by: RJ Fisher last update: October 2022
Malaysian food is the best in the world!
There I’ve said it, kind of a bold statement isn’t it? Well, it’s just my opinion and you are of course welcome to your own. Be forewarned though that I intend to use this article to get you over to my side.
There is no question that Malaysian cuisine is heavily influenced by neighboring countries Thailand and Indonesia. Even more so there’s also the influence from Chinese and Indian immigrants that adapted by working with local substitute ingredients. At the same time they introduced their particular cooking techniques.
Nowadays, thanks to modern day means of transport, exotic ingredients are in full supply. Therefore, authentic Chinese and Indian dishes are now widely available in Malaysia. But it’s the historical fusion cooking, that resulted in the so called “Mamak” and “Nyonya cuisine“, what really makes Malaysian food so unique and interesting.
Here’s my list of 11+1 must-eat Malaysia foods in random order:
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1. Bah Kut Teh – Malaysia foods
A hearty breakfast dish, invented by Chinese immigrants. It’s pork ribs that simmer in a herbal broth for hours on end until the meat is fall off the bone tender. Typical herbs and spices are cinnamon, cloves, star anise, fennel, garlic, plus any medicinal herbs that the chef likes to add that day. A few dashes of soy sauce will help to enhance the flavors even more.
Extra soy sauce, mixed with chopped chili, garlic, coriander and spring onions is often used as a condiment and youtiao (fried dough strip, like churro) is served alongside your steamy bowl. Some versions of Bah Kut Teh include offal, bok choy, mushrooms or fried tofu.
Despite the name, tea is not an ingredient in this dish. Instead, tea is commonly served to accompany the bah kut teh to neutralize the generous amounts of fat in the dish.
I particularly like the “dry” version of Bah Kut Teh where the moisture is reduced creating more like a stew. Adding a few extra chilies and a serving of steamed rice will really make my day.
2. Kaya Toast – Malaysian foods
I often reminisce about mornings in Kuala Lumpur. Sitting in my favorite Kopitiam, watching the world on their way to work or school. I would always order the same, kopi o gao (strong black coffee) and kaya toast.
Thick slices of charcoal toasted bread, still soft in the middle with a generous layer of butter and kaya (coconut jam). The warm toast melts the butter that mixes in with the kaya into a sweet and silky soft smoothness. Then, oh shocker! dip the toast in a soft boiled egg topped with a drizzle of sweet soy sauce.
This is how many of the people here start off the day, with a breakfast that is as Malaysian as scrambled eggs and bacon are American. Or as beans and black pudding are British. Or as delicious and wonderful are heaven (pardon the incorrect grammar).
Read more: “What is Kopitiam”
3. KL Hokkien Mee – Malaysian foods
Hokkien noodles are thick egg based noodles, soft and a little chewy, so basically different from rice noodles. In Malaysia there are actually three important hokkien mee dishes, Singaporian, Penang style and KL (Kuala Lumpur) hokkien mee. In this post I will only discuss the latter. Why? Cos it’s my favorite!
KL hokkien mee differs from the others by its dark color from a thick dark soy sauce. This very special soy sauce is as thick as caramel and slightly salty, so not sweet like the Indonesian kecap manis.
The noodles are stir fried in the soy sauce together with Chinese cabbage, a few prawns, fishballs and maybe some pork belly for insiders. Next, chicken stock and corn flour are added to create a kind of gravy. The dish is then served with crispy fried croutons of pork lard sprinkled on top. Yum!
4. Nasi Kandar – Malaysian foods
“Nasi” means rice and “kandar” translates into “pole” in Malay language. In the days of yore, Tamil Muslim immigrants on Penang Island sold their food from containers. These containers were hanging from each end of a pole balancing on their shoulder. Today, you might still see them, but their numbers have dwindled dramatically. Now, the majority of Nasi Kandar is being sold from mamak stalls and restaurants all over Malaysia.
So, what is it? Fragrant spiced rice (Biryani) overloaded with curry based dishes (meat, fish, vegetable). Some of the restaurants offer Nasi Kandar “all you can eat” and you dish yourself buffet style. Other restaurants sell by the plate and the server just starts loading random items onto your plate. However, you can always tell the server your preference/aversion. If you like the curry, ask the seller to “banjir”, which means “flood” your plate with curry.
Similar, some Chinese and Malay restaurants use the same service system, but with their own typical dish toppings. The Chinese restaurants call it “Economy Rice” and the Malay restaurants “Nasi Campur”.
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5. Laksa – Malaysian foods
Noodle soup is probably the single most eaten dish in South East Asia. Every country and/or region has its own version with Laksa being the style for Malaysia and Singapore. Be aware though that there is no such thing as one type of Laksa. There are more variations than there are chefs. To keep it simple I will only describe the two most distinctive.
