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A foodie guide to marvellous Malaysia

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Malaysia a special, multicultural nation situated in Southeast Asia is a land of warm hospitality, rich cultures and beautiful nature. More than that though, it overflows with vibrant and modern cities, exciting travel experiences and, perhaps above all, delectable culinary treasures, all of which make this country well worth savouring.

Malaysian cuisine, as diverse as it’s flavourful, draws on primary influences from Indian, Malay and Chinese cultures (to name a few), so there is no shortage of interesting meals to sample your way through when visiting Malaysia. Whether you’re craving something with just the right hint of spice, like rendang, or something sweeter to snack on like deep-fried pisang goreng (banana fritters), Malaysia has the perfect mix of street-food-meets-sophisticated-eats. Embark on a culinary adventure with us, as our foodie guide to Malaysia highlights some of the best local dishes and foodie experiences for you to enjoy.

Highlights of Malaysian cuisine

We can think of a fair few flavourful national foods you simply must try when visiting this special Southeast Asian country. Malaysians who are fiercely passionate about food and indeed, their famous national dishes have wonderfully managed to put their own unique spin on a melting pot of dishes from other parts of the world, which has resulted in some of the best food you’ll taste in your life!

And while Malaysia’s various regions are known for their own signature offerings, you’ll certainly find shared traditions across the country. This is because Malay cuisine often consists of some key characteristics, including fragrant herbs and secret spices, creamy coconut milk, fried fish or seafood (often seasoned with turmeric powder), and stewed meat complete with famously thick gravy.

Malaysian dish curry mee

Must-try Malaysian dishes

As far as flavourful, must-try Malaysian food goes, it’s hard to go wrong with the likes of nasi lemak. This national treasure just so happens to be one of the world’s most well-known (and well-loved) rice dishes. By many accounts, it’s considered Malaysia’s official national dish (although for some, the verdict’s still out on that one). Thanks to its popularity and healthiness, it’s also fondly known as the ‘national breakfast’ of Malaysia.

This iconic dish, which means ‘fatty/oily rice’ (or, creamy rice, if you prefer), usually consists of fresh steamed rice, fried anchovies, and boiled or fried egg. It comes infused with coconut milk and is usually served on banana leaves, as a tasty breakfast or lunchtime meal. What’s more, it’s often enjoyed with a mix of sambal sauce, peanuts and cucumber. 

Beyond this, other traditional and famous dishes to try include curry mee (a kind of spicy noodle soup); beef, chicken or lamb rendang; pisang goreng; and roti canai, a popular pan-fried flatbread rolled and stretched in coffee houses across the country.

As far as vegan and vegetarian options go, you’ll find a wonderful array to enjoy. Get your hands on popiah, a form of savoury spring roll, vegan apam balik (a pancake-like dessert), and congee rice porridge. Happily, you can also often find vegetarian variants of other popular dishes, like nasi lemak.

malaysian food in a bowl

Visit Penang: food capital of Malaysia

Many consider Penang to be the foodie capital of Malaysia, and for good reason! In some ways, thanks to gorgeous George Town, it’s also the street food capital of Malaysia. If you love exploring a city from the belly up, this is the perfect destination for your itinerary.

Situated off the northwestern coast of Peninsular Malaysia, Penang is divided into two main sections, Penang Island, where the capital city of George Town is found, and Seberang Perai, an area formerly known as Province Wellesley. Despite Seberang Perai being twice the size of Penang Island, most travellers choose to spend their time on the latter, where they can soak up famous heritage sites, captivating street art and, of course, the fabulous food.

George Town’s perfect blend of street food stalls and popular restaurants and cafes allows both travellers and its locals to enjoy an excellent range of food and drinks across a fascinating mix of settings. Kick back in NORM or the matcha-themed Matcho Cafe, opt for cocktails and a more classic experience at the Kebaya Dining Room, or try out the suave and stylish Restaurant Blanc Penang within Macalister Mansion.

street food being prepared in a large dish

From street food to kopitiams: where to find the best food in Malaysia

An incredible array of informal dining spaces are spread right across the country, including in the much-loved capital, Kuala Lumpur. The latter’s shopping malls come equipped with their own bustling yet quality food courts, which are ideal if you tire of busy street food stalls or need some respite from the humidity. Keep in mind that this extra level of convenience and air-conditioned bliss can mean slightly higher food fares, though for the added comfort and unique experience, it’s definitely worth it. Some great food courts to check out in Kuala Lumpur include Lot 10 Hutong, the prestigious Suria KLCC’s Signatures Food Court, and Food Republic at the Pavilion Kuala Lumpur. 

To truly dig into the fabric of everyday life, choose to mingle with the locals in bustling hawker centres (food courts), instead. In many instances, the younger generations have taken over old heritage hawker businesses from their families, guaranteeing foodie experiences steeped in tradition. Elsewhere, an unmissable Malaysian institution to explore is the beloved kopitiam, a humble yet special type of coffee house that provides a rare glimpse into the country’s history and culinary treasures.

In Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, in particular, these kopitiams can be found on almost every corner, offering travelers a mix of traditional fare and beverages at fair prices. Unlike the country’s rising cafes and global restaurant chains, which tend to prioritize fast food convenience and hip decor, these kopitiams generally showcase a gentler-paced dining experience in an informal, no-frills setting – the best place for good conversation and community spirit to thrive. On the capital’s outskirts, Petaling Jaya (otherwise fondly known as ‘PJ’ to locals), has its own selection of top-class kopitiams for you to take a deep-dive into.

night market in Kuala lumpur

The best cooking classes and food festivals in Malaysia

For those seeking more immersive foodie experiences in Malaysia, there can be no doubt that almost all of the nation’s festivals allow you to sink your teeth into some great cuisine. The Kita Food Festival, in particular, is a wondrous exploration of Southeast Asian cuisine, as it’s made up of a series of collaborative cookups, curated dinners, symposiums and more. This festival’s focus is firmly on shining a spotlight on Southeast Asia’s chefs, producers, food innovators and key flavours, while also inspiring the younger generation with its inclusive nature, sense of community (kita means ‘we’ or ‘us’ in Malay), and food focus. 

Beyond the Kita Food Festival, another significant Malaysian festival with notable food highlights is the Harvest Festival (or Pesta Kaamatan). This cultural event brings people from all walks of life together; the locals don their finest traditional costumes, perform multi-ethnic cultural dances, participate in traditional sports like mipulos (arm wrestling), promote their local products and wares, and invite everyone to feast on unique (sometimes complimentary) food and drinks.

Other important festivals, which usually include a rich array of traditional or special foods for partakers to enjoy, include Deepavali (Diwali), the Dragon Boat Festival, Hari Raya Aidil Fitri, Lunar New Year, and Christmas.

food being served in malaysia

If you’re in search of a more hands-on and immersive activity, why not try whipping up local specialities on one of many cooking classes on offer?  In Malaysia, a number of local tour guides and chefs are on hand to offer private cooking classes and culinary tours, taking individuals and groups alike on palate-pleasing, authentic adventures.

A cooking class is a fun way to better acquaint yourself with the people and foods that make this multicultural nation truly special. Best of all, in the process, you’ll develop great skills on how to recreate these flavour-packed dishes back at home. Our local experts will be able to recommend the best experiences to enjoy, no matter which stops you’re adding to your itinerary.

Make it happen

Our local experts are waiting to help you plan your food-centric trip around Malaysia, so get in touch with them today.

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