Malaysian cuisine is, like the country itself, culturally rich and diverse. Drawing from Malay, Chinese and Indian ethnicities, there are no shortage of flavours colliding in the nation’s cooking. While Penang is famous for its street-food-selling hawkers, the whole country is full of amazing dishes that you just have to add to your foodie bucket list. Here are 30 of the best dishes that you need to get your hands on – be it on your next trip to Malaysia or at your local Malaysian restaurant.
1. Nasi Lemak
Frequently referred to as the national dish of Malaysia, Nasi Lemak can be consumed at breakfast, lunch or dinner. Its name, which in Malaysian literally means ‘oily or fatty rice’, is taken in this context to mean ‘rich’ or ‘creamy’, and refers to the cooking process. To make the dish, rice is soaked in coconut cream and then steamed with a pandan leaves, to provide a delicious aromatic flavour. This is then wrapped in banana leaf and served with cucumbers, roasted peanuts, hard boiled egg, and fried anchovies in shrimp paste and chili sauce.
2. Assam Laksa
There are countless variations of laksa in Malaysia, but there are two major categories: Assam Laksa and Curry Laksa. Assam Laksa is considered as one of Penang’s main dishes, and is generally cooked with a white flakey fish. The broth is tart and tamarind-based, and filled with noodles, cucumber, pineapple, fresh mint, lemongrass and ginger. This dish has such an alluring combination of salty, spicy and sweet, that you’re sure to be hooked as soon as you try it.
One of Malaysia’s most well-known dishes, Rendang is a spicy, rich meat dish. To make the dish, beef is simmered in coconut milk, chillies and spices to make a tender, aromatic and flavoursome meal. In the past Rendang was served at ceremonial and festive occasions, but today it has become so popular that it is widely served with Nasi Lemak, Ketupat and Lemang.
4. Roti Jala
Roti Jala, or ‘net bread’, gets its name from the lines that are created by drizzling batter on a large skillet. The final product is folded up like a crepe and usually served with a curry.
5. Char Kway Teow
Another favourite from Penang, where street hawkers are have added ‘Penang’ to the title of the dish, Char Kway Teow is stir fried ricecake strips and flat rice noodles with prawns, bloody cockles, Chinese lap cheong (sausage), eggs, bean sprouts, and chives in a mix of soy sauce.
6. Roti Canai
The Malay word ‘roti’ means bread, and this must-try dish is an Indian-style flatbread. Traditionally, it is eaten at breakfast, and served with dhal (lentil) curry or mixed sambal (chilli sauce). If you get a chance, try to watch someone making roti. They will slap and smack the ingredients, toss and swirl it in the air repeatedly, then fold and heat it, putting on a show that is almost as good as the eating that follows.
7. Satay Chicken
In Malaysia, you will notice the towering piles of skewers and the recognisable aroma of satay everywhere – at hawker stalls and pasar malam (night markets) these skewers are tossed onto the grill and made to order. Across Southeast Asia, each country has its own unique recipe for satay. Malaysian satay is made with common ingredients from Malaysian cooking, like shallots, turmeric powder, coriander powder and lemongrass.
8. Nasi Kerabu
This colourful dish will both catch your eye and tantalise your tastebuds. The blue rice in Nasi Kerabu gets its colour from telang flowers, which are crushed and mixed into it. The rice is then topped with dried fish or fried chicken, bean sprouts, prawn crackers, cabbage and other salads. This dish comes from the state of Kelantan in the northern peninsular of Malaysia, which explains why it’s traditional to use your hands to eat it.
9. Ais Kacang
Ais Kacang is commonly known as ‘ABC’, which stands for Air Batu Campur. Traditionally, this Malaysian dessert is made from shaved ice and red beans, but today it comes in bright colours and with all kinds of fruit and dressings, such as palm seed, sweet corn, jelly cubes, cendol, peanuts and ice cream. It is then topped with evaporated and condensed milk and coconut milk, red rose syrup and sarsi syrup are drizzled over the ice.
