Two things stand out in the cuisine of Malaysia… the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity that brings us to China, India, Thailand, Indonesia… and the rice which is present in almost all dishes.
From the staying in Borneo and West Malaysia several representative dishes of Malaysian cuisine remain, like lontong, laksa, nasi lemak, nasi goreng… “nasi” means rice and “goreng” refers to fried, so fried rice is one of the dishes easily find anywhere at any time of day, usually made with chicken, beef or seafood, with pork away from a gastronomy of a Muslim country.
In terms of nasi goreng, there are many variants (kampung, pattaya, ayam …), differing ingredients, seasonings and spices, always excelling spicy. The nasi goreng pattaya is basically fried rice (fried rice with meat, seafood or vegetables), involved in egg and drizzled with a sweet and spicy condiment. In Borneo this dish is often served with a bowl of broth that makes it less dry. Despite being unpopular and does not appear in the menus it is also possible to order vegetarian nasi goreng, but that is almost always made with egg, and not many vegetables.
But it is the nasi lemak that is the “king” and can be considered the Malaysian national dish. Usually eaten for breakfast, being basic and very simple to prepare. It consists of rice and small portions of fried small anchovies, fried peanuts, cucumber slices and egg, that can be boiled or fried. This meal can be served on the plate or wrapped in banana leaf for take-away. But what makes this special dish is the sambal, a red and thick paste, made with chilies, onion, ginger, garlic, anchovies and a few more spices, resulting in a very tasty mixture.
Laksa is another popular Malay dish that can be classified between a soup and a curry. It’s basically a broth, sweet and spicy, which includes the coconut milk, ginger, lime leaf (kaffir) and lemongrass, which involves fine rice noodles and bean sprouts. To this base usually is added meat, but you can also order it with tofu.
In Borneo, the laksa is creamier, with more coconut milk and usually served with tofu and seafood, where seafood comes down to shrimp or squid… but wherever it is always served with lime that brings out the other flavors.
Lontong, a traditional Indonesian dish that was built in Malaysian cuisine, and its vegetarian in is origin. Made with a compressed rice with a roll shape, cut in big pieces. To these these “chunks” is added a soft vegetable curry cooked in coconut milk, to which joins tofu, tempeh and boiled egg (or sometimes fried). Like the nasi lemak is served with a spoonful of sambal, also part of the popular dishes eaten for breakfast.
A popular snack in Borneo, and probably can also be found in the rest of Malaysia is called fried carrot cake, which despite its name has nothing to do with carrots, made from cooked and compressed rice-shaped blocks, which are cut into pieces and fried with egg, spicy and sometimes with soy sauce. Unhealthy due to amount of oil but very delicious.
In cities, especially in neighbourhoods dominated by Indian culture, often called Little India, it’s easy to find the traditional cuisine of southern India as a result of the strong presence of the Tamil community living here for generations. In addition to the delicious curries that give life to a dish of rice, often served in a banana leaf, you can also find murtabak, dosas and other typical Indian snacks, served with coconut chutney and sambar.
But what stands out are the roti canai, also called roti prata or paratta. It is a flat unleavened bread, but whose dough is extended until get very thin, thrown with mechanical and precise gestures against the table, repeatedly until almost getting ripped, in a process that requires a lot of oil. After is extended and rolled to create rough layers and is then fried in a metal plate until crisp and slightly toasted. The roti is accompanied by a small dish of curry, were it is is soaked.
You can find several versions of this roti, stuffed with egg, banana, sweetened milk…
From the presence of the Chinese community, result many restaurants and all variations around the noodles soup and fried noodles, and along with nasi goreng, are a popular option and easy to find at any time of day. As they are prepared at the moment they can be made in a vegetarian variant, where it is often added tofu, a notorious influence of Chinese cuisine.
The fried rice noodles in Malaysia answering to the name Kueh Teow Goreng, and are always made with egg, bean sprouts and some raw chives.
The dim sum, traditional Cantonese meal steamed in bamboo baskets, is a presence in some Chinese restaurants, some of which still retain the traditional system in which the food is circulated in trolleys through the tables with customers choose the food among the dozens of varieties… were hardly can be find vegetarian food.
Very popular in areas with the highest concentration of the Chinese community, as are the Chinatown in different cities of Malaysia, are the shops specialised in dried meat that is prepared in different ways, ranging from sweet to spicy.
