Multicultural Snacking in Malaysia

You know, the Chinese are funny people: so long as their eyes are open, they are looking for food.

–- an ethnic Chinese Malaysian man sizes up the Malaysian appetite for street food

Malaysian Food, Squid and Fava Beans - Penang, Malaysia
Squid and stink beans from the streets of Penang, Malaysia.

Truth is, this quote applies to just about everyone in Malaysia. And why not? Like many of its neighbors in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is home to the holy trinity of street food enjoyment: availability, quality and price.

From stink bean squid sambal to giant prawns in huge buckets of satay sauce, Malaysia delivers an experience of culinary and cultural diversity. Here’s a wee taste of the wide-ranging (Malay, Chinese, Indian and Indonesian) bites you might find.

Each region of Malaysia features its own culinary specialties. Here are a few favorites from our time in Penang, Kuala Lumpur, and Melaka.

Penang Eats

The key to effective dining in Penang: find a “hawker center” and start sampling. For the uninitiated, hawker centers are organized areas of street food vendors, outfitted with plastic chairs and tables.

Penang Curry Mee

A signature Penang soup that features yellow egg noodles (mee), vermicelli (bee hoon), bean sprouts, fried tofu and prawns – all simmered in a light coconut milk-based curry broth. Although curry mee may look similar to curry laksa, the curry mee broth is usually lighter and less heavy on the coconut milk.

Malaysian Food, Penang Curry Mee - Penang, Malaysia
Penang Curry Mee from Gurney Drive Hawker Center.

Where to find it: Gurney Drive Hawker Center near Georgetown in Penang.

Char Kway Teow

Think Malaysia’s version of pad Thai. Fried flat noodles, shrimp, fresh onions, bean sprouts, chili paste and a dose of scrambled eggs come together in this classic, delicious, and inexpensive Malaysian comfort food.

Malaysian Food, Char Kway Teow: Fried Flat Noodles - Penang, Malaysia
Char Kway Teow with shrimp. Just awesome.

Where to find it: Gurney Drive Hawker Center near Georgetown in Penang.

Assam Laksa

Rice noodles, cucumber, onions, cabbage and chilies served in a fish broth and capped off with a spoonful of dark prawn paste (hae ko). Although we prefer traditional curry laksa or Penang curry mee, assam laksa is certainly worth a try, particularly if you are new to the Malaysian table.

Malaysian Food, Assam Laksa - Penang, Malaysia
Assam Laksa.

Where to find it: New Lane Hawker Junction off of Macalister Road in Georgetown.

Chee Cheong Fun:

Fresh rice noodle rolls covered with prawn paste, peanut sauce and pepper sauce. Savory, zippy, nutty and sweet, this blend comes to the rescue of once bland-tasting rice noodles.

Where to find it: New Lane Hawker Junction off of Macalister Road in Georgetown.

Masala Dosa

A typical southern Indian dish composed of a flat, crispy chickpea flour pancake filled with potato and vegetable masala. Drench your dosa in vegetable sambar, and cilantro-mint coconut chutney – then roll up your sleeves and dig in…with your (right) hand.

South Indian Food, Dosa - Penang, Malaysia
Dosa goodness in Georgetown, Penang.

Where to find it: Restaurant Daun Pisang – Sri Ananda Bahwan – at 55 Penang Street in Georgetown.

Indian snacks

Samosas (fried dough pockets filled with veggies and spices), chana masala (chickpeas mixed with spices and red onions), vada (spicy, savory donuts made of chickpea flour), and many other tasty Indian bites are available along the streets of Little India in Georgetown. Alternatively, try the friendly chana masala vendor next to the food court on Penang Hill.

Samosa Master on Streets of Penang, Malaysia
The samosa master of Little India, Penang.

Kuala Lumpur Eats

Although Kuala Lumpur has developed and gone high-tech, its people have thankfully not abandoned their street food roots.

Curry Laksa

The first thing out of our mouths when we checked into our guest house in Kuala Lumpur: “Where can we find the best curry laksa?

It pays to know who to ask. One of the employees walked us to his favorite stand just around the corner. Curry laksa, another coconut milk-based curry soup, features thickness – thick noodles, fried tofu, roasted eggplant, shrimp, bean sprouts, and a Southeast Asian stew of tasty bits that we couldn’t identify. Spicy, rich, heavenly.

Malaysian Food, Streetside Laksa - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Streetside laksa in Kuala Lumpur.

