The world is small nowadays. If you live in a mid-size to large city, odds are you share your city with people and cultures from all over the world. Particularly in regard to food, you will probably find restaurants ranging from Thai to Ethiopian right in your own neighborhood. However, unbeknownst to most Westerners, one of Asia’s most highly acclaimed cuisines has somehow slipped through the cracks in the West.
I’m speaking, of course, of Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine. I did a search in the Los Angeles metropolitan area (population ~12 million) and found only 3 Malaysian restaurants, and after spending 5 weeks in Malaysia, I have to wonder why. I’m sure Malaysians and Singaporeans will grumble about being categorized with one another, but the truth is they have many more similarities than differences. Their culinary traditions include influences of Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures.
If you’re into food, Malaysia and Singapore MUST be on your bucket list, and since odds are you know nothing about Malaysian food, here is a comprehensive guide of some of the must-tries during your visit. I have limited the list to dishes that can be found just about everywhere, and have separated the list by cultural influence (Malay, Chinese and Indian). Hope you enjoy!
A staple of Malaysian cuisine, Laksa is to Malaysia what Barbecue is to Texas. It is a spicy noodle soup with chicken, prawn, or sometimes fried fish. The broth is usually either a coconut based curry broth or a sour tamarind based broth (Asam Laksa). As with much of Malaysian cuisine, both the broth and the noodles can vary regionally.
Where to Find It: EVERYWHERE. Curry Laksa particularly in Singapore and Asam Laksa particularly in Penang, Malaysia.
Price: 4-7 MYR ($1.00-$2.75).
A light, crispy pancake topped with ground peanut. These are a beloved street “comfort” food in Malaysia & Singapore and you will often see long lines to get one at all times of day.
Where to Find It: Outdoor markets, night markets or hawker centers. You won’t see them in restaurants.
Price: 1 MYR ($0.25).
Rendang (Indonesian) – Traditionally an Indonesian dish, in Malaysia it is one of the most variable dishes in the country. In essence, it is simply meat stewed in coconut milk and ground spices like ginger, galangal, garlic, shallot, lemongrass and turmeric. The consistency can be from dry to soupy and the meat is usually beef or chicken. Rendang takes the top spot on CNN’s worlds 50 best foods.
Where to Find It: For being so delicious, Rendang can actually be somewhat hard to find (probably because it takes a long time to make). You will have to ask a local or do some online research to find places that serve it. Food cities like Singapore and Penang are a good start.
Price: Can be “pricey”, especially for beef rendang. 12-16 MYR ($3.00 – $4.00).
Sometimes considered the national dish of Malaysia. In its most basic form, it is coconut rice topped with sambal (spicy sauce), dried anchovies and peanuts. It is typically served “to go” style wrapped in a little banana leaf pyramid and is most often eaten for breakfast.
Where to Find It: On the side of the street early in the morning.
Price: 2 MYR ($0.50).
A savory rice porridge often mixed with diced pork, chicken or fish (or sometimes frog if you’re lucky!). It is embraced as a comfort food in many Asian countries, and is often considered as a food therapy meal for when you’re sick (similar to chicken noodle soup in the U.S.A.).
Where to find it: Everywhere. Any hawker center should have at least one stall.
Price: 3-4 MYR (~$1.00).
Bak Kut Teh
Literally “meat bone tea,” it is a pork medley slow boiled in a complex broth that includes dong quai, star anise, and cinnamon. It’s basically a bowl of pork parts: ribs, intestines, and mystery “balls,” all in a herbal soup usually served with a side of flash fried leafy greens and steamed rice. Depending on where you are in Malaysia, it might only be served for breakfast (as in Kuala Lumpur) or it might only be served for dinner (as in Sabah).
Where to Find It: Bak Kut Teh is usually served in restaurants that serve nothing else. Look for bustling open restaurants with tables spilling out into the street.
Price: 20-30 MYR ($5.00-$8.00). A little more expensive than average.
Claypot Chicken Rice
A steamy, crusty clay bowl of rice, meat (chicken or chicken sausage), soy sauce, and sometimes egg. The unique part of this dish is that the steamed rice is cooked at high heat on a charcoal stove causing the edges to “burn” onto the inside of the bowl, before the other ingredients are added. Everyone agrees that the little burned bits are the best part of the dish!
Where to find it: You might have to ask a local as this dish is a little less common.
Price: 6-8 MYR ($1.50-$2.00).
Hainanese Chicken Rice
Often considered the national dish of Singapore. Bringing up the topic of where to find the best Chicken Rice could spark a violent debate as many Malaysians and Singaporeans are very serious about their chicken rice. In essence, it just a steeped chicken, chopped into strips and served over rice, but the subtleties of the dish make the difference. Some regions use coconut rice, some cook the rice in the chicken stock, some use roast chicken instead of boiled chicken, and so on. This one is not to be missed, especially in Singapore.
Where to Find It: Chinese coffee shops, hawker centers, and even some restaurants. Look for rows of cooked chickens hanging in the window.
