Eating and drinking in Malaysia
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One of the best reasons to come to Malaysia is the food, comprising two of the world’s most venerated cuisines – Chinese and Indian – and one of the most underrated – Malay. Even if you think you know two out of the three pretty well, be prepared to be surprised: Chinese food here boasts a lot of the provincial diversity that you just don’t find in the West’s Cantonese-dominated Chinese restaurants, while Indian fare is predominantly southern Indian, lighter and spicier than northern food.
Furthermore, each of the three cuisines has acquired more than a few tricks from the other two – the Chinese here cook curries, for example – giving rise to some distinctive fusion food. Add to this cross-fertilization a host of regional variations and specialities, plus excellent seafood and unusual tropical produce, and the result is – if you dare to order enterprisingly – a dazzling gastronomic experience.
None of this need come at great expense. From the ubiquitous food stalls and cheap street diners called kedai kopis, the standard of cooking is high and food everywhere is remarkably good value. Basic noodle- or rice-based one-plate meals at a stall or kedai kopi rarely cost more than a few ringgit. Even a full meal with drinks in a fancy restaurant seldom runs to more than RM50 a head. The most renowned culinary centres are Georgetown, KL, Melaka and Kota Bharu, although other towns have their own distinctive dishes too.
One myth to bust immediately is the notion that you will get food poisoning eating at street stalls and cheap diners. Standards of hygiene are usually good, and as most food is cooked to order (or, in the case of rice-with-toppings spreads, only on display for a few hours), it’s generally pretty safe. Note also that tipping is not expected in restaurants where bills include a service charge (as they usually do) – and is never the practice in kedai kopis or food courts.
Some of the cheapest and most delicious food available in Malaysia comes from stalls, traditionally wooden pushcarts on the roadside, surrounded by a few wobbly tables with stools to sit at. Most stalls serve one or a few standard noodle and rice dishes or specialize in certain delicacies, from oyster omelettes to squid curry.
For many visitors, however, there is a psychological barrier to having a meal by the roadside. To ease yourself into the modus operandi of stalls, take advantage of the fact that nowadays many are assembled into user-friendly medan selera (literally “appetite square”) or food courts. Usually taking up a floor of an office building or shopping mall, or housed in open-sided market buildings, food courts feature stall lots with menus displayed and fixed tables, plus toilets. You generally don’t have to sit close to the stall you’re patronizing: find a free table, and the vendor will track you down when your food is ready. You generally pay when your food is delivered, though payment is sometimes requested when you order.
Stalls open at various times from morning to evening, with most closing well before midnight except in the big cities. During the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, however, Muslim-run stalls don’t open until mid-afternoon, though this is also when you can take advantage of the pasar Ramadan, afternoon food markets at which stalls sell masses of savouries and sweet treats to take away; tourist offices can tell you where one is taking place. Ramadan is also the time to stuff yourself at the massive fast-breaking buffets laid on by most major hotels throughout the month.
Few downtown streets lack a kedai kopi, sometimes known as a kopitiam in Hokkien Chinese. Although both terms literally mean “coffee shop”, a kedai kopi is actually an inexpensive diner rather than a café. Most serve noodle and rice dishes all day, often with a campur-style spread (see Cuisine) at lunchtime, sometimes in the evening too. Some kedai kopis function as miniature food markets, housing a handful of vendors – perhaps one offering curries and griddle breads, another doing a particular Chinese noodle dish, and so on.
Most kedai kopis open at 8am to serve breakfast, and don’t shut until the early evening; a few stay open as late as 10pm. Culinary standards are seldom spectacular but are satisfying all the same, and you’re unlikely to spend more than small change for a filling one-plate meal. It’s worth noting that in some Malaysian towns, particularly on the east coast, the Chinese-run kedai kopis are often the only places where you’ll be able to get alcohol.
Sophisticated restaurants only exist in the big cities. Don’t expect a stiffly formal ambience in these places, however – while some places can be sedate, the Chinese, in particular, prefer restaurants to be noisy, sociable affairs. Where the pricier restaurants come into their own is for international food – anything from Vietnamese to Tex-Mex. KL and Georgetown all have dynamic restaurant scenes, and the five-star hotels usually boast a top-flight restaurant of their own. The chief letdown is that the service can be amateurish, reflecting how novel this sort of dining experience is for many of the staff.
Most large Malaysian towns feature a few attempts at Western cafés, serving passable fries, sandwiches, burgers, shakes and so forth. It’s also easy to find bakeries, which can represent a welcome change from the local rice-based diet – though don’t be surprised to find chilli sardine buns and other Asian Western hybrids, or cakes with decidedly artificial fillings and colourings. For anything really decent in the café or bakery line, you’ll need to be in a big city.
