Malaysian Cuisine


Malaysian food is often mistaken as a culinary diversity originating from its multi-ethnic population. However, a look into the past and how this multi-ethnic country came to be helps us comprehend that ‘Malaysian Food’ is the blend of this cosmic array of food. Various ethnic groups in Malaysia have their dishes but Malaysian food is the assimilation of multiple ethnic influences. Presented here are some of the various delicious and popular dishes of Malaysia, with pictures and detailed recipes. 


In Malay cuisines, fresh aromatic herbs and roots are used; some include lemongrass, ginger, garlic, shallots, kaffir limes and fresh chillies. Both fresh and dried ingredients are frequently used together, usually ground into a rempah [spice paste]. The rempah is then sautéed in oil to bring out its flavourful aroma and toasted goodness. Santan [coconut milk] is the main ingredient of Malay lemak dishes. Lemak dishes are typically not hot to taste; it is aromatically spiced and coconut milk is added for a creamy richness [lemak].

Nasi Lemak (Coconut-flavoured Rice) is rice cooked in coconut milk made aromatic with pandan leaves [screw pine leaves]. It is typically served with Sambal Ikan Bilis - fried dried anchovies cooked in a dry sambal sauce, and garnished with cucumber slices, hard boiled egg and roasted peanuts. Nasi lemak is traditionally a breakfast dish not only among the Malay families but also among those of the other races in Malaysia, and it is sold early in the morning at roadside stalls in Malaysia, where it is often sold packed in newspaper, brown paper or banana leaf.

Satay (BBQ Sticks) - This famous meat-on-a-stick appears on menus from New York to Amsterdam. The secret of this tender, succulent satay is, of course, in the rich, spicy-sweet marinade. The marinated meat; chicken or beef, are skewered onto bamboo sticks and grilled over hot charcoals. Some satay stalls also serve venison and rabbit satay. A fresh salad of cucumbers & onions are served together with a spicy-sweet peanut sauce for dipping. Ketupat, a Malay rice cake similar to Lontong, is also an accompaniment to satay, great for dipping in satay sauce. Satays are found in almost every hawker stall in Malaysia, manifesting itself as an example of cultural assimilation in the country.

Fish Head Curry, a fish head, usually from large sized groupers, cods, salmons or red snappers, is cooked in fish curry powder, spices, chillies, tamarind and coconut milk. This renowned Malaysian dish is cooked in almost all Malaysian homes. Its recipe includes a Made in Malaysia Meat Curry Powder. It has just the right blend of spices for an authentic 'Malaysian-tasting' curry! This weird and wonderful dish has gained popularity especially with fish aficionados, who know that the sweetest meat of the fish is from the head and cheeks!

Mamak - The most widespread local Indian stalls, eateries and restaurants you will find in Malaysia, are Indian-Muslim. Affectionately referred to by locals as Mamak stall or Mamak restaurant, they serve an extraordinary cuisine of Indian-Muslim food - a culinary assimilation of Indian and Malay cooking styles. The curries and entrees are unmistakably Indian, yet unlike those found in India. Mamak means 'Uncle' in Tamil.


In spite of the equatorial climate, a hot beverage of Indian-style tea, called teh tarik is very popular. ‘Teh’ is tea in Malay and ‘tarik’ means to pull or to jerk or to tug. The milky tea is prepared by using out-stretched hands, pouring [pulling] the piping hot tea from one mug to another several times. Higher pulls produces thicker froth, making the beverage more delectable.

Spices are the core of Indian cuisine. The quantity and proportions vary with each geographical boundary. Curry powder is almost never used in authentic Indian cooking. Spices are freshly ground and added in many different combinations, giving each dish a unique and distinct taste. Spices commonly used are coriander, cumin, turmeric, fennel, mustard and fenugreek.

Many of these Mamak stalls and restaurants are open 24 hours a day. Impeccable menu items at these round-the-clock joints are Tandoori Chicken, Murtabak and Roti Canai [pronounced Chan-nai]. Roti Canai is also called Roti Prata or Paratha [the original Indian name]. Roti Canai is now well-known as a popular 'Malaysian' appetizer on menus in Malaysian restaurants all over the world. It is usually served with a Malaysian Chicken Curry which is distinctly 'Malaysian flavoured'.

