Malaysia is home to countless delicious dishes whose flavorsome roots come from all over the region, reflecting the multi-ethnic tapestry that makes up Malaysian society. There are strong influences from Indian, Indonesian and Chinese cuisine; within those designations are both the traditionally-rendered recipes, which stick to the cooking and seasoning methods of their homeland, and the remixes, where those classic dishes collide in the melting pot of Malaysia, as well as dishes unique to the country altogether. Finding and sampling these delicacies requires wide exploration and the dedicated investigator will be rewarded with unique dishes and varied iterations all over Malaysia.
Rightfully proud of the smorgasbord of cuisine you can find in their country, Malaysians do away with the notion of three meals a day, understandably – given what is on offer – often taking up to six. This is perhaps made easier since there is much less distinction between what constitutes breakfast, lunch or dinner food than in the west. So, since there is no wrong time to get into the Malaysian culinary scene, let us take you on a gastronomic adventure around this flavorful country.
Any luxurious and delicious journey around the Malaysian peninsular will most likely begin in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. Between seeing the sights, strolling around squares, visiting temples and perusing the Petaling Street Market, take some Bakuteh. Directly translated as meat bone tea, this is a hearty broth of herbs and spices bubbling around meaty pork ribs. One of the best places to find “BKT” is Yik See Ho restaurant near the Pudu Wet Market.
Northern soul food
Just a two-hour drive north of the capital, Perak lures many city-dwellers with the promise of some of the finest fresh river prawns in the country. Discover Tanjung Tualang at its freshest: the chefs pluck them from the tank, drop them into ice water to stun them and cook them immediately, resulting in a mouthwatering, springy texture. Continue north to the gorgeous and verdant Cameron Highlands and hike through the stunning landscape of tea terraces before savoring a cup as you learn how the aromatic blends are so carefully crafted. For the full colonial experience, opt for a cream tea, with jam, scones and fresh strawberries.
On the west coast of the peninsula lies Malaysia’s cultural mecca: in Penang, head to Little India to get your hands messy eating the delicious Banana Leaf Rice, with its roots in Chettinad. Veggies, curried meat or fish and papadums are served on white rice and wrapped up in a banana leaf in this classic south Indian delicacy. Sample flavor from further east as you take a stroll through the historic Chinatown, and don’t miss the chance to try Nasi Kandar, which originates in Penang: this simple dish of steamed rice is jazzed up with an array of side dishes including fried chicken, seasoned beef, curried mutton and fried prawns and vegetables like brinjal (eggplant) and okra.
Head to the northwest for freshly-caught and deliciously-prepared seafood in Langkawi island, in the Andaman ocean. Venture through Taman Negara National Park to Kuala Terengganu on the shores of the Gulf of Siam. Here on the east coast, indulge in the local dish of Nasi Dagang: rice steamed in coconut milk with fish curry, fried coconut, hard-boiled eggs and pickled vegetables.
Lesser-spotted jungle fare
If you feel the intrepid desire to venture further off the tourist track, head into Borneo and spend your days trekking through the lush jungles of Kota Kinabalu, on the trail of orangutang and floppy-nose proboscis monkeys. On your travels, seek out Midin, a crispy jungle fern, which is stir-fried with shrimp paste or anchovies to get a distinct salty flavor. While it is relatively easy to come by in Borneo, this lip-smacking, savory side-dish is difficult to find in other parts of Malaysia, and indeed the world.
Wherever you are in the country, there are a number of dishes you will come across time and again, and there is a certain fun to be had in comparing the flavors, consistencies and accoutrements in the recipes of each region. Don’t miss a few favorites:
Beef rendang: though you can find iterations with chicken and seafood, beef is the classic; slow-cooked in two types of coconut, spiced with ginger and turmeric, kaffir lime and chilis, it is creamy, rich and irresistible. Laksa: a true Malaysian staple, this spicy noodle soup can be eaten like a curry with fish or prawns, each version as mouthwatering as the last. Nasi lemak is widely considered Malaysia’s unofficial national dish: rice cooked in coconut milk is served with a variety of sides including hard-boiled eggs, peanuts, vegetables, meat curry and chili-based sambal sauce.