Traditional Malaysian Food

Where to start? There are so many that we didn’t know whether to categorize these traditional Malaysian food by origin, ingredients, or meal times.

Food is the pride and joy of Malaysia so while it’s near impossible to try all of these over a short trip, these are arguably the basic Malaysian staples that you should not miss out on!

Get ready to put these on your bucket list for a memorable culinary quest!

Table Of Contents:

Rice Dishes

1. Nasi Lemak

If you only have one opportunity to try Malaysian traditional food, it should be nasi lemak. This is rice boiled in coconut milk, served with a hardboiled egg, slices of cucumbers and fried anchovies and peanuts on the side.

Nasi Lemak Bungkus
Nasi Lemak Bungkus – Photo by ThamKC

The cherry on top is the sambal – a chilly paste (usually sweetish) with shrimp paste as one of the main ingredients.

This classic traditional Malay dish is not difficult to find as there is virtually a nasi lemak stall at every corner of the country.

It is mostly eaten for breakfast although its portability makes it convenient for an all-day snack as well!

3. Nasi Kandar

Nasi kandar originally hails from Penang. Today however, nasi kandar restaurants are widespread in both East and West Malaysia and enjoyed by all races.

Nasi Kandar At Hameediyah Restaurant Penang
Nasi Kandar At Hameediyah Restaurant Penang – photo credits to hameediyah_restaurant (Instagram)

The dish is actually a plate of rice where you can choose your sides from a row of prepared dishes. These consist of meat and vegetable curries.

Popular dishes include spicy fried chicken.

And many locals choose to cover their rice in different curry flavors as they select their dishes.

3. Lemang

Lemang is not only found in Malaysia, but in Indonesia and Singapore as well. In Malaysia, lemang is a traditional Malaysian food that is present during important Malay festivals like Hari Raya, as well as Hari Gawai.

Lemang
Lemang – Photo by sinseeho

However, lemang can be found at certain times of the year (i.e., before Malay festivals) and it is not uncommon to see makeshift roadside stalls with the bamboo sticks proudly displayed while the cooking is in progress.

To make lemang, individual ingredients are gradually added into the hollow bamboo sticks in this order –banana leaves, glutinous rice, salt and coconut milk.

Note: There are different variations of lemang with additional ingredients like corn or black glutinous rice

Lemang is best eaten with red chicken curry, rendang, peanut dipping sauce, and other similar dishes.

Other honorable mentions for rice-based dishes in Malaysia

  • Nasi Kerabu

Snacks

There is no shortage of traditional snacks to try in Malaysia. Some are less common than others while a few can be seen sold on the roadsides.

4. Curry Puff (Karipap)

This delightful pastry has a savory filing of curry (either with meat or without). They can be made small or large. Baked or deep fried.

Curry Puff
Curry Puff – Photo by piyaSriwattanakul

Seek them out at hawker centers, night markets, or local bakeries.

5. Pasembur

This is a spicy Malaysia salad that Penang (specifically Gurney Drive) is known for. Potatoes, prawn fritters, tofu puffs, fried seafood, shredded cucumber and turnip, as well as beansprouts make up the salad.

The orange dressing is sweet and spicy with nuts.

Pasembur may be confused with rojak but they are different in dressing and ingredients. Pasembur has seafood while rojak has fruit.

And you don’t have to go to Penang to try pasembur as there are some notable stalls in Klang Valley as well.

6. Goreng Pisang

This simple street snack is as sinful as it is irresistible. Rice flour is used to coat vertically-sliced ripe bananas before they are deep fried resulting in a crispy exterior with a chewy interior.

Goreng Pisang
Goreng Pisang – Photo by ad_foto

Night markets and street stalls are good places to look for this Malaysian street food.

7. Rojak

Rojak is definitely a traditional Malaysian food (of Javanese origin) that you should try at least once.

