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The 21 Best Dishes To Try in Malaysia

Picture of Wei Li Ng
Updated: 12 February 2018
The first thing you should know about Malaysians is they are passionate about food. Malaysia has inherited a vast array of cuisines from its melting pot of cultures. So a list of Malaysian food to try is bound to be unlike any other. It’s a bit like New York. Some dishes might not have originated from Malaysia, but they have found a home there.

Main dishes

Nasi Lemak

Nasi lemak, literally ‘fat rice’, is comprised of coconut rice, prawn sambal, fried anchovies, peanuts, cucumber slices, and ayam rendang. There might be variations with regards to the accompaniments, but the rice, cucumber, and peanuts are pretty much staple.

Nasi kerabu

This famous Malaysian rice dish is distinct for its blue rice, which is served with fried chicken, egg, and fried keropok.

Nasi kerabu
Nasi kerabu | (c) amrufm/Flickr

Beef rendang

This beef dish was brought to international renown when Gordon Ramsay came to Malaysia to learn how to make it. The tenderness of the meat and the high flavour of its sauce come from slow-cooking it over the course of several days.

Assam laksa

Rice noodles served in sour tamarind broth peppered with mackerel and vegetable garnishing. It prompts a heat in the back of your mouth thanks to the spicy paste.

Curry laksa

This is laksa for those who prefer their soups creamy. It’s the same heat, but the broth is thickened with coconut milk.

Hanainese chicken rice

Braised, silky chicken served on a bed of rice that has been cooked with chicken broth to deliver the ultimate chicken flavour.

Fried rice

A filling, hearty dish of rice fried with carrots, peas, and some meat. The more indulgent versions of the dish can include egg, small anchovies, and really just about anything.

Banana leaf rice

Eating banana leaf rice is definitely an experience. Per the name, this dish is served on a broad banana leaf. In the middle sits a bed of white rice, topped with crispy pappadom, surrounded by an assortment of vegetables.

Bak kut teh

There are few pleasures as fatty at bak kut teh, a pork rib stew with a salty broth, perfect for dipping savoury yau char kwai in. It comes in a large pot, so order to share with bowls of rice as accompaniment.

Fish head curry

Exactly what it says on the tin; it’s Indian curry made with fish head; specifically the head of a red snapper. The extra adventurous should savour the fish eye. It’s said to be the best part.

Soupy lou shu fan

Sometimes described as ‘mouse tail noodles’, the name is not as off-putting as it seems. It describes the shape of the rice noodles, not the taste. Lou shu fan are great fun to eat because they’re slippery from the peppery broth. It’s a nice, clean meal; great for those who are partial to fewer spices in their food.

Briyani

A mixed-rice dish ostensibly from India, briyani has found a loving home in Malaysia because a good Malaysian will never turn down a meal that combines rice, spices, and meat. Lamb briyani remains a firm favourite. Once again, be wary of the spice level.

Snacks

Roti canai

This light flatbread is a staple in the street-side mamak of Malaysia. A serving of roti canai is accompanied by three dipping sauces of varying levels of spiciness. Those who are not fond of chilli are advised to try this roti with an inoffensive bean dahl.

Roti tisu

As indicated by its name, this roti is tissue-thin and comes in the shape of a teepee as tall as your arm. As fun to eat as it is delicious, the trick is to tear it off bit by bit from the top down, without compromising its structural integrity. It usually comes with a thick sugar undercoating, but can be ordered sans sugar for those who prefer a savoury treat.

Maggi goreng

This dish of fried noodles is the closest edible embodiment of crack. Available at mamak stalls, feel free to order it kurang pedas (‘less spicy’) because these vendors don’t joke with maggi goreng, and with telur mata (‘eggs sunny side up’).

Kaya pau

Kaya is jam made from coconut milk with the consistency of soft butter. When not used as a bread spread, it’s jammed into a bun and steamed to perfection for breakfast.

Pisang goreng

It’s deep-fried banana. Simple as that. Golden, crunchy, with the creamy sweetness of a banana in the middle. The pisang goreng has ruined many a dinner and many more diets.

Satay

At first glance, satay appears to be nothing beyond slightly charred, skewered meat. But good satay is juicy and flavourful, especially when it has been fanned lovingly over a charcoal grill. Served with cubes of rice and peanut drip, satay is delicious with or without them, and is available in chicken, lamb, and beef. It’s so good the Malaysia Airlines has it as a staple on their flights.

Dessert

Ais kacang

A dessert that looks like a mountain of colourful shaved ice because that is exactly what it is. The colour comes from the sugar syrup, usually bright pink or blur to add a bit of pizzazz. At the bottom of the mountain are jelly, corn and red bean to help balance out the sweetness of the syrup and give the dessert a bit of a bite.

Cendol

A dessert much like ice-kacang with the difference that instead of shaved ice, there is an abundance of coconut milk mixed with palm sugar syrup, topped with green rice jelly and other condiments. A creamy alternative to the ais kacang for those with sensitive teeth.

Anything with gula melaka

Gula melaka (‘Malaccan sugar’) is the Malaysian term for thick palm sugar syrup. It has a toffee-like consistency and is present in many Malaysian desserts (see ice kacang, cendol) but nowadays, can be found in contemporary desserts across Malaysia as well. Whether it be gula melaka cream cake or gula melaka creme caramel, these desserts are well worth a try for its particular brand of sweetness.