Whether created here, borrowed from elsewhere, or adapted to suit local palates, here are 30 of the country’s best dishes to add to your list of ‘must-try’ things in Malaysia. Let’s eat!
Whatever else can be said about Malaysia’s multicultural population, good or bad, one truth remains unassailable: Malaysians may be divided by many other things, but food unites them.
Here in Malaysia, the love of food transcends race, politics, disagreements (whether petty or profound) – and any aversion one might have to standing in a long queue, especially for a newly opened restaurant or a food stall that’s getting a lot of buzz.
Malaysians don’t just like to eat, they live for it. Driving long distances to buy a beloved dish from one specific restaurant or food stall is shockingly common here, and food trails are a well-regarded way to visit almost any city or town in the country. If there were a worldwide ranking of food blogs and food influencers per capita, Malaysia would surely be at or near the top. And as new arrivals soon learn, the de facto standard greeting in the country isn’t, “Hi, how are you?” but rather “Sudah makan?” (or just “Dahmakan?”) – “Have you eaten?”
For visitors and resident foreigners alike, Malaysia’s incredible food scene is always named as one of the best parts of being here. Not surprisingly, in the last decade or so, the international dining scene in Malaysia’s larger cities has grown by leaps and bounds. Whereas you could once count the fine dining venues in Kuala Lumpur on one hand, these days, lovers of haute cuisine have a long list of options to tempt their taste buds and drain their wallets.
But the foundation of it all is Malaysians’ love of their own cuisines and their many delectable dishes. In all honesty, Malaysian food doesn’t get the international acclaim it deserves – there is some seriously good stuff happening in the restaurant kitchens, hawker centre woks, and mamak stalls across the country. Wherever you happen to be in Malaysia, and whatever the time, chances are you’re not far from something good to eat.
With that in mind, we’re going to rattle off 30 of Malaysia’s must-try dishes that deserve to be sought out. With a small handful of notable, limited exceptions, we’re not including the multitude of fantastic rice and noodle dishes on offer here – that would easily more than double the list!
The list is offered in no particular order, except for the first three dishes, which we feel are the ‘holy trinity’ of Malaysian food, each iconic dish deliciously representing one of the three main cultures here. We’ve also saved the sweet treats mostly for the end of the list.
If you’re a holiday visitor, you’ll want to try a few of these, but if you’re a long-term expat here, pretty much all of these should appear on a plate or in a bowl before you at some point. So let’s get to the list!
1. Nasi Lemak
It’s hard to think of a more fitting dish to start with. Nasi lemak is Malaysia’s unofficial national dish, and it’s easy to see why. When it’s done right, it’s just incredibly satisfying. The rice is cooked in coconut milk, which is the source of the name (nasi lemak essentially means ‘fatty rice’). But it’s the sides that set each version apart and really make this dish sing.
Depending on where you are in Malaysia, nasi lemak comes with a variety of accompaniments such as hard-boiled egg, fried peanuts, vegetables (usually cucumbers or carrots), some type of curry (with or without meat), seafood (occasionally), and sambal, the chilli-based sauce that can make or break the overall nasi lemak. And of course, no dish is complete without a generous bit of ikan bilis – tiny dried anchovies that add an enjoyable crunch.
Nasi lemak is traditionally eaten for breakfast, but not exclusively so… these days people are happy ordering it any time of day. Throw in a piece of fried chicken and it’s good enough for dinner!
For diners on the move, takeaway packets of nasi lemak bungkus are expertly wrapped in banana leaves whose pyramid-like shape, especially for Brits, may call to mind a bag of PG Tips tea!
2. Roti Canai
An Indian-inspired flatbread, roti canai is an indispensable staple at mamaks throughout Malaysia. This simple and satisfying flatbread is made with flour, butter (or ghee), and water, though some will add condensed milk to sweeten it up in other iterations.
