Malaysian cuisine is just like everything else Malaysian, a blend of different cultures
which culminate into something unique, excellent and appealing to all. As with virtually
every other country in the world, Malaysians tend to believe their food is the best. As it
happens however, in Malaysia's case it may just be true. Food in Malaysia may lack the
sophistication and elegance of western cuisine and the exotic simplicity of eastern dishes,
but it does have an appeal that transcends the culinary requirements of most cultures,
while many dishes and preparation methods here may not appeal to everyone, it is virtually
guaranteed that everyone will find a Malaysian dish which appeals to them. Even in the
distinctly remote exceptions to this statement, there is a vast variety of restaurants catering
to the international traveler, everything from Italian to Japanese to Cuban to Arabian.
The visitor to Malaysia will never, ever, lack in choices as far as the next meal is concerned.
Food in Malaysia tends to be spicy, savory and smooth. Rice is the staple food in Malaysia,
eaten by practically everyone. Malays and Indians tend to prefer more heavily spiced food
compared to the Chinese. In cities, particularly KL, everyone eats everything; it is as common
to see an Indian family tucking in at a distinctly Chinese "Steamboat" diner as it is to see
Chinese executives sharing Indian Tandoori Chicken and Naan bread at lunch. Each individual is
restricted only by religious observances such as Halal foods for Muslims and abstinence from
beef dishes for Hindus. Due to the fact that most major cities in Malaysia tend to be near the
coast, fresh, bountiful and relatively inexpensive seafood are enjoyed by all.
One point of interest which holds true about the local cuisine in Malaysia is that price is
not necessarily an indication of quality. While it is of course true that food at the more
expensive eateries tend to be served in a more pleasant environment, are more agreeable to the
taste and made from higher quality ingredients, lower priced restaurants and indeed the
roadside stalls and "food courts" are often packed by patrons of all social levels. This is
simply because the food is oftentimes equally delectable and costs a fraction of what one would
pay at an upper class restaurant. However, finding these places may take some effort or help
from a knowledgeable local. Time is often a factor for dining out in many countries, but is
less so in Malaysia. While most restaurants close before midnight, the ubiquitous "mamak" stalls
oftentimes remain open around the clock, 24-7 all year round. Lately this has spread to some
Chinese restaurants as well, you may be driving along the streets of KL at 3am on a Sunday
morning and rounding a corner you may well see a packed stall with dozens of people quaffing
their "teh tariks" and chewing their "roti canais". However some dishes may only be available at
certain times of the day.
Two words of caution for the visitor to Malaysia
oil and spice. Much of the foods here tend to be oily and quite spicy. Flaming palates aside,
this may cause digestive or intestinal discomfort if eaten in excess. While the locals have a
highly developed immunity to this unfortunate phenomenon, visitors used to milder, plainer
foods should take care.
Below is a tiny sampling of the various foods one may come across in Malaysia:
A Malay dish consisting of rice cooked in "Santan" or coconut milk, this imparts a unique
texture, taste and fragrance to the rice, properly prepared, it can be eaten on its own, but
rarely is, the most basic version comes with a spicy onion "sambal" sauce, deep fried crispy
anchovies, roasted peanuts, cucumber slices and a quartered hardboiled egg. Subject to your
request and its availability, spicy beef, mutton, cuttlefish, shrimp, cockles, fried eggs and
vegetables may be added.
Made from wheat flour dough Roti is kneaded and tossed into a roughly circular shape
"pizza style" and cooked right in front of you on a hot plate sizzling with oil. Light and
wholesome it is normally served with lightly spiced fish, chicken or "dhall" curry. Heavier
versions of the Roti Canai include "Roti Telur", which adds an egg and onions into the dough,
"Roti Sardin", with sardines, onions and egg and "Roti Planta" with margarine. Standard fare at
Indian Muslim "mamak stalls".
Char Kway Teow:
Found at almost every "food court" and Chinese restaurant the name of this noodle dish in
Chinese literally means "fried flat noodles", also called "Hor Fun". Consisting primarily of
noodles, shrimp, cockles, bean sprouts, Chinese chives, garlic, beaten eggs and soy sauce, the
ingredients are stir fried in wok over a roaring fire and served piping hot. Chili paste is
optional. Variations include "Mai Fun" thin vermicelli rice noodles, and "Mien" thicker and
tubular variant of the flat noodle.
Marinated meat on a stick, Malay style. Satay is basically charbroiled in bite size chunks and
skewered on bamboo strips. Typically a spicy peanut sauce dip is included. Satay is served with
cucumber and onion slices and best eaten as soon as it is cooked. Beef, chicken or lamb
variations of satay can be found virtually everywhere in Malaysia. Usually eaten as an
accompaniment of other foods, a satay dinner can be made complete with the addition of
"ketupat", a wholesome rice cake.
Also known to some as "Pasembor", Rojak consists of deep fried prawn fritters, coconut
confection, boiled squid strips, cucumber and turnip shreds, tofu, hard-boiled eggs and drenched
in a rich and mildly spicy hot peanut sauce. Like many other Malaysian delights this potpourri
tastes much better than it sounds (or looks). Predominantly sold at Indian-Muslim food
establishments, Rojak should not be confused with "Rojak Buah" which is primarily made from
fruit and vegetables.
Bak Kut Teh:
Another Chinese dish. Literal translation:
Pork bone soup. Somewhat "exotic" compared to the other dishes listed above, with its somewhat
herbal tasting stock, it may be construed as an acquired taste. Basic ingredients include
peppered, bite size chunks of pork and pork ribs, cabbage, garlic cloves, soy sauce, herbal
mixes, mushrooms and depending on demand and availability, internal organs such as liver and
intestines. Basically a soup, Bak Kut Teh is eaten with rice and crispy crullers, a type of
These are just a tiny sampling of the huge variety of dishes available locally, be aware that
variations in the ingredients and preparation methods could occur from state to state and indeed
from vendor to vendor. The most important thing to remember is to be open-minded and at least
try before judging based on appearance or presentation. Both these characteristics tend to be
somewhat overlooked in Malaysian foods.
A popular breakfast dish in the country provinces of Kelantan and Trengganu. Brastari rice and
fish curry are the simple but delicious elements of this dish.
Nasi Goreng (Fried Rice):
A complete dish in itself with bits of meat, prawns, egg and vegetables.
There are several variations of chicken rice, but the most popular is the Hainanese version.
The chicken is served with rice which has been cooked in chicken stock. Garlic, chili sauce,
cucumber slices and coriander leaves impart a fresh texture and irresistible flavor to this dish.
A noodle dish served in curry, blends boiled chicken, cockles, tofu and bean sprouts for a
surprisingly good treat.
A type of meat dish preparation which takes hours to prepare. Meat, coconut milk, chilies
onions and spices such as cinnamon, cloves, coriander and nutmeg are cooked over low heat.
The result is a moist, tender dish with subtle and complex flavors. Eaten with rice ketupat
(rice cake) or lemang (glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk).
An in-house dish. Diners sit round a table which has a soup tureen in the middle of the table.
A fire below keeps it boiling hot. One then places prepared raw pieces of prawns, chicken,
quails' eggs, sea cucumber and liver in the boiling soup. tantalizing meat-free dishes can be
found in Buddhist vegetarian restaurants or in South Indian banana-leaf restaurants. Instead of
plates and cutlery, you will be served your food on a banana leaf; use your hand to eat.