Subtlety is not a priority in Malaysian Malay cooking, as it is characterised by a liberal use of spices the most important are star anise, cinnamon/cassia, cardamom and cloves - dubbed rempah empat beradik or the four spice siblings, pungent edible rhizomes mainly galangal, ginger and turmeric, coconut milk santan in Bahasa Malaysia, and occasionally fresh herbs lemongrass, fresh coriander, pandan leaves and various kinds of wild herbs or ulam. Most Malaysian Malay dishes are curries, stews or dips of one kind or another, but all full of flavour.
Is the generic term for chilli-based sauces of many kinds. sambal belacan is a common condiment made by mixing chilli with the shrimp paste belacan, while the popular dish sambal sotong consists of squid sotong cooked in red chilli sauce. sambal ikan bilis, a common accompaniment to nasi lemak, consists of small dried fish with onions, chilli and sugar.
Culinary borrowingsMany regional terms and the odd euphemism tend to crop up in notionally English menus. A few of the more common ones:
asam tamarind Bahasa Malaysia bee hoon vermicelli, thin white noodles made from rice garoupa grouper, a type of fish Portuguese gonggong a type of conch Chinese hor fun very wide, flat rice noodles Cantonese kangkung water spinach, an aquatic vegetable Bahasa Malaysia kelapa coconut Bahasa Malaysia kway teowhor fun flat rice noodles, slang derived from the common chinese dish"char kway teow" kunyit turmeric Bahasa Malaysia lengkuas blue ginger Bahasa Malaysia mee thick egg noodles nasi rice Bahasa Malaysia serai lemon grass Bahasa Malaysia sotong squid/cuttlefish Bahasa Malaysia spare parts giblets; offal such as liver, heart, gizzard tang hoon thin, transparent starch noodles, also known to many as glass noodles gearbox 'knee' or shin part of cow
The most identifiable cuisine in the region is Peranakan or Nonya cuisine, born from the mixed Malay and Chinese communities of what were once the British colonies of the Straits Settlements modern-day Singapore, Penang and Malacca.
Originally a malaysian specialty which is now available in singapore as well, is a whole crab ladled with oodles of sticky, tangy chilli sauce. notoriously difficult to eat but irresistibly delicious: don't wear a white shirt! for a less messy but equally tasty alternative, ask for black pepper crab.
In malaysia comes in many wildly different styles, and every state seems to have its signature style. laksa lemak is a fragrant soup of noodles in a coconut-based curry broth, topped with cockles or shrimp, while penang's assam laksa is made with a tamarind-infused broth instead of coconut, and has a spicy sourish taste. kelantanese laksam, on the other hand, comes with wide, flat rice noodles and a very coconutty broth.
Means a mixture of everything in bahasa malaysia, and there are two very different types. chinese rojak is a salad of pineapple, white turnip, cucumber, tau pok fried bean curd with thin tiny slices of bunga kantan torch ginger flower buds, tossed in shrimp paste sauce and sugar, then sprinkled with crushed peanuts. indian rojak consists of mainly fried fritters made from flour and various pulses with cucumber and tofu, with sweet & spicy peanut sauce.
Malaysian Malay desserts, especially the sweet pastries and jellies, are mostly based on coconut and palm sugar gula melaka, named after Melaka. Kuih or kueh refer to a plethora of steamed cake-like sweetmeats, mostly made with coconut milk, grated coconut flesh, glutinous rice or tapioca. Labour-intensive to make, they are often very colourful made so with either natural or synthetic food colourings, and cut into fanciful shapes. Try the onde-onde, small round balls made from glutinous rice flour that has been coloured and flavoured with pandan leaves, filled with palm sugar and rolled in grated coconut. A delight to eat as it pops in your mouth with a sweet sensation of oozing palm syrup.
Literally means "ice bean" in bahasa malaysia, or in another name of abc means air batu campur, is a good clue to the two major ingredients: shaved ice and red adzuki beans. however, more often than not you'll also get gula melaka palm sugar, grass jelly, sweet corn, kidney beans, black eyed peas, attap palm seeds and anything else on hand thrown in, and the whole thing is then drizzled with canned condensed milk or coconut cream and coloured syrups. the end result tastes very interesting and refreshing.
lit. "creamy rice" is the definitive malaysian malay breakfast, consisting at its simplest of rice cooked in light coconut milk or coconut cream, some fried ikan bilis anchovies, peanuts, slices of cucumber and a dab of chilli on the side. originally, the 'ikan bilis' was cooked together with the chilli & spices to make "sambal tumis ikan bilis" but it makes more commercial sense to the business man to have them separated as it is easier to make & the fried anchovies will last longer. a larger fried fish or chicken wing are common accompaniments. more often than not, also combined with a variety of curries and/or sambal see below.
Chinese food as eaten in Malaysia commonly originates from southern China, particularly Fujian and Guangdong. While authentic fare that is relatively unchanged from its Mainland Chinese origins is certainly available, especially in fancier restaurants, the daily fare served on the streets has absorbed a number of tropical touches, most notably the fairly heavy use of chilli and belachan shrimp paste as condiments. Noodles can also be served not just in soup ? tang, but also "dry" ? kan, meaning that your noodles will be served tossed with chilli and spices in one bowl, and the soup will come in a separate bowl.
