Malaysian food can be separated in three different cuisines. The Malay 50.4%, Chinese 23.7%, indigenous 11%, Indian 7.1%, others 7.8% have all each their own styled cuisine. We will explore these cuisines here.
Many books have been written on the food of Asia and more specifically the food in Malaysia. See what we have on the bookshelf of books about Malaysian food We also have a list of recipes for you available to try cooking real original Malaysian food. See what we have on the Malaysian Recipes. We also have a FREE E-BOOK available in PDF form, click here for the FREE-Book in PDF, or read it in html format here. If you need it in Word use a PDF to word converter.
Nazlina's Malay Recipe Cards
Nazlina Spice Station offers a beautiful set of Malay Recipe Cards. The set contains a set of 12 popular recipes, bound in an envelope, in her trademark colors. This is a great (and cheap) gift about Malaysian cooking for you.
People in Malaysia of all races love fruits. The Malays use some fruits in their dishes (think for example of pineapple-curry!). Here's an overview of some of the popular fruits to be found in Malaysia.
Sometimes I feel that ALL Malaysian love seafood. Malays, Indians and Chinese alike. It's no wonder. The sea is nearby and fish is fresh. In the area around Pangkor there are numerous prawn farms (tiger-prawns are fantastic!).
In many stalls you will be able to get fried, barbecued, sometimes even steamed fish, like stingray. Steamed snapper is a Chinese favorite. Crab, shellfish, prawns, barracuda, even parrot fish are all available.
On Pangkor you will be able to pick up some great dried fish like ikan bilis, dried shrimps and yes, even dried jellyfish (which is, believe me or not, great tasting). Take your pick.
The staple food of the Malays is rice, boiled to a white fluffy texture. It is served with dishes of meat (chicken or beef), fish and vegetables. Meat and fish are usually prepared as sambal (chili paste) or curry dish.
As most Malays (not all Malaysians are Malay!) are Muslim, pork or any food that comes from a pig is never used in Malay cuisine. Even cutlery and crockery used to serve Muslims must not have been used to serve pork.
They are also prohibited from consuming the flesh of predatory animals and predatory birds (ducks are allowed), rodents, reptiles, worms, amphibians (frogs) and the flesh of dead animals. Muslims can only eat meat that is halal. Halal is a way of slaughtering according to the Islamic rites.
Malay food gets its flavor from the use of spices and local ingredients. Some of those ingredients used by the Malays in the Malay cuisine are:
Another ingredient commonly found in Malaysian food is santan which is coconut milk. The milk is squeezed from the flesh of the grated coconut. As a sign of modern times, santan can be found in powder form, sold in supermarkets.
The traditional Malay way of eating is by using the right hand. The use of the left hand is considered bad manners. The same goes with receiving or giving things, always use the right hand (Nazlina's pickles-and-spices.com has an excellent page about Malay table manners).
In eating stalls or at homes where hands are used to eat, guests will provided with a pot of water to wash their hands before and after the meal. Remember, this water is not for drinking. Or you simply use the always available tap to wash your hands.
Malay food is not only eaten by the Malays but by all Malaysians with nasi lemak as an unofficial national dish. It is a simple but very satisfying meal. The rice is cooked in coconut milk with fragrant pandan leaves.
Nasi Lemak consist of rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaves. Basic nasi lemak will contain sambal, ikan bilis (dried anchovies), boiled eggs and cucumber. Additional it can contain chicken, prawns, peanuts.
Another classic example of ever popular Malay food is satay. There's no pasar malam (night market) without satay. It usually consists of chunks of chicken, beef or lam marinated with a variety of spices.
Ikan bakar is grilled or barbecue fish which you will be able to find almost everywhere. A popular local fish is the Ikan Kembong, Chubb Mackerel, also called Indian Mackerel. This fish is usually marinated in various spices and coconut milk. Apart of mackerel other fish is grilled too. You can eat Spanish Mackerel (ikan tenggiri), Wolf Herring (ikan parang), stingray or Skate Wings (ikan Pari). It's great with some chillies and lime.
Rendang Tok is a meat dish (chicken or beef) prepared with coconut milk, chilies, onion, and other ingredients. Around Pangkor and Lumut the most famous kind of rendang is rendang tok. It contains beef, coconut milk, onion, garlic, chilies, coriander powder, cumin, black pepper, fennel, turmeric root, lemon grass and other ingredients. If you visit a Malay wedding, like I did some time back, you most likely will have some rendang as it is usually used for special occasions.
Laksa is a good example of a crossover type of dish. The Malays probably make some of the very best laksa in Malaysia. Laksa is a kind of spicy noodle soup based on fish and spices. Here's a complete page about laksa. When I did my research I was surprised to find out how many different kinds of laksa there were.
Malaysian food from the Indian population is quite different from the Malay or Chinese cuisine. The Indians flavor hot and spicy flavors. Their staple diet usually consists of either rice or bread (chapatti, tosai (thosai, dosa in India), parrata, puri). They eat this with various curries. The Hindu Indians will not eat beef but the Muslim Indians might.
Malaysian Indians have their ancestor background for the most in South India although a smaller group comes originally from the north. Indian Muslims are called mamaks.
Usually Indian Malaysian food is sold at the various local stalls and often ordered with a glass of teh tarik. Teh Tarik literally means "pulled tea". The tea is thick and frothy. The preparation involves passing the tea and milk from one big metal mug to the other with a "pour and pull" action.
Roti Cani is another kind of national dish. It's based on the flat breads made in India. Although making a roti cani looks easy and it's cheap and a very popular (national) dish.
