Cuisine of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei
|Cuisines of Asia and Oceania|
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Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei are former British colonies in Southeast Asia that are at the crossroads of Malay, Indian and Chinese cultures, and topped off with British influences from the colonial era. This is most noticeably reflected in their cuisines, making them excellent places to makan (eat in Malay). Look out for regional specialities and Nyonya (Peranakan) cuisine, the fusion between Malay and Chinese cooking. There is even unique Eurasian cooking to be found in the Portuguese Settlement in Malacca, the heart of the Portuguese Eurasian community.
Many regional terms and the odd euphemism tend to crop up in notionally English menus. A few of the more common ones:
Malaysians are very proud of their cooking and most towns or even villages have their own delicious specialities such as Penang char kway teow, Kajang satay, Ipoh bean sprout chicken, Sarawak laksa, Kelantanese nasi dagang, Sabahan hinava, and many, many more. Most of them rely on word of mouth for advertising and are frequently located in the most inconvenient, out-of-the-way places so you might want to try asking the locals for their personal recommendations.
If you intend to travel around Malaysia trying out the local food, don't be fooled by the names. Sometimes two entirely different dishes from different parts of the country can be known by the same name. For example, laksa refers to completely different noodle dishes in Penang and Sarawak.
Generally, you can eat pretty much anywhere in Malaysia. Food outlets are comparatively clean - the only thing you should avoid when you frequent the street or hawker stalls is ice for your drinks, since the blocks of ice used there might not be up to your hygienic standards. In actual restaurants this is not a problem. Also you might want to avoid ordering water from hawker stalls or the mamak restaurants as you will usually be served unboiled tap water.
Cheaper places often do not display prices; most will charge tourists honestly, but check prices before ordering to make sure.
Eating habits run the gamut, but most foods are eaten by fork and spoon: push and cut with the fork in the left hand, and eat with the spoon in the right.
Eating is a favourite pastime of Malaysians. Many of them are adept at using chopsticks, including some Malaysians not of Chinese ethnicity. Noodles and Chinese dishes typically come with these. Malay and Indian food is traditionally eaten by hand, but can also be eaten with a fork and spoon.
If eating by hand, always use your right hand to handle your food, as Malays and Indians traditionally use their left hand for dirty things like washing up after using the toilet. When eating with chopsticks at Chinese restaurants, take note of the usual etiquette and most importantly, do not stick your chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice. This is reminiscent of incense sticks burning at the temple and has connotations of wishing death on those around you. If eating in a group, serving dishes are always shared, but you'll get your own bowl of rice and soup.
Subtlety is not a priority in Malay cooking, as it is characterised by a liberal use of spices (the most important are star anise, cinnamon/cassia, cardamom and cloves - dubbed rempah empat beradik or the four spice siblings), pungent edible rhizomes (mainly galangal, ginger and turmeric), coconut milk (santan in Malay), and occasionally fresh herbs (lemongrass, fresh coriander leaves, pandan leaves and various kinds of wild herbs or ulam). Most Malay dishes are curries, stews or dips of one kind or another, but all are full of flavour.
In Malaysia and Singapore, the term "Malay" officially encompasses people from all over the Malay Archipelago, so many dishes that have their origins in modern-day Indonesia are locally regarded as traditional Malay dishes.
Malaysia still has a great deal of local agriculture, so it is easy to find fresh, tree-ripened fruits in day and night markets throughout the country. In addition to the durian, popular fruits in Malaysia that are well worth buying include rambutan, mangosteen, banana (native to the country and available in tart as well as sweet varieties), mango (in three varieties, called mangga, kuini, and pauh in Malay, in decreasing order of desirability), papaya, guava (notably including the crunchy, somewhat tart jambu air), pineapple, watermelon, belimbing (star fruit/carambola), pomelo, langsat, duku, mata kucing, and jackfruit.
- Nasi lemak (lit. "fatty rice") is the definitive Malay breakfast, consisting at its simplest of rice cooked in light coconut milk or coconut cream, some fried ikan bilis (anchovies), peanuts, slices of cucumber and a dab of chilli on the side, traditionally wrapped in a banana leaf (though paper is becoming more common these days). Originally, the 'ikan bilis' was cooked together with the chilli & spices to make "sambal tumis ikan bilis" but it makes more commercial sense to the business man to have them separated as it is easier to make & the fried anchovies will last longer. A larger deep fried fish (ikan kuning) or chicken wing are common accompaniments. More often than not, it is also combined with a variety of curries and/or sambal (see below).