Bak kut teh
肉骨茶, lit. "pork bone tea", is a simple-sounding soup of pork ribs simmered for hours in broth until they're ready to fall off the bone. it's typically eaten with white rice, mui choy pickled vegetables and a pot of strong chinese tea, hence the name — the broth itself doesn't contain any tea. to impress the locals, order some you tiao fritters from a nearby stall and cut them up into bite-sized chunks to dip into your soup. the port town of klang is said to be original home of the dish.
Char kui teow
炒粿条 is a favourite noodle type at penang. some flat egg noddle fried with soya source, prawn, cockles, bean sprouts, chives & bak you pork's oil, though this last ingredient is sometimes absent due to the popularity & demand of this dish from the malays & indians who traditionally shun pork.
Hainanese chicken rice
海南鸡饭 is poached chicken served with rice cooked in chicken stock and fat, and tasty ginger and chilli dipping sauces. the chicken has a delicate taste, but it's the quality of the rice and the dipping sauces that connoseurs get passionate about. perhaps better known in singapore, there is an interesting local variant found in malacca and muar, johor, with the rice cooked until it is sticky and rolled into balls.
福建面 refers to at least three separate dishes. in kuala lumpur, this gets you thick noodles fried in dark soy sauce, while in penang you'll get a very spicy shrimp soup. interestingly, neither of them bear any resemblance to the dish of the same name served in neighbouring singapore.
?? consists of skewers of fish, meat and vegetables, cooked in boiling broth and eaten with sauces, the most popular being the "kuah kacang", which interestingly is a malay sauce made from peanuts & traditionally served with satay and ketupat compressed rice cubes eaten during eid.
火锅, also known as hot pot, is do-it-yourself soup chinese style. you get a pot of broth bubbling on a tabletop burner, pick meat, fish and veggies to your liking from a menu or buffet table, then cook it to your liking. when finished, add in noodles or ask for rice to fill you up. this usually requires a minimum of two people, and the more the merrier.
Yong tau foo
酿豆腐 literally means "stuffed tofu", but it's more exciting than it sounds. the diner selects their favorites from a vast assortment of tofu, fish paste, seafood and vegetables and they are then sliced into bite-size pieces, cooked briefly in boiling water and then served either in broth as soup or "dry" with the broth in a separate bowl. the dish can be eaten by itself or with any choice of noodles. essential accompaniments are spicy chili sauce and a distinctive brown sweet sauce for dipping.
The smallest of Malaysia's 'Big 3', the Indians have had a disporportionately large impact on the culinary scene, with the mamak Indian Muslim, see below stall having acquired in every Malaysian city and town, and nasi kandar restaurants offering a wide variety of these to ladle onto your rice. Authentic Indian food in Malaysia includes typical South Indian specialties such as dosai, idli, sambhar, uttapam; as well as some north Indian meals like naan bread, korma, and tandoori chicken. In addition, however, a number of Indian dishes have been "Malaysianized" and adopted by the entire population, including:
Fish head curry
Is, true to the name, a gigantic curried fish head cooked whole until it's ready to fall apart. the head itself is not eaten, as there's plenty of meat to be found inside and all around. note that there are two distinct styles, the fiery indian and the milder chinese kind the latter is sometimes served as a broth for vermicelli noodles.
sometimes spelled nasi beriani is assembled by layering the flavorful rice with tender pieces of spiced-cooked lamb, mutton or chicken. at nasi kandar restaurants, it refers to rice that is cooked without the meat, and is merely a choice of rice [instead of plain steamed rice] to eat with your selection of curries and side dishes.
Is the malaysian adaptation of the south indian parotta, flat bread tossed in the air like pizza, fried in oil, and eaten dipped in curry. eaten plain with sides of dal gravy, curry sauce or both, it is usually dubbed "roti kosong". variations include include roti telur with egg and murtabak stuffed with chicken, mutton or fish, roti boom with condensed milk and roti tisu made very thin like tissue paper, and laced with caramelized sugar.
The crossroads of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine, Malaysia is an excellent place to makan eat in Malay. Look out for regional specialities and Nyonya Peranakan cuisine, the fusion between Malay and Chinese cooking. There is even unique Eurasian cooking to be found in the Portuguese Settlement in Malacca, the heartland of the Eurasian community of Portuguese descent.
Malaysians are very proud of their cooking and most towns or even villages have their own delicious specialities such as Penang char kway teow, Kajang satay, Ipoh bean sprout chicken, Sarawak laksa, Kelantanese nasi dagang, Sabahan hinava, and many, many more. Most of them rely on word of mouth for advertising and are frequently located in the most inconvenient, out-of-the-way places so you might want to try asking the locals for their personal recommendations.
If you intend to travel around Malaysia trying out the local food, don't be fooled by the names. Sometimes two entirely different dishes from different parts of the country can be known by the same name. An example will be laksa, which refers to completely different noodle dishes in Penang and Sarawak.
