Trying to explain the food in Malaysia is as ambitious as trying to clarify centuries of history and three big cultures with all its variants and mixes; an impossible undertaking that would take ages to accomplish. Instead, today we offer an introduction to the basics of a cuisine as fascinating as the country it belongs to: the Beginner’s Guide to Malaysian Food. This is a short Malaysian food guide for the intrepid traveller or the newbie volunteer in Malaysia who needs to make their way through the sometimes incomprehensible menus of the Malaysian mamaks and restaurants.
Nasi – The rice
Nasi means rice in Bahasa Malaysia and if something makes Asia a whole is their love for rice. While in Malaysia, be ready to eat rice from the morning till the sun is down. A typical Malaysian breakfast is Nasi Lemak, also known as the national dish or, literally, fat rice. This meal consists of rice steamed with coconut milk and fragrant leaves called pandan. You can easily find it in the mamaks spread all around the country, which are Indian Muslim food stalls that are open 24 hours.
Nasi lemak is served with dried anchovies, peanuts, sliced cucumber, hard boiled eggs and, most important, sambal: a typical hot sauce made of chilli. Even if it is considered a breakfast, you can taste this Malaysian icon in many different versions with meat or curries at any time of the day. If you are asking yourself how you can recognise this Malaysian meal in a mamak, just look for the little triangular parcels made of banana leaves that usually contain Nasi Lemak.
Another Nasi dish that you have to know if you are in Malaysia is Nasi Kandar. This is a typical buffet meal where you pay for what you get from a variety of meat and seafood dishes that, of course, accompany a generous portion of rice.
Mee – The noodles
If you travel in Malaysia, at some point it will happen: you will get into a Chinese Restaurant expecting to find some spring rolls or some Chinese fried rice with the regular peas and egg but you will end up speechlessly in front of the longest noodles menu you have ever seen. Take it easy, even locals sometimes have problems to decode the mee madness of some menus.
The list of noodle dishes in Malaysia, as well as in the whole of Asia, is endless but there are some highlights that you must know and try if you live in Malaysia. The Hokkien Mee is a dish made of thin rice noodles, called vermicelli, served with vegetables, egg, meat or seafood. Malaysians share their love for this meal with Indonesians and Singaporeans alike. These countries also have Char Kway Teow in common. This is a flat noodle speciality that was invented to feed labourers and was well known for its low price and its high amount of saturated fats. If you are looking for something more Chinese, a good option might be Laksa: noodles served with a spicy curry or coconut soup.
The classical mamak version of the noodles is called mee goreng (fried noodles). This dish, made with yellow noodles, is served with some vegetables, and cooked with curry spice and sweet soy sauce and might also be served with fried egg or chicken (ayam). You can also eat this dish with Maggi instant noodles, a meal known as Maggi goreng. Mee goreng is one of the most crucial elements of the Malaysian street food, and it’s the most filling meal you can get on a tight budget.
Roti – The bread
Crispy and fluffy at the same time: a round portion of warm pleasure. The roti is probably, the third pillar of the Malaysian street food. This originally Indian flat bread is made with wheat flour and it can be served plain (roti canai), with cheese, egg (telur) or sardine paste. If all this wasn’t enough you can also have it at your favourite mamak in sweet versions with Milo (chocolate powder), banana (pisang) or with kaya, which is a typical Malaysian spread for bread made with sugar coconut and eggs.
Another tasty flat bread that you can enjoy in Malaysia is the originally Indian naan. Commonly made with cheese or garlic and served with dahl (lentils soup) or some meat curry to dip. It will come to the distinctive plastic mamak table in the typical steel tray. You are more than welcome to use your hands to dip and eat.
Still confused? Check this mini-dictionary of food in Malaysia.
This is just a small taste of the wide variety of flavours that the Malaysian cuisine has to offer. Don’t be afraid, try all the options in the menu even if you don’t know what they are, and let it surprise you. Enjoy your meal!
This articles first appeared in the SOLS 24/7 Malaysia Blog.