The dough is masterfully pulled, flattened, folded, and cooked on a heavily oiled griddle, resulting in a sublimely fluffy piece of bread with a slightly crispy exterior. You can eat this one as a snack on its own or, as is the usual custom, use it to scoop from sides of dhal and curry.
Other versions abound, like roti telur (which adds an egg), roti bawang (onions), and the wildly different roti tisu, a sweetened and superbly tissue-thin version that gets shaped into a cone – and one which some vendors apparently strive to make as huge as possible! (It’s also usually served with condensed milk, so be sure to order any accompanying beverage tanpa gula – no sugar!)
3. Char Kuey Teow
We wouldn’t dare leave this famed dish off the list, even if we had to limit it to just five dishes! A Penang export rivalled perhaps only by asam laksa, char kuey teow (often called CKT) brings together flat rice noodles, garlic, light and dark soy sauce, chilli paste, prawns, chopped Chinese chives (kuchai), slices of Chinese sausage (lap cheong), and bean sprouts. Some vendors add sliced fish cake, some add shelled cockles. The dish arose from southern Chinese traders coming to Peninsular Malaysia, and since then, has only grown in popularity.
Though not an ingredient, a nevertheless crucial component for a really good CKT is a scorching hot wok. The incredibly high heat, combined with the skilled hand of the cook in rapidly manipulating both the pan and the paddle with which the ingredients are turned and mixed, is the wok hei – the ‘breath of the wok’ – and without it, no CKT can achieve true greatness.
4. Mee Goreng Mamak
A never-out-of-stock fixture at any mamak stall, mee goreng, or its name-brand affiliates, Maggi mee/Maggi goreng, is the complete package. Thin egg noodles, beef or chicken, shrimp, soy sauce, sliced chillies, veggies, and eggs. A dollop of chilli sauce is typically tossed in for an irresistible jolt. It may not look like much, but it’s a staple dish for a reason – it’s cheap, it’s filling, and it’s tasty!
Sounds simple, right? Well, you can try to replicate this one at home, but trust us, it’s just not going to taste the way it did when you wolfed down a plate of it at 2am at that gritty corner hawker stall.
5. Nasi Kerabu
If the blue rice doesn’t spark your curiosity, the lines of people around the country waiting to order this beloved Kelantanese dish should. Hailing from the state of Kelantan in northern Peninsular Malaysia, nasi kerabu gets its eye-catching colour from telang flowers (also called butterfly pea), and the rice serves as the centrepiece of an all-round gorgeous dish, at least when it’s prepared and plated with care.
The aquamarine dish is accompanied by bean sprouts and fried coconut, and punched up by the spicy addition of budu, a piquant, fermented fish sauce. If you want to stay true to the authentic Kelantan style, use your hands to tuck into this one, but no one will mind if you grab a spoon and fork instead!
6. Ayam Percik
KFC’s popularity in the region (and across Asia) over other fast food chains is well-known, but outside of the ubiquitous chicken chain, ayam percik stands very well on its own, thank you.
Basically, it’s barbecued chicken (ideally with just the right amount of charred bits), slathered in a delectable paste of spicy chilli, garlic, lemongrass, and ginger mixed with coconut milk. Assuming you have the right balance of flavours in the percik sauce, this Malaysian food stall staple packs more zing than anything Colonel Sanders can dream of!
A dish that’s revered in Malaysia and beyond, the origins of rendang can actually be traced to the Minangkabau region of West Sumatra, despite the howls of protestation from some locals here who claim Malaysian bragging rights to the dish. Often prepared for festive occasions, rendang is a sort of reverse-braising using lamb, mutton, chicken, or beef.
A cauldron of spices and chillies in a soup of coconut milk is slowly simmered with the meat, and over time, the flavours are delectably infused, tenderising the meat. Once most of the liquid is gone, the long process is complete. It’s a dish that requires plenty of patience, but the end result is one that’s worthy of a celebration, and a really good rendang is something no foodie will soon forget.
