‘Rice and spice’ would be a disparaging way to describe Malaysian cuisine, but in fact there is a great deal more to it than that. Food in Malaysia is aromatic, filling and delicious with countless variations on curries and influences from far and wide. Large immigrant populations from India and China have left their mark, with roast duck and flat breads featuring prominently. But colonisers from the Netherlands, Portugal and England have given Malaysian food a European twist as well.
Typical Malaysian cuisine
Rice tends to be the basis for most dishes and it can be hard to escape its ubiquitous presence on diner tables. Most rice consumed in Malaysia tends to be grown in the country or imported from Thailand to the north. Indian dishes such as biryanis from the northern subcontinent use basmati varieties for its long grained shape, delicate fragrance and flavour. Japanese short grain sushi rice is gradually being incorporated as tastes widen, and brown rice can be found in new age health-conscious restaurants.
Nasi Lemak is a classic Malay dish of steamed rice with coconut milk served with fried anchovies, sliced cucumber, peanuts, hard boiled eggs plus a spicy chili paste sambal. Curries can sometimes be added to the dish to make it more substantial meal, with the spicy rendang variety most common. Popular for breakfast, Nasi Lemak is often considered the national dish of Malaysia.
Nasi Dagang is similar but mainly sold on the east side of the country around Kuala Terengganu and Kelantan, with the addition of fired grated coconut, pickled vegetables and fish curry the major difference. Noodles are also popular with Bi Hoon (rice vermicelli), Kuay Teow (soft flat fluffy translucent rice noodles), Mee (yellow noodles), Yee Meen, (fried noodles) Mee Suah (fine wheat vermicelli) and Langka (translucent noodles of green beans) the main types.
Indian-style flat bread such as roti canai, idli, thosai and puri are most commonly eaten by Malaysians with breakfast, while Western bread has only become accepted relatively recently but is popular with the younger generations. Fast food joints such as Subway, Burger King and McDonalds can be found in the larger towns, but most have added rice dishes to their menu to appease local palates.
Chinese cuisine in Malaysia
Malaysian Chinese food is broadly similar to cuisine from the China mainland but with the gradual influence of local ingredients and incorporation of dishes from other cultures. Pork is the meat of choice for most Chinese meals, although this consumption conflicts sharply with the Islamic beliefs of Malays so chicken versions are often produced as well. Some Chinese restaurants these days serve halal food in order to widen their customer-base.
Indian cuisine in Malaysia
Malaysian Indian cuisine is a product of mass British-sponsored immigration from the subcontinent during colonial times. Most of the ethnic Indians living in Malaysia have their roots in the south of the homeland, meaning that coconut, seafood and curry leaves are trademark ingredients. Banana leaf curries consist of white rice served on a banana leaf with an assortment of curry fish, vegetables, sambal and papadum. Unleavened-bread chapatis are consumed with vegetable curry while fish head curry is popular with okra and brinjals.
Nyonya cuisine in Malaysia
Nyonya food was developed Chinese community of the Straits of Melaka and Peranakan peoples of mixed Chinese/Malay ancestry. It is popular around Penang, Melaka and as far south as Singapore and uses mainly Chinese ingredients with the addition of Southeast Asian spices such as lemongrass, coconut milk, turmeric, screwpine leaves, fresh chilli and different sambals. It can generally be considered as a fusion of Chinese and Malay cuisine.
Other than the international staples such as bananas, pineapple and mango, there are numerous exotic fruits in Malaysia that even the most hardened travellers may not have sampled. Stinky durians are known as the ‘king of fruits’ and has delicious yellow flesh between its thorny exterior. But the off-putting stench of sewers is what characterises this fruit most strongly. Mangosteens have an almost sickly-sweet flavour reminiscent of boiled candies, and a deep purple skin that stains hands and cloths when prised apart. And Rambutan is an egg-shaped fruit with a red-yellow skin and juicy white insides.