10 Surprising Facts About Malaysian Food You Need to Know

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When looking into Malaysian food facts, you’ll discover that Malay food reflects the multi-ethnic makeup of its population. 

By combining the culinary traditions of the Malay, Chinese and Indians, you get a wonderful collision of flavors that make up Malaysian cuisine.

In addition to the three major ethnic groups, you’ll also find Baba-Nyonya, or Peranakan food, a unique hybrid of Chinese and Malay culinary cultures. Malaysia also shares culinary ties with Singapore and Indonesia.

While in Malaysia, we visited Penang known as its food capital, in the historic city of Georgetown, a UNESCO Site. 

Here, you’ll find a blend of cuisines and the smells and sounds of food cooking before your eyes.

To help you prepare for your trip to Malaysia, here are 10 facts about Malaysian food you need to know.

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1. Malaysian Food – A Blend of Three Cuisines

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A typical street food stall in Malaysia

One of the best reasons to travel to Malaysia is for the food. While two of the cuisines – Chinese and Indian – are well known worldwide, there are provincial differences you find in Malay dishes.

Indian cuisine in Malaysia is predominantly from southern India, and the flavors are lighter and spicier. 

Malaysian Chinese, with the Hokkien subgroup being the largest, have their own cooking style that is milder than Indian or Malay. Malay food tends to be spicy and aromatic and based around meat and seafood.

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Fun street art murals in Penang

In essence, Malaysian food embraces several cultures. It is an interesting and varied adventure, full of spice, flavor and aromas. Malay food is to be discovered and savored.

AUTHENTIC FOOD QUEST TIP: One of the best ways to dive into the food culture in Malaysia is to take a food tour. If your travels take you to Penang, feast on the local specialties on this 4-hour food tour. If you are in Kuala Lumpur, consider this private street food tour

2.  Nasi Lemak – The Most Popular Malaysian Food

Nasi Lemak served with a smile

Nasi lemak is considered the national dish of Malaysia. It consists of glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf. 

You will find is traditionally served with sambal sauce, a spicy condiment, an essential part of the food culture in Malaysia and neighboring Singapore.

Fresh cucumber slices, small fried anchovies, roasted peanuts, and a hard-boiled egg complete the dish.

Considered an essential dish for a Malay breakfast, nasi lemak can also be served in a variety of ways and it is eaten at just about any meal, any time of day. 

Nasi lemak is commonly found at hawker centers or food stalls. To enjoy it as a more substantial meal, you will find it offered with chicken, beef or fish.

READ MORE: The Best of Penang Food: Our Most Beloved Authentic Dishes

3.  Top Ingredients Found in Malaysian Food

Noodle Dish With Belacan Sauce facts about Malaysian Food by Authentic Food Quest
Noodle dish with belacan sauce

Malaysian cooking naturally emphasizes local ingredients. Chili peppers, coconut, and belacan are essential in Malay dishes.

No list of Malaysia food facts would be complete without a mention of belacan. This is a pungent, fermented shrimp spicy sauce that is used in many ways in Malay cuisine. 

Belacan is also commonly blended with chili peppers, shallots and lime juice to make sambal belacan, a Malaysian relish and dipping sauce. 

Penang, the Malaysian capital of George Town, the country’s sixth largest city,  is said to make the best belacan in the world.

Additionally, herbs such as lemongrass, curry, and kaffir-lime leaves are also used in Malaysian dishes.

In Malay cooking, you’ll also find ingredients like pandan leaf and banana leaf which impart a distinctive Malaysian flavor.

Soy sauce, tofu products, and dried anchovies are also popular ingredients and essential to the Malay meal.

4. Eating Customs in Malaysia

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Rosemary getting lessons on how to hold chopsticks Malay-style

You may have heard that people in Malaysia only eat with their right hand. While this is not true of the entire population, Muslim Malays will adhere to this rule. It is not expected of tourists. 

Malays often eat food with their hands, and you may not find utensils readily available at all places. 

We were surprised to run into this the first time we had Nasi Lemak at a traditional restaurant.

Though you will find restaurants with utensils for Westerners. Local eateries and hawker centers typically have a sink near the dining area or offer a water pitcher to clean your hands before and after the meal. 

It’s also important to be aware of timing or the Malay meal times as it impacts availability of certain malay dishes. 

English translations on food cart to help you order your food

During our stay, we learned that many popular dishes are more dedicated to the breakfast meal and are not available after 11:00 am. 

Other types of food are only available after 4:00 pm. If you are craving a certain type of food, you may have to learn when would be the best time to have it! 

When it comes to finding food information in local food stores and restaurants, English is widely spoken. 

While Malaysia is a diverse country with many languages and dialects, you will always find instructions in English or someone who speaks English to help you. 

Even more so, the people of Malaysia are very friendly and always willing to help. 

5. Hawker Centers – For the Best Malaysian Food Experiences

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New Lane a popular hawker center in Penang

Malaysia is the first country where we discovered hawker centers. These are open-air food complexes where individual food stalls prepare dishes to eat on site.

There are many hawker centers everywhere, and they are an important part of food culture in Malaysia. After visiting a few, we got to understand some of the unspoken rules. 

  • First, browse the different stalls and explore the dishes that are offered. 
  • Once you know what you want to eat, pick a table close by and situate yourself.
  • Then, go back to order your food directly from the stall. They will ask you where you are seated and bring you the food once ready.
  • While you are seated waiting for your food, a server will probably come by and ask you what you want to drink. In a way, your drink buys your seat at the table. If you don’t order a drink, the server might charge you a small fee. 
  • Once you get your drink and your dish, the server will come around later to collect payment.

Every hawker center has their own particularities. Some hawker centres offer a wide range of cuisines, while others focus on a few specific cuisines. Some might have a certain type of food available at lunch time, but a different dining experience at dinner time. 

No matter when you go, you’re sure to experience some excellent malay cooking.

RELATED: The 10 Best Hawker Centers in Singapore And What to Eat

6. Kopi Tiam –  Unique Home Dining Experience

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A Kopi Tiam cafe restaurant in Penang

Kopi tiam, also known as kedai kopis, are smaller versions of hawker centers. They offer just a few stalls on site, or buffet style Malaysian cuisine.

Generally, these are also typically gathering centers for the local community. 

The kitchen is right in front of your eyes and it is easy to verify the level of hygiene in the food preparation.

These places are the best way to sample different types of local cuisine at affordable prices. 

They are also the perfect spot to talk to locals and ask where to find the best local dish you are looking for.

One night, we were seated next to a local Peranakan who was surprised to see us at this “not so touristy” kopi tiam. 

Locals had told us that this particular Kopi Tiam had the best Hokkien Mee in town. As we were savoring our meal, we got talking to a local and he gave us his recommendation for the local dessert. 

It happened to be the food stall next to our dining area. We tried the local cendol sweet dish and it was amongst the most delicious desserts we had during our Malaysia stay.

7. Unique Fresh Juices

Surprising water chestnut juice

One of our biggest surprises and delicious discoveries was the availability of unique, fresh juices at hawker centers and kopitiams.

We found unusual combinations like lime prune juice and lemon dragon fruit juice. Barley juice was popular and widely available as was lychee juice and water chestnut. 

With alcohol not readily available at most local eateries, we looked forward to trying new refreshing juices at each meal.

One of our favorite discoveries was ambar, a local fruit and sour plum juice. 

On your travels to Malaysia, skip the familiar soft drinks and have fun discovering fresh, local fruit juices.

AUTHENTIC FOOD QUEST RECIPE: If you want to try a local drink popular in both Singapore and Malaysia, try the unique flavors in this simple 3-ingredient drink – Iced Bandung Recipe: How To Make Singapore Rose Milk Syrup Drink

8.  Durian –  Malaysian King of Fruits

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A durian stand at night on the streets of Penang

The durian fruit is widely available across Southeast Asia. Malaysia takes the lead when it comes to their love for this fruit, considered the “King of Fruits.”

Durian fruits have a strong and pungent odor, but get beyond the first strong odor and you will appreciate the smooth and slightly sweet taste. 

Some people have a strong appreciation for it, while others dislike it.

In Malaysia, you will find durian stalls open late at night where you can sample the fruit by weight. 

There are different varieties of durian and the taste varies from one type to another. Keep in mind that the durian season is from June to August in Malaysia and prices tend to spike outside of the main season.

Durian Kafe Malay Food Authentic Food Quest
Find a wide variety of tempting durian flavored treats

If you are not so keen on the fruit taste, you can try durian in other forms in southeast Asian cuisines.

You can also find it used in a wide variety of sweets and desserts. Find traditional durian flavored Malay candy, durian flavored ice Kacang dessert, as well as delicious biscuits and ice creams. 