A staple of Malaysian cuisine, laksa eateries have been migrating abroad lately, making appearances in Bangkok, Shanghai, and beyond. There are even laksa festivals held here in Malaysia from time to time! And why not? This is a near-universally beloved dish with multiple variations, and every region lays claim to having Malaysia’s best version.
Some like it with fish, others with prawns. A widely renowned favourite is Penang’s renowned asam (or assam) laksa, in which tamarind features heavily (asam is Malay for tamarind) to create a spicy-sour fish broth.
Sarawak laksa has its own delicious character and adds shredded chicken to the mix, along with prawns, omelette strips, and bean sprouts. In Johor, locals use spaghetti noodles rather than rice noodles for their variant. And even across the border, Singapore laksa (possibly the best of which is found in Katong) takes on its own unique, spicy notes, with emphasis on coconut milk, fish sauce, and lots of prawns.
9. Roti Jala
One of what must be well over a dozen roti variations, roti jala, or net bread, gets its name from the net-like pattern that’s created by making zigzagging lines with batter on a large skillet.
The final product is folded up like a crêpe and is usually served with chicken curry or dahl. Roti jala is eaten any time of the day, but you’ll see it most often in the morning.
10. Sambal Udang
Sambal udang is a Peranakan dish, created by descendants of 15th- and-16th-century Chinese immigrants.The Baba Nyonya people, also known as Peranakan or Straits Chinese, are mainly of Chinese descent, originally from Fujian province in southeastern China. They settled along the coast of Malaysia mainly in Penang and Melaka, as well as parts of Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia.
These days, they’re famous for their delectable food. A popular Peranakan dish, sambal udang is all about prawns. Whole prawns are sent swimming into a delicious pool of spicy sambal that’s flavoured with prawn paste. A generous splash of tamarind juice gives it a tangy kick. Oftentimes, petai (a bitter bean that grows in twisted clusters) is added to the dish, thus making it sambal udang petai.
Also called popiah basah, this moist spring roll is more substantial than your typical spring roll, but isn’t deep-fried, so it’s perhaps a bit healthier than that version.
Not to be confused with the fresh rolls found in parts of Vietnam, popiah basah comes complete with its own regional-specific flavour. In place of lettuce, for instance, one common Malaysian version has turnips, fried onions, and bean sprouts. Variations abound, and vendors usually make them fresh to order.
You’d be forgiven as a non-native for perhaps recoiling a bit if you hear the translation before knowing what’s in the dish. After all, otak-otak is Malay for ‘brains’! Fortunately, though, that’s solely down to the pinkish-gray appearance of the product; no actual brains are used in the creation of this treat!
A flavourful mixture of fish paste, spices, and diced onions is loosely wrapped in a banana leaf and barbecued over charcoal until the pinkish-orange (or grayish) contents become warm and the leaves are slightly charred. As you might expect, there’s no great decorum involved with eating something whose name translates to ‘brains’ – just use your fingers to pick it directly from the leaf.
We’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t the most visually appealing thing on this list (particularly when few seasonings are added, leaving the fish paste a bland gray colour), but otak-otak really is quite tasty, especially with a practised hand seasoning the fish paste, and when enjoyed with some freshly made keropok udang (prawn crackers) and a cold drink, this snack-sized dish often really hits the spot.
This savoury pan-fried bread stuffed with minced meat and onions and dipped in spicy sauce is a meal and a half, so if you’re super hungry, this is a good, hearty dish to seek out.
Perfect murtabak is made with a robust amount of minced meat, liberally seasoned so that the taste comes through on the first bite. There are plenty of variations, but one that’s popular has a spicy-sour kick that will grab your attention and not let go.
14. Asam Pedas
Another favourite Malaysian dish originating from West Sumatra (again, specifically the Minangkabau region), the very name of this fish stew gives you a hint of what to expect. Asam refers to the tangy, sour tamarind, while pedas means hot (in the spicy sense of the word).