- Nasi ulam, also called nasi kerabu, is a speciality of the East Coast of the Peninsula (Kelantan and Terengganu). It has two components: rice (nasi) with fragrant, fresh-picked leaves and shoots (ulam). The leaves are traditionally dipped into budu (fish sauce), sambal belacan (shrimp paste with hot pepper, et al.) or/and tempoyak (fermented durian sauce). Ulam can also be eaten by itself with sambal belacan as a kind of salad, and the leaves in it can be either cultivated or wild.
- Rendang, originally from Padang or Minangkabau cuisine but considered a traditional Malay dish in the region and occasionally dubbed "dry curry", is meat stewed for hours on end in an intricately spiced (but rarely fiery) curry paste until almost all water is absorbed. Beef rendang is the most common, although variations with chicken and goat are not uncommon variants.
- Sambal is the generic term for chilli-based sauces of many kinds. Sambal belacan is a common condiment made by mixing chilli with the shrimp paste belacan, while the popular dish sambal sotong consists of squid (sotong) cooked in red chilli sauce. Sambal ikan bilis, a common accompaniment to nasi lemak, consists of small dried fish with onions, chilli and sugar.
- Satay (pictured) are barbecued skewers of meat, typically chicken, goat or beef. What separates satay from your ordinary kebab are the spices used to season the meat and the slightly spicy peanut-based dipping sauce. Although widely available throughout peninsular Malaysia and Singapore, Kajang is considered to be the spiritual home of this dish.
- Kangkung belacan is water spinach wok-fried in shrimp paste (belacan) and hot chilli peppers. Other vegetables, such as petai (stink bean), kacang panjang (long beans) and kacang berlendir (okra, locally called "ladies' fingers" in English) are also commonly cooked in this style. Fresh or dried shrimps are sometimes included in the sauce.
- Mee rebus is egg noodles served in a sweet and slightly spicy sweet potato-based gravy, usually with a slice of hard boiled egg and some lime.
- Lontong is vegetables, tempeh and soohoon cooked in a yellow (from turmeric) coconut-based gravy, eaten with nasi himpit (cubed overcooked rice)-- one of the few vegetarian dishes in Malay cuisine!
- Acar (achar) is thinly sliced vegetables and fruits (cucumber, carrot, pineapple) lightly pickled with vinegar, chilli and peanuts, a common side dish. Not nearly as pungent as Indian-style pickles which happen to bear the same name.
- Sup kambing is a hearty goat or mutton soup slow simmered with aromatic herbs and spices, and garnished with fried shallots and fresh cilantro.
- Keropok lekor, a speciality of the state of Terengganu on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, is a savoury cake made from a combination of batter and shredded fish. Sliced and fried just before serving, it is eaten with a sweet hot sauce.
- Tempoyak is fermented durian paste, served as a side accompaniment to a main meal.
- Mee soto is thick egg noodles served in a chicken broth with shredded chicken, beansprouts, potato fritters and a hard-boiled egg, topped with fried onions, coriander leaves and chilli sauce. Most popular in Singapore and Johor.
- Ayam percik, a speciality of Kelantan, is chicken which is roasted over a wood fire and combined with coconut/peanut sauce and delicious local herbs and greens.
- Otak-otak / Otah is a fish cake made with mackerel, coconut, chilli and various spices and wrapped in a banana leaf. In Singapore and Muar, it is typically grilled over a charcoal fire, while in Penang, it features a slightly different mix of species and is steamed instead.
- Nasi kuning or nasi kunyit is glutinous rice cooked with turmeric in order to turn it yellow, the traditional color of Malay royalty. It is a traditional staple of kenduri (feasts) and a delicious accompaniment to gulai (curries) of any kind. If you are invited to a Malay wedding, circumcision or other festive occasion, pulut is likely to be on one of the platters.
- Ramly burger is a burger with a chicken or beef patty made by Malaysian food company Ramly, a fried egg, mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, onions, cabbage and some other seasoning. It is commonly sold at street food stalls throughout Malaysia.
- Roti john is a dish made of a baguette-style loaf of bread sliced in half, with a topping made of egg, minced chicken or goat, onion and a tomato-chilli sauce.
Malaysian Malay desserts, especially the sweet pastries and jellies, are mostly based on coconut and palm sugar (gula melaka, named after the city of Malacca). Kuih (or kueh) refer to a plethora of steamed cake-like sweetmeats, mostly made with coconut milk, grated coconut flesh, glutinous rice or tapioca (sago). Labour-intensive to make, they are often very colorful (made so with either natural or synthetic food colourings), and cut into fanciful shapes. Try onde-onde, small round balls made from glutinous rice flour that has been coloured and flavoured with pandan leaves, filled with palm sugar and rolled in grated coconut, a delight to eat as it pops in your mouth with a sweet sensation of oozing palm syrup.
- Ais kacang or ice kacang literally means "ice bean" in Malay; the dessert is also commonly called ABC, short for Air Batu Campur ("mixed ice"). These names are good clues to the two major ingredients: shaved ice and red adzuki beans. However, more often than not you'll also get gula melaka (palm sugar), grass jelly, sweet corn, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, attap palm seeds and anything else on hand thrown in, and the whole thing is then drizzled with canned condensed milk or coconut cream and colored syrups. The end result tastes very interesting and refreshing.
- Apam balik, also called terang bulan, is a rich, half-moon-shaped pancake-like dish slathered with liberal amounts of butter or margarine, and sprinkled with sugar, ground peanuts and sometimes corn.
- Bubur cha-cha consists of cubed yam, sweet potato and sago added into a pandan-infused coconut milk soup. This can be served warm or cold and can be a breakfast or a dessert.
- Cendol is made with green pea noodles, served in a sweet broth of palm sugar and coconut milk. Usually served chilled, and a great respite in the sweltering tropical heat.
- Dodol is a dense, rich, oily, sweet, coconutty, smoky dessert made from coconut milk, manisan (palm sugar), glutinous rice flour and pandan leaves that are boiled down and caramelized to a uniform consistency as a flexible, shaped solid. It is available freshly made at pasar malam (night markets) and boxes of it are also sold in stores. Durian dodol is particularly popular.
- Pisang goreng literally means fried bananas. They are encased in batter and deep fried. A common street food, it can be eaten for afternoon tea, dessert, or as a snack any time of the day.
- Pulut hitam is a rice pudding made from black glutinous rice sweetened with brown palm sugar. Creamy coconut milk is swirled over the rice pudding before it is served.
- Pulut inti is a kind of rice cake made from glutinous rice and coconut milk. It is steamed and topped with freshly grated coconut sweetened with palm sugar. It is traditionally wrapped in banana leaves and folded into a pyramid shape.
- Sago gula melaka is a simple tapioca pudding served with gula melaka (palm sugar) syrup and coconut milk.
East Malaysian and Bruneian cuisine
East Malaysia, especially Sarawak, also offers a wide range of local dishes.
- Manok Pansoh. Manok Pansoh is the most common dish among the Iban. It is a chicken dish which is normally eaten with white rice. Chicken pieces are cut and stuffed into the bamboo together with other ingredients like mushrooms, lemongrass, tapioca leaves, etc., and cooked over an open fire - similar to the way lemang is cooked. This natural way of cooking seals in the flavours and produces astonishingly tender chicken with a gravy perfumed with lemongrass and bamboo. Manok Pansoh cannot be found easily in all restaurants and coffee shops. Some restaurants require advanced booking of Manok Pansoh dish prior to your arrival.
- Umai. Umai is a raw fish salad popular among various ethnic groups of Sarawak, especially the Melanaus. In fact, umai is a traditional working lunch for the Melanau fishermen. Umai is prepared raw from freshly caught fish, iced but not frozen. Main species used include Mackerel, Bawal Hitam and Umpirang. It is made mainly of thin slivers of raw fish, thinly sliced onions, chilli, salt and the juice of sour fruits like lime or assam. It is usually accompanied by a bowl of toasted sago pearls instead of rice. Its simplicity makes it a cinch for fishermen to prepare it aboard their boats. Umai Jeb, a raw fish salad without other additional spices, is famous among Bintulu Melanaus. However, it is rarely prepared in Kuching. You can try umai when you eat 'Nasi Campur' during lunch hours in Kuching. Most coffee shops, especially Malay or Bumiputera-owned ones, serve umai daily for 'Nasi Campur'.
- Midin. The locals greatly indulge in jungle fern such as the midin (quite similar to pucuk paku that is popular in the Peninsula). Midin is much sought after for its crisp texture and great taste. Midin is usually served in two equally delicious ways - fried with either garlic or belacan. You can try Midin when you eat 'Nasi Campur' during lunch hours in Kuching. Most coffee shops, served Midin daily for 'Nasi Campur'.
