like dish, spread with a generous amount of butter or margarine and sprinkled with sugar, large nuts and sometimes corn.
- Bubur cha-cha is made of diced yam, sweet potato and sago added to a coconut milk soup infused with pandan. It can be served hot or cold and can be a breakfast or a dessert.
- Cendol is made from green pea noodles and served in a sweet broth of palm sugar and coconut milk. It is usually served chilled and is an excellent refreshment in the stifling tropical heat.
- Pisang Goreng literally means “fried bananas wrapped in dough”. It is a common street food that can be eaten for afternoon tea, as a dessert or as a snack at any time of the day.
- Pulut Hitam is a rice pudding made from sticky black rice sweetened with brown palm sugar. The creamy coconut milk is shaken over the rice pudding before serving.
- Pulut Inti is a type of rice cake made from sticky rice and coconut milk. It is steamed and topped with fresh coconut flakes sweetened with palm sugar. It is traditionally wrapped in pyramid-shaped banana leaves.
- Sago gula melaka is a simple sago pudding, served with gula melaka syrup (palm sugar) and coconut milk.
The cuisine of Peranakan/Nonya
The region’s most recognizable cuisine is Peranakan or Nonya, which comes from the mixed Malay and Chinese communities of the former British colonies of the Straits Settlements (now Singapore, Penang, and Malacca).
- Ayam pongteh is a chicken dish flavored with fermented soy paste, dark soy sauce, sugar, and other ingredients. This mild and slightly sweet dish is prepared daily in some households in Nyonya.
- Ayam Buah Keluak is a distinctive dish that combines pieces of chicken with black nuts from the Pangium edule or Kepayang tree to create a rich sauce.
- Pepper crab, originally a Malaysian specialty now available in Singapore, is a whole crab drizzled with a good amount of spicy, sticky pepper sauce. It is notoriously difficult to eat, but irresistibly delicious: don’t wear a white shirt! For a less messy but equally tasty alternative, ask for crab with black pepper.
- Enche Kabin are bites of fried chicken marinated in soy sauce, five-spice powder, black pepper, ginger and green onions.
- Itek Tim is a soup based on duck, tomatoes, green peppers, salted vegetables and candied sour plums that simmer gently together.
- Kaya is an egg and coconut jam, a strange but tasty combination. It is served on toast for breakfast, canonically accompanied by liquid eggs and strong, sweet coffee (kopi).
- In Malaysia, Laksa comes in many different styles, and each state seems to have its own style. Laksa lemak is a noodle soup flavored in a coconut curry broth and garnished with coconut shells or shrimp, while Penang laksa assam is made with tamarind broth instead of coconut and has a sour and spicy taste. Kelantan laksa, on the other hand, is prepared with wide, flat rice noodles and a broth very rich in coconut.
- Mee Siam are rice flour noodles served with a sour sauce made of tamarind, dried shrimps and fermented beans. It is usually served with cubes of tau pok (bean curd) and hard-boiled eggs.
- The popiah or spring rolls are fresh or fried. They consist of boiled beets, fried tofu, fried shallots and garlic, chopped omelet, sautéed long beans and (optional) chilli sauce, all wrapped in a thin rice skin and eaten like a fajita.
- Rojak, in Bahasa Malaysian, means a mixture of everything, and there are two very different types. Chinese rojak is a salad of pineapple, white beetroot, cucumber, tau pok (fried bean curd) with thin, tiny slices of bunga kantan (ginger flower buds) mixed with crab paste sauce and sugar, then sprinkled with crushed peanuts. Indian rajak consists mainly of fried fritters of flour and various legumes with cucumber and tofu, with a sweet and spicy peanut sauce.
Chinese food as eaten in Malaysia generally comes from southern China, particularly from Fujian and Guangdong. While authentic dishes, relatively unchanged from their origins in mainland China, are certainly available, especially in high-end restaurants, everyday street food has absorbed a number of tropical influences, including the fairly extensive use of chili and belachan (crab paste) as condiments. Noodles can also be served not only as soup (湯 tang), but also “dry” (干 kan), which means that the chili and spice noodles are served in one bowl and the soup in a separate bowl.
- Bak chor mee（肉脞麵）is mainly noodles with minced pork in a chili sauce with lard, ikan bilis (fried anchovies), vegetables and mushrooms.
