10 Best Dishes to Eat in Malaysia

Knowing the culture, food habits and lifestyle of a place is a vital piece of information that one should be equipped with before exploring a new city. It is easy, if not always, to adapt to the culture and lifestyle of a place while on your sojourn, however, food is something that could take time to adjust if it is too diverse to suite your taste buds.

Malaysian cuisine is influenced by Indian, Chinese, Indonesian, and Malay cooking style. With the numerous varieties of food that is available in Malaysia, there is no surprise that Malaysians are passionate about their food. Here we cover the main dishes that can be delightfully savored and should not be missed on your Malaysian tour.

Malaysia is home to a distinctive palette and a tapestry of flavours - a gastronomic haven of multiethnic foods from the main and various cultures. From street food to hawker centres, from ethnic restaurants to fine dine, this is the Asian destination that offers the widest range of the most varied foods from the multicultural mix - an unique culinary experience.

Foods are very cheap too. Street foods ranges from $1–2 and restaurant foods range from $1–4 per person. Those are cheap food and are one of the best foods you could get in the world. Most of the local foods are a mixture of Chinese, Malay and Indian cuisines and it taste rich and amazing! You shouldn't worry much regarding food poisoning, which goes into the next point.

Try every local hawker delicacy that you come across. No venture, no gain. In experience at least. Each will be a testimony that speaks for itself. It will cost you 'peanuts' in your currency. The only possible discomfort is the torrid glummy high humidity or at least a 'rite of passage' diarrhoea or the runs. Bring your Imodium tablets.

And when you add in as well your experience of the idyllic ambience and atmosphere of the surroundings and backdrop, the waft and aroma of the different exotic scents and spiciness, the seductive smokiness and intermittent conflagration of hot flames from the frying woks, the magic of 'wok hei' (the Qi of cooking with hot woks), the delight in seeing the locals enjoying 'eating' in company, joking and laughing away, as the simple expression or pleasure of life.

From authentic local street/restaurant food, hipster cafes/Australian style brunch places, to high quality Italian/Japanese/Middle Eastern fine dining, food in Malaysia will not disappoint you. Likewise the smelly but tasty durian fruit, if it's in season.

best food to eat in malaysia

So to address your gastronomical query, we list the best dishes to eat in Malaysia.

1. Nasi Lemak

Nasi Lemak, literally meaning fat rice, is a popular dish found almost everywhere in the country. It could possibly be the national dish to Malaysia and loved by all of its local population. The dish is found in different varieties and variations, however, the base of the dish is rice cooked in coconut milk, served with spicy chili sauce topping and a hard-boiled egg, raw salads, to go by the side.

Other variants incorporate distinct Malaysian curries and sauces, scooped over your coconut rice plate. A visit to a good Malaysian restaurant to savour Nasi Lemark should be on your list of top things to do in Malaysia, while exploring the mesmerizing city. You should try Nasi Lemak the ubiquitous coconut rice-based breakfast dish which foreigners either love or hate.

2. Nasi Kerabu

Nasi, if you have guessed, is rice in Malay. This famous rice dish of Malaysia is unique for its sheer color. The rice which is literally blue in color, is served with fried keropok, egg and fried chicken. Nasi Kandar is another rice dish served with either mutton curry, chicken and rotis if needed, on the side. The dish is influenced from the Indian sub-continent.

3. Asam Laksa and Curry Laksa

Laksa comprises of rice noodles, served in a broth. The Assam laksa soup is made of tamarind and topped with mackerel (fish). It is finally garnished with vegetables before serving. The sour tangy broth is so spicy that you can literally feel the heat in your mouth, once you taste the dish. Consequently Curry Laksa has a more creamy consistency.

The broth has the same heat however, it is thickened with coconut milk. Laksa comes in many modifications and variants, and the taste may differ depending on which part of Malaysia you are having laksa. Basically you get a huge bowl of noodles filled with spicy soup, which contains, seafood or chicken and garnished with numerous herbs.

Ask any Sarawakian and they will tell you, the starting point to making a good Sarawak Laksa is making a good laksa paste. Simple enough. But the paste for this underrated dish is a concoction that'll make a cook quit the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Sarawak Laksa's broth is not the typical laksa. It is made mainly with sambal belacan (spicy shrimp paste), tamarind, galangal, lemon grass plus dozens of herbs and spices with just a bit of coconut milk.

The paste is a blend of shallots, garlic, lemongrass, galangal (not ginger), dried chillies, and ground spices like coriander seeds, cumin, star anise, cardamom, clove and nutmeg - lots of ingredients that require grinding and blending. Once that's done, the combined paste is then sauteed in a pan and more ingredients are added, like roasted peanuts, sesame seeds and curry powder.

When the paste is aromatic, both chicken and prawn broth are added, as well as coconut milk. The laksa can be seasoned with soy sauce, vinegar, salt or even fish sauce, according to your taste. It's not done yet. The cooked noodles are added to the laksa with the chicken, omelette and prawn toppings and a garnish of coriander leaves, with a serving of sambal (blend of red chillies, onions, garlic, dried prawns and oil) and fresh lime.

4. Ikan Bakar

Ikan is fish and Bakar is grilled in Bahasa Malaysia. So basically the dish is grilled fish, which is perfectly marinated and tastes incredible. The marinating consists a fine blend of spices and chili paste. It is then wrapped in banana leaves and grilled over charcoal fire.