You’ll find more than enough durian choices to satisfy your curious taste buds.

Watch Our Video Tasting Durian in Thailand

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9. Malay Cooking is Vegetarian Friendly

Delicious Indian vegetarian cuisine

While we are not vegetarians, we do enjoy vegetarian cuisine. Unlike many of the other countries we visited in Southeast Asia, we were struck by the widespread availability of vegetarian cuisine and options.

Of the three main cuisines in Malaysia, Indian food and Chinese cuisine offer the most vegetarian options. 

One of our favorite vegetarian experiences was Annalakshmi Temple of Fine Arts, which was recommended to us by a local vegetarian expat living in Penang.

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Claire getting vegetarian food on self-service at Annalakshmi Temple

The concept behind this temple is “unity through food”. It’s a cultural experience based on providing a basic full meal to anyone that wants to eat. 

The food is a nourishing vegetarian cuisine, with rice as the foundation. Spread out on a buffet table are several delicious vegetable Malay curries, chapati, desserts, fresh fruit and  tea or coffee. 

Generally, the Malay cuisine is delicious and prepared by volunteers. Payment is based on donations, where you are free to pay as much as you can afford or according to your heart’s desires. 

You will find similar temples around the world in cities like Perth, Sri Lanka, San Francisco, Chennai and more. 

For healthy and flavorful Malay cooking, savor the diversity of flavors in Chinese and Indian Malay cooking.

10. An Affordable Country for Food

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Paying the bill at a large hawker center in Penang

The local currency In Malaysia is the Ringgit. At the time of publishing this article, the Ringgit is pretty weak against the U.S. dollar. One U.S. dollar will buy you about 4.53 Malaysian Ringgit.

In addition to local delicacies and food available everywhere, the food in Malaysia is cheap compared to Western standards. 

A meal in a hawker center or a kopitiam will cost you no more than 6 to 10 Ringgit or about $1.40 to $2.40 USD with drinks included.

If you are looking to dine in more fancy restaurants, you will benefit from a nice seating with table clothes and air-conditioning. 

The cuisine might be more refined as well. And the prices will most likely be four to five times the prices at a hawker center.

Local Malaysian Ringgit (MYR) currency

At a fancy restaurant, plan to spend about 40 to 80 Ringgit (about $10 to 20 USD) for a meal per person. 

From our experience, we found the best traditional Malaysian cuisine to be found at the hawker centers and the kopi tiam. 

Not only is the food unique and homemade, you will also taste the best local Malaysian recipes. 

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In Summary

Malaysia was a surprising country to discover in many ways. Once we landed, we were immediately struck by the Muslim influence in the country. 

Sixty percent of the population is Muslim and Islam is the official religion. When it came to Malay food, we were delighted to discover so many new and unusual tastes. 

Tasting different styles of familiar cuisines like southern India or Chinese food gave us a richer understanding of the diversity of the country and food. 

The street food in Penang and unusual fresh juices will introduce you to mouthwatering dishes and drinks for just a few ringgits.  

Exploring the country through distinctive Malaysian flavor will leave you with a deep appreciation for the simplicity and cultural combination of flavors.

What facts about Malaysian food have surprised you? Please let us know in the comments below.

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48 Comments on “10 Surprising Facts About Malaysian Food You Need to Know”

  1. You don’t know much about Malaysian cuisine at all. Malay cuisine and Malaysian cuisine are two different things. Malay cuisine itself is not vegetarian friendly. Indian cuisine is. No. 9 is a grave error. Please educate yourself!

    • Wow, Lhavanya, no need to get aggressive and mean. This article was written from our experience in Malaysia. If you have anything constructive to add, feel free to share and we can update the article. Wishing you joy and happiness.

  2. Really amazing post and mouth-watering food. Malaysian food is very fresh and available in very much options. One must try such foods while visiting Malaysia as these are known for the best street foods of Malaysia.

    • Thank you and so glad to read that you are also a fan of Malaysian food. It is truly one of the most amazing cuisines we’ve explored. Our favorite city for the food is Georgetown. Did you spend time eating there as well? Thanks so much for stopping by!

  3. Great post! Learnt some really
    Interesting things while reading that I had no idea about, it’s a shame Malaysian food isn’t found much within the US!

    • Thanks Rachel for your feedback and glad you enjoyed the article. Agreed, it’s too bad Malaysian food is not readily available in the U.S. Nonetheless, the country is beautiful and the food amazing. Highly recommend it for the food!!

