Malaysia’s fascinating culinary heritage reflect its multiculturalism. The country is a melting pot of cuisines from across the east. Walk down any hawker stall street in Kuala Lumpur or Penang, Malacca or Johor and see a Chinese woman tossing noodles in a wok, next to an Indian man pulling dough for roti, then gaze across the road to see a Malay woman pouring a bowl of steaming laksa.
This diversity is the result of major migration from India and China, coupled with Malaysia’s central location; in the heart of many 12th century trade routes, such as those between China and the Middle East.
Some cuisines have remained distinct, while others have evolved and fused together so create new fusions and flavours. Strong culinary traditions weaving together, much like the people of Malaysia.
Malays are known for being a generous and easy-going bunch and this certainly translates into their food, which is generously spiced and aromatic. The Malays see no need for utensils; its hands-on eating all the way. They scoop-up mouthfuls of curry laden rice and vegetables with their fingers – a masterful way of eating that is easier said than done!
As with most of the Southeast Asian cuisines, rice is the staple of any Malay meal; nasi lemak (rice boiled in coconut milk) being their national dish. Nasi lemak is the base to many meals, such as nasi dagang, and can be accompanied by meat curries such as much-loved beef rendang, fried chicken, sambal prawns, hard-boiled eggs, pickled vegetables, anchovies, stir-fried kangkung, cucumber slices, roasted peanuts and fried shaved coconut. Traditionally, the rice and its accompaniments would be tied up in a banana leaf, perhaps along with a stalk of lemongrass or a piece of fresh ginger for added fragrance.
Coconut is an integral ingredient of many popular Malay dishes, both sweet and savoury. It can be used to thicken sauces, add richness and even garnish foods. A much loved Malay breakfast is kaya toast; toasted bread filled with lashings of butter and coconut jam, often served with soft-boiled eggs.
Sambals are another founding element of Malay cuisine, used both in the cooking of dishes and as condiments. Belecan (fermented shrimp paste) is often the base for a sambal and gives the sauce an intriguing saltiness. Lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and galangal are also common elements. Pork and any non-halal meats are prohibited in a Malay diet due to their Muslim faith.
Also try: ikan bakar (spicy barbecued fish), mee rebus (noodles in a tangy-spicy-sweet sauce), nasi goreng (fried rice), chili crab and satay (barbecued meat sticks, a dish that originated in Indonesia).
Ethnic Borneo (Sabah and Sarawak)
Life on the coast means that the tribes and indigenous groups of Sabah and Sarawak dine of an abundance of seafood and freshwater fish, which is famed for its freshness, quality and variety. Borneo is also home to the Bird’s Eye chili (known as cili padi), which is one of the world’s hottest and gives their cuisine a fierce, belly-warming kick.
Bamboo shoots, wild boar and wild fern are just a few of the various jungle produce used in cooking. Foods are mostly boiled or barbecued, meaning there is minimal use of oil. Foods are often sealed in bamboo tubes and placed directly onto the fire. The bamboo facilitates the infusion of aromas,all the while keeping food moist. Spice, fresh local ingredients and less fat; could this be Malaysia’s healthiest cuisine?
Try: Sarawak laksa (spicy noodle soup made with prawn sambal and coconut milk, with egg, chicken strips, tofu, prawns, bean sprouts, coriander and lime juice), kueh chap (noodles in broth with hard-boiled egg and nose-to-tail pig parts, including skin, ears, stomach, intestines, tongue and muscle meat), kolo mee (yellow egg noodles tossed with minced pork or beef, strips of barbecued pork, vegetables, shallots, garlic and chillies), pansoh manok (chicken and lemongrass cooked in bamboo) and ikan goreng (a whole fish stuffed with spices and barbecued with a spicy tamarind sauce).
Chinese food in Malaysia makes up a substantial section of Malaysia’s most popular and well-known dishes. Recipes and cooking styles are varied across several ethnic groups; Cantonese, Hainanese, Hakka, Teochew and Hokkien. The traditional cuisine of Chinese is generally more mildly spiced than Malay food, however, in Malaysia, these Chinese recipes adopted a fiery hotness.
The Chinese brought the food-sharing culture to Malaysia, with their “more the merrier’ attitude to dining. Diners can enjoy sampling a multitude of dishes for a well-balanced meal.
