About the food of Malaysia

Tea Estate, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia.

I’ll be honest with you. I did my research for Malaysia backwards. Well, backwards from what I usually do. What I usually do is crack open the books, absorb as much information as I can, before writing all about the country. This week, I simply popped in on my old college friend MC from Malaysia, via Facebook, and grilled him with 20 questions.

What should I make? I asked him. And, then, on cooking day, I popped in with even more questions.

He was very gracious and answered my questions for two days straight. Thanks to him, I ended up with a scrumptious menu (which you’ll see tomorrow, as usual). But, only after my head hit the pillow, did I realize that I knew almost nothing about Malaysian food except for what he told me.

Merdeka Day Parade (Independence day), photo by Amrufm

So let’s start there.

Beef Rendang [Recipe] is pretty much the national dish. He told me so, just as others have before him. As with so many other foods, rendang is popular all over the region, not just in Malaysia. The curry, boasts a complex blend of galangal, ginger, garlic, keffir lime leaves, and loads of lemongrass. The dish itself isn’t particularly spicy but is a wicked explosion of flavor, thickened with toasted, ground coconut (called Kerisik) [Recipe].

From there, I learned that sticky rice and noodles are the go-to side dishes, along with roti bread. Rice can be made into flavored biryani, or steamed in banana leaves with coconut milk (lemang)  [Recipe] and, in the case of dessert, sweetened with lumps of coconut sugar (pulut inti). This style of preparation is typical of Nonya cuisine, a regional blend of Malaysian and Chinese cooking. You can read a fascinating article all about Nonya cuisine in the LA Times.

Generally speaking, Malaysian flavors are a blend of Malay, Chinese and Indian cooking. You’ll find sour tamarind just as often as shrimp paste, and rose flavored drinks as often as coconut milk. Thanks to abundant coastlines, fish is incredibly popular, especially in curries (hot and sour fish, anyone?).

Cloud forest. Mount Kinabalu, Borneo. Photo by NepGrower.

Many of the dishes we’ve cooked so far also make an appearance in Malaysian cooking, like from our Indonesian Global Table: Gado Gado [recipe], the cool vegetable salad served with peanut sauce, or rempeh [recipe], a seasoning paste served with an number of stirfries, but we ate it with shrimp and longbeans.

Malaysia is one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world. Not only is there an incredible variety of plants and animals, the landscape is varied as well, boasting rice and coconut plains and tea topped mountains. Almost 3/4 of the country is forested and lush, lush, lush all the way to the tip of the north, where spicy food is the dish du jour.

Thank goodness for the forests, because they’ll likely need some shade after all that heat.

Map and flags courtesy of CIA World Factbook. Kuala Lampur skyline by Guyfrombronx

So those are just a few tidbits about Malaysia… what’s your favorite food from the region?


  1. I have been reading about your global food adventures for awhile now. Such a great idea and you are so committed to it! Laksa is my favourite Malaysian dish. In fact, funnily enough, I just wrote about it here: http://wp.me/p26sYt-1d Enjoy your meal this week!

    • Sasha Martin says

      How neat 🙂 I think it’s funny that your favorite version was in the food court… you just never know where you’re going to get a great meal! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Richard Westwell says

    Beef Rendang is from the western part of Sumatra!

    I have made this dish 3 times and everybody who tried it, for the first time, loved it. The flavours of the dish are awesome! The “kerisk” is the vital ingredient, toasted and ground coconut, pounded untl you get a dark brown thick liquid. If you can get coconut in a block in The States, cut it up into squares and pop it into a microwave until it melts and turns brown!

    Good luck with Malaysian food it is so varied!

    This Malay chef in England is amazing, here is his website http://www.normanmusa.com/

    • Sasha Martin says

      Yes, yes – I actually ran into his work in my research – I’m a big fan 🙂 And the kerisik is fantastic. Yum!

  3. Proud Indonesian says

    Richard, you’re 1000% right. Beef rendang comes from Padang, West Sumatra. Gado gado IS NOT Malaysian national dish. It is one of Indonesian national dishes together with satay and nasi goreng. For the blogger, please go check Wikipedia before you misinform many readers.

    • Sasha Martin says

      You missed where I said Rendang is popular all over the region – not just in Malaysia. As for the rest – yes, we made those dishes when we cooked Indonesia. Sorry for the confusion on that.

  4. There has been a lot of recipe trading going on within the region. I’m not sure who can call what dish their own. Dishes in Malaysia have long histories stretching back to their home regions, be it Sumatra, India or China. When they hit Malaysian shores and mingled with the other cultures, I suppose you could call it Malaysian at that point.

    One thing I will always have when in Malaysia: roti canai and teh tarik (ok I guess that’s two things!). When in Penang, you must have assam laksa, char kway teow and cendol. In Sarawak, you must have Sarawak laksa.

  5. sylvabelle says

    Actually, the national dish for Malaysia is Nasi Lemak. Ask any malaysian and they will agree, including me 🙂 —> google it. You will find that a lot of ethnic Malay food will be similar to those in Indonesia and that’s because their ancestors are from Indonesia. And although Beef rendang is from Indonesia, the Malaysian version is very different. The Beef rendang that my indonesian friends cook is wetter whereas malaysian beef rendang is a lot drier. Food that are famous in penang like the “laksa, assam laksa, char kuey teow, and cendol” are chinese malaysian flavours. And the Indian Malaysians are famous for its Mamak style food like the Roti, Dosai, Rojak to name a few.

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