Malaysian Cuisine Reflects Diverse Cultural Influences
Malaysia is a big country (127,317 square miles) with over 32 million residents, but what makes it stand out is the influence of diverse cultures, regions, and religions. It shares land borders with Thialand, Brunei, and Indonesia; and while about half the population is ethnically Malay, there are large minorities of Chinese, Indians, and indigenous peoples as well. This is why there is such a huge range of cuisines and delicacies — much of it spicy. From Chinese to Indian to Taiwanese to Indonesian — the country is rich in history and fascinating people but the best part is that the northwest state of Penang is the Asia street food capital!
Penang is such a cool, eclectic town full of history and art, but is especially famous for the street food. On Chulia Street, a line of hawker stands sells the best-of-the-best with Malaysian favorites like the famous Curry Mee. Curry Mee is really just love at first bite — or slurp. The classic is a proper Malay soup that is coconut-curry based with chicken, prawns, coriander, and a mix of other spices.
#2 Char Kuey Teow in Penang
A very common street food throughout Malaysia is Char Kuey Teow. Similar to pad Thai, the dish is stir-fried flat noodles with soy sauce, bean sprouts, and chives. Typically you add a protein to it — we have had egg, oyster, and shrimp — along with peanuts and chilis.
#3 Roti Canai
Roti Canai is a nice treat that always gets us. It is a flaky, buttery flat bread that has a texture of a crepe and is usually served with one two three different Indian curries. The bread pulls apart and is so fresh you can see the steam leaving your mouth. You can find this Indian dish at a lot of the 24-hour-spots. This is both the best and the worst thing about Roti Canai. It's hard to resist, but there are so many other flavors to try!
#4 Curry Laksa
You have not truly tasted Malaysian cuisine if you haven't had Laksa. This hot and spicy, coconut curry soup with rice noodles, shrimp, and chicken is unforgettable.
#5 Nasi Lemak
This is a classic Malay dish that is a fragrant coconut rice served with roasted peanuts, hard boiled egg, and sambal (chili Malay sauce). It is often paired with fried anchovies and topped with fried fish, chicken, or beef curry. Frequently served on a pandan leaf and commonly eaten for breakfast. There's a ton of different derivations such as Nasi Kerabu, which has distinct blue coconut rice and is served with fried chicken.
#6 Hainanese Chicken and Rice
This chicken and rice dish migrated from Hainan, China and made its way over to Malaysia, where the favor has been refined. The chicken is poached leaving crispy skin on top and served with seasoned rice, a side of cucumbers, chili sauce, and a tasty broth to douse your chicken and rice in.
#7 Ais Kacang
Air Kacang literally means "beans with rice." We ate this dessert almost every day while in Malaysia. This isn't a typical dessert nor is it super sweet but it is definitely worth a try if you go into it open-minded. This popular dessert is a mixture of shaved ice, red beans, green cendol, a range of fruits, and splashes of rose syrup and condensed milk. (We promise it tastes better than it sounds!)
#8 Teh Tarik
Tek Tarik translates as "pulled tea" and is famous across Malaysia and Singapore. It's a strongly brewed black tea combined with condensed milk leaving it rich and creamy and frothy on top. You'll often see this paired with Roti.
You'll soon recognize these wobbly, colorful, jello-looking desserts at outdoor markets. There's a range of different kinds but for the most part these are little steamed rice cakes with Gula Melaka or palm sugar and coconut coating.
Cendol can be found in the hidden streets of Penang, Malaysia's capitol city Kuala Lumpur, and a ton of other regions in Malaysia. This is a bowl of shaved ice and coconut milk, filled with chewy green jelly (cendol), red beans, and a splash of brown sugar syrup otherwise known as Gula Melaka.
#11 Apam Balik - stuffed pancakes
These are more than just pancakes! Slightly crispy and warm and fluffy on the inside, they come with your choice of filling. We've gotten peanuts, chocolate, and peanut butter in ours but you can pick anything from bananas and condensed milk and even some savory options with corn and other fillings.
Kirstie and Christine are the lesbian couple behind the @OnAirplaneMode__ Instagram handle (and an associated travel blog). Their adventures have taken them through Asia, Europe, and India. Their motto is “Travel. Hustle. Repeat.”