“Flavoursome beef rendang!”, that’s the first thing that pops on most of foreigners’ mind when I ask them if they know any Malaysian dish, Nasi Lemak usually comes second. The choices of delicious Malaysian food are limitless, it’s very diverse, ethnic, vibrant and full of intense flavour. Malaysia is a fascinating mix of old and new, a blend of east and west, and this vibrant country is the melting pot of cultures and the skyline is a striking contrast of ultra-modern structures and charming heritage buildings.
The food is heavily influenced by Malay, Indian and Chinese cuisine – and the food is generally spicy. A festival of flavours, Malaysian food is as rich as the culture and the heritage where natural ingredients constitute most of the traditional dishes. The emigration of people of different cultures around the peninsula contributed greatly to the development of Malaysian gastronomy. As elsewhere in Asia, rice is an essential staple – that’s why most of the local dishes are made with rice.
There’s way too many food for me to list down, but for a head start, this is a list of Malaysian food you MUST try in your lifetime!
Whether it’s chicken, beef or mutton, Rendang is the dish that is an integral part of the Malaysian cookery. It’s a spicy, rich and tender coconut meat stew which is explosively appetizing. There are two versions of rendang; wet and dry. This palatable dish is best cooked the day before, so the flavor seeps through.
The Malaysian “national dish”, an aromatic rice infused with coconut milk and pandan leaves with a variety of accompaniments such as cucumber, hard boiled eggs or fried eggs, fried anchovies, peanuts and sambal (chilli-based sauce) for the basic dish but sometimes people add chicken rendang, shrimps, cockle or squid sambal.
There are many regional versions of Laksa such as Asam Laksa (Penang), Johor Laksa (Johor), Nyonya Laksa (Melaka), Laksam (Kelantan) and Sarawak Laksa (Sarawak). Asam Laksa is my favourite because that was the first Laksa I’ve had and trying other laksa was quite a weird experience – but I’m not saying they’re terrible, they just didn’t suit my palate. Asam Laksa has this soury, tangy and spicy taste made of fish and tamarind broth – usually serves with rice noodle and sweetened dark prawn paste. My second favourite is the Nyonya Laksa because I love curry. This seafood rich and creamy coconut milk-curry gravy with a lingering spice kick is the signature dish in Melaka.
Rice served with your choice of dishes, which commonly include curry-based meat, egg and okra. The lauk (accompaniment) is usually laid out in buffet style. It’s the most popular Indian Muslim and northern Malaysian dish, which now has a reputation of being more expensive than other types of local rice dishes in Malaysia. While most people know the fact, it is still a popular dish people always crave for.
The BEST and most popular street burger across Malaysia. This Malaysian-style burger is the cheapest alternative food packed with rich and tantalizing flavours. What makes a mere burger worth risking everything? It’s the healthy dollop of margarine placed directly onto the patty which makes it sinfully-greasy, wrapped with fried eggs that goes great with condiments. To those who never tried the burger, I warn you it may look slightly disgusting and messy, but the taste is a total win for a street burger standard thanks to its unique taste and cult personality – totally a guilty pleasure. The messier the better!
Banana Leaf Rice
This is one of Malaysia’s favourite Indian food, originated from South India. Freshly cooked parboiled rice doused in assorted curries, adding the crunchy fried bitter gourd, a scoop of vegetables, and the crispy-fried-to-perfection chicken, fish or seafood served on a banana leaf. This hearty traditional Indian meal is everything you need to take you to a journey of experiencing India’s incredible culture.
This tamarind-based, red-coloured spicy and sour gravy is popular throughout peninsular Malaysia, it’s commonly made with freshwater fish or stingray. A classic Malay dish, there are many versions of Asam Pedas as different cooks make their own interpretation of this dish but the main ingredients which are the foundation of this dish remain the same; dried chillies, shallots, garlic, belacan (shrimp paste) and tamarind juice. It’s best served with hot rice and a side dish of fried chicken or begedil (potato cutlets).
Char Kuey Teow
Stir-fried flat rice noodles with a heady aroma, spicy complex flavors and textures which is popular across Malaysia and Singapore. It’s also the epitome of hawker food – the best ones are usually found at hawker stalls rather than restaurants. This dish is often packed with prawns, cockles, fish cakes, egg, bean sprouts and chives. Available in the classic dry version and also wet and soupy version. Char Kuey Teow is no doubt Penang’s greasy little pride.
An Indian inspired flatbread, roti canai is a classic Malaysian breakfast. A piece of dough is kneaded, tossed, flattened, oiled and cooked on a flat iron skillet. A simple dish dipped in any curry of your choice. Roti canai also comes in different fillings like egg, sardine, onions, Milo (cocoa powder), condensed milk and many more.
Ikan Bakar (Charcoal-grilled fish)
Fish marinated with special seasonings and spices, wrapped in banana leaf and charcoal-grilled to perfection. This gastronomic wonder is usually sold by street vendors and stingray is the most popular choice. You can eat just like that dipped in a sambal sauce or in sambal kicap (sliced chili and shallot in sweet soy sauce), or it can also be served with rice.
A hearty meal made of long grain basmati rice cooked with assorted spices – the rice is light, fragrant and moist. This local favourite is usually served with chicken, beef or mutton rendang and curry accompanied with achar which is a pickled combination of cucumber, onions, red chilies and pineapple.
This is a simple dish that heavily relies on the crispiness and the flavour of the fried chicken where it’s heavily coated with tumeric and the sambal (chilli-based sauce). What makes this dish special is it’s always fresh as the rice is always steamy, fluffy and doused in hot gravy called gulai (curry-like gravy) and served with fresh cucumber slices.
Sup Tulang (Bone Broth)
This wholesome meal is not just delicious, it is also very nutritious. It’s very aromatic because the ingredients consist of aniseed and other fragrant spices like coriander, cloves, cinnamon and onions. Beef bones are usually used in the broth but there’s another version called gearbox soup where it’s usually cooked with bull’s knee joint. This broth can be paired with a simple bread or plain rice.
Nasi Ayam (Hainanese Chicken Rice)
A famous classic dish in Malaysia and Singapore, the main star of this dish is the chicken where it’s poached to perfection and falls easily off the bone. There are different variants of chicken as well, including roasted and barbeque roasted. While the chicken is the star, the rice is also the key component of the dish. The rice is cooked in chicken fat and chicken stock, making it yellowish, fragrant and perfectly moist. The rice is usually accompanied with a bowl of soup, cucumber slices, soy sauce and chili sauce.
Fish Head Curry
A bad-ass pot of intense-flavoured curry with Indian and Chinese origins. Various ethnic groups of the Malay Peninsula have added their own accents to the dish, one of the popular ones is the Malaysian-Chinese style curry – cooked with the fish head of the Grouper or Red Snapper, or sometimes Salmon. For someone who never ate fish cooked with its head, this can be a faint-hearted experience but where else can you experience your first fish head dish if not in Malaysia because we Asians know how to cook a mean dish of that first-to-hit-the-bin part of the fish. With some aubergine and some okra, that’s about all we need to bash together.