- Bak kut teh (肉骨茶), literally “pork bone tea”, is a simple-looking soup made from pork ribs that are simmered in broth for hours until they are ready to fall off the bone. It is usually eaten with white rice, mui choy (pickled vegetables) and a pot of strong Chinese tea, hence the name – the broth itself contains no tea. To impress the locals, order You Tiao Fritters from a nearby stand, cut them into bite-size pieces, and dip them in your soup. The port city of Klang is considered the place of origin of the dish.
- Char kway teow (炒果条) is a very popular type of noodle in Penang. A flat egg noodle, it is fried with bean sprouts, shrimp, cockles, bean sprouts, chives and bak you (lard), although the latter ingredient is sometimes omitted due to the popularity and demand for this dish among Malaysians and Indians who traditionally avoid pork.
- Chee cheong fun (豬腸粉) is a popular breakfast consisting of lasagne, rolled rice noodles and various types of fried meat, including fish balls and fried tofu. The dish is usually topped with a generous amount of sauce.
- Chwee kway （水粿) is a dish of rice cakes topped with chai po (fermented salted turnips), usually served with a little chili sauce.
- Fish ball noodles (魚丸麵) come in many forms, but the most common type is mee pok, which consists of flat egg noodles mixed with chili sauce, with the fish balls floating in a separate bowl of soup on the side.
- Haitian Chicken Rice (海南鸡饭) is a poached chicken served with rice cooked in broth and chicken fat and delicious ginger and chili sauces. The chicken has a delicate flavour, but it is the quality of the rice and the dipping sauces that makes the connoisseur happy. Perhaps best known in Singapore, there is an interesting local variation in Malacca and Muar, Johor, where the rice is cooked until it is sticky and then rolled into balls.
- Hokkien mee (福建麵) refers to at least three different dishes. In Kuala Lumpur, it is made from thick noodles fried in a dark soy sauce, in Penang a very spicy crab soup. It is interesting to note that the two dishes do not resemble the dish of the same name from neighbouring Singapore.
- Kway chaps (粿汁) are essentially sheets of rice flour served in a kind of brownish soup, accompanied by a plate of braised pork and pork organs (usually offal).
- The Lok-lok (乐乐) consists of skewers of fish, meat and vegetables cooked in boiling broth and eaten with sauces. The most popular is “kuah kacang”, a Malaysian peanut-based sauce traditionally served with satay and ketupat (pressed rice cubes eaten during Eid).
- Steamboat (火鍋), also known as hot pot, is a do-it-yourself Chinese style soup. You boil a pot of broth on a table burner, choose meat, fish and vegetables to your taste from a menu or buffet, and then cook it to your liking. When you’re done, add noodles or ask for rice to fill you up. It usually takes at least two people, and the more the better.
- Wantan mee (雲吞麵) are fine noodles topped with wantan balls made from seasoned minced pork. Unlike the soupy version from Hong Kong, it is usually served dry.
- Yong tau foo (酿豆腐) literally means “stuffed tofu”, but it’s more exciting than it sounds. Guests choose their favourite dishes from a wide selection of tofu, fish paste, seafood and vegetables. They are then cut into bite-size pieces, cooked briefly in boiling water and served either in a broth in the form of soup or “dried” with the broth in a separate bowl. The dish can be eaten on its own or accompanied by pasta of your choice. The essential accompaniments are hot chilli sauce and a characteristic sweet brown sauce for dips.
The smallest of Malaysia’s “Big 3”, the Indians have acquired a disproportionate influence on the culinary scene, with the mamak (Muslim Indian, see below) stand in every town and village in Malaysia, and the nasi kandarrestaurants offering a variety of these on your rice with a spoon. Authentic Indian cuisine in Malaysia includes typical South Indian specialities such as dosai, idli, sambhar, uttapam; as well as some North Indian dishes such as naan bread, korma and tandoori chicken. However, a number of Indian dishes have been “uneasy” and adopted by the whole population, including
- Fish head curry, as the name suggests, is a huge fish head curry cooked whole until it falls apart. The head itself is not eaten, as there is a lot of meat inside and around it. Note that there are two different kinds, the fiery Indian kind and the softer Chinese kind (the latter is sometimes served as a broth for vermicelli).
