Honestly? I didn’t think a “Malaysia foodie tour” would be that interesting. It’s crazy to think I almost give Malay cuisine a miss, thinking it would be a more “Westernized” version of other Southeast Asian countries’.
How ignorant was I?! Seriously.
The Malay Peninsula has been not only a strategic global trade center, but also a melting pot and asylum of foreign cultures for thousands of years. Chinese, Indians, Arabs, and Javanese are among the many ethnic groups that make the country a fascinating smorgasbord for foodies.
For this reason, I’ll introduce you to the delectable buffet of exotic dishes and spices Malaysia has to offer today. Below, my top 15 must-try dishes and spots in Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown, Penang.
Malaysia Foodie Guide: My Top 15 and Where to Eat Them
Kim Lian Kee: 49 Jl. Petaling, by Hong Leong Bank, Kuala Lumpur. Dinner only.
This is one of the most popular hawker foods in Malaysia. The thick noodles are cooked in rich duck soy sauce with cabbage, then sprinkled with crunchy pork lard. Sound and look gross, but those crisp lard bits are the BEST part.
I tried the weird-looking concoction during a Kuala Lumpur off-the-eaten-path tour. Seriously, if it weren’t for the encouragement and knowledge of our guide, I don’t think I would have eaten what seemed to be fried black rat tails…!
You can’t blame me though: Southeast Asia is infamous for weird food! Thankfully, the dish was finger-licking-licious.
While the noodles are also known as Hokkien mee in Kuala Lumpur, I call them char mee here to differentiate them from the Penang curry soup variety (coming up later on this post!).
Macallum Street Hock Seng Rojak: Gat Lebuh Cecil, Penang. Closed Mon.
Speaking of weird food, rojak is another one for the Malaysian foodie books. Meaning “mixture” in Malay, this traditional dish is a savory-sweet fruit salad.
Penang style mixes the tart flavors of green apples, raw mangoes with sweet honey and guava. They even add squid fritters! The hearty garnish? A thick, toffee-like peanut-prawn sauce.
Unlike other traditional rojaks, Penang rojak does not include fried tofu or bean sprouts.
Kim’s Laksa: T-junction of Jl. Tun Sardon & Jl. Balik Pulau. Closed Tue., Wed.
Penang’s signature dish was ranked number 7 in CNN’s “World’s 50 Most Delicious Foods” in 2011. Start with a tangy, boned mackerel fish broth spiced up with chilies, tamarind, and lemongrass. Then, add a good dose of thick rice vermicelli, cucumbers, lettuce, sliced onions, mint leaves, ginger flower buds, and a dollop of prawn paste.
Not one of my personal favorites, but a Malaysia foodie guide isn’t complete without it!
Penang Hokkien Prawn Mee
Seng Lee Coffee Shop: 270 Jalan Burma, Georgetown. Closed Mon.
While there are several types of Hokkien mee, the soup kind served in Penang is my favorite. Base ingredients include yellow noodles, rice vermicelli, prawns, pork, bean sprouts, water spinach, fried shallots, and a boiled egg cooked inside a spicy broth.
Add to that a spoonful of fried chili paste when served and you have a sweet, savory, fragrant, complex curry bowl.
While you can also get some of the best Hokkien mee in Kuala Lumpur (at Kim Lian Kee, Petaling Street Market), I gave it a try during a belly-busting Penang food tour.
Tua Pui Curry Mee: 23 Lebuh Kimberley, Georgetown. Closed Wed.
Also known as curry laksa in southern Malaysia, the spicy curry noodle soup is another Penang favorite.
Sounds familiar? You’re not reading double! This dish differentiates itself from the aforementioned Hokkien Mee by adding rich coconut milk and cuttlefish (or shrimp) to the mix. And coagulated blood. And blood cockles. 😀
Rich, flavorful and–shockingly enough–couldn’t taste the blood!
Kapitan or Kassim Mustafa: Lebuh Chulia, Georgetown. Both 24 hours!
Think of it as a tasting of Indian-Muslim cuisine in Malaysia. It works like this: go to a buffet-style eatery and pick your sides. Uninitiated? Order “kari campur” — literally meaning ‘mixed curry’ in Bahasa Melayu. This will allow you to taste the best curries in the house.
It can be anything from lamb, squid, beef, fish, chicken, or even fish roe and crab curries! With a side of veggies, of course.
Nasi Lemak Tanglin: Kompleks Makan Tanglin, Kuala Lumpur. Breakfast only.
Coconut-milk-infused fragrant rice surrounded by a main protein, anchovies, a boiled egg, peanuts, and spicy prawn sauce (the infamous sambal). As simple as “fat rice” is, it is one of Malaysia’s most traditional dishes.
Proteins can be anything from spicy fish, spicy squid, fried chicken, fried fish, chicken or beef rendang. Possibilities are pretty much endless. You could eat a different type of nasi lemak everyday of your Malaysian holiday without getting bored.
any cart you stumble upon will fill the sweet tooth!
All the spicy food made me crave a sweet refreshment. One of my favorite traditional Malaysian drinks is the sweet sugarcane nectar juice known as air tebu.
Spot a cart in a busy market by looking for the big sugarcane grinder pictured below. Good luck! 😉
Char koay teow
Kafe Ping Hooi: Lebuh Carnarvon and Lebuh Melayu, Georgetown
Literally meaning “stir-fried rice cake strips,” this noodle dish is famous not only in Malaysia, but also in neighboring countries Indonesia, Singapore, and even Brunei. Of Chinese roots, char koay teow used to be a working class’ dish, but is now a favorite among all Malaysians, including Muslim communities with their halal versions.
Common ingredients include prawns, eggs, deshelled cockles, chilies, Chinese chives, and bean sprouts stir-fried in soy sauce at high heat.
Padang Brown Food Court, Dato Keramat Stalls, Georgetown. Lunch for crab!
Meaning “thin wafer” in the Teochew and Hokkien dialects, these big Malay-Chinese spring rolls are the most unique I’ve ever tasted. Turnips, egg, carrots, tofu, lettuce, spicy and sweet sauces make for an interesting flavor profile.
Want them ultra special? Search for stalls that make their own “secret sauce” in addition to adding premium ingredients such as crab or shiitake mushrooms. In fact, don’t even think about ordering other than the crab popiah at Padang Brown!
Valentine Roti: Stor No. 1, Jl Semarak, Kuala Lumpur
Another Malaysia foodie favorite is the Indian-Muslim flatbread. It’s like a cross between a Danish pastry and a Greek flatbread.
Roti canai’s fluffy, buttery softness pairs wonderfully with the spicy curries served alongside it. You can find it for as cheap as one Malaysian ringgit, making the traditional snack a backpacker favorite.
Thosai Roti Tisu
Kayu Nasi Kandar: Jalan PJU 1/43, Aman Suria, Petaling Jaya, KL vicinity
The thinner version of roti canai is basically the Indian-Malay version of the French crêpe. While it is sometimes paired with curries, roti tisu is mostly served as dessert, covered in either sugar, jam or ice cream.
try from any street cart serving them fresh, Kuala Lumpur or Georgetown
This uniquely-Chinese dessert traveled to the Malay Peninsula with migrants looking for work. The sweet sesame balls, known as jin deui in the mainland, are traditionally made with glutinous rice and stuffed with lotus or bean paste.
In Malaysia however, common kuih bom stuffing is either ground nuts or shredded coconut. Make sure you get them hot and fresh!
Head stall at the Petaling Street Market: Jl Petaling, Kuala Lumpur
It’s actually a Southeast Asian take on a taco, but somehow made it as a heritage Malay food in the eyes of the Malaysian Department of National Heritage. It can be as thin as a crêpe or as thick as a cake! Flavors are generally sweet, but can also be savory such as the ham, hot dog, and beef floss varieties.
Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendul: Lebuh Keng Kwee, Georgetown
Closing my introductory Malay foodie guide is the country’s flagship dessert. The exotic delicacy is made of shaved ice, green rice flour jelly noodles (infused with the aromatic herb pandan), red beans topped with palm sugar syrup… Oh, and a good helping of fresh coconut milk!
I could have done without the beans and al dente jelly noodles, but all in all, cendol is a refreshing dessert you must try at least once.