If there’s one thing that all Malaysians can agree on, it’s probably their passion for food. Regardless of ethnicity, language and religion, Malaysians are generally an enthusiastic foodie.
Located in the heart of Southeast Asia, West Malaysia has long been a major part of the marine spice trade. Traders from China, India and South Arabia once traded their goods for valuables such as cloves, nutmeg and pepper at the famous port of Malacca.
Malaysian food today is generally drawn from the culinary traditions of its three main ethnic groups: Malay, Chinese (who migrated mainly from the east coast provinces of Guangdong and Fujian) and Indians (who migrated mainly from Tamil Nadu).
Fusion food is a lifestyle around here. Malaysian food draws culinary influences from a variety of sources, sometimes making what counts as ‘local’ or ‘Malaysian’ a hotly contested issue (even before the advent of social media).
The tom yam serves as a good counterpoint. This sour and spicy soup is popular among Malaysians, but is arguably of Thai origin. Many of the other foods on this list, however, are also local favorites from neighboring Singapore, Indonesia, and Brunei.
1. Nasi Lemak (Coconut Milk Rice)
This Malay dish is considered a national dish (nasi is the Malay word for rice). It looks simple, but each component requires a significant amount of preparation.
Rice has to be cooked carefully with coconut cream (santan) and pandan leaves. It is traditionally served with fried anchovies (ikan bilis), boiled egg, cucumber slices and sambal (spicy chili-based paste).
2. Roti Canai
This popular flatbread dish originates from South India. Made with ghee and flour, a good roti canai is crispy and flaky on the outside and smooth on the inside.
It is usually served with dhal or curry leaves (and sometimes with sugar). Roti canai can be changed in various ways. You can have it plain (roti kosong) or with a variety of fillings: eggs, onions, mushrooms, cheese and even banana slices.
3. Kaya Toast (Toast with Coconut Jam)
A popular breakfast option, the ‘invention’ of kaya toast is often credited to Hainanese cooks who were employed by British residents in Malaysia and Singapore during the colonial period.
Two slices of white bread are toasted until crispy on the outside but soft on the inside and served with kaya (sweat and creamy coconut-based spread) and butter.
It is usually accompanied by coffee or tea, and is eaten with two soft-boiled eggs, seasoned with white pepper and dark soy sauce. Toast can be dipped in runny eggs or eaten separately.
4. Hainanese Chicken Rice
A culinary staple in Malaysia and Singapore, the dish was rediscovered by Chinese immigrants from the Hainan Island province. He adapted his recipe for Wenchang Chicken based on the availability of local ingredients – creating a beloved icon in the process.
As its name suggests, Hainanese chicken rice pairs chicken poached with seasoned rice. It is usually served with chili sauce and cucumber slices.
5. Nasi Goreng Kampung (Traditional Malay Fried Rice)
Fried rice is a versatile and cross-cultural dish. It can be cooked in various ways: Chinese-style, Thai-style, Korean-style, Burmese-style, etc. ‘Kampung’ literally translates to village, but nasi goreng kampung generally refers to a traditional recipe that is common in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Most of the work goes into making the chili paste. After that, it’s just a matter of stir-frying with rice, garlic, belacan (shrimp paste) and anchovies.
6. Char Kwe Tew (Stir Fried Flat Rice Noodles)
This popular Chinese dish is traditionally fried in pork fat, but there are also halal varieties for Muslim diners to enjoy.
Although his recipe sounds simple, it takes a lot of skill to stir-fry rice noodles, soy sauce, chilies, belacan, shrimp, collards, and bean sprouts at high heat.
Penang’s street hawkers are famous for this dish; Most Malaysians don’t try to recreate its burnt aroma at home.
7. Maggi Mee Goreng (Fried Instant Noodles)
This stir-fried instant noodle dish is named after the popular Maggi brand of instant noodles (mee is the Malay word for noodles). This is a great ‘guilty pleasure’ that can be made with any brand of instant noodles.
The noodles are boiled and then fried in a wok with vegetables, eggs, soy sauce and instant noodles seasoning. It can be jazzed up with meat, seafood and tofu.
8. Banana leaf rice
As the name suggests, this dish is served on a large banana leaf. Originating from South India, it revolves around rice, several ingredients, pickles, rasam (a sour and spicy soup), various curries and papadams (crispy fried crackers). It is popular among vegetarians as meat is optional.
9. Curry Laksha
There are various recipes for curry laksa (also known as curry mee). While the noodles used in the dish can vary (they can be yellow noodles, rice vermicelli or thick white laksa noodles), it is usually cooked in a coconut milk based curry soup.
It is usually eaten with a hard-boiled egg, fried tofu and beansprouts, with a spoonful of sambal on the side.
10. Assam Laksha
Assam Laksa gets its sour and pungent taste from tamarind. A specialty of Penang, its broth is made by boiling mackerel bones with ground spices and herbs .
It is then served with thick rice noodles, sliced fish and chopped vegetables (cucumber, onion and lettuce).
11. Pan Mee (Hakka Flat Noodles)
Pan Mee is a versatile flat noodle dish that can be served dry (fried) or in soup form. There are many variations, Chili Pan Mi being the most popular.
This hearty, unpretentious and down-to-earth dish usually consists of noodles, green vegetables, mushrooms, fried anchovies, an egg and minced pork (or chicken). Spicy chili paste is served separately and added according to the diner’s taste (and spice tolerance).
1 2. Yong Tau Foo (Stuffed Bean Curd)
Like pan mee, yong tau fu is a Hakka dish that can be served dry (with two dipping sauces) or as a soup dish. The star attraction is the tofu stuffed with either a ground meat mixture or fish paste (surimi).