I was in the opportunity to try to make roti cani myself with special roti cania class in Penang. It was surprisingly difficult and made me appreciate the dish more.
Roti cani is typically served with (fish)curry and dhal.
Indian mee is a good example of how cultures in Malaysia mix their food as Indian mee is a mix of Chinese fried noodles with different ingredients (prawn fritters, potato, squid, taukua (bean curd, bean sprouts and lettuce). For more filling, an egg is usually added.
Typical North Indian food is tandoori chicken and naan bread. Both are cooked in clay oven called tandoori. You will find the northern Indian food usually in bigger cities as Kuala Lumpur and Penang.
Since most of Malaysia's Chinese are from the south, particularly from Hainan and Hakka it is quite easy to find food from this region. Throughout Malaysia one of the most widespread economical meal is the Hainanese Chicken Rice which cost around the figure of RM 3.00.
It's another of the local favorite Malaysian foods. The Hainanese also produced steamboat, sort of Oriental variation of the Swiss Fondue, where you have a boiling stockpot in the middle of the table into which you deep pieces of meat, seafood and vegetable.
The Hokkiens have provided us the Hokkien fried Mee (thick egg noodles cook with meat, seafood and vegetable and a rich soy sauce. Mind you, if you go to North Malaysia, Hokkien Mee means prawn soup noodles. Hokkien spring rolls (popiah) are also delicious.
Teochew food from the area around Swatow in China is another style noted for it's delicacy and natural favorite. Teochew food is famous for it's seafood and another economical dish - Char Kwey Teow (fried flattened noodles) with clams, beansprout and prawns.
Hakka dish is also easily found in food centers. The best know hakka dish is the Yong Tau Foo (stuffed seafood bean curd) with soup or thick dark gravy.
When people in the west speak of Chinese food, they probably mean Cantonese food. It is the best known and most popular variety of Chinese food. Cantonese food is noted for the variety and the freshness of it's ingredients. The food are usually stir-fried with just a touch of oil. The result is crisp and fresh. All those best known 'western Chinese' dishes fit into this category - sweet and sour dishes, wan tan, chow mein, spring rolls.
The Chinese cuisine in Malaysia is completely unique. When you visit Malaysia and will continue to China, do not assume you will find the Malaysian Chinese dishes in mainland China.
For example, many of the Chinese soups as curry mee, ho kien mee etc, can hardly if at all be found in mainland China. A dish like wan tan mee, a good dry or wet noodle soup with prawn dumpling inside the soup tastes very different in Malaysia compared to for example Hong Kong.
Off all Malaysian foods the Cantonese specialty is Dim Sum or 'little heart'. Dim sum is usually consumed during lunch or as a Sunday brunch. Dim sum restaurant are usually noisy affairs. Dim sum comes in small bowls, are whisked around the tables on individual trolleys or carts. As they come by, you simply ask for a plate of this or a bowl of that. At the end the meal you are billed is the amount of empty containers on your table. Read more about Dim Sum
Cantonese cuisine can also offer real extremes. You can get shark's fin soup or bird's nest soup which are expensive delicacies. Cheap dishes include mee (noodles) and congee (rice porridge) and are equally tasty.
Far less familiar than the food from Canton are the cuisines from the north and the west of China - Sichuan, Shanghai and Peking. Sichuan food is usually spicy (gong bao for example is a chicken rice dish with cashew nuts and spices). Where as to food from Canton are delicate and understated, in Sichuan food the flavors are strong. Garlic and chilies play their part in dishes like diced chicken and hot and sour soup.
Beijing (Peking) food is, of course best known for the famous 'Peking Duck'. Beijing food are less subtle than Cantonese food.
Beijing food is usually eaten with hot steamed bun or with noodles, because rice is not grown in cold region of the north. But in Malaysia, it is more likely to come with rice.
Other kinds of Chinese foods originated from for example Shanghai or Hunan (usually very spicy too) are not easily found over Malaysia.
A very special pastry can be found all over Malaysia during the Moonfestival periode, usually around early October. Here's more about the Moonfestival and Mooncakes.
Although there are a few good Chinese restaurants at Pulau Pangkor (think of the Ye Lin, next to the Coral Bay Resort) or and the Sea View Hotel (try there the re excellent curry mee, some of the best Chinese food is to be found 9 km land inwards in Sitiawan.
Tzien Fatt is to me the best noodle stall in Sitiawan. My favorite dish here is their 3 in 1 soup, a mix of laksa, curry mee and ho kien mee (prawn mee or mee udang). Many locals do not believe this combination could possibly work but agree with me when they finish their bowl.
And once you're there, try their special fruit juice. I never ask Sunny what he has, I let him make me a class and I am never disappointed! Fruit juice with ice, contrary to many other places where you get ice with some fruit juice. You get the point.
What is your favorite food in Malaysia?
Malaysia is a food paradise. Not surprising if you look at the population of Malays, Chinese and Indians who all contribute to the unique Malaysian cuisine. But what did you enjoy the most in the Malaysian cuisine?
Was it the special Malay redang? Or a Chinese noodle soup? Did you rave about the tosais or roti canai? Please tell other travelers so they can benefit from your experience:
Rocket Rice Cooking
A review on what the Malay men in Kedah explained to me: RCC or Rocket Rice Cooker
Ikan Bilis, pride and joy of Pangkor Island
Pangkor is in the whole of Malaysia famous for its Ikan Bilis, anchovies. The quality is better then anywhere else. Here's more about the Pangkor specialty: