Malaysia food guide
Malaysia’s cuisine is constantly evolving; branching out from its roots in the rich melting pot of cultures that make the country unique. Stovetops from Langkawi to Malacca bubble with combinations of traditional Malay flavours and those from Chinese, Indian, Arabic, British and many other culinary traditions, as the diverse population incorporates their heritage into new dishes. Flavours flow effortlessly across the Johor Strait in and out of Singapore, and there’s a large crossover with Indonesian cuisine too.
From the unofficial national dish of nasi lemak - the sticky coconut rice that’s served with everything from pungent pods of fresh durian to aromatic slow-cooked curries - to dishes at the cutting edge of modern food trends, it’s fair to say that Malaysians relish their varied food heritage and are first in line to try something new. Across this varied culinary landscape, certain flavours sing through, including heady cloves, sweet nutmeg, rich coconut and tangy tamarind. Candlenuts are key, there are a lot of eggs involved, and everything seems to come topped with roasted peanuts or crispy shallots.
The homely heart of Malaysian food lies in nyonya cookery - a comforting fusion of Malay and Chinese food heritage from the Peranakan community. Nyonya encompases the familiar traditions of slow cooking and communal eating, with each family using their own rempah spice blend to infuse the food with love, warmth, and homeliness. Traditional ingredients and techniques that require patience and time come together in dishes with a depth of flavour and a rich story, such as itek tim soup, otak-otak grilled fish, and, perhaps most famously, creamy laksa curries. Discover more about the spices at the base of it all with this Michelin guide to rempah, and try making a laksa yourself with a step-by-step recipe...
Malaysia streetfood scene
Malaysia has a thriving streetfood scene and all its major cities burst with ready-to-eat treats. On the island of Penang, you can amble through Georgetown’s historic streets to try iconic char koay teow noodles, slurp sweet-and-sour assam laksa and nibble lok-lok skewers. Further north in Kedah, the region known as ‘Malaysia’s rice bowl’, navigate your way through Langawi’s international smorgasbord to find a wealth of local grab-and-go foods including ikan bakar barbequed fish, chicken satay and fresh seafood buffets.
Kuala Lumpur is a typical big city foodie fantasy, where you can eat the world in a day. If you need a few moments away from the rush, head for a traditional kopitiam coffee shop to wrap yourself around a mug of strong teh tarik or locally blended coffee, and munch on a plate of super-sweet kaya toast as you gather your thoughts. Read more about KL’s kopitiam culture in this Time Out article.
From wandering through the tea-covered hills of the Cameron Highlands to learning how to cook authentic dishes in Penang, Malaysia’s versatile food culture offers something new in every corner of the country.
What’s for breakfast?
The difficult decisions about what to eat in Malaysia start from the first meal of the day. If you like to start the day with savoury flavours, try buttery roti canai dipped in spicy dal, bowlfuls of nasi lemak topped with with fiery sambal, egg and peanuts, or deep-fried curry puffs. If you’re more of a sweet tooth, opt for sweet apam balik peanut and sugar sandwiches, kaya toast topped with an egg, or chee cheong fun rice rolls filled with sweet beans.
Vegetarian and vegan food in Malaysia
In this country of a hundred cuisines, vegan travellers can find plenty to enjoy. Though many traditional dishes include barbequed or slow-cooked fish and meat, they’re fairly easy to avoid, and there’s always plenty of vegetables and tofu available too. It's eggs, dairy and subtler ingredients like fish sauce and shrimp paste that you might have to watch out for.
Eggs are a popular addition to lots of dishes in Malaysia, and though it’s straightforward to ask for anything without an egg on top, they’re an integral ingredient in many dishes too. Roti canai bread sometimes contains egg, so be sure to ask. If in doubt, go for an Indian-style bread instead, such as dosa.
Some of Malaysia’s key dishes are naturally vegan friendly. Nasi lemak, for example, is available absolutely everywhere. Ask for vegan-friendly toppings such as fried shallots, cucumber slices and peanuts - just make sure to ask for it without the dried fish which is sometimes sprinkled on top. Chee cheong fun rice noodle rolls are delicious topped with hoisin and sesame, and, of course, durian is 100% vegan, if you’re brave enough to try it!
Food innovation is at the fore in Malaysia, and there are several inspirational projects pioneering vegan friendly food. Plucky start-up My Plant Deli, is one of several inspirational projects pioneering vegan foods in Malaysia.
Gluten-free in Malaysia
As long as you avoid the obvious contenders such as bread and noodles, and watch out for soy sauce, going gluten-free in Malaysia isn’t too tricky.
A breakfast of nasi lemak topped with an egg makes a fantastic start to the day, and once you’re out and about in the major cities you’ll have access to a good range of gluten free goodies in major supermarkets too.
Common ingredients like sambal and tamarind are gluten free, so as long as you can make sure there’s no soy sauce or wheat noodles, you can try traditional nyonya dishes like laksa. The Legal Nomad’s guide to gluten-free Malaysia is great for reference.
Unsurprisingly, finding gluten-free food in KL is no problem at all. Culture Trip’s list of the top gluten-free restaurants in KL should get you started.
Eating with kids in Malaysia
A lot of Malaysian food wears its chilli on its sleeve, so it’s not too difficult for younger travellers to avoid dishes if they’re too spicy. As many dishes are ‘build your own’ style, you can often start with a bowl of basic carbs such as rice or noodles, then add the bits and pieces that you want - perfect for kids who know what they like, and what they don’t!
Skewers of barbequed meat or fish are often an easy win with little ones, and letting the children choose their own from a steamboat selection or lok-lok stand, before plunging them into boiling water to cook, adds to the excitement.
A selection of vibrant and unusual fruit is available all year round, so it won’t be a problem to get kids to enjoy plenty of it, from slippery sweet lychees to chunks of bright pink dragon fruit.