by Augustine Chay
- Asian Cuisines
- Southeast Asian Cuisine
If there’s one thing that Malaysians can all agree on, it’s probably their shared passion for food. Regardless of ethnicity, language, and religion, the Malaysian is generally an avid foodie.
Located in the center of Southeast Asia, West Malaysia has long been a key part of the maritime spice trade. Merchants from China, India, and southern Arabia once exchanged their wares for precious commodities like clove, nutmeg, and pepper at the famed port of Malacca.
Malaysian food today generally draws from the culinary traditions of its three main ethnic groups: the Malays, the Chinese (who mostly migrated from the eastern coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian) and the Indians (who mostly migrated from Tamil Nadu).
Fusion food is the way of life around here. Malaysian food borrows culinary influences from a wide range of sources, which sometimes makes what counts as ‘local’ or ‘Malaysian’ a passionately contested issue (even before the advent of social media).
Tom yam serves as a good counterpoint. This sour and spicy soup is popular among Malaysians, but it is widely acknowledged as being indisputably Thai in origin. Many of the other foods on this list, however, are also beloved local favorites in neighboring Singapore, Indonesia, and Brunei.
Popular Breakfast Foods
1. Nasi Lemak (coconut milk rice)
This Malay dish is considered to be the national dish (nasi is the Malay word for rice). It looks simple, but each component requires a significant amount of preparation.
The rice has to be cooked carefully with coconut cream (santan) and pandan leaves. It is traditionally served with fried anchovies (ikan bilis), boiled egg, cucumber slices and sambal (a spicy chili-based paste).
2. Roti Canai
This popular flatbread dish originates from southern India. Made with ghee and flour, the best roti canai is crispy and flaky on the outside and buttery smooth on the inside.
It is usually served with dhal or curry (and sometimes with sugar). Roti canai can be modified in a variety of ways. You can have it plain (roti kosong), or with a wide variety of fillings: egg, onions, mushroom, cheese, and even banana slices.
3. Kaya Toast (Toast with Coconut Jam)
A popular breakfast option, the ‘invention’ of kaya toast is often attributed to the Hainanese cooks who were employed by the British residents of Malaysia and Singapore during the colonial era.
Two slices of white bread are toasted until they are crispy on the outside but soft on the inside and served with kaya (a sweat and creamy coconut-based spread) and butter.
It is usually accompanied with coffee or tea and eaten with two soft-boiled eggs, which are eaten with white pepper and dark soy sauce. The toast can be dipped into the runny eggs or eaten separately.
4. Hainanese Chicken Rice
A culinary staple in Malaysia and Singapore, this dish was reinvented by Chinese immigrants from the island province of Hainan. They adapted their recipe for Wenchang chicken according to the availability of local ingredients—creating a beloved icon in the process.
As its name suggests, Hainanese chicken rice pairs poached chicken with seasoned rice. It is usually served with chili sauce and slices of cucumber.
5. Nasi Goreng Kampung (traditional Malay fried rice)
Fried rice is a versatile and cross-cultural dish. It can be cooked in a wide variety of ways: Chinese-style, Thai-style, Korean-style, Burmese-style, etc. ‘Kampung’ literally translates to village, but nasi goreng kampung generally refers to a traditional recipe that is common in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Most of the work goes into preparing the chili paste. After that, it’s the simply matter of frying the rice with shallots, garlic, belacan (shrimp paste) and anchovies.
6. Char Kway Teow (stir-fried flat rice noodles)
This popular Chinese dish is traditionally stir-fried in pork fat, but there are also halal variants for Muslim diners to enjoy.
While its recipe seems simple, it takes a lot of skill to fry the rice noodles, soy sauce, chilli, belacan, prawns, cockles, and bean sprouts in a wok over very high heat.
Penang’s street hawkers are famous for this dish; most Malaysians don’t try to recreate its signature charred aroma at home.
7. Maggi Mee Goreng (stir-fried instant noodles)
This fried instant noodle dish is named after the popular Maggi brand of instant noodles (mee is the Malay word for noodles). It’s a well-loved ‘guilty pleasure’ that can be made with any brand of instant noodles.
The noodles are boiled, and then stir-fried in a wok with vegetables, eggs, soy sauce, and the instant noodle seasoning. It can be jazzed up with meat, seafood, and tofu.
8. Banana Leaf Rice
As the name suggests, this dish is served on a large banana leaf. Hailing from South India, it revolves around rice, several dishes, pickles, rasam (a sour spiced soup), various curries, and papadam (crispy fried crackers). It is popular among vegetarians since meat is optional.
9. Curry Laksa
There are various recipes for curry laksa (also known as curry mee). While the noodles used in the dish can vary (it can be yellow noodles, rice vermicelli, or thick white laksa noodles), it is generally cooked in a curry soup that is based on coconut milk.
It is typically eaten with hard-boiled egg, deep-fried tofu, and beansprouts, with a spoonful of sambal on the side.
10. Assam Laksa
Assam laksa gets its signature sour and tangy flavour from tamarind. A Penang speciality, its broth is made by boiling mackerel bones with grounded spices and herbs. It is then served with thick rice noodles, shredded fish, and sliced vegetables (cucumber, onion, and lettuce).
11. Pan Mee (Hakka Flat Noodles)
Pan mee is a versatile flat noodle dish that can be served dry (stir-fried) or in soup form. There are many variations, with Chilli Pan Mee being one of the most popular.
This hearty, unassuming, and down-to-earth dish usually consists of noodles, leafy green vegetables, mushrooms, fried anchovies, a poached egg, and minced pork (or chicken). The spicy chili paste is served separately and added according to the diner’s preference (and spice tolerance).
12. Yong Tau Foo (Stuffed Bean Curd)
Like pan mee, Yong Tau Foo is a Hakka dish that can be served dry (with two dipping sauces) or as a soup dish. The star attraction is tofu that is either filled with a ground meat mixture or fish paste (surimi).
The tofu is eaten with fish balls and slices of vegetables (e.g., bitter melon, okra, eggplant, and chili) alongside the meat or fish paste filling. The stuffed items (which are either fried or boiled) can be eaten on their own or with a side serving of rice or noodles.
This hearty stuffed pancake is popular across Southeast Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. It is traditionally associated with Indian Muslim restaurants. It is basically a pan-friend bread that is filled with generous amounts of minced meat (usually chicken, beef or mutton), beaten eggs, scallions, and chives. It is usually served with curry, dhal and sambal as a dipping sauce.
14. Beef Rendang (Slow-Cooked Beef)
Rendang is a traditional meat dish that originates from the Minangkabau region in West Sumatra. It is usually prepared for major ceremonial occasions, such as a wedding feast or Hari Raya (Eid al-Fitr).
Large amounts of meat (usually beef) are slowly braised in coconut milk and various spices (ginger, turmeric leaves, chilli, galangal, lemongrass, etc.). It is ready to eat once the liquid evaporates and the meat becomes tender and incredibly flavorful.
Believed to originate from Java, satay is similar in concept to the kebab and yakitori. A wide variety of meat (usually chicken, mutton, and beef) is sliced or diced, seasoned with various spices, skewered, and then artfully grilled over a wood or charcoal fire.
Once cooked, the skewers are served with lontong (compressed rice cake), slices of cucumber and onion, and a special peanut-based dipping sauce.
16. Otak-Otak (Grilled Fish Cake)
This much-loved street food consists of a fish cake that is wrapped in a coconut leaf or banana leaf and then grilled. The fish cake is seasoned with chili, turmeric and lemongrass, giving it its characteristic reddish-orange tinge.
17. Roti Jala (Net Crepes)
Roti jala translates literally to ‘net bread’: a reference to its string-like appearance. This popular snack is made from wheat flour, eggs, milk, and turmeric (which gives it its bright yellow color). The batter is poured carefully to create the intricate lace look, and then rolled. It is usually eaten with chicken curry.
18. Pisang Goreng (Banana Fritters)
Ripe bananas are peeled, covered in batter (a mixture of rice flour, corn starch, baking powder, sugar, and salt), and then deep-fried to perfection. It should be gold in color, crispy on the outside, and sweet and moist on the inside.