Naturally, tamarind features prominently, but the curry-like stew also includes ginger, shrimp paste, garlic, chillies, and other herbs.
You may have driven by these roadside stalls during Ramadan and wondered what the tent-like rows of bamboo were. This is your answer!
Eaten with a meat or vegetable dish (often rendang), lemang is glutinous rice mixed with coconut milk, which is then cooked in bamboo. The time-consuming process to make lemang starts by lining hollowed-out bamboo shoots with banana leaves, then packing the shoots with the coconut-laced sticky rice. The bamboo is then arranged over a fire to slowly cook the rice in a process known as tapai.
Good lemang doesn’t really come cheap – in fact, it might be the most you’ve ever paid for cooked rice – but the combination of sweetness from the coconut milk and smokiness from the low fire makes these sticky, slightly chewy parcels of rice all but irresistible. Ask your local friends for their recommendations of the ‘best’ lemang stall during the festive season… or just look for one with a lengthy line of hungry patrons.
This is one Malaysian snack that will likely appeal to many Westerners, especially Americans, who tend to love their salt and oil. Indeed, few snacks here come saltier, or more gratifying, than rempeyek. This addictive Malaysian food is commonly made by deep frying a doughy batter into a thin, crispy brittle and topping it with peanuts and anchovies. You’ll often see this savoury treat called peyek kacang.
The amount of salt can vary, of course, and there are versions that use dried shrimp or garlic instead of anchovies. Whatever the variant, though, we dare you to eat only one.
By no means solely Malaysian, meat grilled on skewers isn’t even limited to Southeast Asia these days. Still, though, many believe satay originated in either Indonesia or Thailand and spread throughout the region.
Origins aside, can we all just agree that marinated meat grilled on a stick is really, really good?
Malaysia has its own variations of the grilled skewers, served nationwide in chicken, beef, or even pork forms (the latter in non-Muslim outlets only). Sauces vary from region to region, but peanut sauce is the most common. In many places, satay is served with raw red onion, cucumbers, and ketupat (compressed rice cubes).
18. Ikan Bakar
This is Malaysia’s version of grilled fish, and the name applies to any type of fish that gets slathered in a paste of spices and tossed on the grill, sometimes in a banana leaf.
The end result is delicious, and with a big enough fish, it’s a great dish for sharing. There are several time-tested spice combos, with flavours like ginger, garlic, lemongrass, turmeric, lime, and chilli featuring liberally on many favoured lists!
19. Lor Bak
This addictive treat has its origins in the Hokkien and Teochew cultures, and is easiest to find in Penang these days, where it enjoys widespread popularity. Lor bak comprises five-spice-marinated pork wrapped in bean curd skin and fried.
The dish has a medley of alternative names in the region, including ngo hiang, heh gerng lor bak, and kikiam, with each of these names typically having multiple spellings, too!
20. Chai Tow Kway
In this delicious Chinese dish, rice flour and grated white radish are mixed and steamed into large slabs or cakes. These are then cut up into little pieces and fried with preserved turnip, soy sauce, fish sauce, eggs, and garlic, often with a few bean sprouts and spring onions added at the end.
Also known as carrot cake (which refers to the radish used, a ‘white carrot’ – and a name which definitely confuses Westerners!) or radish cake, or with the alternative spelling of chye tow kueh, this dish is always popular at dim sum outlets, and is best when enjoyed hot and fresh.
21. Bak Kut Teh
Plenty of residents in KL won’t think twice about making the 45-minute drive to Klang to seek out what is considered to be among Malaysia’s very best version of this unique herbal soup, whose Hokkien name translates to ‘meat bone tea.’
Pork ribs comprise the meaty flavouring base for the broth, while a complex blend of herbs and spices – including garlic, fennel, star anise, cloves, cinammon, and dang gui – lend an inimitable character to this dish.
That said, many bak kut teh cooks utilise all manner of parts of the pig beyond the actual meat when preparing the dish, so all but the most adventurous of expat diners should learn one key phrase when searching out and ordering their own hot bowl of this soup: “No spare parts, please!”