Rojak
Rojak – Photo by ThamKC

This unique salad combines partially ripe fruit (e.g., mango, pineapple, cucumbers) with vegetables (e.g., turnip), dough and soy-based fritters and a dark dressing made of fermented and sweet prawn paste (sambal belacan and black shrimp paste), hoisin sauce, soy sauce, and sugar.

Sesame seeds and chopped peanuts are sprinkled on top for garnish.

Most large hawker centers should have at least one stall selling rojak. You might also be able to find rojak in night markets.

Other honorable mentions:

  • Lok Lok
  • Keropok Lekor

Noodles

Malaysians love noodles as much as rice and bread and there’s so many we did not include here!

8. Laksa

Laksa is a must-try when it comes to traditional Malaysian food. And depending on which state you’re in, laksa may be served a little differently.

Asam Laksa At Restaurant Taman Emas
Asam Laksa At Restaurant Taman Emas – photo credits to mcutiebun (Instagram)

But there are a few well-known types of Laksa:

On the whole, this is a spicy rice noodle dish with a savory and slightly sour broth. Ingredients can include lime juice, sardines, onions, coconut milk, lemongrass, assam (tamarind or gelugur), chili, turmeric, dried shrimp paste, beansprouts, etc.

9. Mee Goreng

Ubiquitous to mamak eateries, mee goreng is essentially instant noodles fried together with onion and soy sauce for the bare minimum.

Mee Goreng
Mee Goreng – Photo by Wang Teck Heng

Additional ingredients for more “sophisticated” mee goreng renditions can include prawns, fishcake, shallots, lime, chili, and beansprouts.

10. Char Kuay Teow

Good char kuay teow must have wok hei – a term for the smoky flavors that only an extremely well-used wok (and arguably charcoal fire) can deliver.

This fried noodle dish is traditionally served on banana leaf – however, this is becoming a rarity.

The Famous Mouth Watering Siam Road Charcoal Char Koay Teow In Penang
The Famous Mouth Watering Siam Road Charcoal Char Koay Teow In Penang – photo credits to crappysotong (Instagram)

Penang char kuay teow can be cooked with duck eggs. And in other places like Ipoh, there may be a generous dose of beansprouts too.

Regardless, common ingredients for char kuay teow include egg, shrimp, chives, rice noodles, and dark soy sauce. Chinese sausages may be incorporated too.

Belacan can be served separately or fried into the noodles too.

11. Chee Cheong Fun

Like other traditional Malaysian food, chee cheong fun can be served in different ways. All will use steamed rice rolls as the base.

There’s the Hong Kong style chee cheong fun that has shrimp or char siew filling served plain with soy cause and fried onion garnish.

But the Penang version that uses plum sauce and sesame seeds instead.

Chee Cheong Fun is one of the must-try foods in Ipoh
Chee Cheong Fun is one of the must-try foods in Ipoh.

Moreover, there is curry chee cheong fun as well as vegetarian versions where mushrooms serve as the filling instead.

12. Curry Mee

Curry mee is entirely different from laksa so don’t make the mistake of confusing them with each other.

Dry Curry Noodles at Restaurant Moon De Moon
Dry Curry Noodles at Restaurant Moon De Moon – Photo by Travelswithsun

Additionally, curry mee has both a dry and soup version, unlike laksa. Different noodles can be used too. You can even order a mixture of yellow egg noodles and rice vermicelli for your curry mee.

Base ingredients for curry mee are curry powder, coconut milk, turmeric, chicken meat, curry leaves (optional), while garnish ingredients can include cilantro leaves, lime or beansprouts.

13. Kolo Mee From Sarawak

Sarawak kolo mee might look like wantan mee at first glance. But kolo mee doesn’t have the dark soy sauce that wantan mee has.

Kolo Mee
Kolo Mee – Photo by Zachary79

Instead, it uses the same red sauce used to marinate char siew. Or it might just be served as is, with soup and soy sauce on the side.

Ingredients-wise, both wantan mee and kolo mee are similar but the noodles for kolo mee feel springier and there is usually minced meat and shallots on top of the noodles, along with thin slices of char siew.