10. Mee Goreng
Mee Goreng, which translates to ‘fried noodles’, is a dish that’s thought to be derived from Chow Mein and brought to Malaysia by Chinese immigrants. Its yellow egg noodles come from Chinese cuisine, while the spices used come from Indian food, and sweetness is added for the Malay palate. This dish has become so popular that an instant version of it has been created and is even sold in the Western world at a very economical price, much to the delight of university students.
11. Mee Rebus
Mee Rebus is a dish of yellow noodles in a sauce of sweet potato and tomato, cooked with a chilli-based rempah (spice paste) and topped with egg, calamansi lime, fried tofu, fried shallots, and bean sprouts. Mee Rebus used to be sold by street food traders who would carry two baskets over a pole, with one containing cooking utensils and the other all the ingredients for the dish.
12. Nasi Kandar
Nasi Kandar is a popular northern Malaysian food, originating from Penang. This dish is essentially steamed rice served with a variety of curries and side dishes, which often include curry, fried chicken, prawns or squid, egg, and okra. This is often laid out buffet-style in street markets. The name of this dish reflects the way that hawkers used to balance 2 containers of ‘nasi’ (rice) on a kandar pole on their shoulder. Nasi Kandar restaurants remain extremely popular all over Malaysia, with many of them open for 24 hours a day and run by ethnic Indian Muslims. Lots of people like to eat the sauced-soaked rice with their bare fingers, leaving their hands smelling delicious long after they have been washed.
During the Mid-Autumn festival, a popular East Asian celebration of togetherness, mooncakes become so prominent in Malaysia that the festival is actually more commonly known as the Mooncake Festival. If you’re lucky enough to be in Malaysia at this time (which is on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month each year), you will notice lots of moongazing and parading with colourful Chinese lanterns. But most of all, this is a time for eating copious amounts of mooncakes. Famous companies and small stalls alike will sell these traditional treats, which come in both sweet and savoury varieties. Ingredients can be as diverse as ham, red beans, lotus seeds, egg yolk, dates, chocolate, cinnamon, or the distinctly Malaysian pandan leaves and durian.
14. Nasi Goreng
Nasi Goreng translates to ‘fried rice’, and is a popular dish of leftover rice which is stir-fried with chilis, garlic, kecap manis, lime or tamarind, and topped with chicken or prawns and a fried egg. It is often eaten for breakfast.
14. Wonton Mee
Wonton Mee recipes vary all over the country, but essentially it includes noodles with pork, broth and wontons, and it can be served either dry or wet. The dry version has stir-fried noodles with thick soy sauce and pork lard, with the broth and dumplings on the side, whereas in the wet version the whole meal is served in the broth. A spoonful of spicy sambal is served on the side. It is topped with green Chinese kale, sliced green onions, and pickled green chillies. Generally the wontons are served boiled or steamed, but in the Penang version of Wonton Mee they are served fried.
15. Hokkien Mee (both kinds!)
This may be cheating because this actually counts for two dishes – both of which are worthy of hunting down. Penang Hokkien Mee is an egg and rice noodle soup in a rich, savoury shrimp stock which is filled with prawns, hard-boiled eggs, and bean sprouts and topped with fried shallots and sambal. It is very popular at street stalls during breakfast and lunch time, but is also found in some places during dinner. In Kuala Lumpur and the south of Malaysia, however, this type of Hokkien Mee is called Hokkien Prawn Mee instead because Hokkien Mee refers to another cuisine which has a cult following in KL. The Kuala Lumpur version is fried thick noodles, which consists of thick yellow noodles braised in thick, dark soy sauce with pork, squid, fish-cake and cabbage and cubes of crispy fried pork lard as garnishing.
16. Bah Kut Teh
While its name literally means ‘meat bone tea’, there is actually no tea to be found in Bak Kut Teh. The tea in its name instead refers to a strong oolong Chinese tea which is usually served alongside the soup in the belief that it dilutes the large amounts of fat in this dish. The broth of pork ribs with herbs, garlic and spices is cooked for as long as possible – sometimes even days – to give it a rich flavour. To find the best ‘BKT’ as it is often affectionately called, go to Klang, where coffee shops and street food centres serve it.
