Eating is a national sport.
Tip! On your first day in Malaysia, start by ordering a plate of char koay teow and it’ll never steer you wrong.
Malaysia’s strong street food game gives all of its Southeast Asian neighbors a run for their money. Eating is a national sport as is seeking out the best elusive hawker stalls for each of their favorite dishes. Anyone visiting Malaysia must be ready to eat their face off and spend a significant portion of their time in night markets, food courts and hawker centers. Here’s a list of ten essential Malaysian street foods which you absolutely cannot leave the country without trying!
1. Char koay teow.
Malaysia’s classic fried noodle dish. It’s sold literally everywhere. You can always rely on it as the ultimate fallback and comfort food. Flat rice noodles are fried in a heaving wok with shrimp, cockles, bean sprouts, eggs and chives, then seasoned with soy sauce. If you’re at a loss at the hawker center on your first day in Malaysia, start by ordering a plate of char koay teow and it’ll never steer you wrong.
2. Roti canai.
Hot, buttery Indian flatbread served with a side of flavorful dal curry for dipping? Yes please! The roti in Malaysia which resembles fried, greasy, flaky naan, is like heaven every time! Roti canai is commonly eaten for breakfast, but it’s still super easy to find in food courts and hawker centers any time of the day. You can also order it with curries other than lentil dal at many shop stalls that specialize in roti.
3. Penang Asam Laksa.
Hailing from the food-obsessed island of Penang, this special Malay version of laksa is a national treasure. Penang asam laksa consists of thick rice noodles in a piping hot spicy red soup flavored with tamarind, chili, ginger and mackerel. The flavor is overwhelmingly fishy and sour, not to mention quite spicy. As one of CNN’s World’s 50 best foods, it’s definitely a must-try for anyone visiting Malaysia, though the overpowering flavors of fish and tamarind may not be suited for everyone.
4. Nasi kandar.
Nasi kandar is more of an experience than a dish. You’ll find many casual restaurants advertising nasi kandar. It’s like a buffet with a variety of choices such as curries, fried chicken, huge tiger shrimps, fish, eggs and vegetables. You get a plate of rice and then help yourself to whatever you want from the spread. Then you go to the cash register with your plate and they ring you up for the items that you have taken. It’s a very fun, exciting way to eat in which you get to try lots of different things at once!
Cendol is everybody’s favorite ice cold dessert snack. Shaved ice mounted with green jelly noodles and kidney beans is then drenched in coconut milk and palm sugar. It’s everyone’s go-to on a humid afternoon since in Malaysia it’s hot and summery all year round. If you come across a cart or food stall slinging bowls of cendol, be sure to stop and stand in line to try this unique Malaysian dessert!
6. Chee cheong fun.
Soft steamed rice noodles topped with sweet and spicy sauce is a clear crowd pleaser for everyone. The Malaysian version of chee cheong fun consists of flat sheets of rice noodle bundled into glutinous rolls that are sprinkled with curry, hoisin sauce, chili sauce, sesame seeds and/or fried garlic chips. A tasty snack for any time of the day, the Malay version of this popular Cantonese dish is a definite must-try!
Popiah is a beloved Hokkien dish throughout Malaysia and Singapore. It’s a spring roll wrapped in thin crepe-like paper made of wheat flour, typically served fresh but sometimes fried. The filling consists of shredded jicama, bean sprouts, French beans and carrots, added with pork, Chinese sausage and/or seafood. Popiah is a popular dish made at home, with many families getting together to wrap up their own delicious traditional recipe.
8. Hokkien mee.
Penang Hokkien Mee was the first thing I ever ate at a food court in George Town and it was totally the best decision ever! Penang’s awesome version of Hokkien Mee is a bowl of rice vermicelli and egg noodles swimming in an angry red soup flavored by prawn and pork ribs. The spicy prawn broth is then garnished even extra kick of sambal, fried shallots, shrimp, pork, bean sprouts and fried garlic. All of the above come together to create a super spicy, amazing bowl of deliciousness.
9. Nasi lemak.
This delectable, colorful breakfast dish is also the national dish of Malaysia. There’s nothing more exciting than unwrapping a triangular parcel made of pandan leaf and discovering the mound of coconut rice with condiments inside. The fragrant coconut rice is usually accompanied by anchovies, boiled egg, peanuts, cucumbers and spicy, flavorful sambal. Of course there are many variations of nasi lemak. You can order yours to come with chicken or beef rendang, fried fish or even squid.
10. Koay teow th’ng.
Words cannot describe the pure bliss that spread throughout my body at the first taste of koay teow th’ng soup. I would gladly agree to eat nothing else for the rest of my life other than that clear broth robustly flavored with garlic, pork and spring onions. It’s the perfect bowl filled with soup, rice noodles, sliced pork, fishballs and garlic chips. Who needs pho when you can get a heavenly bowl of koay teow th’ng soup at every hawker center?