- Bubur Pedas. Bubur Pedas is cooked with a specially prepared paste. It is quite spicy thanks to its ingredients, which include spices, turmeric, lemon grass, galangal, chillies, ginger, coconut and shallots. Like the famous Bubur Lambuk of Kuala Lumpur, Bubur Pedas is prepared only during the month of Ramadan and served for Iftar (the meal to break the fast).
- Nasik Aruk (originated from Sarawak). Nasik Aruk is a traditional Sarawakian Malay fried rice. Unlike Nasi Goreng, Nasik Aruk does not use any oil to fry the rice. The ingredients are garlic, onion and anchovies, fried to perfection with very little oil and then the cook will put the rice in. The rice must be fried for longer time (compared to frying rice for Nasi Goreng) for the smokey/slightly-burnt taste to absorb into the rice. It is a common to see Nasik Aruk in the food menu list at Malay and Mamak coffee shops and stalls.
- Linut/Ambuyat (originated from Brunei, but widely consumed in Sabah and Sarawak). Linut (in Sarawak) and Ambuyat (in Sabah and Brunei) is a sticky porridge-like type of food, made from sagu flour. It can be eaten raw, or dipped into spicy sambal belacan. Normally, linut or ambuyat is eaten during high tea or night supper.
- Nasi katok is often considered to be the unofficial national dish of Brunei. It consists of plain rice with a piece of fried chicken and sambal chilli sauce.
- Sarawak laksa is the local spin on the ubiquitous noodle dish. It's sweet and coconutty like Singapore's laksa lemak, but gets a unique zing from heavy spices (notably sambal belacan, a mix of chili and shrimp paste) plus toppings of prawns, chicken and egg.
- Kolo mee is a simple but popular Sarawakian noodle dish, consisting of dry egg noodles tossed in oil and served with slices of roast pork.
- Tomato kueh tiaw is a variation of the popular fried kueh tiaw (thin, flat rice noodles), with tomato gravy, meat (usually chicken pieces), vegetables and seafood (usually prawns). It is particular to Kuching.
- Kek lapis Sarawak or Sarawak Layer Cake is an elaborately baked cake with multiple layers which has a unique and delicious taste.
- Foochow bagel (kompia). This pastry can only be found in Sibu where ethnic Chinese of Foochow clan formed a majority.
- Seafood bak kut teh is a variant of the pork-based soup dish bak kut teh that, as the name suggests, also uses seafood such as prawns and fish to make the soup. A speciality of Sandakan.
- Ngiu chap (牛雜) consists of noodles served with beef soup and the internal organs of the cow. A speciality of Kota Kinabalu
- Sang nyuk mian (生肉麵) is a speciality of Kota Kinabalu, consisting of noodles tossed in soy sauce, served with a pork soup containing sliced pork, pig liver and pork meatballs on the side.
- Tuaran mee, as the name suggests, is a speciality of the town of Tuaran in Sabah, consisting of fried egg noodles topped off with char siew, egg rolls and green vegetables.
The most identifiable cuisine in the region is Peranakan or Nonya cuisine, born from the mixed Malay and Chinese communities in the Malay Archipelago, who trace their origin to contact between China's Ming Dynasty and the Malacca Sultanate as a result of the voyages of the Chinese admiral Cheng Ho (鄭和 Zhèng Hé) in the 15th century. These communities later rose to prominence in the British colonies of the Straits Settlements (modern-day Singapore, Penang and Malacca).
- Ayam buah keluak is a distinctive dish combining chicken pieces with black nuts from the Pangium edule or kepayang tree to produce a rich sauce. The nuts contain hydrogen cyanide and are highly toxic to humans if not prepared correctly, making this dish very labour intensive to prepare. A speciality of Singapore and Malacca.
- Babi pongteh is pork belly flavoured with fermented soy bean paste, dark soy sauce, sugar and other ingredients. This mild and slightly sweet dish is made daily in some Nyonya households. A halal version that makes use of chicken instead of pork is also available, in which case the dish is known as ayam pongteh.
- Chilli crab, a Malaysian specialty which is now available in Singapore as well, is a whole crab ladled with oodles of sticky, tangy chilli sauce. Notoriously difficult to eat but irresistibly delicious: don't wear a white shirt! For a less messy but equally tasty alternative, ask for black pepper crab. You can also get chilli udang galah (jumbo prawns), especially near the mouths of big rivers.
- Enche Kabin are bite-sized pieces of fried chicken marinated in soy sauce, five-spice powder, black pepper, ginger and scallions.
- Itek Tim is a soup containing duck, tomatoes, green peppers, salted vegetables, and preserved sour plums simmered gently together.
- Kaya is a very rich jam-like spread made from egg and coconut, an odd-sounding but tasty combination. Served on toast for breakfast, canonically accompanied by runny eggs and strong, sweet coffee (kopi). Comes in two distinct styles; the green Nyonya style (getting its colour from pandan leaves) and the brown Hainanese style (getting its colour from caramelised sugar).
- Kueh pie tee is a crispy pastry tart shell that is filled with shredded Chinese turnips, carrots and prawns, similar to the filling that goes into popiah, and usually topped off with some ground peanuts, chilli sauce and sweet light soy sauce.
- Laksa in Malaysia and Singapore comes in many wildly different styles, and every state seems to have its signature style. Singapore's laksa lemak is a fragrant soup of noodles in a coconut-based curry broth, topped with cockles or shrimp, while Penang's assam laksa is made with a tamarind-infused broth instead of coconut, and has a spicy sourish taste. Kelantanese laksam, on the other hand, comes with wide, flat rice noodles and a very coconutty broth. Sarawak laksa uses a coconut and sambal based broth, but without any curry in it.
- Mee siam is thin rice flour noodles served with sour gravy made from tamarind, dried shrimp and fermented beans. Usually served with tau pok (bean curd) cubes and hard boiled eggs.
- Rojak means a mixture of everything in Malay, and there are two very different types. Chinese rojak is a salad of pineapple, white turnip, cucumber, tau pok (fried bean curd) with thin tiny slices of bunga kantan (torch ginger flower buds), tossed in shrimp paste sauce and sugar, then sprinkled with crushed peanuts. Indian rojak consists of mainly fried fritters made from flour and various pulses with cucumber and tofu, with sweet & spicy peanut sauce.
Chinese food as eaten in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei commonly originates from southern China, particularly Fujian, Guangdong and Hainan. While authentic fare that is relatively unchanged from its Mainland Chinese origins is certainly available, especially in fancier restaurants, the daily fare served on the streets has absorbed a number of tropical touches, most notably the fairly heavy use of chilli and belacan (shrimp paste) as condiments. Noodles can also be served not just in soup (湯 tang), but also "dry" (干 kan), meaning that your noodles will be served tossed with chilli and spices in one bowl, and the soup will come in a separate bowl.
- Bak chor mee (肉脞麵), derived form Teochew cuisine, is essentially noodles with minced pork, tossed in a chilli-based sauce with lard, ikan bilis (fried anchovies), vegetables and mushrooms.
- Bak kut teh (肉骨茶), lit. "pork bone tea", is a simple-sounding soup of pork ribs simmered for hours in broth until they're ready to fall off the bone. It's typically eaten with white rice, mui choy (pickled vegetables) and a pot of strong Chinese tea, hence the name — the broth itself doesn't contain any tea. To impress the locals, order some you tiao fritters from a nearby stall and cut them up into bite-sized chunks to dip into your soup. The port town of Klang is said to be original home of the dish.
- Braised duck (滷鴨), a Hokkien and Teochew dish that involves stewing a whole duck in a sauce made of dark soy sauce and various spices, with the exact makeup varying slightly between the Hokkien and Teochew versions. Usually served with different types of tofu, hard boiled eggs and occasionally pork belly that has been stewed in the same sauce as the duck, duck soup, as well as plain rice, or noddles tossed in a combination of the sauce used to stew the duck and some chilli sauce. Most popular in Singapore, though it can also be found in many Teochew restaurants in Malaysia.
- Chai tow kway (菜頭粿) is radish cake (or carrot cake, as it in known locally) cut into small cuboids and stir fried with eggs, chai po (菜脯) (salted fermented turnips), and a dash of sambal belacan, then garnished with some spring onions. Comes in two different versions; the "black" version that has sweet dark soy sauce added to it when frying, and the "white" version without the sweet dark soy sauce. Best known in Singapore and the southern half of Peninsular Malaysia. The local preparation method is mainly derived from Teochew cuisine, though the Cantonese version is also widely available in dim sum restaurants.
- Char kway teow (炒粿條) is a favourite noodle type in Penang and Singapore. Some flat rice noodle fried with soya source, prawn, cockles, bean sprouts, chives & bak you (lard), though this last ingredient is sometimes absent due to the popularity & demand of this dish from the Malays & Indian Muslims who traditionally shun pork. It is typically salty in Penang, but a little sweet in Singapore due to the addition of sweet soy sauce.
- Chee cheong fun (豬腸粉) is a favorite breakfast dish of Cantonese origin consisting of lasagna-type rice noodles rolled up and various types of fried meats including fishballs and fried tofu. The dish is usually topped with a generous amount of sauce.
- Chwee kway (水粿) is a Teochew dish consisting of rice cakes topped with chai po, usually served with some chilli sauce.
- Char siew (叉燒) is a Cantonese dish consisting of pork marinated in a sweet and dark red sauce and roasted. Kuala Lumpur and the surrounding Klang Valley is considered to be one of the best places in the world to sample this dish, rivalling even its original home in China's Guangdong province. Commonly served at Cantonese siu mei (燒味) stalls and restaurants that also serve other Cantonese dishes like crispy skin pork belly (燒肉 siu yuk), roast duck (燒鴨), steamed chicken (白切雞) and soy sauce chicken (豉油雞).
- Fish ball noodles (魚丸麵) come in many forms, but the type most often seen is mee pok, which consists of flat egg noodles tossed in chilli sauce, with the fishballs floating in a separate bowl of soup on the side.
- Hainanese chicken rice (海南雞飯) is poached chicken served with rice cooked in chicken stock and fat, and tasty ginger and chilli dipping sauces. The chicken has a delicate taste, but it's the quality of the rice and the dipping sauces that connoseurs get passionate about. Perhaps best known in Singapore, there is also an interesting local variant found in Malacca and Muar, Johor, with the rice cooked until it is sticky and rolled into balls. Despite its name, only the method of preparing the chicken originated in Hainan, while the method for cooking the rice was actually developed locally by the overseas Hainanese.
- Hakka mee (客家麵) is a noodle dish from Seremban, consisting of flat noodles tossed in minced pork, spring onions and pork lard.
- Hokkien mee (福建麵) refers to at least three separate dishes. In Kuala Lumpur, this gets you thick noodles fried in dark soy sauce, while in Penang you'll get a very spicy shrimp soup. In Singapore you will get thick egg and wheat noodles mixed with thin vermicelli-like rice noodles, fried in pork lard with squid, prawn and beansprouts, and with chilli sauce and a lime on the side to mix with it.
- Kway chap (粿汁) is a dish of Teochew origin, essentially sheets made of rice flour served in some brownish soup, accompanied by a plate of braised pork and pig organs (usually intestines). The local versions differ significantly from the version served in Bangkok, Thailand, as well as from the original Chinese version.
- Lok-lok (樂樂) consists of skewers of fish, meat and vegetables, cooked in boiling broth and eaten with sauces, the most popular being the "kuah kacang", which interestingly is a Malay sauce made from peanuts & traditionally served with satay and ketupat (compressed rice cubes eaten during Eid).
- Lor mee (滷麵) is noodles in a thick and dark gravy, with condiments such as cilantro leaves, spring onions, deep fried fish, stewed pork belly and deep fried pork fritters added in, along with a dash of vinegar, ground garlic and chilli sauce. It is a Hokkien dish that originated in the city of Zhangzhou in China's Fujian province, but has been heavily modified to incorporate local influences. Best known in Singapore and Penang.
- Muah chee (麻糍) is a Hokkien snack made of glutinous rice cakes, ground peanuts and sugar, though modern versions sometimes use sesame seeds in addition to or instead of peanuts. It differs significantly from the heavily Japanese-influenced Taiwanese version.
- Oyster omelette (蠔煎) is an egg omelette of Hokkien and Teochew origin fried in lard with small fresh oysters, sweet potato starch and sambal, garnished with cilantro leaves and spring onions, and served with chilli sauce on the side. It differs greatly from the better known Taiwanese version, and somewhat from the versions served in the South Fujian and Chaoshan regions of mainland China. A speciality of Penang and Singapore.
- Popiah (薄餅) or spring rolls (春捲) come fresh or fried. They consist of boiled turnips, fried tofu, fried shallots and garlic, chopped omelette, chopped stir fried long beans and (optional) chilli sauce, wrapped in a thin rice skin covering and eaten like a fajita. Variants of the dish can also be found in Taiwan and the Philippines, where they are known as lumpia (潤餅).
- Satay bee hoon (沙爹米粉), a speciality of the Teochew community in Singapore, is rice vermicelli (bee hoon) drizzled with the same peanut and chilli sauce used for satay, hence the name. Usually cockles, dried squid and pork slices are added.
- Sar Hor Fun (沙河粉) is a local Cantonese dish that consists of flat rice noodles with pork, prawn and green vegetables, and topped with a thick gravy sauce with runny eggs, and pickled green chillis on the side.
- