Malaysia is home to an amazing array of food. From the traditionally Malay, to tantalizing creations that grew out of interactions between various ethnic groups (each with their own culinary traditions) who call Malaysia home. In the local food culture that is very important to Malaysians, you will find many dishes with influences from India, China and even Portugal, among others. The beautiful blend of cooking styles and ingredients creates the unique flavours that have to come to be recognizably, and delightfully, Malaysian.
When you travel Malaysia, be sure to enjoy as much of the variety as possible. Try food everywhere from classy restaurants to street hawkers. Keep in mind that street hawkers and simple restaurants often serve much tastier, authentic versions compared to the polished, expensive ones you get in hotels. So if your holiday tours limit you to food served at your hotel or accommodation, go out for street food on your own or grab a tasty bite during your day out whether you are in KL, Langkawi or Penang.
Here are some must-try dishes to get you started:
1. Satay (Malay/Indonesian)
Satay is an experience. You get a choice of the type of meat – chicken, mutton, beef. Your local satay man skewers a neat slice of meat and grills it to perfection. You save your complaints about the heat as you watch Mister Satay Man in awe – he enthusiastically fans hot coals under the Malaysian sun, cooking for an endless stream of people. Finally your plate of satay arrives with a bowl of rich peanut satay sauce and a ketupat (rice cake). Dip the satay in the sauce and enjoy
Tips: Most places allow you to have a mixed selection of the different meat available with each order.
A few restaurants offer an even wider variety, including venison and fish. Also try satay celup. It is an eat-in version that allows you to pick a wider variety of skewers, including seafood and vegetables, and cook in a boiling pot of sauce yourself.
2. Nasi Lemak (Malay)
If you have a hard time deciding what to eat, Nasi Lemak is perfect for you. To go with the coconut-flavoured rice that comes with chilli on the side, select for yourself some meat or fish, vegetable, gravy and other cooked additions to complete your meal. Fried fish, fried chicken, otah-otah (fish paste and spices), egg, ikan bilis and kachang (anchovies and fried peanuts) are some of the popular choices.
Tips: Choosing three items is the average but you can have as many as you like and pay accordingly.
The sweet and spicy fiercely red chilli is the key to a good plate of Nasi Lemak, so mix a little into every spoonful. If your holiday in Malaysia is ending and you’ve found some cheap flights to Singapore to continue your travels in Asia, you can quite easily find Nasi Lemak there as well. Look for it in Malay restaurants, ‘Qiji’ or in food courts. Hawker centres and food courts also let you enjoy your favourite dishes from Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and more, with the variety they offer.
3. Roti Canai (Indian)
Though this is an Indian dish, outside Malaysia you’re more likely to find it on a visit to Singapore than on a holiday in India. Known in Singapore as ‘prata’, roti canai is a sort of flat bread that is a cross between a pancake and naan. It is typically enjoyed with curry — for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Roti shops now serve an interesting variety where egg, onions, bananas, cheese and other ingredients are mixed in during cooking for a fuller flavour. They also have a dessert variety, though I would recommend sticking to the basics that go well with curry.
Tips: You can also order mutton, chicken and fish curry for some fleshy chunks to wrap into the roti with each bite.
Roti tisu is a tall paper-thin version that is popular and adds a bit of fun. Be adventurous. Use your hands to tear the roti for the traditional rip-and-dunk style of eating. It’s tastier with hands, I swear!
3. Penang Laksa (Chinese + Malay)
Laksa is a one of Malaysia’s most famous hawker dishes. It is a bowl of noodles in a spicy soup with lots of coconut milk. Penang Laksa however, is a specialty that is quite different. It is spicy, sour and tangy but equally delicious. It originates from Penang in the north of Malaysia, which is the best place to try some. But you can just as easily find this popular dish across Malaysia.
Tips: If your travels don’t take you to Penang and you prefer a little luxury away from the sun, book a stay at the Hilton Petaling Jaya and dine in at the hotel’s Paya Serai Restaurant to enjoy quality Penang laksa in comfort without even leaving your hotel. To get the best rates on your hotel, Wego Malaysia is a helpful fare comparison site that helps you book your hotel in Malaysia at the best available price online. Wego.com.my is also handy for finding the cheapest flights as you travel across Asia. When you land in Singapore, all proud of your travel savings from a great airfare deal, sit down and treat yourself to a bowl of Katong Laksa. This is Singapore’s delicious variation of the laksa and can most commonly be found in the Katong area in the east.
5. Rendang (Malay/Indonesian)
Rendang daging is easily my favourite Malaysian dish. It is a dish of beef stewed slowly in a very rich mix of spices and ingredients. What arrives on your table is a full-flavoured curry with tender meat that almost melts in your mouth. Eat it with rice and potatoes, making sure to savour slowly. Rendang is served as a dry-curry or with a bowl full of the most delicious coconut-infused gravy.
Tips: Don’t waste a drop. To find the best places to try these dishes, search for food blogs in Malaysia where locals sniff out the best spots including street hawkers who would be otherwise hard to find. Malacca and Penang are known for their variety. Kuala Lumpur is a city full of food options. Islands like Langkawi and Pulau Pangkor are great for seafood. But all across Malaysia, go local and you will find lots to make your tummy happy. Don’t forget to try some delicious snacks and desserts as well. Happy feasting!
Rebecca is a world wanderer and writer who never goes anywhere without a notebook to scribble in. She lives in Asia and has travelled to Europe, Oceania and within Southeast Asia. After years of staring into the sky and little weekend trips, her first solo adventure set fire to her appetite to experience the world. When she is not resembling a ninja turtle with an embarrassingly full backpack strapped on, she keeps up with digital technologies to discover new ways to shave budgets and aid travelling.