22. Kai See Hor Fun
Sure, you can get this delicious noodle dish, or something very similar, almost anywhere there’s a Chinese community in Malaysia, but real foodies know there’s one city to visit for the very best kai see hor fun: Ipoh.
A food lover’s paradise equalled in Malaysia only by Penang, Ipoh has a number of dishes that are either fairly unique to the country’s third-largest city or those of which it produces the best versions! Kai see hor fun is definitely one of the latter.
This dish comprises a generous handful of tender poached chicken (shredded), succulent prawns, and chopped Chinese chives, all swimming in a flavour-packed broth with hor fun noodles (a thinner version of kuey teow noodles), and in many places, a side of Ipoh bean sprouts – and yes, they’re different than other bean sprouts!
23. Hainanese Chicken Rice
This is not just a near-universally beloved dish among Malaysians, it’s also one of the easiest ways for a foreign palate to be introduced to local food.
Created by immigrants from Hainan in southern China (adapted from the Hainanese dish called Wenchang chicken), the dish often just called ‘chicken rice’ or nasi ayam is now as much a staple of Malaysian hawker centre fare as any other dish.
Whole chickens are poached in a seasoned broth (and plunged into an ice bath afterward to create a protective ‘jelly’ on the skin) and served with chicken stock-flavoured rice. Alternatively, roasted chickens are available at most stalls, too. You can’t miss these stalls, as they’ll have the chickens hung on hooks for easy viewing.
You might think the chicken would be the star of this dish, but it’s really the rice that can make or break it – a well-flavoured rice elevates this dish remarkably, and when eaten with the tender, moist chicken and sides of chilli sauce and minced ginger sauce, it’s just pure culinary pleasure.
Interestingly, chicken rice is to Singapore what nasi lemak is to Malaysia – an unofficial national dish – and both Malaysia and Singapore lay claim to the dish’s origins, a gastronationalistic argument that stretches clear back to the countries’ split in 1965.
24. Nasi Kandar & Tandoori Chicken
It’s not that this is the most tantalising dish on this list, and in truth, nasi kandar isn’t really even a dish so much as a style of eating… but you haven’t truly embraced life in Malaysia until your local friends take you to a nasi kandar mamak in the wee hours of the night – usually to watch a European football match on TV.
Nasi kandar is essentially rice served with your choice of toppings and sides, which commonly include curries, fish, eggs (typically fried and/or hard-boiled), and vegetables. Everything is laid out assisted buffet-style, though you can also order á la carte if you really want to come across as a foreigner. Otherwise, just pick out what looks appealing and point to it, and it will be heaped onto your plate, and a total will be calculated when you reach the cashier.
Found all over Malaysia, nasi kandar eateries are extremely popular, most are open 24 hours again following the lifting of pandemic restrictions, and they’re run by ethnic Indian Muslims.
Though this is unmistakably a classic Malaysian meal, if you’re not a big fan of buffet-style eating, just seek out a nasi kandar stall with a tandoor, a large cylindrical clay oven that will usually be in plain view. You can then order a delicious tandoori chicken meal (above), a dish that originated in the Punjab province of India – and one that will have you drooling in anticipation as you wait for the dish to be ready.
25. Apam Balik
Malaysian food includes plenty of sweet treats, and you’ll thrill your taste buds with this one, perhaps the ultimate local pancake.
Generally served as pancake- or crêpe-style snack boasting the compact package of an omelette, apam balik (typically just called apam) is stuffed with a plentiful amount of sugar, peanuts, and the occasional sprinkle of corn – with the pancake itself serving as a blank canvas, it’s a dish that’s constantly being reinvented.
Variety, variety, variety – that’s one way to describe kuih, a wide range of Malay-style sweets usually made from rice flour or glutinous rice. There are more types of kuih than can be counted, from dumplings to cakes to biscuits to stuffed rolls and more. Small enough to snap up in a single gulp and often sweet enough to give you a little sugar rush (though not all kuih is so sweet), kuih vendors are the most colourful stalls of all.
