Malaysian food is jam-packed with big flavors. If you love sour and spicy, you’ve traveled to the right place.
The best part about touring around Malaysia has to be the food. Thanks to its multi-ethnic population and migratory past, local cuisine isn’t confined to a unilateral flavor or even one singular style of cooking. The majority of influences derive from Malay, Chinese, Indian, Muslim, Indonesian, and even the inter-marriages of these cultures. Head on over to the city of Penang where Nyonya cuisine takes over as the integration of Chinese migrants who’ve married into Malay families. Together, Nyonya flavors are powerful, massive. They punch, kick, and we sure can’t get enough! Here are some traditional iconic dishes that you’ve gotta try in Malaysia.
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Many consider nasi lemak as the national dish of Malaysia. It is often accompanied by fragrant rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf. Normally, it’s paired with a choice of meat, either chicken or beef. Then, a fried egg is placed on top of a stack of fluffy rice. Bite after bite in the morning, what an appetizing way to start the day!
Laksa is another staple in Malaysian cuisine. This spicy noodle soup typically uses thick rice noodles as base, and the toppings can vary from prawns, fish to chicken. The broth is creamy, packed with spicy and coconut flavors. Often, there’s a nice dose of sour tamarind (asam) added to the bouillon.
Roti john is essentially an omelette sandwich made with baguette bread. Inside, the fillings are mixed with eggs, minced chicken / mutton, onions and tomato-chili sauce. The name “roti” means “bread” in Sanskrit, meanwhile “John” stems from the British’s common use for a name of a male they might not know.
If you see a stack of pancakes on the side of a street, you’ll know it’s apam balik 曼煎粿 which is normally stuffed with sugar, peanuts and sometimes, corn. The dish originated from General Zuo during the Qing dynasty when he needed to feed his army during battle with local ingredients readily available. Hence, he replaced the former flatbread (with chili sauce and spring onion) with ground cane sugar and peanut that were locally sourced in mass production.
Curry mee is a Malaysian noodle soup which can be eaten in the morning. It’s made with diced boneless chicken thigh, pearl shell, lemongrass, ginger, garlic, bean sprout, bean curd, coconut broth, with chili sambal. The broth can be creamy, and sometimes the noodles used are yellow or with rice vermicelli.
A traditional Malaysian-Indo dish is rendang – a meat stew, slow-cooked in coconut milk. After braised for hours, jam-packed with an excellent blend of herbs and spices; the meat becomes dark, tender and explosive with aromatic flavors. Rendang is often referred to as Indonesia’s national dish. For any fan of savory foods, this one will definitely satiate your appetite.
Not only is nasi kerabu delicious but it’s also beautiful to look at. The blue rice derives from bunga telang flowers (butterly pea) crushed into the flour. This is particularly common in eastern regions of Malaysia, ie: Kelantan and Terengganu. A fun dish to eat – since traditionally it is eaten with your hands – it comes with fried chicken, fried coconut, pickles, crackers, bean sprouts and spicy fermented fish sauce.
In Asia, congee is very much considered as the ultimate comfort food. Whenever someone’s sick, we make congee. Of course, the ingredients vary in different parts of Asia, here in Malaysia, there are salted eggs, peanuts and different types of pickles that can be used as toppings for these soft rice cooked in large pots of water.
Kuih is absolutely the most classic Malaysian pastry and it comes in different shapes, colors and sizes. It’s soft, made with glutenous rice. Think of the texture akin to the skin of Japanese mochis. Sometimes, it’s stuffed with crushed dried coconuts, red beans, peanuts…and much more. In general, kuihs are often consumed in most Asian countries, but the fillings and shapes can be different, for instance, from China to Singapore.
If you love mushroom and you love fried food, then you’ll love cendawan goreng. Malaysia’s version of these crispy bites is sprinkled with chili and barbecue seasoning. It’s a nice snack for on-the-go, or as something to share at a restaurant before the main plates arrive.
This is Malaysia’s version of spicy roast or BBQ chicken drenched in hot chili, ginger, garlic, and coconut milk. The chicken is marinated in a mixture of local spices, including: turmeric, lemongrass…and more. Then, grilled with coconut sauce. It’s often eaten during Ramadan and can be bought from Ramadan markets.
Fish curry is another must-eat dish in Malaysia, as it’s often made with stingray or freshwater fish. Asam pedas requires cooking with a generous portion of tamarind – shrimp pate, garlic chilies, herbs and lots of ginger. The sour and spicy taste is typically local which extends throughout Indonesia and Borneo.
Sambal udang is another quintessential spicy dish featured in Indonesian cuisine, except this one is made from shrimp: peeled or unpeeled. But most importantly, it’s stir-fried in hot sambal sauce. Expect fragrances from chili pepper, candlenut, ginger, shallot, garlic, shrimp paste, galangal, lemongrass, citrus leaf, Indonesian bay leaf, coconut oil…and more. Green beans are added as garnish after the shrimp has been cooked.
What a pretty dish, right? Roti jala receives its name from its gorgeous appearance, meaning “net bread” made from flour designed in crossed zigzag lines on a hot pan. Once it’s ready, it’s rolled into a crepe, then eaten with chicken curry. It’s frequently eaten as a tea time snack, or served at festivals and weddings.
Murtabak is another lovely choice for those who prefer salty than sweet. It’s pan-fried bread, inside you’ll taste onions, garlic, egg and minced meat. Dip it in a drippy hot curry sauce, and you’ve got yourself a spicy bite. Historically, murtabaks were mostly sold in Indian-Muslim restaurants throughout Malaysia, hence pork wouldn’t be the meat of choice.