Malaysia's top 40 foods
In an age when the term "underrated" gets tossed about with impunity, it may be difficult to take us seriously when we say Malaysian food isn’t getting the global recognition it deserves.
But the fact is, this stuff is good. Damn good.
The sum of many delicious parts, Malaysian cuisine’s influences include Chinese, Indian and Malay.
In some ways it's similar to Indonesian food, with the two nations sharing many of the same dishes. (Warning: debates over dish origins can turn nasty in these parts -- such is the passion of the region's food lovers.)
Regardless, once you’re in Malaysia and eating, you'll quickly dispanse with historical concerns and wonder instead where your next meal is coming from and how you can you get to it sooner.
To help narrow your choices here are 40 of Malaysia's top dishes, in no particular order.
1. Apam balik
You haven't truly experienced Malaysian food until you thrill your taste buds with this sweet treat.
A pancake-style snack wedded with the compact package of an omelet, apam balik is stuffed with more than a sufficient amount of sugar, peanuts and the occasional sprinkle of corn -- it's a dish that's constantly being reinvented.
2. Mee goreng mamak
This Indian Muslim dish is the complete package. Yellow noodles. Beef or chicken. Shrimp. Soy sauce, veggies and eggs. A bit of chili tossed in for an irresistible jolt.
Sounds simple, right?
Sadly, you can try to replicate this one at home, but it’s just not going to taste the way it did when you chowed down at that gritty Malaysian hawker stall.
3. Nasi kerabu
If the blue rice doesn’t spark your curiosity, the lines of people around the country waiting to order this favorite Kelantanese dish should.
From the state of Kelantan in northern peninsular Malaysia, nasi kerabu gets its eye-grabbing color from telang flowers, which are crushed and mixed into flour.
The aquamarine dish is topped with bean sprouts and fried coconut, then drenched in spicy budu, a fermented fish sauce.
In true Kelantan style, you use your hands to dig into this one.
4. Ayam percik (chicken with percik sauce)
KFC’s popularity in the region (and across Asia) over other fast food chains won't surprise those familiar with ayam percik.
Basically, it's barbecued chicken slathered in spicy chili, garlic and ginger sauce mixed with coconut milk.
With the right amount of percik sauce, this staple Malaysian stall food packs more zing than anything the Colonel can muster.
5. Nasi lemak
Some call nasi lemak Malaysia’s unofficial national dish. Everyone else calls it delicious.
Nasi lemak is basically rice cooked in coconut milk.
It’s the sides that matter.
Depending on where you are in Malaysia, it comes with a variety of accompaniments such as hard-boiled egg, peanuts, vegetables, lamb/chicken/or beef curry, seafood and sambal (chili-based sauce).
Nasi lemak is traditionally eaten for breakfast but these days people are ordering it any time of day.
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6. Roti john
Whoever John was, it's apparent that he preferred his sandwiches made with grilled minced meat and egg in the middle of slim bread, and drowned in a confection of condiments.
Mayonnaise, ketchup, barbecue and chili sauce -- choose one or choose them all.
7. Rendang (beef, chicken or lamb)
Though sometimes erroneously called a curry, Malaysian food aficionados point out that this chunky cauldron of coconut milk and spices is nothing of the sort.
The difference is in how it’s prepared: slowly simmered (to let the meat absorb the spices) until the rosy liquid completely evaporates.
A favorite, especially during festive seasons, rendang is found across Malaysia.
Variety, variety, variety -- that's way to explore kuih, or Malay-style pastries. Small enough to snap up in a gulp and sugary enough to give you a modest jitter, kuih vendors are the most colorful stalls of all.
This kaleidoscope of soft, sugary morsels goes quickly -- few pieces are left by the time daylight begins to fade.
9. Nasi kandar
Nasi kandar is essentially rice served with your choice of toppings, which commonly include curry, fish, egg and okra.
Everything is laid out buffet style, though you can also order à la carte.