A convenient and inexpensive way to get acquainted with a variety of local dishes is to sample the food spreads available at many of the kedai kopis, particularly at lunchtime. The concept is pretty much summed up by the Malay name for such spreads, nasi campur (“mixed rice”), though Chinese and Indian kedai kopis, too, offer these arrays of stir fries, curries and other savouries, set out in metal trays or plates. As in a cafeteria, you simply tell the person behind the counter which items you want, and a helping of each will be piled atop a largish serving of rice. If the plainness of the rice soon palls, ask for it to be doused with a scoopful of gravy (kuah in Malay) from any stew or stir fry on display.
Campur food is not haute cuisine – and that’s precisely the attraction. Whether you have, say, ikan kembong (mackerel) deep-fried and served whole, or chicken pieces braised in soy sauce, or bean sprouts stir-fried with salted fish or shrimp, any campur spread is much closer to home cooking than anything served in formal restaurants.
Nasi campur and noodle dishes are meals in themselves, but otherwise eating is generally a shared experience – stir fries and other dishes arrive in quick succession and everyone present helps themselves to several servings of each, eaten with rice, as the meal progresses.
Breakfast can present a conundrum in small towns, where the rice and noodle dishes that locals enjoy at all times of day may be all that’s easily available. If you can’t get used to the likes of rice porridge at dawn, try to find a stall or kedai kopi offering roti bakar, toast served with butter and kaya. The latter is a scrumptious sweet spread, either orange or green, not unlike English lemon curd in that it’s made with eggs, though coconut is the magic ingredient that accounts for most of the flavour.
In its influences, Malay cuisine looks to the north and east, most obviously to China in the use of noodles and soy sauce, but also to neighbouring Thailand, with which it shares an affinity for such ingredients as lemon grass, the ginger-like galingale and fermented fish sauce (the Malay version, budu, is made from anchovies). But Malay fare also draws on Indian and Middle East cooking in the use of spices, and in dishes such as biriyani rice. The resulting cuisine is characterized by being both spicy and a little sweet. Naturally there’s a particular emphasis on local ingredients: santan (coconut milk) lends a sweet, creamy undertone to many stews and curries, while belacan, a pungent fermented prawn paste (something of an acquired taste), is found in chilli condiments and sauces. Unusual herbs, including curry and kaffir-lime leaves, also play a prominent role.
The cuisine of the southern part of the Peninsula tends to be more lemak (rich) than further north, where the Thai influence is strongest and where you’ll thus find many a tom yam stew – spicy and sour (the latter by dint of lemon grass) – on offer. The most famous Malay dish is arguably satay, though this can be hard to find outside the big cities; another classic, and this time ubiquitous, is nasi lemak, standard breakfast fare. Also quintessentially Malay, rendang is a dryish curry made by slow-cooking meat (usually beef) in coconut milk flavoured with galingale and a variety of herbs and spices.
For many visitors, one of the most striking things about Malay food is the bewildering array of kuih-muih (or just kuih), or sweetmeats, on display at markets and street stalls. Often featuring coconut and sometimes gula melaka (palm-sugar molasses), kuih come in all shapes and sizes, and in as many colours (often artificial nowadays) as you find in a paints catalogue – rainbow-hued layer cakes of rice flour are about the most extreme example.
The range of Chinese cooking available in Malaysia represents a mouthwatering sweep through China’s southeastern seaboard, reflecting the historical pattern of emigration from Fujian, Guangzhou and Hainan Island provinces. This diversity is evident in popular dishes served at any collection of stalls or kopitiams. Cantonese char siew (roast pork, given a reddish honey-based marinade) is frequently served over plain rice as a meal in itself, or as a garnish in noodle dishes such as wonton mee (wonton being Cantonese pork dumplings); also very common is Hainanese chicken rice, comprising steamed chicken accompanied by savoury rice cooked in chicken stock. Fujian province contributes dishes such as hae mee, yellow noodles in a rich prawn broth; yong tau foo, from the Hakka ethnic group on the border with Guangzhou, and comprising bean curd, fishball dumplings and assorted vegetables, poached and served with broth and sweet dipping sauces; and mee pok, a Teochew (Chaozhou) dish featuring ribbon-like noodles with fishball dumplings and a spicy dressing.
Restaurant dining tends to be dominated by Cantonese food. Menus can be predictable – including standbys such as sweet-and-sour pork, lemon chicken, steamed sea bass, claypot rice (rice cooked in an earthenware pot with sweet lap cheong pork sausage) and so forth – but the quality of cooking is usually very high.
