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Food in Malaysia is amazing, but you might know it as it seems to get overshadowed by its nearby neighbors of Vietnam and Thailand. Sometimes though, not knowing anything about a country’s food is a good thing. You have very little expectation and can dive right in to discovering spices and flavor combinations that you’ve never experienced.
Malaysian food does bear some resemblance to its Southeast Asian neighbors, most notably Thailand as you move north in Malaysia, but the country also owes a lot of its culinary traditions to the diversity of its people. Malaysia is made up of three major ethnic groups- Malays, Chinese, and Indians- and they have each contributed to the cuisine of the country.
This isn’t an exhaustive guide to Malaysian cuisine, but includes a few dishes you shouldn’t miss as you make your way through the country.
Usually these lists are not in order of preference, but in this case, number one has been reserved for my favorite food in Malaysia. Roti canai is an Indian-style bread that is flat and circular. It can be served with a variety of toppings including, but not limited to, a fried egg, cheese, potatoes, or banana. My favorite, though, was a plain roti. This way I could fully enjoy the soft inside and crispy outside of the bread and the gentle spice of the dhal (lentil curry) dipping sauce it is usually served with. I loved roti canai so much I was literally eating them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Satay is a traditional Malay and Indonesian food where meat is grilled on sticks and served with peanut sauce. In satay celup, the skewers are cooked in a big vat of a peanut based sauce right at the table, in the style of hot pot. One of the best places to try satay celup in Malacca is Capitol Satay. Capitol Satay is far from a hidden gem, written up in most guidebooks and by plenty of bloggers, but it is also not a tourist trap. Capitol Satay is an institution. One that is crowded (think lines out the door when the place opens at 5:00 pm crowded) with locals and tourists alike.
Once you are seated, you take a tray to the refrigerated coolers and begin picking out what you want to cook. Each stick costs .90 Ringgit (about 30 cents) and they have a wide selection of, well, pretty much everything. Bread, chicken, livers, tongue, beef, prawns, vegetables, eggs; if you can cook it in peanut sauce, they probably have it.
I grabbed a few different things and brought them back to the table to cook in the thick, brown sauce made from peanuts, brown sugar, and spices. Occasionally a waiter would come around to stir, but other than that we were left on our own to enjoy our spicy sticks. At the end of you meal they count the sticks and give you your tab. The meal for two was about $5 total.
Address: 41, Lorong Bukit Cina, 75100 Melaka
Nyonya food: Pie Tee and Laksa
One of the most interesting type of food in Malaysia is Nyonya cuisine, a type of food created by the Straits Chinese and Perankan (Chinese-Malay) people of Singapore and Malaysia. A blend of Chinese ingredients and Southeast Asian spices popular in Malaysia and Indonesia, you can think of Nyonya as the original fusion.
I was introduced to Nyonya food at Amy’s Heritage Cuisine in Malacca. I was sat at a large table, with another family, on the top floor of an old shophouse and ordered a few things to get a real taste for the cuisine, with pie tee and laksa being the must tries.
Pie tee are top hat shaped pastry filled with thinly sliced vegetables, mostly jicama and carrot, and prawns. Though they looked complex, the flavors of the slightly spicy pie tee are simple and pleasing. Asam laksa, a fish based soup with thick rice noodles, is arguably the most famous Nyonya dish. The soup is somewhat sour in flavor, due to the inclusion of tamarind, and is filled with shredded fish and thinly slices vegetables, chilies, and mint.
Address: 75, Jalan Melaka Raya 24, 75000 Melaka
Hawker Center Noodle Dishes: Hokkien Mee and Curry Mee
On my first night in Georgetown (Penang), I stumbled across a place called Red Garden Food Paradise. I was immediately sold. A place with food paradise in the name is obviously a place I want to be. What I found inside was essentially a Malaysian hawker center, with different stalls selling Malaysian food, some interesting takes on American cuisine, fresh fruit juices, seafood, and even ice cream. This was the perfect spot to try food in Malaysia.
The system at Red Garden is easy. You sit at a numbered table. A waiter will take your drink order and you can order directly from any stall you’d like. Give them your table number and they will deliver your food when it is ready.
The first dish I tried was Hokkien mee, a noodle dish filled with slices of egg, pork, boy choy, thick egg noodles, and thin rice noodles. All of this sits in a rich brown broth made from shrimp, pork, and chicken. Hokkien mee is full of flavor, both spicy and sweet. I got mine topped with two huge prawns which drove the price up to 17 Ringgit (about $5.25) for the bowl.
I also tried another noodle soup dish called curry mee (also known as curry laksa, a popular food in Malaysia). For 3.50 Ringgit (a little over $1) I was served a bowl of thin rice noodles, thick egg noodles, shrimp, and fried tofu in a thick coconut curry broth. This was topped off with a huge dollop of chili paste, so you can adjust the spiciness to your taste.
The next night I headed back to Red Garden. Both the mee dishes the night before had been fabulous, and there was a lot more I wanted to try. I strayed away from noodles this time and instead ordered a plate of duck rice.
Chicken rice, sliced boiled chicken served with rice, cucumbers, and chili sauce, is one of the most popular Chinese influenced dishes in Malaysia and I’d gone in dead set on trying it. But when I saw that this stand served duck rice, I had to go for what I consider to the tastier bird. Served the same as chicken rice would be, the duck was tender with a crispy skin. A delicious last taste of food in Malaysia.
Address: 20, Lebuh Leith, 10000 George Town
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