Popiah is a type of Chinese spring roll, filled with ingredients such as yam bean, carrots, jicama, and perhaps peanuts, egg or tofu, all wrapped in a thin, pliant wheat crepe. Unlike the Vietnamese spring roll, Malaysian Popiah includes turnips, fried onions, and bean sprouts. Popiah can be served fresh or you can deep fry it to get a crispy spring roll. People even host ‘Popiah Parties’ at home, where the ingredients are laid out and guests make their own Popiah, which they can fill in to their own liking.
18. Curry Laksa
Curry laksa is filled with coconut and rempah to make a rich broth. Made with turmeric, ginger, lemongrass, chilies and belacan, the broth is filled with noodles and topped with shrimp, tofu, cucumber, fish balls, and eggs.
19. Hainanese chicken rice
This dish originated in Hainan, but has been adapted to suit the Malaysian taste. Essentially chicken boiled in stock and rice also cooked in chicken stock, Malaysians have added chilli to the ginger and garlic dipping sauce that accompanies this dish.
20. Ikan Bakar
Ikan Bakar means ‘burned fish’, and refers to various kinds of grilled fish dishes. After being marinated in sambal, turmeric, and chilli, the fish is often wrapped in banana leaf so that it does not break and grilled over a flame. Almost all kinds of fish and seafood can be made into Ikan Bakar.
21. Oyster Omelette
One of Malaysia’s favourite street foods, this dish is exactly what it sounds like – whipped eggs, oysters, and potato starch, fried in pork lard. This meal can also be found in many other parts of Asia.
Ketupat is a dumpling made from rice that is packed inside a woven palm leaf pouch. As the rice cooks, it expands to fill the pouch, giving it its characteristic form and texture. This style of cooking is said to have been created for sailors, who needed to keep cooked rice from spoiling during their sea voyages. The leaves used in wrapping the rice are shaped into a triangle or diamond and stored hanging in bunches.
Pasembur is a popular Penang hawker food usually eaten as a side dish for lunch or dinner. It comprises shredded cucumber, Chinese turnip, potatoes, bean curd, bean sprout, prawn fritters, flour-batter fritters, and sliced boiled egg. Some stalls also garnish it with poached jellyfish. The whole salad dish is then covered in a spicy sauce made from sweet potato.
24. Fish Head Curry
Fish head curry originated in South India and became a popular dish in Malaysia and Singapore around the second half of the 20th century. The various ethnic groups of the Malay Peninsula have added their own flavour to the dish, and recipes vary all over the country. Generally, the head of a red snapper is stewed in a Kerala-style curry with assorted vegetables, and served with either rice or bread.
25. Kolok Mee
This egg noodle dish is served throughout the day – for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Kolok Mee is served in a light sauce with sliced pork, chicken cutlets, minced meat or shredded beef, and it comes in two flavours – plain or seasoned with red sauce. Try it in Sarawak, where it is particularly popular.
26. Asam Pedas
To make Asam Pedas, fish is cooked in asam (tamarind) fruit juice with chilli, roots and belacan. The cooking process involves soaking the pulp of the tamarind fruit until it is soft and then squeezing out the juice for cooking the fish. The fish is usually added at the end so that it stays intact when served.
27. Nasi Dagang
Nasi dagang consists of rice steamed in coconut milk, fish curry, fried shaved coconut, solok lada, hard boiled eggs and vegetable pickles. It is a often eaten for breakfast in the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia.
28. Charsiew (BBQ Pork)
Charsiew literally means ‘burn with a fork’. To make it, strips of pork are marinated in honey, five spice powder, fermented tofu, dark soy sauce and hoisin sauce, and then skewered with long forks and placed in a covered oven or over a fire.
29. Sang Har Kuey Teow
Sang Har Kwey Teow is fresh river prawns cooked Cantonese style in a thick eggy broth and finished off with either flat or egg noodles. The orange roe in the head of the prawn seeps and infuses into the eggy liquid sauce of the noodles.
30. Goreng Pisang
Popular as a snack, Goreng Pisang is deep fried banana. The deep-frying caramelises the natural sugars in the bananas, making them deliciously sweet.