But what stands out the Chinese food, resulting from the attractive price and the wide range of options is the rice dish, a plate of with a portion of rice were different dishes are added chosen from trays of food, which can be meat, fish, eggs, vegetables and the popular tofu that is cooked in different ways. This system is very popular, not limited to Chinese cuisine, extending the Malaysian food restaurants that although more focus in meat also offer a wide variety in terms of vegetarian food. Just need to ask for “rice” and we are given a plate with of rice for each one add the dishes.
About street food, Malaysia will get a lot of inspiration to neighboring Thailand, and is easier to find in the cities of the north of the country than for example in Borneo. In small stalls that arise several hours a day in specific locations of the city can be found apom, steam rice cake, fried banana, and the popular and delicious apam balik that are pancakes stuffed peanuts… and many more delicious options that also include snacks, often fried.
Markets are also great places to enjoy and experience the wide variety of food, a lot of which is difficult to identify, whether it is sweet or salt, whether it is meat or vegetarian… but always arouses curiosity.
As a tropical country abound bananas, mangoes and papayas… but also in the markets as street vendors also are pineapple, jackfruit, watermelon and melons… but it is the durian, the king of tropical fruits, much appreciated as hated by intense and characteristic smell, that make it forbidden to carry in the subway.
The chendul (or chendol) is a traditional cold sweet very popular in Malaysia, based on coconut milk and crushed ice, sweetened with palm sugar syrup and served with a green noodles (whose color comes from a vegetable often used in sweets and dishes, the pandan) and a few sweetened beans. It may seem odd but it is delicious and refreshing and in some places, like George Town people line up in small street stalls to buy chendul.
Very popular is kaya, a coconut and egg jam, that sometimes can have the green color, if it’s added pandan. Kaya is used to spread on toast, which served with eggs and tea is also one of the option in terms of traditional breakfast in Malaysia, mainly in cities. Kaya Jam is also used to fill puff tarts as the ones sold in a small corner shop in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown.
Adding to the list of popular sweet is the beancurd (also called soybean pudding) a kind of pudding made of soy, which is sweetened with palm sugar syrup, is also popular in most dominant Chinese areas.
Being a predominantly Muslim country, alcohol is unusual at local restaurants but is easy to find in bars and restaurants in more tourist sites, especially the beer.
But the most popular in terms of drinks is teh tarik, which is tea to which is added sweetened milk, and can be served hot or with ice (teh ais). It is consumed in the morning, usually hot, accompanying meals, like roti canai for example, or during the day, as a break in the workday.
Coffee is also easy to find, being in Malaysia usual the filtered coffee, served in a very strong version in terms of caffeine, with a dense and dark look but soft flavor.
For vegetarian food the best option are the Indian restaurants, due to the influence of the Hindu religion and some Chinese restaurants that resulting to the connection with Buddhist religion can sometimes exclude animal products. In restaurants more targeted to the Malay cuisine is notorious the strong presence of meat dishes, and yet respecting the halal rules, which pork is exclude. Yet pork meat is quite popular in Chinese dishes.
In general there are few dishes exclusively vegetarian in Malaysia gastronomy, and even those who appear to have no animal products, can often be served with a condiment called “sambal” that includes anchovies or any other small fish.
For those who are used to eating knife and fork, it is here to adapt to the use spoon and fork, because the knife is an instrument that does not arrive at the table, being unnecessary since the food is cut into pieces being brought to mouth by the spoon, serving the fork to push food into the spoon. In Malaysia the food is take to mouth with the right hand. In Indian restaurants it is common to use the fingers to bring food to the mouth, but spoons are always available. Spoon and chopsticks are used in Chinese restaurants. In general, the restaurants do not have napkins.
And as in other Asian countries the first meal of the day is made on the basis of rice and noodles, soups or curries. The rotis are also popular for breakfast. Many restaurants serving breakfast open at 6 am, but this are not always open until dinnertime, closing by 3 or 4 pm. But there are others who not opening so soon, serve meals until dinnertime, but not much later than 9 pm. Take-away system is very popular with both restaurants and street stall to be prepared to parcel food in proper containers or more traditionally in banana leaf.
In general, even with the limited vegetarian choices, Malaysia gastronomy offers a great diversity of flavours, with simple dishes, fast and easy to prepare but very tasty… I miss the laksa, lontong and nasi lemak.
Food Costs in Malaysia
In food courts a meal costs between 3.5 and 5 RM, which means that you can easily get a meal for 1 €.
The same applies to the so-called rice plat, with two or three varieties of vegetarians side dishes costs about 4 MR. The food costs in Kuala Lumpur are a bit higher were a rice plate eaten in a restaurant can costs about 5 RM, but van be cheaper is a street food stall
Dishes with meat, fish or seafood always have higher prices.