Cantonese food is arguable the most popular of the Chinese variety and definitely the most well-known. Foods are generally quickly stir-fried with little oil; the result is fresh and crisp. Dim sum, translated as “little heart”, are a popular lunch or weekend light bite. These delightful bundles can be steamed, boiled or fried and come in hundreds of variations, including surf-and-turf pork and shrimp, vegetables and mushrooms, salted egg and even sweet dim sum with egg-custards and sweet red bean. Char siew is another captivating canto recipe; fatty pork belly “burnt” over fire with a sticky dark soy, hoisin and honey spiced glaze. Also try sang har noodles which are cooked in a thick eggy broth infused with shrimp roe for a fishy saltiness, and topped with fresh river prawns.
One dish in particular of Hainanese origin has been adopted with gusto by Malaysia; the infamous chicken rice. Fragrant white rice is cooked in chicken stock and topped with steamed or roasted chicken. There is great comfort to be found in this simplicity. Hainan also gave Malaysia the kopitiam (coffee shop) where the masses flock for a cup of sweet and creamy white coffee, and the Steamboat; a take on hot pot where thin slices of raw meat, seafood and vegetables are cooked quickly in a pot of boiling broth.
Hakka food is less widespread. Their best known dish is yong tau foo; soy bean cakes, bitter gourd, whole red chillies and various vegetables stuffed with fish or seafood paste, then steamed or boiled in broth.
Hokkien food is generally considered to be “lower-end” Chinese fare, using cheaper ingredients and less spices. Hokkien mee is a widely popular noodle dish of thick egg noodles fried with meat, seafood and vegetables in a rich dark soy sauce and topped with crispy fried pork lard. Popiah, also known as Hokkien spring rolls make for a filling snack, stuffed with vegetables such as carrot and bean sprouts with minced prawn, fried shallots and lettuce. Bak kut teh, which translated to ‘pork bone tea’ is noted for its medicinal benefits. Pork ribs are simmered with Chinese medicinal herbs, whole cloves of garlic and dried mushrooms, resulting in an earthy, rich broth.
Peranakan cuisine is an intriguing marriage of Malay-style cooking with Chinese flavours and spices. The Peranakan people are descendants of early Chinese people who settled in Penang and Malacca (as well as Indonesia and Singapore) and married with local Malays. Coconut milk, pungent roots such as galangal, pandan leaves, tamarind juice, jicama, chillies and cincaluk (a sour and salty shrimp-based condiment).
Peranakans credit the distinct flavour of their recipes to the rempah, a traditional spice paste.
Try: asam laksa (spicy noodle soup), otak-otak (a mixture of fish, coconut milk, chilli paste, galangal and herbs, wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked over charcoal), gulai kiam hu kut (salted fish pineapple curry), perut ikan (pickled fish stomach and vegetable stew), ayam pongteh (chicken and potato stew) and kuih dadar (coconut-pandan crepes with a salted coconut filling).
The Indian cuisine of Malaysia can be divided into several groups; northern India, southern India, Tamil muslims and Indian muslims, each with a slightly different take on spice combinations and cooking techniques. When visiting Malaysia, you will inevitably experience the wonder that is ‘banana leaf dining’ or dine at a mamak stall. These are two of the most popular ways to dine out.
Northern Indian dishes pair fragrant, spiced curries with flatbreads such as naan, a type of leavened bread cooked in a lay oven and roti, a wheat flour dough pancake, sometimes stuffed with meat (such as roti babi with minced pork), onion (roti bawang) or egg (roti telur). Roti also come in a sweet form; a popular version is with banana (roti pisang). Tandoori chicken; roasted chicken prepared with spices and yogurt and fish head curry; often red snapper stewed in a Kerala-style curry with vegetables such as okra and aubergine, are examples of staples from the north.
‘Banana leaf rice’ is a trend from Southern India, more specifically from the Chettinad region. A clean and unblemished banana leaf serves as your plate and is topped with rice, various curry dishes, fish, papadums and roti. Be sure to fold your leaf towards you when done eating; the sign of a satisfied customer.
The Tamil Muslims gave Malaysia the mamak stall. Mamak is a Tamil term meaning “uncle”. These stalls provide affordable food in a friendly and unpretentious atmosphere, as if amongst family. No pork is served in mamak stalls run by the Tamil muslims. Those run by Hindus serve neither beer nor pork. Mamak stalls are not to be confused with street stalls run by Malays.
The final prominent group of Indians in Malaysia are the Indian Muslims. They boast a dish much-loved in Malaysia; nasi kandar, composed of steamed rice doused in curry sauce and accompanied by an array of sides such as fried chicken, curried mutton, fish roe, fried prawns or squid, aubergine and bitter gourd.