Found all over Malaysia, nasi kandar eateries are extremely popular, most open 24 hours and run by ethnic Indian Muslims.
10. Popia basah (wet spring roll)
A hefty sort of spring roll, popia basah speaks to those in need of the familiar crispy snack, but without the added oil.
Not to be confused with wet rolls found in parts of Vietnam, popia basah comes complete with its own regional-specific flavor. In place of lettuce, the Malay wet spring roll has turnips, fried onions and bean sprouts.
A staple of Malaysian cuisine, laksa eateries have been migrating abroad in recent years, making appearances in Bangkok, Shanghai and further afield.
There are multiple variations. For anyone who enjoys a taste of the volcanic kind, this spicy noodle soup can get you there in its curry form.
Some like it with fish, others prawns.
Our favorite is Penang's asam laksa, in which tamarind features heavily ("asam" is Malay for tamarind) to create a spicy-sour fish broth.
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12. Bubur (porridges)
Bubur vendors are easy to spot. They're the stall with the giant steel pots and matching ladles.
The contents of these coconut milk-based, sometimes sugary soups include a medley of vegetables and meats, and even dyed balls of flour and coconut milk.
There's no standard recipe in preparing bubur -- different regions boast their own specialty.
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13. Roti jala
Roti jala, or net bread, gets its name from the net-like formation that's created by making zigzagging lines with flour on a large skillet.
The final product is folded up like a crepe and usually served with chicken curry. Roti jala is eaten any time of the day.
This pan-fried bread stuffed with minced meat and onions and dipped in spicy sauce is a meal and a half, only recommended to the famished.
Perfect murtabak is made with a robust amount of minced meat, so that the taste comes through on the first bite.
So spicy-sour it'll make your tongue curl.
15. Cendawan goreng (fried mushrooms)
Deep-fried fungus doesn’t get better than this. One version, cendawan goreng, is typically peppered with chili or barbecue seasoning, giving it its own sass.
Eaten as an appetizer or snack, with a meal or while on foot, this one will have you imagining what else you can fry -- and how else it can be seasoned.
16. Sambal udang
The Baba Nyonya people, also known as Peranakan or Straits Chinese, are mainly of Chinese descent, originally from Fujian province in southeastern China.
They settled along the coast of Malaysia mainly in Penang and Melaka, as well as parts of Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia. These days, they're famous for their incredible food.
A popular Peranakan dish, sambal udang is all about prawns. Whole prawns are sent swimming into a delicious pool of sambal -- chili paste -- that's flavored with prawn paste. The addition of tamarind juice gives it a tangy kick.
17. Asam pedas
Nazlina Hussin, founder of the popular Penang cooking school Nazlina Spice Station, says it'd be outrageous not to include asam pedas on any short list of her country's best foods.
A fish curry popular throughout peninsular Malaysia, it's commonly made with freshwater fish or stingray.
Asam, which means tamarind, features heavily, along with ginger, shrimp paste, garlic, chilies and other herbs.
Eaten with a meat or vegetable dish, lemang is glutinous rice mixed with coconut milk, which is cooked in bamboo.
The time-consuming process to make lemang starts by lining hollowed-out shoots with banana leaves.
The bamboo is left over a fire to slowly cook the rice in a process known as tapai.
The result is sticky, wet rice that can, and regularly does, make a nice substitute for its plain Jane counterpart.
19. Otak-otak (brains)
Perhaps named by someone with an offbeat sense of humor, otak-otak gets its graphic moniker from its appearance, not its taste or ingredients.
This fish paste mixture of spices and diced onions is loosely wrapped in a banana leaf and barbecued over charcoal until the pinkish contents become warm and the leaves are slightly charred.
No fuss or frills when it comes to eating -- picking at it straight from the leaf is the only way to do it.
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20. Tepung pelita
A kind of kuih (Malay-style pastry), tepung pelita easily takes the cake when compared to its post-dinner relatives. At some point just about everyone has over-indulged in this two-layered coconut milk-based sweet.
