While Malaysia might not be as popular as its neighbour Thailand when it comes to attracting backpackers and expats, it’s still an amazing place to visit. The main attractions of this former British territory is the stunning beaches, impressive mountains, pristine dive spots, paradisiacal tropical islands and a plethora of wildlife both big and small. However, one reason why you should make sure Malaysia is on your travel itinerary is the delicious and diverse dishes that are served up around the country.
While you probably don’t often hear people saying “I’m going for a Malaysian tonight” the food of this country definitely deserves a closer look. Here are out top picks of the best Malaysian dishes:
As most regions, towns and even villages have their own speciality dishes that they claim to make better than anyone else, it is a good idea to spend some time visiting the far reaches of the country to not only see the sights but also taste the local flavours. But when it comes to the country’s national dish, nasi lemak is probably the closest thing you will get to one.
While this dish is usually considered a breakfast meal by Malays, it isn’t uncommon to see it now served at all times of the day which is good news for Westerners who aren’t often that keen on a full rice meal for breakfast!
This dish features rice, one of the two most common bases for a meal in Malaysia, the other being noodles. The rice in nasi lemak is cooked in light coconut oil or milk giving it a creamy texture and taste that helps separate it from standard rice based dishes. The side accompaniments vary from region to region and chef to chef but most versions tend to include fired anchovies, a sambal chilli sauce, peanuts and some slices of cucumber to help cool your mouth after a spoonful of fiery sauce.
When offered as an evening meal you might find this fragrant dish served with fried chicken, stewed beef or even if you are lucky, beef lungs! There really is no limit to the varieties of side dishes that come with nasi lemak so we recommend you keep trying them until you find your favourite.
You might find satay served in your local Thai restaurant back home but it’s not a Thai dish and isn’t often served in the country’s traditional food outlets. While satay is originally an Indonesian dish from Java, although it is said to have a Middle Eastern legacy, the Malays have made it their own. Satay in Malaysia is mostly available in its chicken form as in Malaysia due to the country’s Muslim heritage pork is off limits to most Malays. If you are not familiar with this dish then it will be a revelation when you first tuck into a plate of satay.
In Malaysia, the dish simply consists of seasoned or marinated chicken, skewered on wooden sticks cooked over an often smoky wood or charcoal grill. While it might look like the Thai moo ping, or grilled pork skewers dish, the side dishes that come with satay set it apart from other skewered meats such as Turkish shish kebabs, Greek souvlaki and chuanr from China. These side dishes in question are the delicious peanut sauce and slices of red onion, cucumbers again and mini bricks of rice.
I had my first murtabak in Singapore and never looked back. During my trip to Penang I ate as many of them as I could in all their different varieties and variations and its gone on to become one of my favourite foods. While the dish originates from Yemen, it is widespread in Malaysia and comes in a range of styles. Essentially it is a stuffed pancake or fried bread that is often but not exclusively filled with savoury fillings such as minced mutton and comes with a side dish of curry sauce or gravy for dipping the bread into.
The obligatory sliced cucumbers and sometimes a sweet sauce accompany the murtabak. With time comes change and it’s not uncommon to now find savoury versions of this dish that are filled with minced chicken as well as vegetables for non-meat eaters.
There are also sweet version of the murtabak available which can contain anything from bananas and condensed milk to chocolate sauce and egg, much in the same way that the roti has evolved to meet traveller’s tastes over the years.
You will find this dish in the Indian Muslim restaurants and food stalls of Malaysia, so keep an eye out for any identifying signs that will give you a clue that the murtabak is available.
This dish was born out of the Peranakan culture which flourished in Malaysia after the merging of the Chinese and Malay ways of life. Due to this is can be found easily in Singapore, Indonesia and of course Malaysia.
Laksa is a soupy dish with a noodle base and comes into two main versions. Curry laksa features a coconut curry soup and the other version, the asam laksa uses a sour fish soup for its base with both versions containing noodles. With thick rice noodles being the most common type in use for this dish although the use of thin rice noodles shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Of the two, the coconut curry laksa is my preferred choice with a chicken filling as opposed to the other choices such as cockles, shrimp and fish sticks. This spin on the dish is pretty close to my favourite Thai dish: khao soi. The Penang version that contains congealed pork blood isn’t one of my favourite types either. As this dish is popular all over Malaysia, depending on where you eat it, it is likely to be a very different beast and the more you try it in different locations, there closer you will be to finding your favourite variety. Happy hunting!
Ipoh Sar Hor Fun
If you make it to Ipoh city, on the west coast of Malaysia, then you won’t have any trouble finding this dish served in the local food outlets that can be found all over this city. The dish might look a bit like the clear noodle Vietnamese national dish Pho but its slightly different thanks to its contents and therefore taste.
Essentially Sar Hor Fun is a flat rice noodle dish that is served in a clear chicken and prawn soup. The soup is interspersed with shredded chicken and prawns as well as spring onions so it delivers a tasty punch of meat and fish that can be seasoned with any of the sauces that you might find on the table at the place you are dining at.
While the list of must-try food in Malaysia is extensive and could fill a whole website without any problems, hopefully this short selection of my favourite Malay meals will give you a starting point when you hit the country or at least encourage you to track down some local eateries that serve good Malay food.
About Joe Fylan
Joe Fylan has written 41 posts in this blog.
Joe is from the UK but has been living in Bangkok for the last three years where he has spent as much time as possible exploring the rest of Thailand and South East Asia. When Joe is not travelling he enjoys reading, writing, photography, keeping fit and spending time with his kids.