Malaysian Food Culture: 9 Dishes You Must Try in Malaysia

Malaysian food culture
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So, you’re interested in Malaysian food culture? Get ready for a real rollercoaster ride of a tasting sessions, folks! The cuisine of this two-pronged country is more varied and eclectic than you can imagine. Blending Chinese, Indian, and Malay flavors and cooking styles with influences also taken from Singapore, Indonesia, and other South Asian countries, not to mention onetime European colonial powers, there’s all sorts on the menu in these parts.

Head to Kuala Lumpur and you can lose yourself in bazaars that sizzle with BBQ skewers and stir-frying noodles and zingy rendang curries. Go to handsome Malacca to taste broiling pots of peanut satay. Or visit Penang, the undisputed foodie capital of the country, to see just how seriously Malaysians take their food in a medley of Indian thali plates and Chinese roast duck. There’s no end to it.

This guide to Malaysian food culture covers the lot. It’s 101 reading for anyone heading to KL and beyond this year, since it focuses in on nine of the tastiest and most iconic dishes that we think you absolutely have to try during your travels. Get ready for an overload of coconut and durian, of chili and spice…

Nasi lemak

Nasi lemak
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Probably the most well-known (and well-loved) Malaysian dish is nasi lemak. The unofficial national dish is what many Malaysians choose for breakfast, but it’s so popular that you’ll find it being served at all times of the day. 

Nasi lemak always starts with a portion of coconut rice served with a side of sambal – the spicy chili sauce that comes with most dishes in Malaysia. But beyond that, the variety of sides accompanying nasi lemak are endless and will differ depending on the vendor or region. Some of the more usual sides are peanuts, cucumber, fried anchovies, a hard-boiled egg, and vegetables. You could also find that yours comes with a scoop of meat curry, spicy shrimp, dried fish, a chicken leg, or a fried egg. You never know – it’s all part of the fun.

Nasi lemak is traditionally served on an open banana leaf. It can be eaten on the go or sitting in, either with your fingers or knives and forks.

Beef rendang

Rendang
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Beef rendang has repeatedly won the title of World’s Most Delicious Food. It’s pretty darn easy to see why, too…

Often mistaken for a curry, beef rendang is actually a ridiculously flavorsome slow-cooked stew that takes hours to make correctly. First, the meat (usually beef, but chicken or lamb can also be used) is added to a mixture of coconut milk and spices, including ginger, galangal, chili, turmeric, and lemongrass. This is then left to cook for several hours until the meat has absorbed almost all the juice. The tender, flavor-filled protein is then served up with a healthy dollop of rice. 

The dish actually originates from the Sumatra region of Indonesia and was traditionally prepared in times of celebration. But now that Malaysia has claimed it as its own, it is widely available across the country and is a must-try while on your travels.

Bak kut the

Bak kut the bone broth
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Bak kut the is another slow-cooked wonder, this time of Chinese influence. It literally means “meat bone tea,” which should give you an idea of the sort of base used for this stew. Usually made with pork ribs which are left to cook for hours in a broth flavored with herbs such as ginseng and star anise, this hearty broth is said to have health benefits, and some households may add additional medicinal herbs to the stew. The finished product derives extra flavour from additions like garlic, soy sauce, shitake mushrooms, and tofu.

A popular breakfast dish in Chinese-Malay households, bak kut the is often enjoyed the morning after it was made, the broth having developed even more flavor overnight. When ordered in a restaurant, it will often come in a large pot intended to be enjoyed family-style. So order it to share with friends alongside rice, stirfried greens, and fresh chilis. It will often also come with yau char kwai, strips of fried dough perfect for dipping into the delicious, salty broth.

Char Kway Teow

Char kway teow noodles
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Char kway teow is another dish of Chinese origins, but it has become so popular in Malaysia that it is generally assumed to have originated in the country itself. It’s generally seen as one of the most icon Malay street foods. You’ll find it in virtually every bazaar you visit, from Borneo to Malacca, and particularly in the heady night markets of Kuala Lumpur. The price for a whole bowl is likely to soothe the accountants out there – you’re looking at $1 or less for a full meal!

Wide flat rice noodles are stir fried in dark soy sauce and lard, with bean sprouts, spring onions, prawns, and Chinese sausage thrown in for good measure. As is often the case in the food culture in Malaysia, ingredients can be added freely without changing the basic nature of the dish. Sometimes it will include egg, crab, small cockles, or other meat, but what must not change is the cooking method. Char kway teow has to be cooked properly in a wide wok at high heat to give the noodles the signature smokey flavor that characterizes this dish. 

Laksa

Laksa is one of our favorite meals while in Malaysia
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Is there anything more delicious than laksa? We really just don’t know! A simple-looking bowl of noodle soup with a taste so complex that the first spoonful often leaves you lost for words, this one has a depth of flavor and richness that rarely fails to wow. Overall, Laksa is probably one of our favorite things to eat in Malaysia. You’ll always find us going back for more.

The most challenging thing is deciding which one to go for since there are a number of different types. First, there’s assam laksa, made popular in the foodie capital that is Penang. This one is flavored with tamarind, dried mackerel, and shrimp paste to create a sharp, tangy, almost sour, seafood stew. It also has hints of lemongrass, ginger, and chili. Or there’s curry laksa, tailor-made for those who prefer creamier, thicker soups. It has many of the same spices, but instead of the tamarind juice and fish pastes, you’ll find coconut cream and fresh coriander. 

