Malaysian cuisine may not be as world renowned as Japanese or Thai, but the country is home to some of the most delicious dishes you will come across. From amazingly fragrant curries, flavoursome soups and moreish noodle dishes, Malaysia has something for everyone. It is a multicultural country, with diverse food influenced by its Malay, Chinese, and Indian population. What’s more, Malaysian food is incredibly good value, with meals at the famous hawker centres costing just a couple of dollars. In this post, I share some of my favourite Malaysian dishes to try next time you are there.
Nasi lemak is the country’s unofficial national dish. It includes rice soaked in coconut milk and steamed in pandan leaves for a wonderfully aromatic flavour. The rice is typically served with fried anchovies, peanuts, a hard-boiled egg, sliced cucumber, and a spicy sambal sauce. All these components bring this wonderful dish together, from the creamy richness of the rice to the crunchy nuts and anchovies, along with a punch of chilli from the sauce. It is served as a main, or on the side of meat or fish for a more substantial meal (like the deep-fried chicken pictured above!).
Originally served as a filling breakfast, Nasi lemak is now served throughout the day. You can find it all over Malaysia at street food stalls and sit-down restaurants.
Another popular Malaysian dish that you must try is Laksa – a spicy noodle soup. There are many varieties across the country, two of the most well-known being the Penang Laksa (Asam Laksa) and Curry Laksa (Curry Mee). The base of the Asam laksa is a spicy, sour, fishy broth with flaked mackerel. It is topped with onions, mint, cubed pineapple, shredded lettuce, birdseye chillies, and a spoon of prawn paste. It has a huge amount of flavour, but it can be divisive. I personally prefer the Curry Laksa; made of a spicy, rich, coconut milk broth and is topped with tofu puffs, prawns, shredded chicken, and beansprouts. It’s certainly worth trying both to see which one you like more.
Hainanese chicken rice
Hainanese chicken rice is beautifully soft and tender poached chicken, which is then cooled in ice, chopped up in small pieces, and served with seasoned rice. While the chicken is flavoursome and juicy, many believe the rice is the best part of the meal as it is cooked in chicken stock. Chicken rice comes with a little side of chilli and ginger sauce. This simple and tasty dish was brought to Malaysia by Chinese immigrants from Hainan and is now a staple that can be found everywhere, from hawker stalls to coffee shops. Chicken rice may not be the most glamorous or exotic meal you can get in Malaysia, but it is seriously good comfort food.
Where to try it: Ipoh Restoran Tauge Ayam Lou Wong
Char koay teow
Char koay teow is one of Malaysia’s most iconic street foods, and can be found in hawker centres across the country. This cheap and delicious flat rice noodle dish is stirfried in lard, soy sauce and shrimp paste. It is typically served with Chinese sausage, eggs, prawns, cockles, beansprouts, although there are many variations.
Where to try it: Siam Road Charcoal Char Koay Teow
Char koay kak
While Char koay teow is far better known, for something a little bit different, you can try the Penangese Char koey kak. This is the lesser-known cousin of Char koay teow, which uses thick rice cakes rather than rice noodles, giving the dish an interesting gummy texture. It also includes bean sprouts and pickled vegetables for a bit of tang and crunch. Other differences are how the dish is cooked, with the spongy rice cakes charred on a separate pan with light and dark soy sauces, before being tossed with the other ingredients.
Where to try it: New Lane Seafood Char Koay Kak
Nasi kandar is Malaysian Indian cuisine that originated in Penang. This messy plate consists of steamed rice served with your choice of accompaniments slopped on top. These usually include meat and seafood curries and side dishes such as okra and cabbage. Nasi kandar restaurants can be bustling and chaotic eateries, but don’t shy away. You just queue up for your food like you would at a canteen and point at what you want. I often had no idea what I was getting, but if it looked good I’d go for it.
Eating Nasi kandar is a fun experience, where you will want to get stuck in with your hands like the locals and get messy. But don’t worry, there are sinks to wash up afterwards. However, if you prefer to use utensils then that’s not a problem either.
Ok, so Teh Tarik isn’t exactly a “food”, but I must have had a hundred cups during my time in Malaysia so had to include it. Teh Tarik literally translates as “pulled tea”, which is exactly how it is prepared. This Indian milk tea, generously sweetened with condensed and evaporated milk, is poured back and forth between two vessels from a height. This action makes the tea light and frothy, and also cools the drink down slightly so you don’t have to wait long before your first sip. Teh Tarik can be served warm or cold, and is found at hawker stalls and kopi tiams (coffee shops).
Where to try it: Mansion Tea Stall
Now, the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Malaysian food probably isn’t toast, but bear with me! In Malaysia, thick slices of bread are toasted over a charcoal grill and then spread with butter and slathered with kaya – a sweet and delicious jam made from coconut, eggs, pandan leaves, and caramel. Sounds tasty, right? If you are like me, you will have yours with some runny, soft boiled eggs on top. When burst, the yolks will ooze all over and merge with the jam, butter, and smokey bread to create a truly tasty breakfast. Wash down with a cup of coffee or Teh Tarik.
Roti Canai is another of Malaysia’s tasty Indian-influenced dishes. Typically eaten at breakfast, Roti canai are a layered flatbread made from flour, water, eggs, and ghee. They are crispy, flaky, buttery, and generally served alongside a curry sauce and daal for dipping. One of my favourite variations was with curry sauce, daal, and sambal sauce doused all over the roti, with soft boiled eggs on top. While not the most photogenic food in the world, it sure was delicious.
Where to try it: Mansion Tea Stall.
Wantan mee is a popular Cantonese street food made of springy, yellow egg noodles and steamed wonton dumplings (usually prawn and pork mince). These are tossed in a rich sauce made from soy sauce and served with sliced char siu (Chinese bbq pork) and steamed choy sum. Pickled chillies are a zingy accompaniment that give the dish a kick. Wanton Mee can be found at hawker stalls and coffee shops across Malaysia.
Where to try it: Uncle Aunty Wan Tan Mee stall
So that’s it, folks! Ten absolutely delicious treats to try when you are in Malaysia. If you have any other favourite dishes or restaurants that I haven’t mentioned, please share them in the comments below.
Ciao for now
The Curious Sparrow