What is Malaysian food?

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….

43 thoughts on “What is Malaysian food?”

  1. Awesome post-so informative. The photography is so beautiful! And like you, I love love anything with coconut milk.

    As aside: I’m loving your blog. I found you via @sugarbardiva and so glad that I did.

  2. What a wonderful post! I hope to visit Malaysia one day to get a chance to taste all this food in an authentic atmosphere. My favourites are Penang prawn mee, Char koay teow and Ban jian kuih. However everything look very tempting! 🙂

    1. If you and P ever end up visiting Malaysia, be sure to let me know and I will try my best to direct you towards all the good food 😉

  3. lovely post! hawker food is good but even I find it icky sometimes….what i do is to check out the fingernails of the people who prepare the food…if theyre clean i’ll eat..if dirty i’ll move on …LOL but htey are really delicious no doubt!!!! and very interesting!:))))

    1. Definitely. I don’t check out their nails but I do check to make sure the stall is clean and is not swarming with flies. (And I never buy food from sellers who constantly cough or smoke whilst preparing food)…

  4. Yay, Malaysian food post number 3 – the others were catty and meemalee I think. 3, the magic number, I think it’s fate: I’m supposed to explore Malaysian food.
    I spent a bit of time travelling in Malaysia, namely KL and the Cameron Highlands and quite a lot more time in Penang and I always ate at the hawker stalls (poor ;P) but I want to know more about Malaysian food and this is a great start.

    1. Oh eating at hawker stalls is very common in Malaysia, and I honestly think that the food is sometimes better than the food served in proper (and more expensive) restaurants. So it’s actually a brilliant plan to stick to hawker stalls! 😛

      If you drop me a line the next time you go to Penang, I’ll be more than happy to help with the food side of your trip. Hehe.

  5. This is a fantastic introductory guide to someone like me who is just starting to explore Malaysian food in London. I love the look of most of these dishes, the popia and Penang prawn mee in particular

    1. Thank you 🙂 Some dishes are hard to come by in London but if you like the look of the prawn mee, Hare & Tortoise do a pretty good version of it.

  6. BRILLIANT BRILLIANT POST!! I can’t believe you had joo hoo eng chai, i haven’t had that in a LONG time and I miss it so. My fave is also Hokkien mee 🙂 I loved reading this, it really got my stomach growling…. and yes I think it’s hard to describe Malaysian food as it’s a mix of three cultures with very different styles.

    1. Oh yes joo hoo eng chai is one of my favourites. Actually scratch that, I don’t really have favourites because I love it all. 😀

      And thank you! I had fun writing it, and it did make me long for home. Time to plan my next trip…

  7. Wow, so many delicious dishes…although I never had authentic Malaysian food, some of the dishes that you show resemble dishes that I had before…yummie…thanks so much for the post 🙂

    1. You’re very welcome, and I hope it gave you an idea as to what to expect of Malaysian food. 🙂

  8. Definitely an informative post, especially to non-Malaysians and -Singaporeans!

    Sadly, I’ve not had the dish with sotong and kangkung! AND, I can’t speak Hokkien at all!! Hahaha! Shame on me …

    Yes, the wide array and diversity of Malaysian food are what that make me a proud Anak Malaysia. Your pictures of jin loong bao, prawn mee and char kway teow kill me!! I just had my dinner!

    Oh, btw, I myself prefer chee cheong fun with just the sweet sauce and oodles of sesame seeds. Sometimes, some of those yong tau foo side dishes, too. I prefer the local Chinese version … though I don’t mind eating HK-style ones … You know za liong … the one with cheong fun wrapped on the outside of Chinese cruller? I’d never seen such dish till I was hunting for a recipe to make my own cheong fun. I did make cheong fun from scratch eventually. Pretty fun! Can view it here:

    Homemade rice noodle rolls (chee cheong fun) 住家朱腸粉

    Fabulous work! Keep it up, K?

    1. I love zha liong too! I’d never had it before coming here (in fact my parents had never heard of it), but it’s such a nice combination. Had a look at your homemade cheong fun, it looks so good! Well done you!

      And you MUST try the joo hoo eng chai – it’s the most brilliant combination ever. 😀

    1. Thank you 🙂 And it’s always hard to explain what our food is like – in fact it even takes me a while to explain what Malaysia is like in terms of the multicultural society we have. That’s what makes us interesting I guess!

  9. It’s a little too torturous, looking at all that amazing food! Yum and yum again. Love that picture of the goggle man by the way.

    1. Hehe I love that photo too! I suspect all the people there thought I was some Chinese girl who had never set food in a hawker stall before… lol.

  10. But, the dirtier the stall, the better tasting the food. Its the inverse law of tasty hygiene.

    Tastiness of food = k(1/hygiene levels),
    where k = constant

  11. I feel the same! Its so hard to describe Malaysian food. People always expect lots of curries, but there is a whole different spectrum of Malaysian cuisine that doesn’t involve chillies! I have a stall in Sydney Australia specialising in Nyonya kuihs and its so hard to use the word cakes to describe the kuihs as the texture is far from being buttery and cake-y!

  12. i’m a huge fan of joo hoo eng chai as well! *high five* the best food in malaysia is always at the hawker stalls! i’m salivating when i’m looking at the photos. i miss them so much!

  13. I stumbled across your blog, not sure if your search for tau foo fah is over, but I really like the tau foo fah at Blue Pacific in Golders Green. The silkiest and best I can find in London. It is very out of the way for me though, and I am still on the hunt for something as good in central London.

  14. Wow!!!!!!! great,so happy i discovered your blog************ I’m going to malaysia next months and can’t wait to try all this food………………….YUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUmmmyyyyyyy****

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