In a country where going out for a meal at 2am is totally acceptable, it’s no wonder that I spent more than half of my trip to Malaysia eating (or en route to eating) as many of the unique and delicious dishes that I could find. It’s easy to book cheap travel deals to Malaysia, so many travelers have discovered that this country offers a unique confluence of Indian, Malay and Chinese cultures, which inevitably leads to a great variety of cuisines. In fact, several other cuisines have sprung up as a result of the mix of 2 or 3 traditional cooking styles. My family in Malaysia is of Peranakan descent, the children of intermarriage between Chinese and Malays, and a culture characterized by a labor-intensive, super precise, and incomparably tasty cuisine. Check out some of my most memorable meals below!
If you’ve traveled in southeast Asia before, you’ve most likely heard of the ubiquitous durian fruit. Whether or not you’ve tried it may be a different story, and the pungent smell alone is often enough to turn newcomers off. But if you’re hesitant about even going near the thing, you may be missing out on more than a potentially delicious new addition to your palette. Eating durian in Malaysia is always a communal activity, bringing together friends, family and even strangers in a messy, jovial feast with pure child-like enthusiasm. When you’re running across a busy street with no stoplights with your entire family and a baby in tow just to get to a durian stall, the experience becomes something more meaningful than just the act of eating (a common theme in this country, actually). Bottom line – just try it. Chances are you’ll LOVE it.
Local Tip: Kampung durian is the most common, but Musang King and red durian have a richer flavor. They’re a little pricey, but worth trying!
You know that deliciously sweet, creamy flavor in Thai iced tea and bubble tea? It’s all the work of condensed milk, an indulgence found in most mamak stall drinks. Teh tarik (literally “pulled tea”) is tea made with condensed milk, expertly poured between two cups (“pulled”) until it attains a frothy, light consistency. White coffee actually originated in Ipoh, and is made by roasting coffee beans with margarine, giving it a slightly sweet flavor. Both are staples, no matter where you go in the country, but if the humid weather makes you crave something lighter (or healthier), try an iced barley lime.
Local Tip: If you order your coffee black (kopi-O), sugar is typically added as a substitute for milk. Make sure you indicate “kopi kosong” if you want neither.
If you’re the type of adventurous foodie who wants to come back from a trip bragging that you’ve eaten a poisonous fruit, seek out this Peranakan dish. The seeds, which look like rocks, are often cooked with chicken or pork and add an indescribably unique flavor to the meat. The seeds are naturally poisonous, and they have to be boiled and buried in ash for 40 days before they’re edible. If the unique flavor isn’t enough to excite your pallet, the fact that you’re eating a dish made with poisonous seeds should make your eating experience that much more exciting.
Nestled amid the trees in the suburban town of Dengkil is a man, a pan, and the best roti canai I have ever tasted in my life. This light, fluffy, infinitely-more-tasty-than-toast version of bread is usually served with a spicy sardine curry, though different locations will inevitably serve different kinds of curries. Try roti telur if you like your bread with egg (similar to French toast) or roti jala, a much stretchier consistency made with tons of egg and in the delicate shape of a net.
It’s hard to resist eating something that’s proclaimed the national dish of the country you’re visiting, and impossible to avoid when it’s both easy to find and delicious. The basic version of Nasi Lemak consists of coconut rice, sambal (a chili and shrimp paste combination), ikan bilis (small fried anchovies), cucumber slices, peanuts and a hard-boiled egg wrapped in a banana leaf. Often, beef or chicken accompanies the dish.
Local Tip: Acclimatize yourself quickly with the spice and eat this for breakfast! It’s commonly the first meal of the day.
Yong Tau Foo
When you hear tofu in Malaysia, don’t think of the tasteless white blocks at your local salad bar. Also referred to as bean curd, tofu comes in a plethora of different styles, and can be served crispy fried or in broth.
If you love wonton noodle soup but don’t want to eat a hot bowl of the stuff in 100-degree weather, try this meal. The noodles come dry but stirred in soy sauce, and a few slices of delicious roast pork thrown on top. The light flavor makes a perfect mid-afternoon lunch (or snack, if you’ve got an appetite like mine), and it still comes with a small bowl of wonton soup on the side if you’ve really got a craving.
Rated 7th most delicious food in the world by CNN, this noodle soup dish is made with fish and tamarind, giving it a distinctly more sour flavor than its popular cousin curry laksa. Asam laksa originated on the historic island of Penang, arguably the food capital of the country. It’s also a perfect meal when the other heavy flavors and curries leave you feeling “jelak” (a Malay word that refers to that uncomfortable, slightly nauseating feeling you get when you’ve been eating too much of the same thing).
Local Tip: If you have time to make it out to Penang, visit Air Itam for a famous bowl of this spicy, sour, delectable laksa at a stall that’s been in operation for more than 30 years.
This seemingly simple snack is probably one of my favorite food memories of Malaysia. Kopitiams, the equivalent of cafes, are the perfect place to sit with friends and relax, especially if you’re in need of some air-conditioning (which you most likely will be at many points), and all sell various combinations of yummy things on toast, my favorite of which is kaya and butter. Kaya is a sweet, creamy jam made from coconut and egg, and the combination with a thick slab of salty butter on a perfectly toasted slice of bread is unbeatable. My personal favorite is the Old Town White Coffee version, but try a bunch and decide for yourself!
My idea of comfort food! Milo is a malt-based, healthier version of hot chocolate, but tastes delicious when iced as well. Maggi is the most popular brand of instant ramen noodles in Malaysia and is available in awesome, local flavors such as curry and asam laksa. There is nothing quite like an ice cold glass of sweet, chocolaty Milo, and a steaming bowl of salty and spicy Maggi noodles!
Local Tip: Sightseeing is always important when you’re a tourist, but take some time out to really act like the locals do. Visit a major supermarket (I recommend Giant) and check out what foods and brands people buy for their everyday meals. Better yet, buy some Milo and Maggi and make them for yourself at whatever hotel/hostel/couchsurfing abode you’re staying at.
Restaurant Highlight: Restoran Kien Kee is famous for its hot pepper soup and claypot chicken, both traditional Chinese dishes (the steamed tofu is great too). You may need a car to get here, as its tucked behind a main street in the Selangor suburb of Kuala Lumpur , but it’s a strictly-local kind of place and totally worth it.
Almost every town in Malaysia specializes in a certain type of food, so I’m sure to have missed many things. Let us know what you’ve tried!
[All photos courtesy of Kelisha Menon.]
[This article was made possible with support from our sponsors]