Malaysian Cuisine – The Food I Fell in Love With

It has been over a year since Lee and I spent three and a half months travelling through Malaysia – and I am still having cravings for some of the flavourful food that I ate there. Whenever anyone asks me which countries I have visited have the best food, Malaysian cuisine always comes up at the top of the list.

Me looking very happy about the fact that it’s food time.

One of the best things about Malaysian cuisine is how culturally diverse it is. There are many culinary traditions that co-exist in Malaysia, such as Indian, Chinese and traditional Malay, so there are so many choices when it comes to dining.

Sometimes the Indian curries or Chinese dishes will be authentic to how they would be served in their home countries and other times they have a little twist to them in order to suit local tastes. This creates interesting cross-cultural food mash-ups that are unique to this part of the world.

While we were in Malaysia, Lee and I delighted in eating out at countless street hawker food stalls and restaurants – enjoying meal after meal of gorgeous lip-smacking food. I miss it so much and every time I get hungry I wish I could teleport myself back to a Malaysian food court for lunch!

One of the things that I loved about dining in Malaysia is that often food would be served in a banana leaf. For example, a typical South Indian dish that you will find in Malaysia is rice served inside a banana leaf with vegetables and curried meat or fish. I loved eating from banana leaves, no matter what the dish was inside! The customary way to eat this is with your hands, with a bowl of water to dip your fingers in to keep them moist so that the rice doesn’t stick to them. Eating out of a banana leaf with your hands is so much fun and is something that everyone should try at least once.

Best Places in Malaysia to Eat

Essentially, almost everywhere you go in Malaysia there will be an abundance of great food. Even in the smallest cities off the beaten tourist track, we still found great food courts bustling with several vendors offering steaming hot mouth-watering dishes at great prices. It’s hard to find a Malaysian destination that doesn’t have plenty of street vendors and restaurants – because Malaysians love food so much! However, there are a few places in Malaysia that really stand out when it comes to culinary quality and selection. If you are planning a food-focused holiday to Malaysia, here are a few of the top spots you should check out:

Red Garden Food Court, Georgetown, Penang

Located right in the middle of Georgetown (which is known for being a food paradise) is the Red Garden Food Court. It is a one-stop international Hawker Centre with a very diverse selection of food stalls. This is a great place to go for dinner if you and your travel companion cannot agree on where to eat.

Red Garden Food Court, Georgetown, Penang
Red Garden Food Court, Georgetown, Penang

You can have Japanese teriyaki chicken and they can have spicy Indian curry or Chinese dumpling soup – all within one food court. You can wash it down with a cold beer while listening to the evening live music performances.

Jalan Alor, Kuala Lumpur

Jalan Alor is one of the most famous food streets in the country and as the sun goes down, the diners spill out onto the streets – sitting on plastic tables underneath the light of decorative paper lanterns. There are so many restaurants and food vendors to choose from here, so you really can’t go wrong. Lee and I ate on this street many times during our time in Kuala Lumpur. We would simply stroll until we saw something that looked tasty and give it a try. The great thing is, the food here is very affordable – we could usually have a fantastic meal for two people including drinks and a tip for only $5-$6.

Seri Selera Food Court, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo

This is another great open-air food court, which mostly focuses on seafood. The seafood in Kota Kinabalu is fantastic – wonderfully fresh and prepared in such interesting, spicy, fragrant and flavourful ways. This is a great place to go with a group of friends, so that you can order several different seafood dishes and try a little bit of each.

Jonker’s Walk Night Market, Malacca

Delicious Jonker Street Night Market Food, Melaka, Malaysia
Delicious Jonker’s Walk Night Market Food, Melaka, Malaysia

If you are in Malacca on a Friday or Saturday night, check out the fantastic night market. There are so many hawker’s stalls to choose from, so you can just wander around and have several different snacks throughout the evening. This is a great place to try something strange and unusual, such as baby octopus on a stick or oyster balls. Go ahead and be adventurous! If you don’t like it, it’s no harm no foul because the prices are so cheap.

My Favourite Malaysian Foods

I still have cravings for some of my favourite Malaysian dishes, even to this day. Here are some of the foods that I loved the most during my visit.

Nasi Lemak

I think this has to be my favourite Malaysian food, hands down. It is considered the “national dish” of Malaysia and it is commonly eaten all throughout the day – even at breakfast. The name means “rich” or “creamy” rice – because the rice is soaked in coconut cream before it is cooked. As the rice is cooking, you can throw in lemon grass, ginger and pandan leaves to give it more flavour.

photo credit: avlxyz via photopin cc
photo credit: avlxyz via photopin cc

Then, the nasi lemak is served up on a banana leaf (remember how I said I loved eating things on banana leaves) with several different side dishes. These include small fried anchovies, roasted peanuts, hard boiled eggs, fried chicken (ayam goreng) and a hot and spicy red sambal sauce. I wish I could go back to Malaysia, just to eat a freshly prepared banana leaf full of Nasi Lemak one more time!

Curry Laksa

Laksa is a type of spicy noodle soup that comes from the Peranakan culture, which is a blend of Malay and Chinese cultural elements. Curry Laksa is a coconut curry soup served with thick rice noodles, or sometimes thin vermicelli noodles. It is often topped with a spoonful of spicy sambal paste or coriander.

photo credit: avlxyz via photopin cc
photo credit: avlxyz via photopin cc

There are many different types of Laksa throughout Malaysia, such as the Sarawak Laksa in Borneo which contains sour tamarind, garlic and lemongrass and is topped with strips of omelette and the Kelantan Laksa from the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia – made with boiled or minced mackerel. Laksa has a very complex and interesting flavour, with many subtle undertones. It is creamy and comforting and you can add more of the spicy sambal to make it hotter if you prefer. If you like coconut based curries, it should certainly be on your list of Malaysian cuisine to sample.