Mamak stalls and eateries also specialize in what is called Nasi Kandar. Nasi Kandar basically, is a meal of steamed rice which can be plain or mildly flavoured such as Nasi Biryani, and served with a variety of curries and side dishes. Indian-Muslim style curries in Malaysia are quite distinctive in taste. One such unique culinary creation is Malaysia's famed Fish Head Curry. The word Nasi Kandar came about from a time when nasi [rice] hawkers or vendors would kandar [balance] a pole on their shoulders with two huge containers of rice meals. The name has remained and today the word Nasi Kandar is seen on most Indian restaurants and Mamak stalls offering rice meals. Eaten with fingers, rice or bread is served on a thali or circular metal tray, on which small metal bowls called katori are placed with your choice of entrees and curries. Nowadays, a regular dinner plate and several small bowls, usually made of melamine, are the norm. Cutlery is provided but diners still have the option to eat & enjoy the food with their fingers.

Meanwhile, Chinese cuisine is generally milder compared to Malay or Indian fare. But thanks to the influence from this multiethnic country, Chinese cuisine in Malaysia, has taken on a spicier touch, often reinventing classic Chinese dishes. Many Chinese dishes are unique in Malaysia and not found in China. Chillies are used frequently to bestow fiery hotness to many of its dishes such as the famous Chilli Crab.

The chilli crab is made with hard-shell crabs, and cooked in thick gravy with a tomato chilli base – influence from the Malay and Indian cuisine. This easy-to-make dish is literally finger-licking good. Blue crabs, Dungeness crabs or Mud crabs have never been so lovingly tossed in a most superb chilli sauce.

Sweet & Sour Fish - This internationally popular Chinese dish is always a hit. Whole fish such as Grouper [Garoupa in Portuguese; Kerapu in Malay] is the fish of choice, evidently another Malay influence. It is lightly coated in flour and deep fried whole till crispy. The crispy fish is then topped with stewed pineapple, green pepper and onions in a sweet & sour sauce. Pomfret is another fish that is very popular served this style whole.

Char Kway Teow [Fried Flat Noodles] - fresh flat rice noodles are stir fried in a little lard with shrimp, cockles, bean sprouts, egg and chives. A smoky chilli adds kick to this popular noodle dish. The island of Penang in Malaysia, well-known for its hawker food, is especially famous for its Char Kway Teow. [hands-down the best in the country!]

Penang Curry Mee is a famous Penang noodle soup dish. It is often mistakenly called 'Curry Laksa', which is altogether a different noodle dish in Penang called 'Laksa Lemak' or sometimes 'Laksa Siam'. Thin rice vermicelli [Mei Fun or Beehoon] and yellow egg noodles [Chow Mein] are served in a spicy coconut curry soup with fresh cockles, shrimp, cuttlefish, pig's blood cake, fried & deep fried tofu, bean sprouts and a hot pan-roasted chilli sauce.

Popiah [Steamed Spring Rolls] - a vegetable filling of stewed jicama [sengkuang], carrots and bean sprouts are rolled in a rice paper wrapper with minced prawns, fried shallots and lettuce. A sweet & hot chilli sauce is served on the side. It is sometimes deep fried.

Nyonya [often spelt Nonya] food contains many of the traditional ingredients of Chinese food and Malay spices and herbs, Nyonya cuisine is eclectically seasoned and different than either Chinese or Malay food. It is fusion cuisine at its best! A key ingredient in Nyonya cuisine is belacan [a dried shrimp paste].

Nyonya cuisine is also famous for its Kuih [cake or dessert]. Nyonya desserts are varied and extraordinary. They are strongly Malay influenced - made from local ingredients such as sweet potato, yams, agar - agar, gula Melaka [palm sugar], coconut milk, glutinous rice - and Chinese ingredients such as red beans, green beans or Mung beans.

Assam Laksa is thick rice noodles served in a tangy fish soup/gravy. Not at all fishy, the soupy gravy is made with mackerel and lots of aromatic herbs. Fresh garnishing of shredded cucumber, lettuce, pineapple, onion and fragrant mint leaves finishes the dish. In general, the term Laksa refers to Malay style laksa, sometimes referred to as Malay Laksa. There are slight variations of laksa in different parts of the country. This version of laksa is from the 'hawker food capital' of Malaysia - Penang, famous for its Penang Laksa or Penang Assam Laksa.  

Rojak (Exotic Malaysian Salad), also called Penang Rojak, is a fruit and vegetable salad tossed in a special sauce. Simply labelled Rojak Sauce, the sauce is made from a thick black molasses-like paste called haeko, pronounced 'hey-ko' or Prawn Paste [Otak Udang, in Malay]. This is combined with palm sugar, tamarind paste and other ingredients. Pineapple, apple, guava, green mango, jicama and cucumber are tossed in this sauce with crushed peanuts and sesame seeds. Thai Bird chillies are added to give this exotic salad a fiery kick! It is a perfect combination of the Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine.