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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.
1. Malaysian Food – A Blend of Three Cuisines
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.
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 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.
3. Top Ingredients Found in Malaysian Food
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
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.
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
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.
6. Kopi Tiam – Unique Home Dining Experience
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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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Rosemary is the editor-in-chief and strategist at Authentic Food Quest.
Traveling slow since 2015 with her partner, Claire, she has explored the cuisine in 45 countries and more than 240+ culinary cities.
Her writing about local food specialties has been featured in Lonely Planet, Business Insider, Honest Cooking, Food Insider, and Huffington Post.
As a food and travel writer, Rosemary has co-authored three books, including one in collaboration with Costa Brava Tourism.
Rosemary is an avid runner when she’s not eating and exploring new destinations. She has run ten marathons and counting.
Before Authentic Food Quest, Rosemary held senior-level strategy positions in advertising.
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