Situated at the centre of many of Southeast Asia’s key trade routes, Malaysia is one of the region’s true cultural melting pots – especially when it comes to cuisine.

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Over the centuries, the Malay Peninsula saw ships arrive from the Middle East, Europe, China and India. The new arrivals brought with them an eclectic array of flavours and culinary traditions, all of which have carved their own lasting impression into Malaysia’s irresistible culinary repertoire.

From the fragrant combinations of cumin and coriander to the rich aromas of cardamom and star anise, traditional Malaysian fare packs a powerful punch of flavour. We take a look at exactly where some of the country’s most treasured meals come from.

Flavours from Indonesia

Rich with intense flavours, Malaysia’s southern neighbour offers one of the world’s most vibrant and colourful cuisines. Traditional fare varies significantly across this archipelagic nation, and as a result a plethora of regional cuisines have arisen over hundreds of years based on the availability of local produce and local indigenous culture. In fact, some of Malaysia’s most famous dishes – including beef rendang, chicken satay and sambal (chilli dipping paste) – all originally hailed from Indonesia.

In fact, rendang is one of our all-time Malaysian favourites. Due to the time consuming process involved in preparing this delectable dish, it was traditionally served at ceremonial occasions such as Eid. A spice mix formed of lemongrass, galangal, onions, garlic and chillies is slowly cooked in coconut milk with meat until all the liquid has been absorbed. At this stage, tamarind, kaffir lime and sugar are added to bring an extra layer of flavour. The finished dish is served with rice, pickled vegetables and chilli sauce.

Indian Influences

Take a wander through Kuala Lumpur’s Little India district and you’ll see first-hand exactly how Malaysian cuisine has been inflenced by Indian flavours. The majority of Indian-Malaysian dishes are based on Mamak cuisine, referring to the Indian Muslims who migrated to Malaysia. Mamak stalls throughout the country have developed a unique culinary style of their own, and have also become bustling social hubs for locals to congregate and catch up on the latest gossip.

The typical street stall Malaysian breakfast of roti chanai with a steaming cup of teh tarik is classically Indian, with a few inspiring Southeast Asian twists. The roti itself – a crispy flatbread brushed with oil – is often served with dhal for a substantial, filling meal. This will be washed down with teh tarik – pulled Malaysian tea. The creamy mixture (made with condensed milk for a typical Southeast Asian edge) is poured between two jugs, giving it a delightfully creamy texture.

The classic Indian-Malaysian lunch will be served on a banana leaf. A large portion of rice forms the base, and a colourful selection of curries will be arranged around it to form a colourful palette of dishes. Pickles, poppadums, fried chillies and yoghurt can be added to the selection if you wish.

Chinese Infusion

Marriages between early Chinese settlers and Malaysian women led to the establishment of the country’s Peranakan communities. The word ‘nonya’ has become synonymous with the scrumptious Chinese-Malay food traditionally eaten by these people. Of course, Chinese food is wonderfully diverse in itself, so Nonya cuisine features flavours derived from Fujian, Cantonese, Hakka and Teochew dishes.

Bak kut teh – pork rib soup – is one of our ultimate favourites. The ribs are cooked with garlic, dark soy sauce and herbs and spices over the course of many hours. Cantonese people often add a blend of herbs and spices for medicinal uses, while Teochew Chinese are likely to add extra garlic and pepper for an extra kick of flavour. A simple plate of chicken rice is another Chinese-Malaysian classic. The meat is prepared in the Wenchang fashion, where the chicken is cooked whole in a meaty stock to ensure it is beautifully tender. The meat is then chopped and served with rice cooked in chicken fat, served alongside a bowl of the stock and pickled vegetables – delicious.

The Essence of Thailand

Malaysian’s northern neighbour has also had a considerable influence on the country’s cuisine, although perhaps slightly less so than Indian, Chinese and Indonesian. In fact, Malaysia has adapted one of Thailand’s most iconic dishes – the hot and sour tom yam soup – and made it its own. South of the border, the Malaysian version is thickened with a fiery chilli paste, giving it the visual characteristics of Malaysian assam gravy. Tamarind is also used instead of lime to provide the satisfyingly sour flavour that cuts through the heat. Chinese-style restaurants will serve another interpretation of this soup with a clearer broth, full of hearty noodles.

Just as Thai food has influenced Malaysian, the southern Thai dish massaman curry could easily pass for something from south of the border. This mild Thai curry is an interpretation of a Persian dish, utilising spices such as cardamom, nutmeg and cinnamon that aren’t traditionally used in many other Thai dishes.

Influences from the West

While Malaysian food is largely informed by its nearby Asian neighbours, it also takes some of its most savoured dishes from European food traditions – particularly Portuguese. The first European colonial settlement was in Malacca, and centuries of marriage between Europeans and Malaysians led to the formation of the Kristang (Christian) people.

A traditionally seafaring nation, seafood features heavily in many of Malaysia’s Portuguese-style dishes. Made from mustard and turmeric powder, vinegar, candlenuts and chillies, devil’s curry is one of the most famous plates. This can be made with chicken, pork or even wild boar. Pork Vindaloo originates from the Portuguese settlements in Goa, India, and is the perfect choice if you’re after something with a little bit of fire. Last but not least, Malaccan black pepper crab is a must-have if you’re in a coastal area. Unlike many Asian dishes, butter features heavily in this recipe. This is mixed with coarsely ground black peppercorns to create a smooth sauce – not too dissimilar to steak au poivre.


Top tips

  • If you want to sample as many dishes as possible, Malaysia is the perfect place to graze the day away on a multitude of dishes. Head to Kuala Lumpur or Penang to experience the best of Malaysia’s street food scenes.
  • If you are keen to sample the best of the nation’s street food, it’s worth finding out what time the locals eat. If you’re eating the dishes soon after they’re prepared, you know that they will be fresh and piping hot.
  • Don’t miss out on Malaysia’s colourful and creative collection of desserts. Lapas legit – a multi-layered butter cake – is one of our favourites. Kueh bahulu, miniature sponge cakes dipped in black coffee, are also worth a try.
  • You can’t visit Malaysia without trying durian – known amongst locals as the king of the fruits. While this pungent fruit is served across Southeast Asia, Malaysians leave the durian on the tree to ripen for as long as possible before eating it. When it is served, its consistency is something akin to cold custard.
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Rebecca Foster
Rebecca has travelled extensively in America, Europe and Asia and worked as an English teacher in Thailand and South Korea. She has also contributed to several publications in the UK and Asia and enjoys hiking, yoga and taekwondo whilst on her travels.