On the top layer, thick coconut milk with salt; on the bottom, a similar milky liquid mixed with sugar and pandan leaves to turn it green.
Served in bite-sized pandan leaf bowls, the packaging of tepung pelita makes it easy to fulfill those gluttonous desires.
Few snacks come saltier, or more gratifying, than rempeyek.
This top Malaysian food is commonly made by deep frying a doughy batter into a thin brittle and topping it with peanuts and anchovies.
The amount of salt can vary and there are variations that use dried shrimp or garlic instead of anchovies.
Rojak ("mixture" in Malay) is essentially a fried dough fritter with fruits and veggies, though there are regional variations.
But vegetarians shouldn't get their hopes up. The whole mixture is combined with Malaysia's ever-popular shrimp paste.
It's the perfect combination of sweet, spicy and sour.
23. Putu piring
Like roti jala, putu piring is enjoyed in India and Malaysia.
Putu piring has the taste of a cake, with the added bonus of pockets of palm sugar.
It’s plate-like shape is formed by flattening the flour before covering it in a white cloth and placing it in a conical steamer.
If otak-otak is the hodge-podge, hot dog variety of grilled fish, then satar is its more refined cousin.
At one bazaar in Kelana Jaya, Malaysia, a vendor has set up what he calls “mackerel-filled food from the east coast.”
Roasted in a banana leaf, the process and look are a Photostat of otak-otak, but with more fish, less spice and larger portions.
25. Roti canai
An Indian-inspired flatbread, roti canai is made with flour, butter and water, though some will toss condensed milk in to sweeten it up.
The whole concoction is flattened, folded, oiled and cooked on a heavily oiled skillet, resulting in a sublimely fluffy piece of bread with a crispy exterior.
You can eat this one as a snack on its own or use it to scoop up a side of curry.
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Though considered by many to be a dish native to Thailand, satay is actually believed to have originated in Indonesia.
Origins aside, can we all just agree that meat on a stick is good?
Malaysia has its own variations of the grilled skewers, served nationwide in chicken, beef or pork forms (the latter in non-Muslim venues only).
Sauces vary from region to region, including the peanut sauce that’s loved the world over.
27. Ikan bakar
The direct translation of this dish means "burned fish."
You shouldn't let that turn you off. This is one tasty grilled bit of seafood.
After being marinated in the all-important sambal, the fish is placed on a banana leaf and grilled over a flame. Great for sharing.
28. Mee rebus
In case you haven't noticed, Malaysia has done a lot with the simple Chinese noodle.
Another one to set your taste buds into party mode, mee rebus is made with blanched yellow noodles drowned in an insanely addictive curry-like potato-based gravy and spices like lemongrass and ginger.
It's similar to mee goreng.
Common proteins added to the mix include prawns, mutton and dried anchovies.
Garnishes include lime, spouts and halved boiled eggs.
29. Gulai ayam kampung
This chicken curry dish can be cooked in a number of ways. For instance, in the "village" style, traditional herbs and potatoes are tossed in.
The best thing about gulai ayam is the smell. Turmeric and kaffir lime leaves, plus lemongrass, give it an irresistible aroma. Palm sugar and coconut paste add that extra oomph to knock your socks off.
30. Lor bak
A Nyonya specialty of Penang, lor bak is braised pork that has been marinated in five-spice powder before being wrapped in soft bean curd skin and deep-fried.
Lor bak is served with two dipping sauces, a spicy red chili sauce and a gravy thickened with cornstarch and a beaten egg called lor.
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31. Char kuey teow
We asked author and chef Norman Musa, one of Malaysia's most famous exports, which dish he'd be outraged not to see on a list of the country's top dishes. This is the one.
Another one to thank China’s migrants for, char kuey teow –- made with flat rice noodles –- is one of Southeast Asia’s most popular noodle dishes.
The noodles are fried with pork lard, dark and light soy sauce, chili, de-shelled cockles, bean sprouts, Chinese chives and sometimes prawn and egg.
Essential to the dish is good “wok hei” or breath of wok, the qualities and tastes imparted by cooking on a wok using high heat.
32. Chai tow kway
In this dish, rice flour and grated white radish is mixed and steamed into large slabs or cakes.
These are cut up into little pieces and fried with preserved turnip, soy sauce, fish sauce, eggs, garlic and spring onions.
You can have it “white” or “black” (with sweet dark soy sauce added). Also known as fried carrot cake or chye tow kueh, this grease-laden belly warmer is available at many hawker centers.
33. Wonton mee
You'll find variations of wanton mee, a dish of Chinese origin, all over Asia, but the one in Penang stands out.
Springy egg noodles are served al dente with a sticky sauce made from soy sauce and lard oil. A spoonful of fiery sambal is added to the side.
It's topped with pieces of leafy green Chinese kale, sliced green onions, pickled green chilies and wontons. The wontons are either boiled or steamed, as you'll find them elsewhere in Malaysia, or fried, in a unique Penang twist.
34. Goreng pisang
The popular Malay snack of goreng pisang (banana fritters) is one of those dishes that has variations in banana-growing countries around the world.
The deep-frying helps caramelize the natural sugars in the bananas, making them even sweeter than they were to begin with. Some of Malaysia's Chinese versions have unusually delicate and puffy batter.
35. Chicken curry kapitan
This isn't an ordinary curry. A Peranakan dish, chicken curry kapitan has a tangy flavor made from tamarind juice, candlenuts, fresh turmeric root and belacan (shrimp paste.)
As for the name, kapitan was the title of an Indian or Chinese leader in Penang. Legend has it a kapitan once asked his cook "what's for dinner tonight?" The chef replied, "Chicken curry, Kapitan!"
It would be a crime against the dumpling gods to leave this fancy little package off a list of Malaysia's top foods.
More of a side than a main dish, ketupat comes in several varieties. Basically, it involves weaving a pouch made of palm leaves around a handful of rice. The rice expands and compresses, resulting in a neat little bundle you can dip in your curry or rendang.
37. Jeu hoo char
Another Peranakan great -- we could easily put together a list of 40 delicious Peranakan dishes -- this salad features a finely shredded mixture of stir-fried carrots, onions, mushrooms, pork and cuttlefish.
This dish is particularly popular during festivals -- especially Chinese New Year.
38. Kaya toast
Kaya is a sweet and fragrant coconut custard jam, slathered onto thin slices of warm toast with ample butter. It's as divine as it sounds, particularly when downed with a cup of thick black coffee.
Many locals have this for breakfast supplemented by two soft-boiled eggs with soy sauce and pepper.
39. Ais kachang
Shaved ice desserts are always a popular treat in the tropics.
Ice kachang (ice with beans) evolved from the humble ice ball drenched with syrup to be the little ice mountain served in a bowl, drizzled with creamed corn, condensed milk, gula melaka and brightly colored syrups.
Dig into it and you’ll discover other goodies hidden within -- red beans, palm seeds and cubed jellies.
40. Air tebu
While inhabitants of some regions in Asia prefer to gnaw on sugar cane (China and Vietnam, for instance), others take a more refined approach when it comes to extracting the sweet nectar within.
Much of the smoke wafting through Malaysia's bazaar crowds comes from pots of boiling, frying liquid, but a significant portion also originates from the engine of a sugar cane grinder.
Stalks are fed into industrial-sized juicers; the liquid is collected and served by the bag and bottle. There's no dearth of syrupy drinks on offer, but air tebu is the only one that comes with a show.
Special thanks to author and restaurateur Chef Norman Musa, cooking school owner Nazlina Hussin and the other Malaysian locals who helped compile this list by sharing their favorite dishes, cooking tips and explanations.
We know, we know. We've only scratched the surface here. Did we miss your favorite Malaysian dish? Sound off in the box below. Or, better yet, tell us about it in this Malaysian food iReport assignment. The best submissions will be featured on CNN Travel.
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