It’s no secret that Malaysia is a foodie haven and arguably home to some of the most lip-smacking dishes found anywhere in the world. When a country uses “have you eaten” as a form of greeting, you know you’re in the right place to get your grub on.
These 10 iconic foods are a good starting point for anyone that’s just touched down. So, jom makan!
1. Nasi Lemak
Creamy, rich, comforting and one of the greatest combination of ingredients there is, nasi lemak is the unofficial national dish of Malaysia and the country’s gastronomic pride. This ubiquitous dish is sold on almost every street corner and eaten at any time of the day.
At its core: fragrant coconut rice, sambal (cooked chili paste), ikan bilis (fried anchovies), cucumber slices and a wedge of hardboiled egg. Extras: fried chicken, chicken rendang (a spicy meat dish with coconut-based gravy), chicken curry, cockles in sambal and many more.
2. Roti Canai
Few things are as satisfying as taking a freshly made roti canai and dunking it into some dhal or curry. It’s impossible not to love this crunchy-but-fluffy flatbread, made with a generous amount of addictive ghee (clarified butter) and fried on a hot griddle.
There are countless versions of this staple all across South Asia, but here in Malaysia it’s flipped and spun in the air, then smashed before it’s served to produce that unique texture. Have it cooked with an egg insdie (roti telur), with onion (roti bawang), with sardines or cheese!
Lovers of complex broths will lap this right up.Whether you like it creamy and smooth, hot and spicy or sweet and sour, laksa is thought to be a dish of Peranakan origin (Chinese/Malay mix), and is generally split into curry based or tamarind based categories.
The Sarawak laksa combines a soup base of tamarind and sambal belacan with coconut milk, lemon grass, topped with omelette strips and served with vermicelli noodles. Other favourites include the spicy-sour Assam laksa, and the coconut gravy Nyonya laksa.
4. Nasi Kandar
Way back when, in Georgetown, Penang, Indian Muslim traders used to cook their curries at home, pack them up and then transport them via kandar poles to sell to labourers along the Quay. Those are the origins of this hearty rice dish that you’ll find at mamak restaurants all over the country now.
Grab a plate full of rice and choose from an array of colourful curries – meat, seafood and vegetables – alongside deep fried delights like squid, chicken or prawns and gorgeous gravies that are generously poured over the whole melange. Just be prepared to take a nap after!
5. Nasi Ayam
The perennial favourite of chicken rice was brought to Malaysia by settlers from the Hainan province in China and has become an integral part of the culinary repertoire here and in Singapore. There’s something about rice cooked in chicken stock with a knot of pandan leaves that makes it irresistible.
It comes served with either poached or roasted chicken, cucumber slices, chicken soup and sauces that include minced chili and garlic, dark soy and ground ginger. It’s comfort food at its very finest – trust us!
This list wouldn’t be complete without having satay on it, those sticks of skewered meat grilled to a charry perfection over an open flame. Traditionally chicken or beef, you’ll also find mutton, fish, pork and various other meats threaded onto the sticks, all of them marinated in a colourful mix of spices to produce flavourful, smokey, sweet and tender pieces of meat.
Satay is always accompanied with peanut sauce, primarily composed of diced peanuts, shallots, chilli and turmeric – but each satay master has his own secret recipe.
7. Char Kuay Teow
When it comes to flat rice noodles, Char Kuay Teow reigns supreme. Said noodles are tossed into a smoking hot wok and flash fried with ingredients including bean sprouts, prawns, cockles, chives, eggs, chilli and soy sauce. The whole process takes mere minutes, if that, and results in a pretty spectacular culinary show as chefs whip the ingredients around the wok.
It’s a street food favourite and some of the best can be found in Penang. The aroma’s the drift from a freshly made batch can lure diners from streets away, and the charry taste ensures you’re hooked from the first bite.
8. Wantan Mee
Another noodle dish that deserves a place on this list is a Malaysian adaption of a Cantonese classic and comes with those divine dumplings called wantans. Filled with a mix of ground shrimp and pork that’s been seasoned with spices, garlic, onion and oil, these little pouches are packed with flavour and impossible not to love instantly.
They come served with springy egg noodles, tossed in soy sauce and oil, and topped with char siu (barbecued pork) and choy sum and a side of broth. Essential to the dish are pickled green chillis that provide a tangy counterpoint to the savoury tones.
9. Banana Leaf
From the Indian quarter, we recommend you go full monty with banana leaf rice. Best eaten with your hands, it’s the best way to dive right into the array of curries, pickles, veggies and meats found in this colourful cuisine.
Take your pick from dishes like dry chicken varuval, aromatic crab curry, buttery mutton, fried bitter gourd and pair it with lime or mango pickle for a sweet, spicy, sour and salty mix. Pair it with a spicy rassam soup and you’ve got the makings for one of the most satisfying rice dishes in existence.
10. Ais Kacang
We had to include at least one sweet dish on this list and what else could it be but the perennial ais kacang, or ‘bean ice’, also commonly known simply as ABC.
This popular dessert item is composed of shaved ice doused in sweet and condensed milk and gula melaka, and then topped with a colourful assortment of ingredients including grass jelly, red beans, agar-agar, sweet corn and peanuts. What’s not to love here? An ABC on hot day is pure bliss.
Malaysia’s melting pot of cultures has led to an impressive spread of cuisines incorporating Chinese, Indian, Malay and many other dishes that draw food enthusiasts from around the globe. You could spend weeks eating different foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner everyday, and still only have tried a small fraction of what’s available. Meanwhile, treat yourself to what’s on this list!