  4. I learned so much about Malay food from your post! I wish it was more readily available in my area, the few dishes I’ve had were all delicious – I’d love to explore more of their cuisine.

    • Thank you so much for the feedback about the article. Our goal is to highlight local flavors so that travelers know what to look for at their destinations. Glad you now know what to look for when you come across Malaysian cuisine 🙂 Thanks for stopping by

  5. I’ve never gotten to try any Malaysian food, but it sounds delicious. I love Chinese and Indian food, so combining them seems like exactly the kind of thing I’d enjoy. I’d love to just explore local markets and sample everything.

  6. I have always heard that I should try durian, and I’m still waiting for the opportunity. I think the best meals are in “hawker center” types around the world. Lovely read, and the map helped me a lot when reading this article!

  7. I’m glad you addressed hygiene as that is always something I worry about when I travel. The food sounds delicious and I can’t wait to experience a Hawker center.

    • Eating at hawker centers in Malaysia and actually throughout Southeast Asia is one of the best ways to connect with locals and eat the local flavors. With regards to food safely, one of the best things about street food is that you see the food being cooked right in front of you. That helps you feel much safer about the food 🙂

  8. I should never read y’alls blog around lunchtime. I’m so hungry now! That sour plum juice sounds so interesting too. I lived in Hawaii for a few years and had papaya juice often but never heard of sour plum.

    • Lol…about reading the article at lunch time. Writing it was hard for us as well 🙂 Love fresh juices and we actually discovered sour plum juice for the first time as well. Papaya juice in Hawaii…yummy! Can’t beat eating and drinking the local flavors of a destination! Thanks for stopping by.

  9. Yum! All this food talk is making me hungry, lol! The Hawker Centers would be great to experience, but I agree, talking to locals for other suggestions is a good idea too! I didn’t realize the food was a blend of three cuisines–it’s always interesting to see where the different influences in a dish/cuisine come from!

    • Thank you so for your feedback. Indeed discovering Malaysian cuisine was fascinating. The cultural influences are interesting and the flavors of the food divine. Definitively would recommend visiting Malaysia for the food…and the friendly people too 🙂

  10. Love your tips about where and how to eat yummy Malaysian food. Asking locals is also one of our fave ways to get the lowdown on where to go and what to eat! I think I need to find the nearest Malaysian resto near me now!

    • You are most welcome Sherianne and so glad you enjoyed the article. The local food culture in Malaysia is quite interesting and this guide provides a great overview of what to expect. Hang tight for our next article about the foods not to miss. Thanks for stopping by!!

  11. I really did not know anything about Malay Food, so this was fascinating for me. It sounds like there are quite a few things that I would love to try. I might even get adventurous about the spicy stuff. 🙂 That Indian vegetarian dish at the Temple also caught my eye — and made me super hungry! The hawker centers look like quite an experience — thanks for the tips on navigating. Pinned!

    • You are most welcome Patricia. So glad to hear you enjoyed learning about Malay food through the article. Thanks for pinning it 🙂 The flavors in the Indian cuisine are incredible and you would enjoy the temple and the local food experience. Hope you can visit Malaysia soon!!

  12. I am a foodie and love to visit place which are famous for its unique food…I was not aware abot Malay food and I am surprised to know about its mixture of Chinese and Indian food. I will definitely love to Visit Penang and explore the yummy food once 🙂

    • You will love Penang, Sumti. The food is a delicious mix of several cultures – Malay, Chinese and Indian, as well as Baba Nyonya and more. As a foodie, be prepared to eat…and eat …and eat! It’s all delicious and worth the trip. Thanks for stopping by!

    • Yes indeed, you will love Penang and the food culture. We’ll be writing specifically about the food in Penang and you might enjoy that article as well. It will be out in the next two weeks. No, we didn’t take a food tour. We explored the food through the recommendations of locals. Please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions about visiting Penang. Cheers.

  13. I’m glad to hear English is widely-spoken because I was wondering how on earth you would explain to a hawker where your table is (for delivering your food) if you can’t speak the language! Great post with lots of helpful and interesting information!

    • Thank you Dan on the Road. We were blown away by the food in Malaysia and in particular in Penang. So delicious and surprising. Totally agree with you, hawker food and centers are the best places to visit for the local flavors and food experiences. Appreciate you stopping by!!


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