Local Food in Malaysia

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Food and Drink in Malaysia

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 or hawker 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 hawker 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 'past time' 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.

Local delicacies

Malay cuisine

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.

  • Nasi lemak (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).
  • Rendang, occasionally dubbed "dry curry", is meat stewed for hours on end in an intricately spiced (but rarely fiery) curry paste until almost all water is absorbed. Beef rendang is the most common, although relatively recent variations with chicken and mutton are not uncommon.
  • Sambal 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.
  • Satay are barbecued skewers of meat, typically chicken or beef. What separates satay from your ordinary kebab is the slightly spicy peanut-based dipping sauce.
  • Kangkung belacan is water spinach wok-fried in shrimp paste (belacan) and hot chilli peppers.
  • Mee rebus is egg noodles served in a sweet and slightly spicy sweet potato-based gravy, usually with a slice of hard boiled egg and some lime.
  • Lontong is vegetables, tempeh and soohoon cooked in a yellow (from turmeric) coconut-based gravy, eaten with nasi himpit (cubed overcooked rice)-- one of the few vegetarian dishes in Malay cuisine!

Peranakan/Nonya cuisine

Ayam pongteh is a chicken dish flavoured with fermented soy bean paste, dark soy sauce, sugar and other ingredients. This mild and slightly sweet is made daily in some Nyonya households.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).

  • Ayam Buah Keluak is a distinctive dish combining chicken pieces with black nuts from the Pangium edule or kepayang tree to produce a rich sauce.
  • Chilli crab 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.
  • Enche Kabin are bite-sized pieces of fried chicken marinated in soy sauce, five-spice powder, black pepper, ginger and scallions.
  • Itek Tim is a soup containing duck, tomatoes, green peppers, salted vegetables, and preserved sour plums simmered gently together.
  • Kaya is a jam-like spread made from egg and coconut, an odd-sounding but tasty combination. Served on toast for breakfast, canonically accompanied by runny eggs and strong, sweet coffee (kopi).
  • Laksa 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.
  • Mee siam is rice flour noodles served with sour gravy made from tamarind, dried shrimp and fermented beans. Usually served with tau pok (bean curd) cubes and hard boiled eggs.
  • Popiah or spring rolls come fresh or fried. They consist of boiled turnips, fried tofu, fried shallots and garlic, chopped omelette, chopped stir fried long beans and (optional) chilli sauce, wrapped in a thin rice skin covering and eaten like a fajita.
  • Rojak 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.
  • Acar (achar) is thinly sliced vegetables and fruits (cucumber, carrot, pineapple) lightly pickled with vinegar, chilli and peanuts, a common side dish. Not nearly as pungent as Indian-style pickles which happen to bear the same name.
  • Sup kambing is a hearty mutton soup slow simmered with aromatic herbs and spices, and garnished with fried shallots and fresh cilantro.
  • Keropok lekor, a specialty of the state of Terengganu on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, is a savoury cake made from a combination of batter and shredded fish. Sliced and fried just before serving, it is eaten with hot sauce.
  • Tempoyak is fermented durian paste, served as a side accompaniment to a main meal.

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.

  • Ais kacang 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.
  • Apam balik, also called "Terang Bulan" in some states, is a rich pancake-like dish slathered with liberal amounts of butter or magarine, and sprinkled with sugar, coarse nut and sometimes corn.
  • Bubur cha-cha consists of cubed yam, sweet potato and sago added into a pandan-infused coconut milk soup. This can be served warm or cold and can be a breakfast or a dessert.
  • Cendol is made with green pea noodles, served in a sweet broth of palm sugar and coconut milk. Usually served chilled, and a great respite in the sweltering tropical heat.
  • Pisang goreng literally means fried bananas, encased in batter. A common street food, it can be eaten for afternoon tea, dessert, or as a snack anytime of the day.
  • Pulut Hitam is a rice pudding made from black glutinous rice sweetened with brown palm sugar. Creamy coconut milk is swirled over the rice pudding before it is served.
  • Pulut Inti is a kind of rice cake made from glutinous rice & coconut milk. It is steamed and topped with fresh grated coconut sweetened with palm sugar. It is traditionally wrapped in banana leaves folded into a pyramid shape.
  • Sago gula melaka is a simple sago pudding served with gula melaka (palm sugar) syrup and coconut milk. 

 

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 or Western countries, is still reasonable and much better than say, China or most of the rest of Southeast Asia. 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. 

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