The colour is typically a reflection of the kuih itself, but be forewarned: During the many festive seasons in Malaysia, the kaleidoscope of soft, sweet morsels goes quickly – few pieces are left by the time daylight begins to fade.
A favourite for visitors to Melaka to seek out, these little bite-sized glutinous rice balls are infused with pandan flavour, filled with liquid gula Melaka (a delicious brown palm sugar), and rolled in coconut flakes. Pop one in your mouth and bite down to experience the tiny burst of molten sweetness.
Alternatively spelled onde-onde or called klepon (typically outside of Malaysia), these treats are of Javanese origin. There, the palm sugar used is called gula jawa which has its own distinctive character, a bit smoky and sweet.
28. Putu Piring & Ketayap
Like roti jala, putu piring is enjoyed in both India and Malaysia. Putu piring has the initial taste and texture of a steamed bun or cake, with the added bonus of pockets of palm sugar tucked inside. Its plate-like shape is formed by flattening the flour before covering it in a white cloth and placing it in a conical steamer.
A somewhat similar sweet snack that includes some elements of kuih and some of putu piring is called ketayap, kuih tayap, or kuih dadar, a pandan-flavoured crêpe rolled around a filling of toasted coconut flakes and gula Melaka. Much like ondeh-ondeh (above), this beloved treat also originated in Indonesia, where it called dadar gulung, and uses the local gula jawa as the sugar.
29. Ais Kacang (or ABC)
A shaved ice dessert, ais kacang – also called air batu campur, or ABC – is a uniquely Malaysian dish that comes in a wide variety of styles, depending on what is used to top the shaved ice. Red beans, cendol, grass jelly, sweet corn, fruits, basil seeds, coconut milk, condensed and/or evaporated milk, and attap chee (palm seeds) are just some of the ingredients that can be added to the mountain of freshly shaved ice. Plenty of ABC vendors get even more creative with the various syrups and toppings offered.
Naturally, the dessert melts quickly in Malaysia’s tropical heat, but that doesn’t make it any less refreshing or delicious – you’ll just need to ‘drink’ the last bit!
30. Pisang Goreng
It seems proper to end a list of Malaysia’s must-try foods with a fried street snack that’s as ubiquitous as it is irresistible. At these stalls, you’ll see it called both pisang goreng and goreng pisang, depending on who lettered the sign, but whatever the word order, sliced bananas dipped in batter and deep-fried are what you’ll get.
Though it’s hard to imagine ever getting a bad banana fritter, some vendors of course do it better than others, and accordingly, develop a cult-like following over time. There’s one such roving stall that sets up on Carpenter Street, not far from the riverfront in Kuching. Their pisang goreng is so famous, you can easily see 30 to 45 minutes elapse from when you place your order to when you take your first bite, so long is their list of orders!
Served hot from the oil, this simple snack is stupendously satisfying, and scarfing down four or five of them before you realise what you’ve done is dangerously easy to do. Ohhh, how we love you, little banana fritter!
As you’re fretting over the enormous pile of calories you just consumed, simply lie to yourself: “It’s a banana, isn’t it? It has to be healthy, right??”
AN INCOMPLETE LIST?
And there you have it, an expat’s guide to 30 of Malaysia’s best foods, a list of must-try dishes for any foreigner visiting or living in this food-centric country.
Of course, this is but a small sampling of the enormous array of dishes available throughout Malaysia, and trimming the list to just 30 presented some real challenges! However, we feel that these dishes offer a great introduction to local cuisines and represent a true sampling of ‘must-try’ dishes for anyone looking to get acquainted with one of the very best things about Malaysia – the food!
If we’ve left off a favourite of yours that you feel should be included, leave a comment or drop an email to [email protected], and we’ll do a second edition in the future!
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