Generally, you can eat pretty much anywhere in Malaysia. Food outlets are comparatively clean - the only thing you should avoid is ice for your drinks, when you frequent the street stalls since the blocks of ice used there might not be up to your hygienic standards. In actual restaurants this is not a problem. Also you might want to avoid ordering water from stalls or the mamak restaurants as they are usually unboiled tap water.
Cheaper places often do not display prices; most will charge tourists honestly but check prices before ordering to make sure.
Eating habits run the gamut, but most foods are eaten by fork and spoon: push and cut with the fork in the left hand, and eat with the spoon in the right.
As eating is a favourite 'pastime' of Malaysians, the majority are adept at using the chopsticks regardless of background. Noodles and Chinese dishes typically come with these, while Malay and Indian food can be eaten by hand, but nobody will blink an eye if you ask for a fork and spoon instead. If eating by hand, always use your right hand to pick your food as Malays and Indians traditionally use their left hand for dirty things like washing up after using the restroom. When eating with chopsticks at Chinese restaurants, take note of the usual ettiquette and most importantly, do not stick your chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice. This is reminiscent of incense sticks burning at the temple and has connotations of wishing death on those around you. If eating in a group, serving dishes are always shared, but you'll get your own bowl of rice and soup.
Being a Muslim-majority country, finding halal food in Malaysia is easy, but most Chinese stalls and restaurants are not halal. Ask if in doubt. Meals at Malay restaurants and Western fast food restaurants like McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut are halal. Restaurants at major hotels are not certified 'Halal' as they serve alcohol as well, but they generally dont serve pork. Local Muslims will eat at Western, Chinese and Indian eateries if there is a halal sign on the walls. Most of the restaurants tend to display their halal certification or halal sign on their places.Halal certification was awarded and enforced by government agency usually JAKIM.
Vegetarianism is well-understood by the Chinese and Indian communities not so by the Muslim Malays and other indigenous minorities and many restaurants or hawker stalls will be able to come up with something on request DO state "no meat, no fish, no seafood - ASK for vegetables and/or eggs ONLY", but don't rely entirely on menu descriptions: innocuous-seeming dishes like "fried vegetables" etc will often contain pork bits, shrimp paste belacan, commonly used in Malay and spicy Chinese dishes, fish sauce, etc. Indian restaurants usually have very good vegetarian selections - the roti Indian flat bread - any kind; including roti canai, roti naan, capati, tosai are good choices, and DO insist on being given dhal lentil-based curry dip lest you'll be given a fish curry dip. Purely vegetarian Chinese restaurants often serving remarkable "mock meat" products made from tofu, gluten etc are quite easy to find in big urban areas with a large ethnic Chinese population. Getting vegetarian food in rural areas, especially those near fishing villages or in Muslim/Malay-dominated regions, may be more difficult, but learning some basic Bahasa Malaysia vocabulary will go a long way to help you get your message across — see the Bahasa Malaysia phrasebook. Upmarket Western restaurants, such as those serving Italian cuisine will normally have some good vegetarian options.
Veganism is rarely understood in this part of the world and is largely mistaken as a synonym for vegetarianism, yet the safest bet for a vegan is to patronize a Chinese Buddhist vegetarian restaurant most Chinese vegetarian restaurants are essentially vegan and operated on Buddhist principles of non-killing and compassion, and thus they abstain from using dairy products, eggs, and the 5 fetid vegetables [onions, garlic, leeks, etc.] discouraged in Mahayana Buddhism. And if you're still feeling uneasy or unsure, do not hesitate to ask.
where to eat
The cheapest places to eat are hawker stalls and coffeeshops, known as kedai kopi in Bahasa Malaysia or kopitiam in Chinese. These shops sell, besides coffee, many other types of food and drinks. Particularly popular and tasty are mamak stalls, run by Indian Muslims and serving up localized Indian fare like roti canai. Most hawker stalls stay open till late and some even operate on shifts so you can find the same stall offering different food at different points throughout the day. You can also do take away from any stall, just ask for bungkus Bahasa Malaysia or ta pao Chinese. A hawker meal will rarely cost you over RM5. Hygiene standards in Malaysia, while not up to that of neighbouring Singapore, it is still much better than China or rest of South East Asian countries. Just be observant, and generally speaking, if a stall is patronised by locals, it should be safe to eat there.
One step up on the scale is the kedai makanan or the more Western-style restoran. A type to look out for is the nasi kandar restaurant also known as nasi campur or nasi padang, with a vast range of curries and toppings to ladle on top of your rice.
Seafood restaurants makanan laut are comparatively pricy but still excellent value by most standards; do check prices before ordering though. Local prawns are gigantic, Chinese-style steamed fish is a treat and crab served with sticky chilli sauce is particularly popular.
Last but not least, some less adventurous options. Food courts in shopping malls are a good way to sample local delicacies in air-conditioned comfort, paying only a small premium over hawker prices. And yes, you can also find McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut and the usual suspects plus imitators throughout Malaysia.