Laksa consists of either wheat or rice noodles. Strips of any kind of meat can be added, along with prawns, fish, vegetables, tofu and whatever. The whole is then covered in a spicy broth.
In Northern Malaysia the broth is traditionally served “asam” (sour). This is due to Thai influence and the availability of local ingredients (tamarind). However, in the South, under Indonesian influence, they will rather serve you a “laksa lemak” with a lot of coconut milk, which is actually my favorite Laksa.
6. Beef Rendang – Malaysian foods
Although this all-time favorite originates from Sumatra in Indonesia it has to be on this list. The Malay know good food when they taste it and over time this dish has become a staple here. I suspect it to be even more popular in Malaysia than in Indonesia itself.
If you haven’t tried Rendang yet, it’s high time you did. Beef is super slowly simmered in coconut milk and a mix of spices with lemongrass being the most distinctive. Shallots, garlic, ginger, galangal, turmeric and chili are also important. Depending on your preference you can add cloves, star anise, cardamom, lime leaves and maybe a handful of grated coconut.
The braising should be done as slow as possible and until all liquid is evaporated. It might seem to last forever, but this way the meat absorbs all the flavors and becomes really tender. A truly exceptional taste, so complex with so many different flavors going on at the same time with each bite.
If you prepare Rendang yourself at home, make extra. If you can’t finish your portion in a restaurant, take it home in doggy bag. It’s true, next day’s Rendang is even better.
Fun fact: Rendang was named the #1 dish in the 2017 “World’s 50 best foods list” by CNN International.
7. Hainanese Chicken Rice – Malaysian foods
About a century ago, immigrants from Hainan Island in Southern China settled in what nowadays is Malaysia. The immigrants adapted well to their new environment, but still craved the cooking from back home. They tried to recreate a typical chicken dish using local chickens rather then the typical “wenchang chicken”, which is indigenous to Hainan.
Their efforts resulted in the world famous “Hainanese Chicken Rice”. Nowadays very popular in Malaysia and most South East Asian countries.
An entire chicken is slow cooked in just below boiling water, together with ginger, garlic and pandan. Immediately after cooking the chicken is dipped in ice-water to give the skin a soft and shiny texture. The rice served next to the chicken is boiled in the chicken stock, making it oh so fragrant and earning it the nickname “oily rice”. A garlic/chili dip and soy sauce are served as condiments.
Because of the slow cooking the chicken meat is soft, tender and juicy. After my first bite I instantly understood why this dish is so popular in so many countries, and so will you! Wake me up in the middle of the night and serve me chicken over rice. Make sure to add me a few sliced cucumbers on the side.
Read more: “Peranakan and Nyonya Cuisine”
8. Nasi Lemak – Malaysian foods
Ask any Malay abroad which dish from home he/she misses the most and nine out of ten will tell you it’s that good old comfort food “Nasi Lemak”.
The core of this dish is rice, cooked and steamed in coconut milk with fragrant pandan leaves. Home made sambal (chili paste) is the heart, bringing together all of the toppings and garnishes.
No Nasi Lemak is complete without ikan bilis (small crispy fried anchovies), roasted peanuts, slices of cucumber and a hard boiled or fried egg. It’s popular to add protein in the form of ayam goreng (fried chicken), but any other protein will do.
Traditionally, street vendors in Malaysia and Singapore served Nasi Lemak for breakfast to ensure a good start of the day. However nowadays, the popularity has grown beyond breakfast and it’s eaten at any time of day. There’s nothing better than a well executed Nasi Lemak to cure a homesick Malay.
9. Murtabak – Malaysian foods
Growing up in Europe in an Indonesian family I always got excited when the Aunties were preparing Martabak. Yes, in Bahasa Indonesia we spell it with an “a”. Meat wasn’t your everyday option, since money was scarce, but Martabak is loaded with minced meat.
Similar to Indonesia, Murtabak in Malaysia is a minced beef or chicken meat bomb, wrapped in a folded egg pancake. Before wrapping, the meat is mixed with more egg, (spring)onion and seasoned with the chef’s favorite spices. The whole package is then fried in a flat frying pan, cut to squares and served with curry and pickled onions.
I still cherish those childhood memories of eating a whole Martabak, which is a full meal in itself. I don’t cherish the tummy-ache that came after when I overate myself again.
10. Char Kuey Teow – Malaysian foods
Another dish introduced by Chinese immigrants. “Char” means “stir fried” and “kuey teow” means “flat rice noodles”, so “stir fried flat rice noodles”. And you thought life was complicated.
