14 Things to Eat in Malaysia
Featured destinations: Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, Penang
Published 06 March 2017
When I first arrived in Malaysia, number one on my things to do list was to try some local food. And so, after checking into our hotel, my boyfriend David and I headed straight for the nearest café. There, we started to peruse the menu…and realised we had no idea what it said. It might have been written in English, but the words, things such as murtabak and nasi goreng, meant nothing to us. But, ever up for a food-related challenge, we made it our mission to learn more about Malaysian cuisine, and spent the next few weeks tasting our way through the menu. These are some of my favourite dishes:
Flatbread stuffed with meat and chopped onions, usually with a heavily-spiced sauce, murtabak is a meal in itself. In essence a pancake filled with curry, it’s super filling and super tasty, and comes in a variety of flavours. This was the very first dish we tried on that very first day, and we loved it.
We found roti canai on sale everywhere in Malaysia. They even eat it for breakfast. Served with a dipping sauce (usually dal, lentil curry) this fried, layered flatbread, made with plenty of ghee (clarified butter) is soft, flaky and utterly scrumptious and soon became our go-to snack.
Sarawak layer cake image: Angela Griffin
Otherwise known as Sarawak layer cake, this colourful dessert is found mostly in Borneo, and often served for religious occasions. The cake is a typical sponge, made with flour, eggs, butter (or oil) and sugar, but dyed various bright shades and cut into layers which, when cool, are put together into elaborate patterns using jam. In all honesty they look more exciting than they taste, but are still worth a try.
Hokkien mee flickr id: 5022368267
Essentially fried yellow noodles, this Kuala Lumpur favourite is coated in thick, dark soy sauce and served with squid, pork, cabbage, fish cake and cubes of pork fat, which melt decadently into the sauce. It’s full of flavour and very filling too, although a lighter, prawn-based version is found in Penang and Singapore.
A large, thin, crepe-like pancake made with rice and black gram, dosai is primarily an Indian speciality (where it’s known as dosa) that has found its way to Malaysia and gone down a treat. Often served with chutneys or spicy dipping sauce, dosai can also be eaten folded and stuffed with spiced potatoes in a popular dish known as masala dosai.
It didn’t take us long to figure out that 'nasi' translates as 'rice', and 'goreng' means 'fried'. So, by that logic, 'nasi goreng' must be 'fried rice'. But not just any fried rice, the Malaysian version comes with plenty of chilli and garlic, is doused in soy and often has chicken and/or shrimp in it. It’s best served with a fried egg on top. Yum!
Char kway teow
Undoubtedly my favourite Malaysian dish, char kway teow consists of noodles in pork fat, soy, chili, prawns, shrimp paste, cockles, egg and bean sprouts, and fried over a charcoal fire, giving it a wonderfully smoky flavour. The best version we had was in Penang, but it’s delicious everywhere.
Translating as ‘pulled tea’, teh tarik is a sticky concoction of black tea, condensed milk and evaporated milk, which is mixed together via a process of ‘pulling’. This is essentially pouring it from one cup to another from a height, creating, a light, frothy and sweet drink that makes a satisfying breakfast time accompaniment to roti canai.
Nasi lemak image: Angela Griffin
Nasi lemak is found all over Malaysia, and some consider it the country’s national dish. Translating as ‘enriched rice’, this breakfast favourite is made by boiling rice in coconut milk, giving it a lovely fresh taste. It’s served with all sorts of side dishes, which can include eggs, roasted peanuts, fried meats, dried anchovies or curry.
Originally from Indonesia, but popular throughout Asia, satay consists of grilled meat skewers, often chicken, beef or pork, served with a slightly-sweet peanut dipping sauce. This is a great street food to try – the skewers are grilled right in front of you, and will be served sizzling and juicy. I’ve eaten a lot of satay in the UK but the Malaysian version was on another level.
Malaysia loves laksa, a bright red noodle soup made with tamarind and ginger and your choice of about a thousand other flavours, including prawns, fish, cockles and plenty of chilli. It’s different everywhere you have it – we tried it in Penang and boy was it spicy!
Clay pot noodles
We saw queues for clay pot noodles in George Town, and concluded that it must be worth trying. Of course, we were very glad we did, as this popular hawker dish soon became David’s favourite. Basically a noodle soup served in a clay pot, its flavours vary from place to place, but can include meat and prawns, cabbage, garlic, egg and a rich and flavourful stock.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t that keen on cendol, and I’m recommending it purely for its novelty value. A dessert made from coconut milk, jelly noodles (often dyed green), shaved ice and palm sugar, it often includes beans or rice as well as corn. It’s pretty sweet; kids love it, but I just couldn’t get my head around the strange mixture. But don't let me put you off; try it - you might like it.
Although it originated in Indonesia, rendang is found all over Malaysia. To make it, beef is stewed in coconut milk and spices including ginger, chilli, kaffir lime and turmeric, and slow-cooked. Sweet, savoury and sour all at the same time, it’s very tasty and definitely worth a try.
Sample the flavours of Malaysia with one of Round the World Experts’ Malaysia holidays; give our Experts a call for further information.