Tofu is eaten stuffed with meat or fish paste along with fish balls and pieces of vegetables (eg bitter melon, okra, eggplant and chilli). The stuffed items (which are either fried or boiled) can be eaten by themselves or with a serving of rice or noodles.
This hearty stuffed pancake is popular in Southeast Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. It is traditionally associated with Indian Muslim restaurants. It’s basically a pan-friend bread filled with a generous amount of ground meat (usually chicken, beef or mutton), beaten eggs, scallions and chives. It is usually served as a dipping sauce with curry, jal and sambal.
14. Beef Rendang (Slow Cooked Beef)
Rendang is a traditional meat dish that originates from the Minangkabau region in West Sumatra. It is usually prepared for wedding feasts or large celebrations such as Hari Raya (Eid al-Fitr).
A large amount of meat (usually beef) is slowly braised in coconut milk and various spices (ginger, turmeric leaves, chilies, galangal, lemongrass, etc.). Once the liquid has evaporated and the meat has become tender and incredibly flavorful, it is ready to eat.
Believed to originate from Java, satay is a concept similar to kebabs and yakitori. Various types of meat (usually chicken, mutton and beef) are sliced or minced, seasoned with various spices, skewered and then artfully grilled over a wood or charcoal fire.
Once cooked, the skewers are served with lantong (compressed rice cakes), cucumber and onion slices and a special peanut-based dipping sauce.
16. Otak-Otak A Ke (Grilled Fish Cakes)
This much-loved street food consists of a fish cake that is wrapped in a coconut leaf or banana leaf and then grilled. The fish cake is infused with chilies, turmeric and lemongrass, giving it its characteristic red-orange hue.
17. Roti Jala (Net Crepe)
Roti jala literally translates to ‘net bread’: a reference to its star-like appearance. This popular breakfast is made from wheat flour, eggs, milk and turmeric (which gives it its bright yellow color). The dough is carefully poured and then rolled to create an intricate lace look. It is usually eaten with chicken curry.
18. Pisang Goreng (Banana Fritters)
Ripe bananas are peeled, coated in batter (a mixture of rice flour, corn starch, baking powder, sugar, and salt) and then deep-fried. It should be golden in color, crispy on the outside and sweet and moist on the inside.
19. Apam Balik (Turnover Pancake)
This dessert pancake is a popular street food that originates from the Fujian province of China. Batter is made by mixing flour, eggs, sugar, baking soda, water and coconut milk.
Peanuts and sugar are traditionally sprinkled (once or twice) before folding. Other popular options include creamy sweet corn, chocolate and cheese.
20. Keropok Lekor (Fried Fish Sausage)
This traditional Malay snack hails from the eastern state of Terengganu. It is usually made with mackerel or wolf herring. The fish is chopped, salted and then mixed with sago flour and water.
The resulting dough is rolled into a cylinder-like shape, boiled, cooled, and then cut diagonally. The slices are then fried in hot oil.
21. Popiya (Spring Rolls)
Popiya is characterized by its paper thin skin, which is used to wrap around a variety of fillings. Fried papaya is particularly popular in Malaysia; The fried version is usually slimmer and smaller.
Popiah is usually a mixture of shredded vegetables (turnips, carrots, cabbage, and jicama) and some minced meat (pork, chicken, or shrimp). It is usually served with hoisin and chili sauce.
22. Rojak (Sweet and Spicy Fruit Salad)
In Malay, rojak is a noun and an adjective denoting mixture and hybridity. This humble dish is thus considered a symbol of the ethnic diversity and cultural pluralism of Malaysian society.
Its most common form takes the form of a mixture of various sliced vegetables (guava, raw mango, cucumber, pineapple, etc.) and a sweet and spicy dressing (made with chilies, palm sugar, and peanuts).
Indian Muslim restaurants offer a popular variety that includes fried tofu and seafood.
23. Ramli Burger
The Ramli Burger is named after Ramli Bin Mokni, a Malaysian entrepreneur who is best known for his halal frozen food company.
The company’s franchised street stalls can be found across the country, each serving a popular cuisine that revolves around its flagship burger patty. Sauces and condiments used to season the patty may vary, but the Ramli Burger recipe stands out by wrapping the patty in a fried egg.
24. Karipp (Curry Puffs)
This deep-fried little pie could be inspired by a Cornish pasty, a Portuguese empanada or a samosa (or all three). The thick pastry usually contains chicken curry, potato curry or sardine. All Malaysians enjoy it as a tea time snack.
25. Ais Kacang (Shaved Ice)
Ais kacang is also known as Ais batu campur (or ABC). While shaved ice-based desserts are common in Southeast and East Asia, ice kakang stands out for its bright multicolored colors and variety of toppings.
These usually include red soybeans, palm seeds, grass jelly, sweet corn, agar-agar cubes and roasted peanuts. The iceberg is then drizzled with red rose syrup and condensed milk.
Whether you’re looking for innovation, hybridity or traditional authenticity, Malaysia has a lot to offer anyone with a slightly adventurous palate.
The island state of Penang, the capital of Kuala Lumpur, the historic city of Malacca and the city of Ipoh are all magnets for local cuisine, but you can familiarize yourself with more regional specialties by exploring other towns and cities in the country. .
Malaysian cuisine is delicious yet accessible and affordable, and difficult to replicate outside the region as it relies on many local ingredients and labor-intensive preparation methods. This list is only the tip of the iceberg—there are many more to suit your taste.