Malaysian cuisine is like the unassuming cast member among a bevy of stars in a major Hollywood flick. Though it’s not as well-known as other Asian cuisines, it shines and charms in its own way, making people want to take a second look or another bite. Malaysian food has a bit of Malay, Indian and Chinese influences mixed together, resulting in something that is truly unique and sublime in flavor and presentation.
If you’re in Malaysia, you’ll get your fill of the food in no time at all, since it’s typical to eat six meals a day in this country. Because the eating never stops, you get to sample all the culinary offerings of the country, from high cuisine to street food offerings. But what should you eat first? To ensure that you’ll only be getting the best, here’s a compilation of the best Malaysian foods that you should definitely try.
Thailand and Indonesia might proclaim that they have the best satay, but Malaysia can give them a run for their money. You’ll see satay stands and restaurants all over the country, recognizable for the towering piles of meat skewers that are laid on the grill once you order. Take your pick from chicken, beef or pork, though you can get the latter from non-Moslem venues only. For me, the mark of a good satay has some charring, the skin crisp in some places, and the meat bursting with a smoky flavor. And of course, it should have some peanut sauce, slightly sweet and lightly spiced to perfection.
2. Roti canai
This is a classic Malaysian breakfast, but it’s available any time of the day. It’s even better at 3AM, when you’re famished or craving for something simple but utterly comforting. Roti canai is a type of bread that’s crispy and flaky on the outside like a good croissant, yet soft, steaming and chewy on the inside like pizza. It’s made from flour, egg and clarified butter, and cooked in a griddle. You can eat this as a snack on its own, or use it to scoop up some curry, sardines, or eggs. Personally, I like mine on the sweet side, with some condensed milk, or with some chocolate hazelnut spread to shake things up a little.
3. Nasi lemak
This is considered Malaysia’s unofficial national dish. It’s easy to find nasi lemak in Malaysia just as it’s easy to find a Starbucks in California (or in any major city in the world for that matter). Picture a bed of soft, white rice cooked in coconut milk with some spicy sambal, roasted peanuts, crunchy anchovies, cucumber and egg, all wrapped up like a parcel in some banana leaves. This is often served for breakfast but it can be eaten any time of the day. Try it with some curry or some fried seafood to add some heft to the dish.
4. Hainanese Chicken Rice
Though neighboring country Singapore has dibs on the Hainanese chicken rice as its national dish, the Malaysians have added their own twist on the dish. This dish is simply chicken boiled in stock and served at room temperature. It’s accompanied by rice that has also been cooked in chicken stock, and served with a garlic and ginger dipping sauce. The twist, is adding some chili to the sauce, making it very appealing to the spice-loving Malaysian palate.
5. Char kuey teow
Foreigners usually swear that this is the best food that they’ve eaten in Malaysia after just one bite of this dish. There’s nothing mysterious about char kuey teow, and no, it doesn’t contain any unicorn tears. What it is, is rice noodles, stir-fried over the flames of a charcoal fire, mixed with some soy, prawns, chili, shrimp paste, cockles, egg, and bean sprouts. It’s served in a little paper parcel, and often the fun part of eating this dish is that you get to walk around while eating it, as if it were popcorn. The best char kuey teow has some pork lard drizzled over the noodles to give it that extra oomph.
6. Won ton mee
There are many variations of this dish all over Asia, but the one in Penang is thought to be the best by die-hard fans of won ton mee. It’s a dish of noodles with pork, broth and wontons and can be served in two ways. There’s a variation that is served dry, with the noodles stir-fried with thick soy sauce and pork lard, and it’s served with pork on top, with the broth and the wontons on the side. The other version of this dish is somewhat soupier, with the noodles and broth mixed together. Go for the dry won ton mee to taste all the complex flavors of the dish, which can sometimes be lost when the noodles are swimming in broth.
So many variations of Malaysia’s most beloved noodle soup exist, but there are two that are the ultimate for the locals—asam laksa and curry laksa. Asam laksa has the noodles immersed in a sour, tamarind-based broth and features some flaky, white fish on top of everything. Curry laksa is richer in comparison. This time, the noodles are mixed with coconut milk broth, flavored with ginger, lemongrass, chili and belacan, and topped with shrimp, tofu puffs, fish balls and eggs. Both noodle dishes are just the very thing that you’ll need on a rainy day to chase the chills away.
Rendang is usually referred to as a kind of curry. Beef, chicken or lamb is slowly simmered in coconut milk, ginger, turmeric, kaffir lime and chilies until the liquid evaporates. This can be found all over Malaysia, especially during festival season.
9. Goreng pisang
Another street food that can be found in most Southeast Asian countries, goreng pisang or banana fritters is a favorite Malay snack that is sublime in its simplicity. Bananas are deep fried to caramelize the natural sugars in the bananas, making them sweeter and giving the humble fruit a complexity in flavor. Some versions call for the bananas to be dipped in some batter before deep-frying. I like to get a scoop of vanilla ice cream and some goreng pisang, and mix them altogether in a bowl. My take on the banana split, but I think this is way better than the original recipe.
10. Kaya Toast and Pulled Tea
Teatime calls for some kaya toast and some pulled tea, or teh tarik. Kaya toast is a sweet coconut jam slathered onto warm toasts, spread with butter. The Malays love kaya toast for breakfast, often with a cup of black coffee, but I like it with some pulled tea. Watching the drink being made is like watching performance art. It’s made by pouring hot black tea and condensed milk between two containers, from farther and farther distances until its well-blended and aerated. Though it’s less frothy than a cappuccino, it has a layer of foam on top from all that pouring. By the time I’m done with my mid afternoon snack, I’m slightly buzzed from all the sugar from the toast and the tea. It’s awesome.
Next time you’re in Malaysia, try some of the food on this list, and be blown away by the rich flavors and textures of Malay cuisine. Its food to satisfy the tummy and the soul, and really, you can’t ask for more than that. Have some of everything, and let the fun times begin!