There are many reasons to fall in love with Malaysia, but if there’s one thing that most people can agree on that is totally unforgettable -both locals and tourists alike, it’s the food. Our resident expert on Malaysia gives us the skinny on what the must-have dishes in Malaysia are and why you’d be remiss not to indulge in some or all of them.
I am lucky to have many fond childhood memories of visiting the bustling food markets near my grandmother’s house in Kuala Lumpur. Our mornings were a daily routine of walking to the market to pick up freshly cooked mounds of roti canai or bags of curry laksa that we would take home and feast on for breakfast. In the evenings, I would walk with her to our street corner where an old man would be fanning dozens of skewers of beef and chicken satay over red-hot coals.
Food is such an important part of life of daily life in Malaysia, with people eating up to six meals a day. Indeed, in our household, it seemed we were always eating. Each time I entered the house my grandmother would interrogate me about food: “Have you eaten? Come, sit, eat!” Sometimes, I would dread visiting her house out of fear of the mountains of food she would be cooking away in her tiny kitchen to shovel into my tiny stomach.
This philosophy that life revolves around food has fuelled Malaysia’s eclectic street food scene to the point that, at any time, in any part of the country, you’re likely to stumble upon locals crowded around a lucky vendor dishing up plates of nasi lemak or beef rendang or other local specialty.
As you travel around this vibrant and hospitable country, you will almost certainly come across its bustling and vibrant hawker food markets. When you do, these are five delicious Malay specialties to look out for.
Malaysians will proudly argue that their satay beats anything dished up in Thailand or Indonesia – but their words are backed up by the fact that this popular dish is found all over the country. The meat – seasoned with local herbs and spices – is rotated (usually by the dozen) over hot coals and served with diced cucumber and a sweet-tasting peanut sauce seasoned with a healthy dose of chili.
2. Curry Laksa
If you get laksa at a hawker’s market, you’re likely to get it tapau (to go) in a plastic bag or served in a large plastic bowl to eat on a small stool – a bit of a staple in Asia. This laksa is the richer variant of the laksa family – thanks to the addition of coconut milk – giving it a pleasant sweet and spicy broth seasoned with turmeric, ginger, lemongrass and chili, and topped with tofu, eggs, cucumber and rice noodles.
Alternatively, try Sarawak Laksa, a crimson-coloured version of the soup topped with omlette strips, chicken and prawns. The dish is now featured in Anthony Bourdain’s Top 10 Wish List for his food market in New York City.
3. Roti Canai
This dish is the classic Malaysian breakfast, but can be enjoyed at any time of the day. As distinct from naan bread, roti is soft and flaky on the outside (much like a croissant) and elastic and chewy on the inside. Using a dough made from flour, egg and ghee (clarified butter), it is sliced, flat pressed and cooked on a griddle. Much like naan, it is best used to soak up the sauces of delicious Malay curries like beef rendang or lentil dal.
4. Char Kway Teow
The best char kway teow can be found on the island of Penang, and it is my all-time favourite dish to eat in Malaysia. I mean, what could possibly sound better than flat rice noodles fried over a scorching hot charcoal fire and tossed with soy, chilli, prawns, shrimp paste, bean sprouts, egg and Chinese sausage? If you’re lucky, some vendors will grease the wok with pork lard to lift the smoky charcoal flavour that infuses the noodles, but this is now a rarity. Even without it, you’ll struggle to find a better noodle dish in Southeast Asia.
5. Sambal Prawns
Raid any dining room in the country and you’re bound to find a pungent bottle of sambal sitting on the table. Made from a blend of chilies, shrimp paste belacan, garlic, ginger, shallots, sugar, calamansi lime juice and vinegar, this powerful concoction is a Malaysian diet staple. It is often thrown into a pan with fresh prawns and requires only a few minutes to impart all of those delicious flavours.