Well actually, it’s not as simple as it seems. For a good char kuey teow you have to strictly follow the recipe. Of course there are varieties and own interpretations, but they just don’t qualify as the real thing.
For starters, you need a special wok burner, because high and intense heat is key to prepare this dish right. Don’t take my word for it, talk to any South East Asian, it matters.
Fresh rice noodles, prawns and blood cockles are essential, as is lap cheong (sweet Chinese sausage). Chili, shrimp paste, chives, garlic and soy sauce can be added more or less at will with regards to quantity, but they have to be in there. Traditionally, pork fat is used to stir fry in, again it matters. Obviously it is sometimes replaced with oil for health or religious reasons, but for me it’s all about the taste.
So, maybe it’s not that simple in the end indeed. Especially the high flame wok burner is really hard to come by. Ah well, there’s always the option of eating a perfect char kuey teow straight from the source….in Penang, Malaysia.
Read more: “Mamak Stalls”
11. Roti Canai – Malaysian foods
Do you like naan bread? Then you’re going to love Roti Canai. Similar to naan it’s an Indian influenced flatbread, brought to Malaysia by Indian Muslim immigrants.
Fried on a hot oily skillet, Roti Canai is light and fluffy on the inside, while crispy and flaky on the outside. Usually eaten with dal or any other curry, but also cooked as a sweet variation with condensed milk and coconut cream. Or as a savory snack with different kinds of meat or even cheese.
The dough is super easy to make with just flour, butter, water, a little kneading and folding. Very cheap as well, often as low as RM1,20-1,50. Find a mamak food stall, sit down and enjoy your Roti Canai.
11+1. Banana Leaf – Malaysian foods
No, I’m not recommending to eat banana leaves as such. I love the Malaysian banana leaf restaurants where they make you eat from a banana leaf as your plate. It’s a bit like Nasi Kandar, but with table service.
A server will lay out the leaf in front of you, then scoop rice together with a whole range of Indian curries on it, maybe throw in a naan bread. Normally he won’t ask your preference, but if you really want a particular dish, just ask.
No need for a spoon, eat with your (right) hand. It’s messy, but fingerlickin’ good. When it’s time to settle the bill your server will just name a price from the top of his head, according to the volume you ate. So actually, you never know the cost beforehand. Fortunately, banana leaf restaurants are among the most affordable in Malaysia.
Of course there are more than 11+1 must eat Malaysian foods. There’s Nasi Biryani, Satay, Mee Rebus, Nasi Kerabu, Ikan Bakar and not to forget sweet treats like Kuih and Cendol. In fact and without exaggeration, I could probably come up with a 100+ dishes. However, that would mean that I would be writing all night instead of eating. Speaking of which, I did indeed write another post on Malaysian food. It’s only for insiders though.
So tell me, what’s your favorite Malaysian food? Let us know in the comments below.
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Not even sure how I got here this morning….something to do with coffee and my local sissiboo coffee place and looking for kopi liberica!Ha! Nice blog and this article reminded so much of my culinary travels around malaysia. I even wrote a story about it! I also remember that many of the foods i tried i could not remember the names, just went with it. I do remember though, pot pot (sp?), otah or otak, roti chenai, that capitol satay peanut dipping place in Mallacca…so many noddle and rice dishes that i lost track of trying to write them down and the same for anything wrapped in leaves!
Hey Fred, I guess that remembering a name of a dish only becomes important if you tried it, disliked it and want to avoid it in the future.
Do you know these dishes? 5 malaysia-food-insiders-only
Great website and I enjoyed the article.
The food of Malaysia is wonderful but my heart still belongs to Thai food although you made a great case! 😀
My huge regret is not trying nasi kandar last time I was in Malaysia. Hopefully next time.
Probably my favourite from the list is a boring choice but I love laksa! I tried the sour version in Langkawi and didn’t enjoy that but the southern version is a party in my mouth.
Thank you Martin, I’m glad you liked it.
Haha, I know you’re a Thai food buff. I’m actually a fan of Thai food myself so I completely understand.
There’s nothing boring about laksa. I do like the sour version, but the Southern version with coconut milk is my favorite as well.
And the nasi kandar, yes you really missed out on that one Martin. Might have changed your mind on favoring Thai over Malaysian food, lol.
Hey everyone! You should definitely take a look at Martin’s blog travelswithbelly . It’s very personal and he also shares some great food posts. This guy knows his Thai food stuff!
Thanks so much for your kind words and shout out for my blog! I appreciate the support so much!
Yeah my heart is still with Thai food but you never know! Malaysia is at no.2 right now with more to try maybe it will climb! 😁
Your welcome! I’m just glad we don’t really have to choose, but can enjoy both cuisines anyway. In the South of Thailand/North of Malaysia many dishes are very much alike anyway.