Where to find it: A street stall at the corner of Jalan Bukit Bintang and Jalan Sultan Ismail.

Dim Sum

We are all about dim sum – anywhere, anytime of day. So when we passed by this stand with steamer baskets stacked high, we couldn’t help but stop for a bite, or two…or three.

Dim Sum - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Dim sum dreams in Kuala Lumpur.

Where to find it: At the street-side restaurants along Jalan Bukit Bintang.

Sambal Sotong

Rich, roasted, and chock-full of tender squid, this dish had us coming back for more. Sambal sauces feature varying degrees of heat and sweetness depending on what’s inside. Generally, you’ll find some combination of tomato, shrimp paste, tamarind, chili paste, garlic, and lemon grass.

Malaysian Food, Sambal Sotong - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Sambal Sotong along Jalan Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur.

Where to find it: The best we tasted: a restaurant along Jalan Bukit Bintang called 1+1 Restaurant.

Stir-Fried Greens:

After all the rich foods like curry laksa and sambal satong, a simple dish of quick-fried greens with crispy-fried garlic, a pile of fresh rice and a small bowl of chili sauce was exactly what we needed to balance out all the coconut milk coursing through our veins.

Fried Greens with Garlic and Rice - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Light and healthy stir-fried greens.

Where to find it: 1+1 Restaurant along Jalan Bukit Bintang.

Melaka Eats (Malacca)

It’s actually worth spending a couple of days in sleepy Melaka (Malacca), if only to sample the Nyonya culinary specialties fused from Malay and Chinese influences (dating from the intermarriage of these two cultures centuries ago).

Satay Heaven

There ain’t no satay like Capitol Satay.

Malaysian Food, Satay and Spices - Melaka, Malaysia
Capitol Satay in Melaka. Just keep it going!

The sequence: choose your dumplings and skewered vegetables, meat, and tofu from a display case, then settle into your seat – for you are about to be served. Known as satay celup (steamboat satay), the style of satay service at Capitol Satay has a whiff of hot pot influence. Instead of steaming with broth, your pot bubbles with a spicy, peanut-laden satay sauce. As our pot evaporated, waitresses were quick to top us off with buckets of ground peanuts and spicy masala.

The clincher for this place to go down in the Uncornered Market eating experience hall of fame: when a gaggle of giggling waitresses delivered gigantic prawns to our table…for free.

Where to find it: Capitol Satay is located at 41 Lorong Bukit Cina in Melaka. There’s usually a line outside, so come early, pace yourself…and smile, for you too may be treated to a dose of giant prawns.

Laksa Lemak Nyonya

For every region of Malaysia, it’s own version of laksa. To our taste, Melaka laksa might just take the prize. A thick coconut milk soup loaded with fish balls, fried tofu, cucumber, spring onions, lime, and a dollop of chili sauce on top. Embarrassingly, we licked the bowl clean.

Malaysian Food, Laksa Lemak Nyonya - Melaka, Malaysia
Laksa Lemak Nyonya in Melaka.

Where to find it: Donald and Lily’s Corner for Nonya food on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock (Heeren Street). This tiny place closes after lunch, so be sure to arrive early.

Tau Kua Rojak

Another typical Nonya dish featuring a balance of salty and sweet: fried bean curd (tau kua), cucumbers and pineapples topped with peanuts and rojak sauce (sweet and tangy, made from tamarind paste, shrimp paste, chili pepper, oyster sauce and brown sugar).

Malaysian Food, Tau Kua Rojak - Melaka, Malaysia
Tau kua rojak in Melaka.

Where to find it: Donald and Lily’s Corner for Nonya food on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock (Heeren Street).

Cendol

The sweet send-off, cendol features finely crushed ice with gula melaka (or palm sugar) and coconut milk. The fluorescent gummy worm-like dough bits – themselves called cendol – are made from green pea flour and the pressed juice of the pandan leaf. Think of it as an exotic take on the snow cone.

Malaysian Food, Bowl of Cendol - Melaka, Malaysia
Cendol – sweet endings.

Where to find it: The stand right in front of Donald and Lily’s Corner or at the restaurant directly across the street.

Malaysian Food Photo Essay

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Comments

  1. says

    Oh man…. drool.

    And what an excellent insider’s guide to the rich variety of possibilities! I’m stumbling this to remember whenever we make our way to Malaysia.

  2. says

    He he he….
    The Chinese people, so long as their eyes are open, they are looking for food. I suspect you could say for all Asian’s, as the food is so varied and delightful.