Mee Goreng

In the Malay language, “Mee Goreng” simply means fried noodles. This simple dish is made with thin yellow noodles that are expertly stir-friend with garlic, cooking oil, shallots and onion. It can be topped with beef, chicken, prawns or sliced meatballs and it usually also contains cabbages, tomatoes and egg. It is thought to have derived from Chinese chow mein, which was introduced by the Chinese immigrants to Malaysia.

photo credit: avlxyz via photopin cc
photo credit: avlxyz via photopin cc

It’s not hard to find Mee Goreng when you are in Malaysia – it is served by almost every street vendor and restaurant. When you add spicy sambal, you can make it as mild or as hot as you like. When you want a quick and ubiquitous meal that will fill you up and satisfy your taste buds, Mee Goreng is always a great option.

Char Kuey Teow

Another delicious and addictive dish that I tried while I was in Malaysia was Char Kway Teow, which is a noodle dish made with flat rice noodles stir fried over a very hot heat with chili, dark soy sauce, bean sprouts, prawns, belachan and Chinese chives. It is usually served with slices of Chinese sausage, egg and perhaps even fishcake. (which Lee doesn’t like, but I do!) char-koay-teow It is certainly not a healthy meal, as it is fried in pork fat and sometimes is even topped with crispy croutons of pork lard. However, if you want a quick source of energy that gives you a lot of bang for your buck, you should definitely give it a try. It’s also a fantastic indulgence after you have had a few beers.

Roti Canai

One morning in Georgetown, a city renowned for its cuisine on the island of Penang, I was hungry for breakfast early in the morning. I wandered around until I found a restaurant that was open. As I sat down, I realised that I was the only person in the restaurant who wasn’t an elderly Indian man. This was certainly no tourist hotspot and there wasn’t even a menu. I was simply given a glass of milky Teh Tarik, a plate of still-warm soft roti canai and an assortment of small plates with spicy curry.

photo credit: avlxyz via photopin cc
photo credit: avlxyz via photopin cc

Eating curry for breakfast is strange for westerners, but I figured – “Why not?” and gave it a try. By watching the others around me I figured out the best way to eat the dish, by ripping off small pieces of the tissue-like flaky and crisp dough and dipping it into the lentil dal and curry sauce. It was soft and chewy on the inside and absolutely wonderful. I could eat this for breakfast every day.

Claypot Rice Dishes

When we were in Malacca, we had a fantastic meal of claypot chicken rice in Chinatown. This hot and steaming dish is actually served in a small clay pot, which is cooked over a charcoal stove. This gives the dish a warm, comforting smoky flavour.

Various types of claypot dishes
Various types of claypot dishes

Be careful when eating anything from a claypot – because it is cooked fresh to order and served immediately the clay pot itself is very hot and you can burn yourself!

Charsiew (Barbeque Pork)

photo credit: avlxyz via photopin cc
photo credit: avlxyz via photopin cc

The name of this dish “charsiew” literally means to “burn with a fork”. It is cooked by skewering long strips of boneless port with forks and placing them over a fire. The meat is slathered with a sauce made from dark soy sauce, honey, Chinese five-spice powder, fermented tofu and hoisin sauce. The sweetness within the sauce and the charred sugar causes the meat to crisp and turn dark red and have a shiny glaze – while the texture in the middle is still juicy. It will make you want to lick every last molecule of the sauce from your fingers!

photo credit: cumi&ciki via photopin cc
photo credit: cumi&ciki via photopin cc

Kolo Mee

Lee and I took our time and travelled slowly through Malaysian Borneo, stopping in the city of Kuching in the Sarawak region for quite some time – using it as a base for kayaking and hiking expeditions. While I was there, I discovered a superb restaurant called Noodle Descendants and I fell in love with a dish called “Kolo Mee”. This is a noodle dish that is specific to Sarawak and it is made with quickly boiled egg noodles that have an addictive chewy texture. The noodles are lightly seasoned with fish sauce, shallots and crushed garlic. It is topped with minced pork and/or slices of barbequed pork. It is also coated in pork lard, which is what gives the noodles their melt-in-your-mouth feeling. I had it for lunch several times while working hard on my writing at our hostel in Kuching.

I Love Malaysian Cuisine!

These are just a few of the dishes that I loved the most while traveling through Malaysia. Of course, there are so many others as well – you could spend a lot time trying to eat your way through every option! While you are in Malaysia, make sure that you try as many new foods as possible. However, I must warn you – you will still experience cravings for those great tastes long after you have arrived back home.   Have you visited Malaysia? What was your favourite food that you ate there? Tell us about it in the comments below. 

Kelly Dunning

A Canadian freelance writer with a love of art, culture, literature and adventure, Kelly loves exploring foreign lands and expressing her experiences through the power of the written word.

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  1. One of the best write ups on Malaysian streetfood I’ve read for a long time from a foreign traveler. Better than most so-called Malaysian foodie or writer. It’s honest, knowledgeable and absorbing. Very well done.

  2. I hope you tried the Assam Laksa while in Penang too – it regularly tops those lists of ’10 foods to eat before you die’ and similar.

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