Many Cantonese places offer great dim sum lunches, at which small servings of numerous savouries such as siu mai dumplings (of pork and prawn), crispy yam puffs and chee cheong fun (rice-flour rolls stuffed with pork and dredged in sweet sauce) are consumed. Traditionally, all are served in bamboo steamers and ordered off trolleys wheeled by waitresses, though these days you might well simply order off a menu.
Where available, take the opportunity to try specialities such as steamboat, a sort of fondue that involves dunking raw vegetables, meat and seafood into boiling stock to cook (the stock itself is drunk as part of the meal), or chilli crab (served at some seafood places), in which crab pieces are served in a spicy tomato sauce. It’s also worth sampling humdrum but very commonplace stomach-fillers such as rice porridge – either plain, with salted fish and omelette strips added for flavour, or already flavoured by being cooked with chicken or fish – and pow, steamed buns containing a savoury filling of char siew or chicken, or sometimes a sweet filling of red bean paste. Both porridge and pow are widely available as breakfast fare, while pow is sold throughout the day as a snack.
Named after the word used to describe womenfolk of the Peranakan communities, Nonya food is to Penang and Melaka as Creole food is to Louisiana, a product of the melding of cultures. Here the blend is of Chinese and Malay (and also Indonesian) cuisines, and can seem more Malay than Chinese thanks to its use of spices – except that pork is widely used.
Nonya popiah (spring rolls) is a standard dish: rather than being fried, the rolls are assembled by coating a steamed wrap with a sweet sauce made of palm sugar, then stuffed mainly with stir-fried bangkwang, a crunchy turnip-like vegetable. Another classic is laksa, noodles in a spicy soup flavoured in part by daun kesom – a herb fittingly referred to in English as laksa leaf. Other well-known Nonya dishes include asam fish, a spicy, tangy fish stew featuring tamarind (the asam of the name); and otak-otak, fish mashed with coconut milk and chilli paste, then put in a narrow banana-leaf envelope and steamed or barbecued.
The classic southern Indian dish is the dosai or thosai, a thin rice-flour pancake, often stuffed with a vegetable mixture. It’s usually served accompanied by sambar, a basic vegetable and lentil curry, rasam, a tamarind broth; and perhaps a few small helpings of vegetable or dhal curries. Also very common are roti griddle breads, plus the more substantial murtabak, thicker than a roti and stuffed with egg, onion and minced meat, with sweet banana versions sometimes available. At lunchtime many South Indian cafés turn to serving daun pisang (literally, banana leaf), a meal comprising rice heaped on a banana-leaf “platter” and small, replenishable heaps of various curries placed alongside. In some restaurants you’ll find more substantial dishes such as the popular fish-head curry (don’t be put off by the idea – the “cheeks” between the mouth and gills are packed with tasty flesh).
A notable aspect of the eating scene in Malaysia is the “mamak” kedai kopi, run by Muslims of South Indian descent (and easily distinguished from Hindu Tamil places by the framed Arabic inscriptions on the walls). Mamak establishments have become de facto meeting places for all creeds, being halal and open late. Foodwise, they’re very similar to other south Indian places, though perhaps with more emphasis on meat in mamak joints and some attempt at northern Indian dishes as well.
The food served in northern Indian restaurants (only found in big cities), is richer, less fiery and more reliant on mutton and chicken. The most famous style of North Indian cooking is tandoori – named after the clay oven in which the food is cooked; you’ll commonly come across tandoori chicken marinated in yoghurt and spices and then baked. Breads such as nan also tend to feature rather than rice, though just about every restaurant has a version of biriyani.
The diet of the indigenous groups living in settled communities in east Malaysia tends to revolve around standard Malay and Chinese dishes. In remoter regions, however, or at festival times, you may have an opportunity to sample indigenous cuisine. Villagers in Sabah’s Klias Peninsula still produce ambuyat, a gluey, sago-starch porridge; then there’s the Lun Bawang speciality of jaruk – raw wild boar, fermented in a bamboo tube and definitely an acquired taste. Sabah’s most famous dishes include hinava, raw fish pickled in lime juice. In Sarawak, Iban and Kelabit communities sometimes serve wild boar, cooked on a spit or stewed, and served with rice (perhaps lemang – glutinous rice cooked in bamboo) and jungle ferns. River fish is a longhouse basic; the most easily available, tilapia, is usually grilled with pepper and herbs, or steamed in bamboo cylinders.