    Next trip to Thailand, I will definitely make it down to Malaysia!

  3. says

    Daniel, no one photographs food like you do! My husband, Adam, and I discovered a Malaysian restaurant last year in Alhambra, CA (a town near Pasadena that has an absolutely huge, multi-national Asian population) and have been devotees ever since.

    Just thinking about laksa makes you want to weep, doesn’t it?

    Thanks for inspiring us to actually go to Malaysia…to see what other culinary trouble we can get ourselves into!

  4. says

    @nomadicmatt: I hear you. We haven’t been to Taiwan so I can’t comment on the food there, but nothing seems to beat Southeast Asia for taste and price of food. Oh, this is making me “homesick” for a big bowl of laksa.

    @Leigh: And just think, this is only a beginner’s guide to Malaysian food! Maybe you can make a culinary journey to Malaysia from Argentina…for research purposes, of course.

    @Michael: I completely agree with you on that sentiment – we were in street food heaven all throughout Asia (except Central Asia).

    @Melanie: Vendors usually get a laugh out of us photographing our food, but sometimes it’s just too beautiful not to photograph and share. And, I think the vendors are secretly proud of all the attention we give to their dishes before we devour them!

    I had never been to a Malaysian restaurant in the States, so all of these dishes were new to me during our visit last year. Malaysian food is certainly a joy to explore!

  5. Jarratt says

    Just a correction on Penang Curry Mee,

    “bee hoon” means rice vermicelli (or plain ol’ rice noodles) and “mee” means yellow noodles in Malaysian street food, not the other way round.

  6. says

    @Jarratt: Thanks for the correction on the noodle swap.

    @Lola: Many thanks!

    @Melanie: Thanks! You would have a ball in Malaysia. Now that you mention it, the thought of laksa does make me weep…but food nearly brings me to tears all the time :)

  7. says

    Beautiful pictures guys… and that saying about Chinese people is SO true. I’m Malaysian-Chinese, born in Johor Bahru, now residing in Denver, CO. My family loves food – from the moment we wake up, till we go back to sleep, we’re constantly munching.

    I actually just started my own Malaysian food business a year ago, making/selling a bunch of delicious goodies that I love and miss so much at farmers markets – my western replica of the hawker stall. Check it out via my website – http://www.wee-bites.com. Can I link your website (particularly this page) to my website?

    Have fun traveling!

  8. says

    @Karen: Go ahead, please link to this page. I think it’s fascinating to watch the spread and evolution of ethnic and artisanal foods around the world. Good luck with your Malaysian food business and keep in touch.

  9. says

    As a Malaysian Chinese reading a white writing about our food, I think you did quite a good job of describing them, though not in great details, but good enough. If you ever were to come this way again, dont forget to visit my island Borneo, I promise you you will be surprised at the choice of hawker food fare here. Take a look at my website on food.
    cheers and keep on exploring!

  10. Gabriel says

    Late in the game here-

    I have a question about the curries.

    Is it most common to use fresh made coconut milk among the street vendors there, or do they use canned coconut milk like most if not all SE Asian restaurants do here in the US?

    Also, do Malaysians eat mainly Jasmine rice like Thais?

    Thanks!

  11. Nadia says

    Found your website through twitter and I wondered if you’ve visited Malaysia. Turned out you did and this is a very nice write-up about Malaysian food.

    We Malaysians love our food so much that when we meet people, instead of asking ‘How are you?’ we ask, ‘Have you eaten your lunch/dinner?’

    :)
    I did notice a typo, under KL food. Sambal Satong? It’s actually Sotong (squid).
    If you happen to come again, I would love to treat you to a glass of teh tarik and hear your travel experiences.

  12. says

    @Nadia: Thanks for coming over from Twitter to check out our site and comment! We’ve been back to Malaysia a couple of times since writing this and have found even more delicious dishes. The influences from Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisines was what make eating in Malaysia such a treat.

    Thank you for pointing out the typo – I’ve fixed it! We’ll let you know when we return to Malaysia – we use KL as one of our Asia hubs. Thanks for the offer!

  13. Mizan says

    Very rightly comments about the Malaysians. I really enjoy your travel stories from around the world. I am malaychinese Malaysian, I just opened my eyes and now I am looking at all these familiar goodies. You made me hungry and I am currently in Texas, far away from home. Googled and found a recipe for laksa nyonya that you ate in melaka from cook4youme blogspot. Yummy, very close indeed to the real thing.

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