Satay

Satay is simple but delicious and can be found in all Malaysian markets
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It might seem a little silly to be including the simple satay on our list, but this is a hugely popular thing to eat in Malaysia. You won’t be able to pass through a marketplace without smelling the delicious scent of charcoal-cooked meat sizzling away over open coals.

You’ll find many stalls selling skewers of beef, chicken, lamb, pork, or seafood, all wonderfully marinated before being cooked to perfection. Take just one stick to enjoy as a snack while you wander. Or sit down and enjoy several as a meal with a portion of rice, chunks of cucumber, and plenty of the signature satay sauce that makes this dish complete. 

One of the top places to sample this is the onetime colonial city of Malacca. There’s a whole street there dedicated to satay restaurants, which are home to rows and rows of fridges that stock all manner of kebabs for you to pick before cooking in your own private cauldron of spicy peanut paste.

Roti

A simple light snack that many enjoy for breakfast
Photo by Anshu A Kus on Unsplash

Another fantastic snack food available in every market is the Indian-inspired Roti Canai. A dough of ghee, flour, and water, is fried to create a light crispy flatbread with a fluffy inside. It’s simple but tasty and can be eaten alone or dipped into delicious curry, gravy, or spicy sauce. Some enjoy Roti Canai dipped into unrefined sugar and eaten as a sweet breakfast.

Another form is Roti Tisu, where the dough is spread thin before frying and then twisted into a tissue-thin pyramid and propped upright on a plate. It is eaten by tearing off pieces from the top down and dunking them into daal or curry. When you reach the bottom of the roti, you can dip the last pieces into sugar and finish on a sweet note. Whichever version you choose, be warned that one is never enough!

Cendol

Cendol is a delicious colorful, popular dessert in Malaysia
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This fun dessert is a riot of colors, textures, and unusual flavors, perfect for anyone wanting to experiment. Cendol comes in various forms but is basically a bowl or glass of shaved ice, coconut milk, palm sugar syrup, and strands of grass green jelly made from rice flour. 

A variety of other toppings can be added, depending on how adventurous you are feeling. These can include other jellies, chopped fruit, sweet corn, sweetened red beans, and mashed durian. 

Although red beans are a common dessert in Malaysia, they do have the texture of kidney beans so perhaps try a couple before you fill your cendol bowl with them. And as for durian, well, more on that below! 

For a colder dessert, try the Ais Kacang, which includes much of the same jelly, beans, and fruit but has lots of crushed ice and no coconut milk. 

Durian

The stinky durian fruit divides opinion across Asia but is a big part of the food culture in Malaysia
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We can’t possibly talk about the food culture of Malaysia without mentioning durian, the love-it-or-hate-it fruit that divides opinion all over Asia. These huge spiky green balls look like medieval weapons, but it is the smell that people remember. Durian fruit has a potent aroma that has been likened to many things, including old socks, bins, and rotting meat. This pungent smell is so widely disliked that the fruit is banned from public transport in many Asian countries.

However, despite its stinky aroma, many people love durian because inside the spiky green shell are thick strips of pale yellow flesh that melt in the mouth with a custardy texture and a taste unlike any other fruit. Again many people hate the taste, but those who love it really love it, and you’ll find durian products for sale all over Malaysia. 

It’s a truly unique flavor that everyone should try once. And Malaysian food vendors, who are well used to tourists and their ways, will often allow you to taste their durian ice cream or cendol topping before you commit to a whole dessert of it. And they will usually react with equal amusement whether you love it or hate it!

Night markets are an integral part of the food culture in Malaysia
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Why does food play an important role in Malaysian culture?

Malaysia is an extremely diverse country. Its population comes from vastly different backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions. But one thing the country can agree on is its love of food. They take great pride in their meals and use them to bring families together, make friends with strangers, connect to their own heritage, and to learn about others. So, the food in Malaysia is not just delicious but plays an important role in the culture. 

What is Malaysia’s national dish?

Nasi Lemak is Malaysia’s national dish. It is widely eaten all over the country as both a breakfast dish and throughout the day. It’s a favorite with both Malaysians and tourists and is offered in most Malaysian restaurants worldwide. 

What food is Malaysia famous for?

Malaysia is famous for lots of food, including nasi lamek, assam laksa, and beef rendang. Malaysia is also well known for its enjoyment of durian, the controversial, smelly fruit that people tend to love or hate. 

What makes Malaysian food unique?

Malaysian food is unique because of the blend of influences that helped create it. The Chinese, Indian and Malay populations and the proximity of Malaysia to Indonesia have led to a food culture that uses a huge range of spices, ingredients, and cooking styles. This all helps to create fantastic food that bursts with variety and unique flavors.

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Anita is from Wales and has been a travel addict since her first trip to Australia ten years ago. Since then she's lived and worked in Oz, New Zealand and Canada, worked many ski seasons and travelled widely through South East Asia, Morocco, India and Europe. She's a nomad, freelance writer, foodie, compulsive reader, tea addict and animal lover.