Markets feature a delightful range of locally grown fruit, though modern agricultural practices are leading to a decline in some varieties. Here are some of the more unusual fruits to watch out for.
Bananas (pisang) Look out for the delicious pisang mas, small, straight, thin-skinned and aromatically sweet; pisang rastali, slightly bigger, with dark blotches on the skin and not quite so sweet; plus green- and even red-skinned varieties.
Cempedak This smaller version of the nangka (see jackfruit) is normally deep-fried, enabling the seed, not unlike a new potato, to be eaten too.
Ciku Looks like an apple; varies from yellow to pinkish brown when ripe, with a soft, pulpy flesh.
Durian One of Southeast Asia’s most popular fruits, durians are also, for many visitors, the most repugnant thanks to their unpleasant smell. In season (March–Aug & Nov–Feb), they’re the size of soccer balls and have a thick green skin covered with sharp spikes. Inside, rows of large seeds are coated with squidgy yellow-white flesh, whose flavour has been likened to vomit-flavoured custard.
Jackfruit Like some kind of giant grenade, the jackfruit (nangka) grows up to 40cm long and has a coarse greenish-yellow exterior, enclosing large seeds whose sweet flesh has a powerful odour, vaguely like overripe pineapple. The unripe fruit is sometimes served as a savoury stir fry that’s a bit like bamboo shoots.
Langsat Together with its sister fruit, the duku, this looks like a small, round potato, with juicy, segmented white flesh containing small, bitter seeds.
Longan Not unlike the lychee, this stone fruit has sweet, juicy translucent flesh inside a thin brown skin.
Mangosteen Available June–Aug & Nov–Jan, mangosteens have a segmented white flesh with a sweet, slightly tart flavour. Be warned: the thick purple rind contains juice that stains clothes indelibly.
Pomelo Much grown around Ipoh, this pale green citrus fruit is slightly smaller than a soccer ball and, at its best, is juicier and sweeter than grapefruit. Slice away the rind with a knife, then separate and peel the giant segments with your hands.
Rambutan The shape and size of hen’s eggs, rambutans have a soft, spiny exterior that gives them their name – rambut means “hair” in Malay. To get at the sweet translucent white flesh coating the stone inside, simply make a small tear in the peel with your nails and twist open.
Salak Teardrop-shaped, the salak has a skin rather like a snake’s and a bitter taste.
Soursop Inside the bumpy, muddy-green skin of this fruit, the smooth white flesh is like blancmange. Margaret Brooke, wife of Sarawak’s second rajah, Charles, described it as “tasting like cotton wool dipped in vinegar and sugar”.
Star fruit This waxy, pale green fruit, star-shaped in cross section, is said to be good for high blood pressure. The yellower the fruit, the sweeter its flesh – though it can be rather insipid.
Appropriately, given the steamy climate, stalls offer a range of desserts that often revolve around ice milled down to something resembling slush. More jarringly, desserts often include ingredients such as pulses, sticky rice or even yam and sweet potato, all of which can be turned into a sweet stew or porridge.
At their best, local desserts are certainly a lot more interesting than most ice-cream sundaes ever get. Easy to find and worth trying is eis kacang (also known as air batu campur – “mixed ice” – or ABC), comprising a small helping of aduki beans, sweetcorn and bits of jelly, covered with a snowy mound doused in colourful syrups. Even better, though high in cholesterol, is cendol, luscious coconut milk sweetened with gula melaka and mixed with green fragments of mung-bean-flour jelly. You’ll even find delicious red-bean ice cream on sale, its flavour dominated by coconut milk rather than the beans.
The culinary highlights listed here are mostly fairly easy to find, and many of these foods cut across racial boundaries as well, with each ethnic group modifying the dish slightly to suit its own cooking style.
Malays and Indians often eat with the right hand, using the palm as a scoop and the thumb to help push food into the mouth. Chopsticks are, of course, used for Chinese food, though note that a spoon is always used to help with rice, gravies and slippery fare such as mushrooms or tofu, and that you don’t attempt to pick up rice with chopsticks (unless you’ve a rice bowl, in which case you lift the bowl to your mouth and use the chopsticks as a sort of shovel). If you can’t face either local style of eating, note that cutlery is universally available – for local fare, always a fork and spoon, the fork serving to push food onto the spoon.