5. Char Kway Teow

Another dish that is quite popular among Malaysians is Char Kway Teow. The dish is similar to Chinese noodles, which includes pre-cooked boiled wide rice noodles that are stir fried on high flame along with shrimps, chives, bean sprouts and some spices. An egg is also a common add on to this dish. One of the best dishes to not miss in Malaysia.

6. Satay

Satay appears as meat chunks cooked on skewers. It's juicy and quite flavorful especially when cooked on charcoal grill. Served with a peanut dip the dish goes well along with rice as well. However, it makes for a great starter prepared from either lamb, chicken or beef. The taste is so irresistible that the dish is a staple on all Malaysian Airlines.

7. Kaya Pau

Kaya pau is a decent snack to enjoy for breakfast or as an evening meal with tea. Kaya is nothing but jam made from coconut milk which has a consistency of soft butter. So basically it is bread and butter (kaya). Kaya can also be spread on bun, and steamed or toasted for a great start of the day.

8. Roti Canai

Roti Canai is an Indian fresh paratha flatbread with curry sauce. Roti is a type of bread. In Malaysia roti canai is fired bread which is served with a curry or dip. The dough is first stretched, slapped several times on the counter, folded into a small square and deep fried in oil. This simple dish is irresistible to say the least. It’s crispy with a lot of layers and is modestly delicious with a gravy.

9. Ais Kacang & Cendol

For all those vying to dig on some desserts, here are a few options for those with a sweet tooth. Ais Kacang appears like a colorful ice mountain. The colors are usually bright pink that fades away to give a blurry appearance. The colors are formed through sugar syrup and at the bottom is jelly, red bean and corn to cut the sweetness and also giving a little texture to the dessert for a bite.

Cendol is much like Ais Kacang, without the ice, and thus is creamier. Coconut milk is added in abundance along with sugar syrup, topped with green rice jelly and few more flavors. Cendol is a better option for those with sensitive teeth.

10. Gulai

In Malaysia the Minang-style light curry called gulai with young jackfruit is a wonderfully flavorful dish - the fleshy fruit (pod) is not used but the rags, the fibrous part that covers the fleshy fruit pods. There are numerous ingredients in the curry such as turmeric, spice powder, coconut milk, ginger, garlic, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, dried anchovies, etc.

11. Bak Kut Teh

The origin of bak kut teh is foggy, but it has become the comfort food of choice for Chinese in Malaysia. The herbs used may differ from one restaurant to the next, but the meat has always been pork (chicken or other meat just don’t go down as well), braised in a broth that includes whole garlic, soy sauce, star anise and Chinese herbs such as angelica, processed Rehmannia root and liquorice.

12. Asam Boi

Another great drink very popular in Malaysia is asam boi - a delicious sweet and sour drink that tingles. Asam boi is made with the juice from calamansi limes mixed with dried plums that have been preserved with salt and sugar. Have it iced, it’s refreshing and cooling, even addictive.

13. Wat Tan Hor

Wat Tan Hor is a Cantonese style stir fry noodle whereby the noodles - choice of rice noodles, thin or thick cut, and wheat noodles - are cooked separately and then drenched with an egg-y sauce consisting of pork slices, prawns, bit of squid and some greens. Noodles are eaten anytime of the day for breakfast until late night supper; they are a kind of filler, a change from rice-based meals at lunch and dinner time here in Malaysia.

14. Hokkien Mee

There are numerous kinds of noodle dishes across Malaysia served in various styles - Malay and Indian mamak mie goreng, Chinese Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Hakka style noodles, etc. Lip-smacking Hokkien Mee aka Fukien Chow is a noodle stir fry dish over a roaring charcoal fire. The mandatory crispy deep-fried pork lard topping is among the reasons why this favourite noodle dish is an occasional treat.

15. Mee Goreng Mamak

Mee Goreng Mamak is a popular stir fry noodles often fried without any meat, only cubed firm tofu, coconut cake, bean sprouts in a spicy chili based sauce. Addition of ready-cooked meat (fried chicken, or mutton curry) is an option.

16. Dragon's Breath

Dragon Breath cookies/candies became very popular in the pasar malam (night market) and food bazaar circuits a few years ago, with many curious individuals eager to experience the smoky biscuits themselves. The Dragon strikes backs - youngsters suffered blisters on palms and pain in the throat after eating the cookies more than 30 hours later. Some felt as if boiling water was poured on the palm of the hand.

17. Yusheng

Yusheng or Cantonese lo hei translates to tossing good fortune is the most showy dining spectacle during Chinese New Year. It's a colourful raw fish platter that is pretty to look at, and delicious to eat - hugely popular in Malaysian restaurants. The Prosperity Abalone Treasure Pot is possibly the most expensive dish during the Chinese New Year season, served in restaurants or take home.

Banana leaf: Indian food has a major influence on Malaysian cuisine. As the name suggests, this food has its roots in the southern part of India. This dish, termed banana leaf, is a local favorite with numerous restaurants named after it. And if you are a vegetarian, you might as well go for a sumptuous banana leaf for lunch or dinner. The food is served on a banana leaf which comprises a huge helping of rice surrounding by an assortment of delectable vegetable curries. No utensils, plates, bowls, spoons & forks, are used to serve or eat this dish. The waiters line up all the curries one after the other and reload if you need more. You relish the dish with your fingers. Banana leaf is a vegetarian dish, however, you may still order some meat as a side dish, if you like.

Malaysian cuisine is diverse with an array of sumptuous dishes one gets to gorge on. The numerous street food joins is proof enough that the country celebrates food. Get acquainted to the names of the dishes and make sure to relish them, if you have plans to travel or visit Malaysia for an incredible holiday.

Kalyan Panja