Browse this delicious list of Malaysian food recipes, so you will know all the best food in Malaysia: where to buy it or how to prepare it yourself.
The best of all South Asian cuisines (except Philippine cuisine) can be found concentrated in Malaysia, and if you want to narrow it down to one city, then choose Penang as its food capital. From simple noodle soups to spicy salads, curries, snacks and desserts, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese restaurants and street stalls…
The list in this country is not only endless, it is also affordable, hence you find so many people eating out all the time and you will understand why the most popular greeting asks for "Have you eaten" (Sudah makan?)
Malaysian food dictionary
Although most vendors will speak English, it’s always great to understand the most popular food vocabulary:
- Tapau = To take away, packing food to bring and eat at home. Like the picture below with chicken tandoori (marinated chicken grilled in a clay oven) with naan (Indian flat bread), curry and/or dahl (pulses or lentils boiled to perfection) and Teh Tarik Ice (delicious tea with milk in the plastic bag in the middle of the picture):
The above meal costed in 2007 8 Ringgit or less than 3$. In 2015, expect at least double that price.
Unfortunately you can’t know in advance which place sells you the best, but on our list of places to avoid, there is Suzy’s corner in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur: I used to enjoy a cheap and juicy steak there, but never returned after being served overnight tandoori chicken. The meat should look juicy but was dry and as though as the sole of your sandals.
- hawker food: food sold on the street by vendors, freshly prepared in their cart, the cheapest and best food can be found on the streets, yet there is an endless supply of hawker stalls, so join where the locals eat and enjoy value for money food.
- Hainan kopitiam: originally a small coffeeshop with one Hainan chef back in the kitchen. The Hainanese have been cooking for the colonial English and master to prepare western food with eastern ingredients to make them even more delicious. A winning strategy with delicious and affordable food, with at times self roasted coffee to add to your indulgence.
However: Franchises like Oldtown, Papa Rich… are recreating the old Hainan charm without the authentic Hainan cook. Needless to say that the food nor the drinks match the original, but its an easy pick when you aren’t very adventurous and, you can’t go wrong with their nasi lemak or coconut rice: the most popular dish in Malaysia.
- Kini dibuka: "now open", meaning the restaurant just opened for business
- white coffee: originally coffee roasted with margarine only. Opposed to what my Hainan father in law used to do: roasting the coffee beans with both sugar and butter (added sugar results in a much darker, tastier roast). And be warned: a lot of franchise will serve you instant coffee, needless to say much less tasty than a real Hainan coffee. The real coffee in a real (Hainan) coffee shop is my favorite: compared to Starbucks that offers less taste but indeed for much more bucks.
- no real dresscode in the coffee shops!
Don’t bother too much about what you are wearing when you enter a coffee shop, sometimes you have the impression that people just walked out of bed straight into the coffee shop. Do respect that Malaysia is a Muslim country, so don’t wear sexy swimming attire for breakfast, lunch nor dinner.
The above picture was taken in Taiping, in a shop where you can drink tea and order bao or pau : small steamed, filled breadbuns (some also baked). My favorite is a small char siew pau: a baked bun filled with Chinese porkstew.
- nyonya food: the early Chinese immigrants from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, married local Malay women (called "nyonya"). In the kitchen, this resulted into another marriage of Chinese cooking techniques mixed with local ingredients into delicious, distinct dishes called the Peranakan or Baba-Nyonya cuisine.
- otak-otak: a typical nyonya dish:
Otak-Otak is a fish cake wrapped in a banana leaf or coconut leaf, steamed and finally grilled over a charcoal fire. Mostly they look a bit longer than the one in the picture above.
The fish cake is quite aromatic due to coconut milk and added spices like lemon grass, galangal root and chili paste.
- Asian seasoning: I didn’t know there even existed something like this:
For sale in the Coldstorage Supermarket in the salt section, an organic mixture of 90% sea salt and 10% spices (coriander, garlic, ginger, chili and lemon-grass).
Where to eat in Malaysia
Malaysians love their food, and don’t mind to drive one or even more hours to reach their favorite restaurants. So when you know locals, do ask them for advice.
The best advice is: eat where the locals eat.
Make sure you try:
- hawker food
- authentic Hainan coffee shops (as mentioned above)
- fresh seafood restaurants, which you will recognize because they show their fresh produce in aquaria.
Some caution: if you see a lot of fishtanks with fresh fish, but none with clams nor cockles, do know that
you will be served frozen shells.
Other than that: fresh fish prices are high, even for Malaysian standards! The lobster in the picture is 3Ringgit for 100 grams or about 4USD for 1 pound.
- the mamak stalls: last but not least, a must try in Malaysia, especially loved by westerners! Mamak is the word used for the descendants of the Muslim Indians. Their "stall" is usually a big shop, no aircon though, with a lot of Indian dishes to choose from, including our tandoori chicken mentioned on top of this post. They serve really good food for a real affordable price.
- nasi lemak: do eat it where the locals eat it. A safe option is the nasi lemak in Papa Rich outlets. Do not eat it in western restaurants like in Alexis in the Great Eastern shopping complex in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur: a Bistro Bar that serves a luscious big continental breakfast. When I ordered their nasi lemak, it came with black deep fried chicken… When I point that out to the waiter his reply was: "Oh, let me take that back to the kitchen, our cook must have been using black oil"… Mind-boggling, never returned there again! However when you happen to be in Great Eastern, do check out the nasi lemak in the small kopitiam outlet on the 3th floor.
What about the lack of popular Filipino food?
Personally I never saw a Filipino food stall in Malaysia. One one of the small Malaysian islands (Pulau Lang Tengah), I did stay in a resort with a Filipino chef. Asking for a traditional dish of the Philippines, he made some chicken adobo: chicken basically marinated in vinegar, browned and stewed until ready.
For more information, we asked Chesca: a Filipino living in the US to say a few words about food in the Philippines. Here is what she answered:
In the Philippines we eat with a spoon and fork (well some of us eat with our hands, no utensils…but let me explain that another time).
Each time you spoon something in, it is common to put a little bit of everything in EACH spoonful, like a bit of rice,fish and egg…all at once in your spoon and dribble in some vinegar again with each spoonful.
An easy Filipino food recipe is steamed rice, sunny side up egg and fried dry fish. Since I now live in North America, I couldn’t find this dry fish(also called tuyo or dilis, in Malaysia it’s called ikan Bilis), but I found it easily to be substituted with store bought anchovies.
Back to Malaysia: Are you in search of any Malaysian food recipe or dish not mentioned above? Then leave a comment, so we will add the recipe for you.
Hahaha… I can’t stand dried fish. Too salty. I don’t know how to spell it but salted shrimp fry is much worse though. How they make it pink, I’ll never understand.