Price: 5-8 MYR ($1.25-$2.00).
One of my personal favorites. Hokkien mee is a noodle dish often consisting of both egg and rice noodles, mixed together with pork, prawns, squid and veggies. In Penang and much of Malaysia, the dish is served as a soup with a seafood based broth, while in Singapore the dish is stir fried. It is often garnished with sambal and sometimes lime.
Where to find it: Everywhere in Penang and Singapore hawker centers. Look for the signs and ask locals about the best spots.
Price: 4-7 MYR ($1.00-$1.75).
Char Kway Teow
Somewhat similar to the Thai dish Pad See Ew. Char Kway Teow is a stir fried flat noodle dish with prawns, cockles, soy sauce and chillies and is usually served on a banana leaf or butcher paper. This is an especially popular dish in the Penang region, which has a heavy Hokkien influence.
Where to find it: Everywhere, especially in Penang. Look for hawker stalls and night markets.
Price: 3-6 MYR ($0.75-$1.50).
Spiced basmati rice typically cooked together with meat. This is exactly the same as traditional Indian biryani, but Singaporeans think they can differentiate it by calling it “dum biryani” signifying that it is cooked together with the meat. Traditionally, all biryani is cooked with the meat anyways so the Singaporean attempt to differentiate it is a lazy one.
Where to Find It: Little India hawker centers and restaurants.
Price: 8-12 MYR ($2.00 – $3.00).
Though murtabak originates in the Arabian peninsula, it has been adopted into the food culture of the Malaysian Mamak (Indian Muslims). It is a savory pan-fried pancake usually stuffed with minced meat (beef, chicken, or lamb), onion and a cracked egg. This dish is quite heavy and is usually served with an assortment of vegetable curries for dipping. One of these could easily feed 2 people.
Where to Find It: Mamak stalls in Indian neighborhoods or night markets. It is often eaten for either lunch or dinner.
Price: 4-5 MYR ($1.00-$1.25).
A savory pan-fried flatbread dish that is typically eaten for breakfast and served alongside lentil or meat curry.
Where to find it: Early in the morning at Mamak Stalls (streetside indian food stalls). Get there early because most places are likely to run out before noon.
Price: 1-2 MYR ($0.25 – $0.50).
An extremely sweet dessert beverage made from rice milk, coconut milk and palm sugar (sort of a Malaysian version of Mexican horchata). Technically the term “Cendol” refers to the rice based green jelly “worms” that are added to the drink. The drink is served with a large diameter straw so you can slurp up all the worms from the bottom. Personally I’m not a huge fan of the worms part, but the drink base is delicious!
Where to Find It: Most restaurants don’t feature a “dessert menu”, so in order to find this, you will either have to find a dessert stall (usually next to the hawker centers) or find a stall out at the night markets.
Price: 2 MYR ($0.50).
Most westerners would agree that coffee in Malaysia is sort of a sore subject. The ubiquity of an instant coffee mixture (they call Nescafe) has led to many a disappointing experience. That said, Malaysians have built quite a culture around their traditional Iced Coffee, the typical variety of which being coined “White Coffee” meaning it contains coffee, condensed milk, and sugar. Since it’s usually hot in Southeast Asia, most people drink their coffee cold, and if you are okay with your coffee being more sugar than bean, this is sure to be quite a treat.
Where to Find It: EVERYWHERE! The way most hawker centers work is that the drink people are in charge of the tables and so after you order your drinks you are free to go to any of the food stalls you want. As soon as you sit down at a table, a drink vendor will come by asking for your drink order (if you don’t get a drink, you won’t be sitting there). Every drink vendor will have iced coffee.
Price: 1-2 MYR ($0.25-$0.50).
OMG They need to have this everywhere! I would order this HOT even in the blistering desert. Teh Tarik literally translates to “pulled tea” and all it is is black tea with condensed milk and a bit of sugar. The magic comes in the “pulling” part where the tea is poured back and forth between containers (usually from above the barista’s head) to develop a wonderful foam on the top of the drink. You can also order this as an iced drink, but obviously that would destroy the foam immediately.
Where to Find It: You can “find” it literally everywhere (like iced coffee), but in my experience your best bet is in an Indian hawker center as many of the Chinese centers simply stir the tea instead of pulling it.
Price: 1-2 MYR ($0.25-$0.50).
Ais Kacang (ABC)
Literally meaning “ice beans”, this one is really more of a dessert than a drink and will certainly be one of the most unique things you try in Malaysia. The contents will vary from stall to stall, but at its core this is rose syrup shaved ice topped with an assortment of beans, sweet corn, cendol “worms”, fruit and vanilla ice cream and drizzled with condensed milk. Seriously. That’s what it is. This is one you might need to share.
Where to Find It: Like Cendol, this can usually only be found at dessert stalls.
Price: 3-4 MYR ($0.75-$1.00).
So if you’re planning a trip to Malaysia or Singapore, make sure you give yourself enough time to try each of these dishes at least once, and don’t forget to bring your stretchy pants!