From pork tea to fruit salad smothered in sticky, savoury sauce – eating like a local in Malaysia brings the chance to try a cornucopia of new and exciting flavours. Whether you’ve a day or two in Kuala Lumpur before jetting off to a luxury beach resort or you’re planning a city break in Penang, here are the answers to the age-old question: how to find the best local food…I know about satay, stir-fried noodles and wonton soup – what am I missing?
Malaysian cuisine is the ultimate fusion food – bringing together Chinese, Malay and Southern Indian influences. You could find Cantonese dishes every bit as authentic as those in Guangzhou and coconut-infused fish curries straight out of Kerala. But you’ll also quickly discover how these regional recipes are tweaked to suit local tastes. That’s what makes Malaysian food unlike anything you may have tasted at home.
The short answer is, as many as possible! To get started, here are some standout favourites that you really shouldn’t leave Malaysia without sampling.
For dessert, sweet condensed milk features quite heavily in recipes – and in drinks, too. Look out for Indian cafés selling Teh tahrik, or pulled tea’ – black tea poured between two cups from a good distance to make it frothy.
Easy on the spice: If you don’t usually eat a lot of chilli, go easy at first by choosing milder specialities such as Bak kut teh. Fortunately, even spicier dishes are rarely as hot as famously fiery Thai food.
If they’re not cooking at home, locals tend to buy their food from street vendors. Penang, where every jalan (street) seems to be lined with hissing woks and bubbling pots, is the street food capital. But Kuala Lumpur, Malacca and just about every other city are also overflowing with flavour. Look out for street-side carts in popular local spots such as Weld Quay in George Town, Penang. Or drop into a busy hawker centre such as Selera Malam on Jalan SS2 in Petaling Jaya district in Kuala Lumpur.
Heads-up: When buying from road-side stalls, it pays to keep your wits about you. Busy locals often pull up and order straight from their scooters, then shoot off – take-away bags swinging from the handlebars.
Malaysians usually tuck into Roti canai and Nasi lemak at breakfast, but the other dishes mentioned above are good for lunch through to dinner. Most vendors cook up fresh meals to order and close when their stock runs out, so there’s rarely a need to worry about plates that have been sitting out for hours.
This is the million-dollar (or ringgit) question. Most street vendors have been cooking and selling their food for years – with sauces often closely-guarded family recipes. Which means every stall selling things like Assam laksa will have a slightly different take on it – and you’ll most likely be in for a treat at any of them. You could spend hours scouting which stall attracts the most people or has the biggest queue. But it’s best to just relax and let your senses do the work. If something looks and smells good, dive in.