- Mamak-style mee goreng is an ubiquitous dish found in mamak shops, a fried noodle dish that Malaysians love.
- Nasi briyani (sometimes spelled nasi beriani) is obtained by superimposing spicy rice on tender pieces of spicy lamb, mutton or chicken. In nasi kandar restaurants, it is cooked rice without meat and a simple choice of rice [rather than steamed rice] to be eaten with the curries and side dishes of your choice.
- Roti canai is the Malaysian adaptation of the South Indian parotta, a flat bread that is thrown up in the air like a pizza, fried in oil and dipped in curry. It is eaten plain, with dal sauce, curry sauce or both, and is usually called roti kosong. Variations include roti telur (with an egg) and murtabak (stuffed with chicken, mutton or fish), roti boom (with condensed milk) and roti tisu (very thin like tissue paper and sprinkled with caramelised sugar).
- Putu mayam is made of rice vermicelli, usually mixed with grated coconut and a little jagging.
Fruits in Malaysia
Malaysia still has much of the local agriculture, so it’s easy to find fresh and ripe fruit in day and night markets all over the country. Apart from durian, the most popular fruits in Malaysia are rambutan, mangosteen and bananas (native to the country and available in sweet and sour varieties), mango (in three varieties called mangga, kuini and pauh in Malay), papaya, guava (especially the jambu which is crispy and a bit tart), pineapple, watermelon, belimbing (star fruit/carambola), pomelo, langsat, duku, mata kucing and jackfruit.
Drinks in Malaysia
Malaysians like both coffee (kopi) and tea (teh), especially the national drink teh tarik (“pulled tea”), named for the theatrical “pull” movement with which it is poured. By default, both are served hot, sweet and with a dose of condensed milk; ask to omit the milk, to have an iced tea with milk or to have an iced tea without milk. Drinking completely without sugar is considered strange, but asking for kurang manis (less sugar) will relieve the pain. However, if you really don’t want sugar at all, you can try asking for “teh kosong”.
Kopi tongkat ali ginseng, a blend of coffee, a local aphrodisiac root and ginseng, served with condensed milk and presented as an alternative to a combination of Viagra and Red Bull, is another particular local favourite, usually advertised with a picture of a bed broken in half.
Other popular non-alcoholic options include the chocolate drink Milo and lime juice (limes). Freshly prepared fruit juices are also widely available, as well as a wide range of canned drinks (some familiar, some less so).
There is also a local drink made from white soy milk and black grass jelly (cincau) called soy cincau. It can be ordered at most street vending centres and local street cafes (kedai kopi).
Alcohol in Malaysia
Although Malaysia has a Muslim majority, alcohol is available in licensed outlets for consumption by its non-Muslim citizens (Chinese, Sabahan natives, Sarawakians and Indians) and non-Muslim foreigners. However, in some states (notably Kelantan and Terengganu) the consumption of alcohol is prohibited. With the exception of duty-free islands (Labuan, Langkawi, Tioman) and duty-free shops (e.g. in Johor Bahru), prices are relatively high, with a can of beer costing RM 7.50 or more, even in supermarkets or 7-Eleven shops. However, alcohol smuggling is widespread in East Malaysia.
In East Malaysia, especially in Sarawak, Tuak is a common occurrence for any celebration or festival such as Gawai Dayak and Christmas. Tuak is made from fermented rice to which sugar, honey or other various spices are sometimes added. It is usually served lukewarm, without ice. Visitors can choose between “strong” tuak (which is usually fermented for years) and “soft” tuak (which is sometimes prepared a week or even a day in advance). In Sabah, cheap alcohol can be found in most supermarkets and mini-markets in the state. Other alcoholic drinks such as beer and whisky are also widely available. On the other hand, Kelantan tuak can also be considered a liqueur because it contains traces of fermented nipah or juice. The alcohol content of the Tuak in Kelantan can easily reach 50% after 3 days from the time of extraction.
Tapai consists of cassava (more rarely rice) which is fermented and consumed as food (although the liquid from the soil can also be drunk). As it is usually consumed during Hari Raya Puasa, the main Muslim holiday celebrating the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, it is interesting to note that Islamic legal authorities associated with the opposition Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) have granted Muslims a special exemption from the laws against alcohol consumption in the case of tapai.