Whether you’re kicking it in Kuala Lumpur or lazing around on Langkawi, no matter where you are in Malaysia, you’ll find yourself blown away by the tastebud-tingling cuisine. From sharp, salty soups to saccharine sweet desserts, the country is world-renowned for having some of the globe’s most flavorful food. Let’s count down just a few of those pre-eminent plates, in this list of the 8 must-eat dishes in Malaysia.
It’s the signature dish of Malaysia; the nation’s unofficial staple that you’ll find not only in every local kitchen, but at every self-respecting street cart vendor. In fact, locals will often vigorously debate where to find the ‘best’ version of this brilliant concoction.
At its core, nasi lemak is simply a plate of rice that’s been cooked in coconut milk. But it’s the ‘sides’ or accompaniments that make it unique – a smorgasbord of peanuts, vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, many types of meat or seafood and, of course, spicy sambals.
Once voted ‘the world’s most delicious dish’, the humble rendang actually originates in nearby Indonesia, prepared by the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra. But it’s just as famous in Malaysia, and usually found on most restaurant menus.
Sometimes called a curry (although aficionados will be at pains to point out that it’s richer and less liquid than a curry), rendang is usually cooked with beef tenderloin that has been slowly cooked in a spicy coconut milk mixture, almost to caramelization. With pungent notes of ginger, lemongrass and turmeric (to name just a few of the spices), rendang is definitely soul food in Malaysia; a warm meal you have to try at least once while there.
Sometimes called ‘Malaysia’s greatest export’, laksa is known across Southeast Asia; a spicy noodle soup you’re as likely to find in Kuala Lumpur as you are in Koh Samui. Actually the invention of the Peranakans, Chinese migrants who settled in Malaysia, this comforting broth actually comes from the ancient Persian word for ‘noodles’, and it’s the noodles that are at its core.
Usually made with thick wheat noodles (but sometimes rice vermicelli), laksa can be spicy, sour, or both in equal measure. You’ll also be astounded by the regional variations of the dish – Penang alone has the asam laksa, a sour tamarind-infused soup but also curry laksa (known as curry mee), using yellow noodles instead of the traditional white, along with congealed pork blood, for the more adventurous at heart.
Char kway teow
Loosely translated as ‘stir-fried noodles’, char kway teow is just that – a more-ish meal made from flat rice noodles, laced with soy sauce and fried at a searingly high heat. Thrown together with shelled blood cockles and prawns, you’ll often find it sprinkled with bean sprouts and served with anything from tasty fish cakes to sliced Chinese sausage.
You’ll need to watch the calories though since this cheap and cheerful dish does pack a fatty punch, with a soaring saturated fat content. Brilliant for backpackers on a budget, or just any visitor wanting a fix, you’ll find the finest in the off-the-beaten-track destination of Ipoh.
While on the subject of Ipoh, you can’t make your way to this former mining town without downing at least one cup of its famous caffeine, Ipoh white coffee.
Named for the brew’s milky color, white coffee first came to prominence in the 19th century, when Chinese migrants arrived to work in the town’s tin mines. This unusual blend is made from coffee beans roasted in margarine, giving it a delicious nutty taste. It’s then given a generous dollop of condensed milk, and ideally served alongside a bevy of appetizing egg tarts.
To really delve into the history of this hearty cuppa, you have to try this coffee concoction at either Sin Yoon Loong or Nam Heong in Ipoh. Both restaurants ‘claim’ to have invented the drink, with some healthy rivalry between the two pioneers.
Neon green fingers of pandan jelly, a towering mound of shaved ice and large lumps of gula melaka (palm sugar) and coconut milk? It can only be cendol, a sweet treat that you just have to try when in Malaysia’s heritage town of Malacca.
This brightly-colored bowl is definitely a Malaysian must-eat, a refreshing dessert that’s also pretty instagrammable to boot. While the ‘standard’ version is scrumptious enough, those with a bolder palate should head to Jonker 88, a humble vendor perched in the middle of bustling Jonker Street, to try the durian-infused edition. There you’ll find the icy pudding blended with durian paste and adorned with peanuts and red beans, to make for a truly unusual dish.
Bak kut teh
While its origins are hotly disputed between Singapore and Malaysia, the provenance of bak kut teh doesn’t really matter; it’s the taste that does all the talking. That said, most connoisseurs will agree that it came to fame in Klang, a city rubbing shoulders with its larger cousin, Kuala Lumpur.
Simply put, the dish is made of pork, cooked in a broth full of fennel, garlic, star anise and cinnamon. Typically you’ll find a few tofu puffs lurking alongside it, or some mushrooms thrown in to create a delicious meal.
No list of must-eat Malaysian cuisine is complete without its favorite dessert, kuih. Essentially encompassing a whole range of sweets – from cookies to cakes and dumplings – kuih are bite-sized desserts that usually include some sort of rice.
Think candy-colored huat kuih, which are pink fluffy balls of delight, or the celebrated kuih serimuka, boasting gooey rice at the bottom, and a prominent green pandan-infused custard layer on top. A platter (or two) of brightly tinted kuih is usually the perfect way to end off a delicious Malaysian meal; a rainbow of toothsome treats that will have you returning to the dessert counter for more.
From calorific char kway teow to diabetes-inducing kuih, your stomach will thank you when choosing any Malaysian dish. And this list is just the start. With hundreds of mouthwatering meals on offer, the only question you’ll need to ask yourself is: which one should I try first?