Food & Drink

Around Malaysia in Eight Dishes

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

WHY DOESN’T THE WORLD take Malaysian food as seriously as it does French, Italian, Chinese, or Indian cuisine? Some argue that Malaysian fare is too derivative, but it’s obvious that the marriage of foreign styles (Hokkien, Nyonya, Tamil, British, etc.) has given birth to hundreds of unique dishes. Having spent years living, working, and travelling in this country, I’m now convinced that sayur lodeh should be as famous as spaghetti Bolognaise, Penang rojak as celebrated as Peking duck and cendol as revered as coq au vin.

To make a case for the national grub, I’d like to focus lovingly – just as the camera does in Nigella Lawson’s show – on eight of my favourite dishes.

I first ate roti canai five years ago – and I’m still having ecstatic dreams about it now. I love heading to a mamak stall first thing in the morning to watch the artistic preparation of this dish; all that chopping and folding and twirling. Moist and succulent pastry + bracing puddle of curry = perfect start to the day.

I’ve eaten seafood in 25 countries and I can safely say that Malaysia tops the league. One happy Christmas on Pulau Pangkor, I treated myself to black snapper barbecued to tender perfection and drizzled with piquant oils. That remains my all-time favourite, but special commendations must go out to grouper in sambal sauce on Tioman, sweet and sour oysters on the Perhentians and toothsome Penang ikan panggang on, well, where else but Penang?

My first and finest steamboat experience was on the frenzied streets of Jalan Sultan in the heart of KL’s Chinatown. Having to wait for my skewers to boil only cranked up my anticipation and swelled my appetite. When the fish balls, quail’s eggs, and ticklish ribbons of pork were ready, I mixed them into a robust portion of fried rice and demolished the lot in a brief, indigestion-provoking time. I’ve eaten steamboat in other countries and it just ain’t the same.

While the banana leaf curry may have become a touristy cliché, there’s no denying its ambrosial qualities. Even before you’ve taken a bite, there’s an aesthetic appeal to the way the waiter places each vivid scoop of sambar, dal, and pickle on to the leaf itself. During extended stays in the Little Indias of both KL and Penang, I scoffed Malaysian-Indian food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It has a lushness, freshness, and variety that I’ve seldom found elsewhere – including many parts of India. I’ll never grow tired of it.

This may be controversial but, in my humble opinion, the best Chinese food in the world comes not from China but from Malaysia. I’ve always been a sucker for those Hokkien street buffets you find in the big cities, where balmy nuggets of tofu and brackish bak kut teh meet stacks of steaming popiah, aromatic fried chicken and tube-like pig intestines. Such buffets are great value too – you can survey the whole Chinese-Malaysian canon for just a couple of Ringgit.

Belacan shrimp paste is one of Malaysia’s most versatile ingredients. I can think of no better use for it than in assam laksa, that heavenly noodle broth made zesty with lemongrass and briny with ikan parang and prawns. Engraved on my palate for eternity is an exceptionally tasty portion eaten in Kota Bharu two years ago…

Wherever you go in the world, there’s nothing quite like a Malaysian dessert. To the uninitiated, cendol might sound like a disaster, but it is in fact a mellifluous explosion of flavours and a fine showcase of local ingredients: velvety coconut milk, delicate flakes of ice, and syrupy hunks of green pea and red bean. Bubur cha-cha is more exotic still (boasting yams, sago, and pandan), yet just as refreshing on a hot afternoon.

Okay, not strictly a dish, though worth a mention. Malaysia must hold the world record for sheer range of beverages on offer – and this applies to even the pokiest kopitiam. Growing up in Britain, I knew Horlicks to be an archaic bedtime drink for old people. That was until discovering an iced, sugared version in KL – a revelation! Earthy and full-bodied at first, with a sweet, energising finish, there is no better thirstquencher. Every mall food court I go to, I never cease to be stunned by the multi-hued
array of drinks: sugar cane juice, bubble tea, soya bean drink, lychee juice, soursop juice, F&N cola, teh tarik, and on and on and on…
Tom Sykes is a freelance writer/editor who has lived and worked in India, the Philippines, and Malaysia. He has been published around the world in the Daily Telegraph, the London Magazine, Oman Airways in-flight magazine, Quill and the Philippine Free Press. He is the co-editor/ compiler of No Such Thing As A Free Ride? (Cassell Illustrated, 2005) which was serialized in The Times and named The Observer’s Travel Book of the Month. His website is


Source: The Expat June 2012 Issue

Get your free subscription and free delivery of The Expat Magazine.

This article has been edited for

"ExpatGo welcomes and encourages comments, input, and divergent opinions. However, we kindly request that you use suitable language in your comments, and refrain from any sort of personal attack, hate speech, or disparaging rhetoric. Comments not in line with this are subject to removal from the site. "


Click to comment

Most Popular

To Top