Malay food is, unfortunately, a tough nut to crack for vegetarians, as meat and seafood are well integrated into the cuisine. Among the standard savoury dishes, veggies can only really handle sayur lodeh (a rich mixed-vegetable curry made with coconut milk), tauhu goreng (deep-fried tofu with a peanut dressing similar to satay sauce), and acar (pickles). Eating places run by the Chinese and Indian communities are the best bets, as these groups have some familiarity with vegetarianism thanks to the cultural influence of Buddhism and Hinduism. Chinese restaurants can always whip up veg stir fries to order, and many places now feature Chinese vegetarian cuisine, using textured veg protein and gluten mock meats – often uncannily like the real thing, and delicious when done right.
Strict vegetarians will want to avoid seafood derivatives commonly used in cooking. This means eschewing dishes like rojak (containing fermented prawn paste) and the chilli dip called sambal belacan (containing belacan, the Malay answer to prawn paste) – though for some visitors, vegetarian or not, the pungency of prawn paste is enough of a deterrent. Oyster sauce, used in Chinese stir fries, is omitted for vegetarian purposes in favour of soy sauce or just salt. Note also that the delicious gravy that accompanies roti canai generally comes from a meat curry, though some places offer a lentil version, too.
If you need to explain in Malay that you’re vegetarian, try saya hanya makan sayuran (“I only eat vegetables”). Even if the person taking your order speaks English, it can be useful to list the things you don’t eat; in Malay you’d say, for example, saya tak mahu ayam dan ikan dan udang for “I don’t want chicken or fish or prawn”. Expect a few misunderstandings; the cook may leave out one thing on your proscribed list, only to substitute another.
Halal fare doesn’t just feature at Malay and mamak restaurants and stalls. The catering at mid-range and top-tier Malaysian hotels is in fact mostly halal, or at least “pork-free”, and even the Chinese dishes served at top hotel restaurants have their pork content replaced with something else. Of course, the pork-free billing doesn’t equate to being halal, but many local Muslims are prepared to overlook this grey area, or get round it by ordering seafood.
In areas where the great majority of the population is Muslim, such as Kelantan and Terengganu, halal or pork-free food is the norm, even at Chinese and Indian restaurants.
While tap water is generally safe to drink, bottled water is widely available at around RM2 a litre. Among freshly squeezed juices, watermelon, orange and carrot are pretty common, as is the faintly sappy but invigorating sugar cane, extracted by pressing the canes through mangles. Some street stalls also offer cordial-based drinks, nowhere near as good. Rather better are lychee and longan drinks, made with diluted tinned juices and served with some of the fruit at the bottom. The usual fizzy soft drinks are available everywhere for around RM1.50 a can or carton, with the F&N and Yeo companies providing more unusual flavours. Sweetened soya milk in cartons or – much tastier – freshly made at stalls is another popular local choice, as is the refreshing, sweet chin chow, which looks like cola but is in fact made from a seaweed and comes with strands of seaweed jelly.
Tea (teh) and coffee (kopi) are as much national drinks as they are in the West. If ordered with milk, they’ll come with a generous amount of the sweetened condensed variety or sometimes evaporated milk (only large hotels and smarter Western-style cafés have regular milk). If you don’t have a sweet tooth, either ask for your drink kurang manis (literally “lacking in sweetness”), in which case less condensed milk will be added, or have it black (use the suffix “o”, eg kopi o for black coffee).
Locals adore their tea or coffee tarik, literally “pulled”, which in practice means frothing the drink by repeatedly pouring it out of a container in one hand to another container in the other hand, and back. Occasionally this can be quite an entertaining feat, the drink being poured from head height with scarcely a drop being spilled.
Alcohol is not generally hard to find in Malaysia. Most big cities have a bar scene, though in Malaysian towns drinking is limited to non-Muslim eating places, drinks stalls at food courts (which usually have beer and perhaps stout) and Chinese-run bars – sometimes little more than tarted-up kedai kopis, the walls perhaps plastered with posters of Hong Kong showbiz poppets. However, in strongly Muslim areas, particularly Kelantan and Terengganu, only a small number of establishments, usually Chinese kedai kopis and stalls, will have alcohol.
Anchor and Tiger beer (lager) are locally produced and easily available, though you can also get Western and Thai beers as well as the Chinese Tsingtao and various stouts, including Guinness. Local whisky and rum are cheap enough, too, though they’re pretty rough and benefit from being mixed with coke. More upmarket restaurants and bars serve beer on draught, cocktails and (generally pricey) imported wine. In the longhouses of Sabah and Sarawak, you will probably be invited to sample tuak, a rice wine that can be as sickly as sweet sherry; it’s about the same strength as beer.
Where bars exist in numbers, fierce competition ensures happy hours are a regular feature, bringing the beer price down to around RM10 a glass, though spirits still remain pricey. While some bars open from lunchtime till late, most tend to open from early evening until the small hours.