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Malaysian cuisine is just like everything else Malaysian, a blend of different cultures that culminate into something unique, excellent, and appealing to all. As with virtually every other country in the world, Malaysians tend to believe their food is the best. As it happens, however, in Malaysia’s case it may just be true. Food in Malaysia may lack the sophistication and elegance of western cuisine and the exotic simplicity of eastern dishes, but it does have an appeal that transcends the culinary requirements of most cultures, while many dishes and preparation methods here may not appeal to everyone, it is virtually guaranteed that everyone will find a Malaysian dish which appeals to them. Even in the distinctly remote exceptions to this statement, there is a vast variety of restaurants catering to the international traveler, everything from Italian to Japanese to Cuban to Arabian. The visitor to Malaysia will never, ever, lack in choices as far as the next meal is concerned.
Food in Malaysia tends to be spicy, savory and smooth. Rice is the staple food in Malaysia, eaten by practically everyone. Malays and Indians tend to prefer more heavily spiced food compared to the Chinese. In cities, particularly KL, everyone eats everything; it is as common to see an Indian family tucking in at a distinctly Chinese “Steamboat” diner as it is to see Chinese executives sharing Indian Tandoori Chicken and Naan bread at lunch. Each individual is restricted only by religious observances such as Halal foods for Muslims and abstinence from beef dishes for Hindus. Due to the fact that most major cities in Malaysia tend to be near the coast, fresh, bountiful and relatively inexpensive seafood are enjoyed by all.
One point of interest which holds true about the local cuisine in Malaysia is that price is not necessarily an indication of quality. While it is of course true that food at the more expensive eateries tend to be served in a more pleasant environment, are more agreeable to the taste and made from higher quality ingredients, lower priced restaurants and indeed the roadside stalls and “food courts” are often packed by patrons of all social levels. This is simply because the food is oftentimes equally delectable and costs a fraction of what one would pay at an upper class restaurant. However, finding these places may take some effort or help from a knowledgeable local.
Time is often a factor for dining out in many countries, but is less so in Malaysia. While most restaurants close before midnight, the ubiquitous “mamak” stalls oftentimes remain open around the clock, 24-7 all year round. Lately this has spread to some Chinese restaurants as well, you may be driving along the streets of KL at 3am on a Sunday morning and rounding a corner you may well see a packed stall with dozens of people quaffing their “teh tariks” and chewing their “roti canais”. However some dishes may only be available at certain times of the day.
Two words of caution for the visitor to Malaysia: oil and spice. Much of the foods here tend to be oily and quite spicy. Flaming palates aside, this may cause digestive or intestinal discomfort if eaten in excess. While the locals have a highly developed immunity to this unfortunate phenomenon, visitors used to milder, plainer foods should take care.
Below is a tiny sampling of the various foods one may come across in Malaysia:
A Malay dish consisting of rice cooked in “Santan” or coconut milk, this imparts a unique texture, taste and fragrance to the rice, properly prepared, it can be eaten on its own, but rarely is, the most basic version comes with a spicy onion “sambal” sauce, deep fried crispy anchovies, roasted peanuts, cucumber slices and a quartered hardboiled egg. Subject to your request and its availability, spicy beef, mutton, cuttlefish, shrimp, cockles, fried eggs and vegetables may be added.
Made from wheat flour dough Roti is kneaded and tossed into a roughly circular shape “pizza style” and cooked right in front of you on a hot plate sizzling with oil. Light and wholesome it is normally served with lightly spiced fish, chicken or “dhall” curry. Heavier versions of the Roti Canai include “Roti Telur”, which adds an egg and onions into the dough, “Roti Sardin”, with sardines, onions and egg and “Roti Planta” with margarine. Standard fare at Indian Muslim “mamak stalls”.
Char Kway Teow
Found at almost every “food court” and Chinese restaurant the name of this noodle dish in Chinese literally means “fried flat noodles”, also called “Hor Fun”. Consisting primarily of noodles, shrimp, cockles, bean sprouts, Chinese chives, garlic, beaten eggs and soy sauce, the ingredients are stir fried in wok over a roaring fire and served piping hot. Chili paste is optional. Variations include “Mai Fun” thin vermicelli rice noodles, and “Mien” thicker and tubular variant of the flat noodle.
Marinated meat on a stick, Malay style. Satay is basically charbroiled in bite-size chunks and skewered on bamboo strips. Typically a spicy peanut sauce dip is included. Satay is served with cucumber and onion slices and best eaten as soon as it is cooked. Beef, chicken or lamb variations of satay can be found virtually everywhere in Malaysia. Usually eaten as an accompaniment of other foods, a satay dinner can be made complete with the addition of “ketupat”, a wholesome rice cake.
Also known to some as “Pasembor”, Rojak consists of deep fried prawn fritters, coconut confection, boiled squid strips, cucumber and turnip shreds, tofu, hard-boiled eggs and drenched in a rich and mildly spicy hot peanut sauce. Like many other Malaysian delights this potpourri tastes much better than it sounds (or looks). Predominantly sold at Indian-Muslim food establishments, Rojak should not be confused with “Rojak Buah” which is primarily made from fruit and vegetables.
Bak Kut Teh
Another Chinese dish. Literal translation: Pork bone soup. Somewhat “exotic” compared to the other dishes listed above, with its somewhat herbal tasting stock, it may be construed as an acquired taste. Basic ingredients include peppered, bite size chunks of pork and pork ribs, cabbage, garlic cloves, soy sauce, herbal mixes, mushrooms and depending on demand and availability, internal organs such as liver and intestines. Basically a soup, Bak Kut Teh is eaten with rice and crispy crullers, a type of fried confection.
These are just a tiny sampling of the huge variety of dishes available locally, be aware that variations in the ingredients and preparation methods could occur from state to state and indeed from vendor to vendor. The most important thing to remember is to be open-minded and at least try before judging based on appearance or presentation. Both these characteristics tend to be somewhat overlooked in Malaysian foods.