19. Apam Balik (Turnover Pancake)
This dessert pancake is a popular street food that originates from China’s Fujian province. The batter is made by mixing flour, eggs, sugar, baking soda, water, and coconut milk. Peanuts and sugar are traditionally sprinkled in before it is folded (either once or twice). Other popular options include creamy sweet corn, chocolate and cheese.
20. Keropok Lekor (Fried Fish Sausage)
This traditional Malay snack hails from the eastern state of Terengganu. It is usually made with mackerel or wolf herring. The fish is minced, salted, and then mixed with sago flour and water. The resulting dough is rolled into a cylinder-like shape, boiled, cooled, and then cut diagonally. The slices are then deep-fried in hot oil.
21. Popiah (Spring Rolls)
Popiah is characterised by its paper-thin skin, which is used to wrap around a wide variety of fillings. Fried popiah is particularly popular in Malaysia; the fried version is usually slimmer and smaller. Popiah usually contains a mixture of diced vegetables (turnip, carrots, cabbage, and jicama) and some minced meat (pork, chicken or shrimp). It is usually served with hoisin and chili sauce.
22. Rojak (Sweet and Spicy Fruit Salad)
In Malay, rojak is a noun and an adjective that connotates admixture and hybridity. This unassuming dish is thus often deemed to symbolise the ethnic diversity and cultural pluralism of Malaysian society.
Its most common form takes the shape of a combination of various sliced vegetables (guava, unripe mango, cucumber, pineapple, etc.) and a sweet and spicy dressing (made with chili, palm sugar, and peanuts).
Indian Muslim restaurants serve a popular variant that incorporates fried tofu and seafood.
23. Ramly Burger
The Ramly Burger is named after Ramly bin Mokni, the Malaysian entrepreneur who is well-known for his successful halal frozen food company.
The company’s franchised street stalls can be found across the country, each dishing up a popular recipe that revolves around its flagship burger patty. While the sauce and spices used to season the patty can vary, the Ramly Burger recipe stands out by wrapping the patty in a fried egg.
24. Karipap (Curry Puff)
This deep-fried small pie may have been inspired by the Cornish pasty, the Portuguese empanada, or the samosa (or all three). The thick pastry usually contains chicken curry, potato curry, or sardines. It is often enjoyed as a teatime snack by all Malaysians.
25. Ais Kacang (Shaved Ice)
Ais kacang is also known as ais batu campur (or ABC). While desserts that are based on shaved ice are common across Southeast and East Asia, ais kacang is distinct for its bright multicolour hue and diverse toppings.
This usually includes red beans, palm seeds, grass jelly, sweet corn, agar-agar cubes, and roasted peanuts. The mountain of ice is then drizzled with red rose syrup and condensed milk.
Whether you’re looking for novelty, hybridity or traditional authenticity, Malaysia has much to offer to anyone with a slightly adventurous palate.
The island state of Penang, the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, the historic city of Malacca, and the laidback city of Ipoh are all magnets for local foodies, but you can also get acquainted with more regional specialities by exploring the country’s other cities and towns.
Malaysian food is delicious yet accessible and affordable, and difficult to replicate outside the region because it depends on many local ingredients and labor-intensive preparation methods. This list is just the tip of the iceberg—there’s so much more for your taste buds.
Before you go, check out our round-up of the top 20 most popular desserts in Malaysia.
Born and raised in Malaysia, Augustine has studied and lived in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. He believes in finding the right balance between eating to live and living to eat.
Add Your Comment
The food could be one of the most attractive and enjoyable experiences in Malaysia. As the cuisine is majorly a combination of Malay, Chinese and Indian because of it's geographical location; the variety of ingredients is very rich and the taste has become inevitably delicious.What is Malaysian traditional food? ›
It is common to see traditional Malay dishes, such as pulut kuning (yellow glutinous rice) with beef rendang, nasi briyani, nasi minyak, lamb soup, kurma daging, and ayam masak merah, served along with local fruits and assorted Malay kuih during these occasions.What is special about Malaysian food? ›
Malay food is strong, spicy and aromatic, combining the rich tastes of the many herbs and spices commonly found in Southeast Asia. It is one of three major cuisines in Malaysia, and together with Chinese and Indian food, continually delight visitors to the country with its incredible variety and flavors.