People often ask me what Malaysian food is like, and I’ve found that it’s not as easy to describe as I would have thought. I usually have to explain that Malaysia largely consists of the Malays, Chinese and Indians – and we each have our own types of food. This is an overgeneralisation, but I find that Malays are fond of using coconut milk in their food, the Chinese deep fry as many foods as possible, whilst the Indians love ghee. But as I said, this is me being generalised, and there is obviously more to each cusine that what I have mentioned above.
But of course, it’s not just these foods that make up the Malaysian food culture. There is a little (or big) something called hawker food. Hawker food is basically food you get from roadside stalls, and are usually fairly inexpensive. There is a wide variety of food available, and you can always find many kopitiams (directly translated as “coffee stalls” – or hawker centres/food courts (a place with a variety of stalls) all over the country.
As these stalls are usually set out in the open (with simple tables and stools), dining in a hawker stall is by no means Michelin star dining. My mum told me that when I went to a hawker centre for the first time (after living in England for about a year), I refused to sit down on the seats as I said “it’s dirty”. Now I doubt it was actually dirty, but when you’re not used to the setup of it all, I could potentially see how it might seem a bit icky… But if you look past the simplicity of it all, you will find that the food is usually a-ma-zing.
Penang prawn mee (or Hokkien mee as the Penangites call it) is a delicious noodle dish served with a prawn based soup which is one of my favourite dishes ever. The soup is made from boiling a large amount of prawn heads in water, much like making a chicken (or in this case, prawn) stock. It’s either served with noodles alone, or a mix of noodles and rice vermicelli.
Curry mee (also known as curry laksa/Singaporean laksa) is a spicy coconut milk based dish served with noodles. This is actually not one of my favourite dishes, which is rather surprising as I looove anything with coconut milk in it. My mum loves it though!
Lor bak is a dish that consists of a variety of snack-like foods – prawn fritters, bean curd wrapped sausages, fried tofu, century eggs, cucumbers… anything goes really. This is served with two sauces: the lor bak black sauce (a starchy and mildly sweet sauce with streaks of beaten egg whites) and a chilli sauce. You basically dip it in the black sauce, followed by the chilli sauce, and then eat. Believe me when I say it tastes like all sorts of wonderful.
Char koay teow is another one of those famous hawker foods that everyone wants to try when they visit Malaysia. It roughly translates into “fried rice noodle strips”, and is cooked in a steaming hot wok. There is one main characteristic of this dish – it is cooked with pork fat, and has little crunchy squares of pork lard. So for obvious reasons, this is not the world’s healthiest dish. But you know what, it tastes so good that it’s alright to make an exception, once in a while that is.
This particular stall is one of the more famous char koay teow stalls in Penang – we (or I anyway) call it the “goggle man stall”. The man in question wears a gigantic pair of goggles whilst cooking, which explains the name. He sells his char koay teow in one of the coffee shops along Lorong Selamat.
Ais kacang (directly translated as “ice beans”) is a dessert commonly served in hawker stalls. It essentially consists of shaved ice (which is made with a special machine) and red beans, and is topped with various (bright coloured) syrups. Nowadays, vendors make the ais kacang more interesting by using using a mix of red beans, cendol, agar-agar cubes, grass jelly and sweet corn to form the base of this dish. This is then topped with the shaved ice, syrups, and in this case – ice cream!
I managed to get a photo of the machine in action (much to the amusement of the vendor who must have thought I was completely crazy). The rate at which ice shavings are produced from the gigantic block of ice is truly amazing. And slightly scary – I do not want to imagine how sharp the blades/spikes are!
Joo Hoo Eng Chai (joo hoo = cuttlefish, eng chye = kangkung/water morning glory) is a dish I’ve never seen anywhere outside of Malaysia or Singapore. The dish itself is simple, and consists of boiled cuttlefish pieces, blanched kankung leaves, a savoury sweet sauce (similar to rojak sauce), chilli sauce, and a chopped peanut topping.
Popiah is another popular snack back home, and is essentially a fresh spring roll (i.e. not deep fried). I prefer these fresh ones to the deep fried ones, but unfortunately these aren’t easy to find here in London! They’re made from a thin crepe (not the usual spring roll filling), and filled with a variety of ingredients – turnip, jicama, bean sprouts, prawns, crabmeat, egg. A hoisin-esque sauce (and sometimes a chilli sauce) is then added before the spring roll is rolled up. Some stalls also top the popiah with the same sauce. The popiah pictured above are the best I’ve had, found in the town centre of Bukit Mertajam (a town on the mainland side of Penang).
Chee cheong fun – similar to the cheung fun (rice noodle rolls) you find in dim sum restaurants everywhere. The one difference with this Malaysian version is that they are not filled with prawns/char siu and are served plain with a hae kor sauce (which is a sweet black sauce made from shrimp paste). I used to favour the Hong Kong prawn filled chee cheung fun when growing up, but have now switched allegiances to this version. A case of absence makes the heart grow fonder I think…
Ban jian kuih (Hokkien) or Mi jian kuih (Mandarin) – a fluffy peanut pancake that when eaten warm, can truly make you swoon with delight. The best way I can think of describing the texture of this pancake is that is is very similar to crumpets. So much so that on one of the days I had a major craving for these (when in London), I bought some crumpets, slathered them with butter, chopped peanuts and sugar, and baked them. 😀 Beggars can’t be choosers.
Tau foo fah (soft tofu pudding). This soft tofu is made from coagulated soya bean milk, and has a silky smooth custard consistency. It is served with either a light or dark sugar syrup – I prefer the dark sugar syrup, which is made from palm sugar infused with pandan leaves. Mmmm. I have been on a mission to find good tau foo fah in London to no avail – I’ve only found it on the menu of TPT in Chinatown, and it is not very good. Completely un-silky. If anyone out there knows where to get good tau foo fah in London, please let me know. (On a different note, you can however find good tau chui (i.e. fresh soya bean milk) in London – Leong’s Legends in Chinatown serves the best version in my opinion)
Chicken rendang, served with lemang. Chicken rendang is a dish that originated from Indonesia, and is slow cooked in a mixture of coconut milk and spices for several hours until the mixture dries up. This process results in tender and flavoursome meat. The usual spices used for this dish are ginger, galangal, tumeric, chillies, lemon grass, and kerisik (grated coconut). On the other hand, lemang is a traditional food of the Iban people in South East Asia, and is made from a mixture of glutinous rice and coconut milk. It is cooked in banana leaf lined bamboo sticks (that are hollowed out) – the bamboo sticks give the lemang it’s characteristic shape, whilst the banana leaf ensures the lemang is fragranced beautifully.
So there you have it – a quick glance into some of the foods that are integral to Malaysia. It is definitely not an exhaustive list, and there are many foods that I haven’t mentioned here (which I will hope to blog about in the future!). I shall leave you with this photo of what a table at a hawker stall looks like post-meal….