Eating your way through a country is one of the best ways to explore a culture. From the ingredients used to preparation techniques, a lot can be learned about the people and destination you’re visiting just by filling your stomach.
In Southeast Asia, arguably the best food in the region is found in Malaysia. Due to its diversity and multiculturalism, Malaysia is a melting pot of cuisines from around the region. Here you’ll find a mix of Malaysian, Chinese, Indian, and Baba Nyonya (Chinese-Straits) cuisines, along with influences from the neighbouring countries of Thailand and Indonesia. There’s so much incredible food to choose from and the best place to indulge is right on the street. Below are 5 street food dishes you have to try while traveling in Malaysia.
If there’s one dish that is closely associated with Malaysia, it’s laksa. This spicy noodle soup is found throughout Malaysia and each region has their own variation. The most popular version is assam laksa, found mainly on the island of Penang (Malaysia’s food capital). Derived from a combination of Malay and Chinese elements, assam laksa is made with shredded fish, sliced cucumbers, purple onions, tamarind (to give it its note-worthy sour taste), and thick or thin rice noodles. It can sometimes also include lettuce and mint leaves. Other variations of laksa include coconut milk to give it a sweeter and creamier taste, including two of my favourites, Malacca Laksa found in Melaka, and Sarawak Laksa found in Sarawak on the island of Borneo.
For something quick or a ‘snack’ to tide you over to your next meal, koay teow, or char koay teow is an excellent choice. This Malaysian street food staple (pronounced COY-ee Ta-ow), can be found just about everywhere. The equivalent to Thailand’s pad see ew, koay teow is made with wide, flat rice noodles, prawns, bean sprouts, chives, soy sauce and chilies, all stir-fried in a flaming hot wok. Some cooks also include egg and chicken. You may find this dish a little oily and spicy, so don’t hesitate to ask it to be made with less oil and ‘tourist spicy’.
One of the staple dishes from the Chinese influence is wonton mee. You’ll find many dishes containing mee (or noodles) but this popular dish uses wontons, or dumplings. It is made with egg noodles, pork, wontons, slices of jalapeno peppers, and drizzled with a sweet oyster sauce. You can order it dry or in a soup broth. A lot of care goes into preparing a dish of wonton mee to ensure the noodles are cooked just right and the proper balance of ingredients are used, so make sure to watch the masters at work while your plate (or bowl) is being prepared.
Banana Leaf Rice
Vegetarian travelers will be happy to hear that there are many dishes to choose from in Malaysia, specifically those brought over from areas in Southern India. Banana leaf rice is another popular option and is not only visually intriguing but requires you to get a little adventurous with your dining experience. Using a banana leaf as the plate, white rice is served with a variety of vegetables, curries, and pickled dishes. The best part, however, is trying to eat it all with your hands. But don’t worry, you can ask for a spoon and fork if you’re having trouble grasping the rice with your fingers. Remember to use your right hand (it’s culturally appropriate) when eating this dish and be sure to have extra wet wipes nearby.
To help you beat those hot, humid Malaysian days, pick up a bowl of cendol (pronounced CHEN-doll). The main ingredients include shaved ice, coconut milk, palm sugar, and rice-flour jelly with green food colouring. But if you’re looking to kick up your Malaysian dessert experience, opt for a bowl of ice kacang (pronounced ka-CHANG). It builds on the main ingredients of cendol but kicks it up a notch. Ingredients in ice kacang also include read beans, fruit, ice cream, sweetened condensed milk, various sweet syrups, and even sweet corn. You’ll usually get a generous amount, precariously piled high in a bowl. WARNING – Don’t take your time and savour this dessert, as both cendol and ice kacang melt quickly in the heat!