Other honorable mentions for Malaysian noodles:

  • Mee Siam

Desserts

14. Cendol

Cendol may be the name of this quintessential Malaysian shaved ice dessert but it is actually the name of the strange looking green jellies in the dessert.

Cendol is common Malaysian dessert with shaved ice, sugar, red beans, green jellies and coconut milk
Cendol – A common Malaysian dessert with shaved ice, sugar, red beans, green jellies and coconut milk.

Cendol (made from rice flour/ green bean flour/ tapioca flour or agar agar, icing sugar and pandan) and kidney beans are the default toppings.

However, there are different flavors of cendol available at the same street/ roadside stall:

  • Cendol pulut – with black glutinous rice
  • Cendol durian – usually seasonal
  • Cendol jagung – with creamed corn

Authentic cendol will use fragrant Gula Melaka instead of ordinary palm sugar, and coconut milk instead of condensed milk.

Other than searching for a specific street or roadside cendol stall, your next bet is to go to a Nyonya restaurant.

15. ABC Ais Kacang

Aside from cendol, ais kacang is another popular shaved ice dessert that makes the tropical climate more forgiving.

Mixed fruits cold and sweet ice dessert from Tong Sui Kai (Dessert Street) in Ipoh
Mixed fruits cold and sweet ice dessert from Tong Sui Kai (Dessert Street) in Ipoh.

ABC ais kacang means it will come with all toppings – these are an assortment of jellies including cincau and cendol jelly, peanuts, creamed corn, red beans, etc.

The dessert is complete with a splash of condensed milk and palm sugar.

Most large hawker centers will have ais kacang either from their main drinks counter or designated drinks and desserts stall.

Other honorable mentions for Malaysian desserts:

  • Tau Fu Fah
  • Bubur Cha Cha

Meat Dishes

16. Ayam Percik

A marinade of assorted spices, coconut milk, chili, galangal, cumin, tamarind, and lemongrass transform this sweet and spicy grilled chicken dish into an explosion of savory flavors.

Ayam Percik
Ayam Percik – Photo by gracethang

The dish originates from the Malaysian state of Kelantan. And the conventional cooking method requires grilling the chicken over a charcoal fire.

This dish will be found in Malay restaurants and local cafeterias throughout Malaysia, as well as some nasi kandar eateries.

It goes with plain white rice although some pricier restaurants and cafes will serve it together with nasi lemak or nasi kerabu.

17. Bak Kut Teh

Pork features heavily in bak kut teh – a herbal stew of Hokkien/ Fujian origin with a very distinct taste. The name of the dish translates to pork rib tea.

Two Versions Of Bak Kut Teh At Restoran Ah Meng Bak Kut Teh, Klang
Two Versions Of Bak Kut Teh At Restoran Ah Meng Bak Kut Teh, Klang – Photo credits to liz18.21.49 (Instagram)

There are bak kut teh restaurants that specifically only sell this dish. But bak kut teh stalls are commonplace in hawker centers too. The Klang region of West Malaysia is particularly well known for bak kut teh.

Again, there is a soup and dry version for this traditional Malaysian food. Either way, both are better with a serving of rice and other Chinese side dishes.

Numerous ingredients make up the broth – fried tofu puffs, garlic, star anise, many different herbs – the most important of which is dong gui, shitake mushrooms, cuttlefish, onion, rock sugar, etc.

Pork innards can be requested specifically.

PS: The dry version of bak kut teh just has less water content

18. Ikan Bakar

Ikan Bakar translates to grilled fish (or burned fish to be precise) although this is an umbrella term for many other seafood like squid and stingray. Mackerel or grouper is the preferred choice for fish.

Ikan Bakar At Medan Ikan Bakar Teluk Tempoyak
Ikan Bakar At Medan Ikan Bakar Teluk Tempoyak – photo credits to kathy_shah (Instagram)

Depending on what the seafood is, it may first be wrapped in banana leaf before grilling commences.

The marinade is chili sauce with lemongrass, belacan (shrimp paste), garlic, galangal, ginger, turmeric, shallots, etc.

Expect Ikan Bakar to be served together with limes and sambal. Rice is optional.

19. Satay

Satay can use different meat but chicken is by far, the most common meat used for satay in Malaysia.

Satay
Satay – Photo by ibnjaafar

These grilled meat skewers are flavored with lemongrass, turmeric and coriander powder. The dipping sauce is peanut-based and may or may not be spicy.

Onions and cucumbers make for typical pairings with satay. Ketupat (if available) can turn satay into a full meal, rather than as a side dish.

Note: There is pork satay but these are not as widely available

Other honorable mentions for Malaysian meat dishes:

  • Hainanese Chicken Rice

Nyonya Cuisine

20. Nyonya Kuih

Nyonya kuih comes in many shapes, forms and colors.

Nyonya Kuih
Nyonya Kuih – Photo by oqba

Their texture can vary a lot too but most kuih are steamed and include some form or other of glutinous rice flour, palm sugar and coconut.

Here are some common kuih Nyonya:

  • Kuih Angku
  • Kuih Gulung
  • Kuih Bahulu
  • Kuih Lapis
  • Kuih Seri Muka
  • Onde onde
  • Kuih Bingka

21. Otak-Otak

Find yourself a reputable Nyonya restaurant (there are many in Penang and Malacca) and be sure to order otak-otak.

Otak-Otak
Otak-Otak – Photo by yuliang11

This incredibly flavorful dish features fish wrapped and steamed in fragrant banana leaves.

Ingredients like lemon grass, betel leaves (daun kaduk), shrimp paste, kaffir lime leaves, chili, galangal, turmeric, coconut milk, eggs, rice flour give the fish a rich flavor and a creamy custard-like coating.

Other honorable mentions for Nyonya food:

  • Chicken Curry Kapitan
  • Satar
  • Ji Hu Char
  • Acar Awak

Beverages

22. Teh Tarik

You’ll have no trouble finding a local kopitiam or mamak that serves teh tarik, the widely accepted national drink of Malaysia.

A Cup Of Teh Tarik
A Cup Of Teh Tarik – Photo by ThamKC

The name translates to pulled tea in English. For it is the method of pouring the tea between two cups at a considerable distance, that gives this traditional Malaysian beverage its wonderful froth.

There are some teh tarik sellers that will literally make a show out of their skills too.

As for taste, this drink is a combination of black tea and condensed milk so it can be quite sweet. Ask for teh tarik kurang manis if you’d prefer yours to be less sweet.

23. Ipoh White Coffee

Numerous kopitiams and hawker centers in Ipoh serve Ipoh white coffee. This is after all, the birthplace of Ipoh white coffee.

Hot Ipoh White Coffee At Yinzo Kopi
A Cup Of Ipoh White Coffee – Photo by Travelswithsun

To be sure that you’re getting authentic fresh Ipoh white coffee, ask if they are using 3-in-1 Ipoh white coffee packets as these have become more popular for their convenience.

PS: Ipoh white coffee 2-in-1 packets make great souvenirs from Malaysia

Despite the name however, the coffee isn’t white. And the name actually comes from the unique roasting method of the coffee beans where the beans are roasted using palm-based margarine instead of with wheat and sugar (which results in the beans getting darker).

Condensed milk is also used when preparing Ipoh white coffee to offset the bitterness. This method came about from the dissatisfaction of Hainanese immigrants who didn’t like the bitter taste of the coffee that the British did during Ipoh’s tin mining period.

Conclusion

One thing’s for sure, you will not run out of traditional Malaysian food to try (assuming you have no food-related allergies and are not vegetarian).

Traditional food in Malaysia is typically savory, sweet and spicy. Many dishes involve the use of coconut milk, rice, ghee, or palm oil.

Burn off those calories by doing some sightseeing at historic places in Malaysia!

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