If you’re the type of traveller who explores a place through their stomach then Malaysia should be at the top of your must-see list, or should I say must-eat list? Located in south-central Southeast Asia, it arguably has the best cuisine in the region. Drawing from its multicultural population, Malaysia is a melting pot of Chinese, Indian, and Malaysian food.
Sit down service with wait-staff restaurants are easy to come by throughout the country but the best food is found right on the street, particularly in Penang and Melaka. Stalls can be found either curb side, where vendors will usually only set up for the night, or in hawker centres, a permanent structure that resembles a food court.
English is widely spoken throughout Malaysia and many street food vendors specialize in a particular dish, making ordering a breeze. Even better news is that street food won’t break the bank, with prices averaging between $1.50-$3.00 a dish. So pack those stretchy pants, check your diet at the border, and try not to drool over your keyboard with these Malaysian street food must-eats.
Char Kuey Teow
If you’re new to Asian cuisine or don’t consider yourself the most adventurous eater, kuey teow is a great place to start. Sometimes written as koay teow or kway teow, this is Malaysia’s equivalent to Thailand’s pad see ew. Flat rice noodles are stir-fried in a piping hot wok along with bean sprouts, chives, soy sauce, shrimp paste and chilies. Some variations include prawns, chicken, an egg and/or fishcake. Most places will also ask you how spicy you want it to be made. This dish tends to be rather oily, so you don’t want to be eating this on a daily basis. But if you’re looking for something quick, cheap, and easy to find, this is your best bet.
Laksa is a spicy noodle-based soup dish found throughout Malaysia and derives from both Chinese and Malay cuisine. There are many different variations of laksa throughout the country, but they can be broken down into 3 main categories; curry laksa, Sarawak laksa, and asam laksa (the most popular variety). All variations are made with laksa or vermicelli noodles.
The curry and Sarawak laksa are made with coconut milk and make them sweeter and creamier where as asam laksa is made with shredded fish, sliced cucumber, red onions, mint and tamarind, and has a notable sour taste. There is also an excellent version found in Melaka, aptly called Melaka laksa, and is my favourite variety of the dish.
Banana Leaf Rice
There are many food options for the vegetarian traveler, especially in the ‘Little India’ areas throughout Malaysia. Banana leaf rice is a dish brought over from South India and has been slightly modified over time. Using a banana leaf as the plate, white rice is served with a variety of vegetables, curries, and pickled dishes. It’s traditionally eaten with only the hands, so don’t be afraid to dig right in. After you’re finished, show your satisfaction by folding the banana leaf inwards. Not only is this a sign of respect, but you’ll look like a pro while doing it.
Teh C Peng Special
With all that great food, you’ll need something to wash it down. If you’re in eastern Malaysia, particularly in Kuching, then don’t miss the opportunity to try Teh C Peng Special. This three-layered drink is unique to Borneo and can be served hot or cold. It’s made with red tea, evaporated milk, and pandan sugar, which gives it its notable green hue. Some shops use brown sugar instead of the pandan sugar, just make sure you give it a good stir or else your first sip will be particularly sweet. Teh C Peng Special can be found in hawker centres, or ‘kopi shops’ as they’re called in Sarawak.
The dessert lovers out there are probably wondering what’s on the menu for them. Cendol (pronounced CHEN-doll) is found throughout Malaysia and is perfect for those hot and humid nights. The basic ingredients include shaved ice, coconut milk, palm sugar, and jelly noodles, but most stalls offer an endless list of toppings to choose from. If you’re really feeling adventurous, consider adding some durian fruit to your cendol, that is if you can get past the smell of it first.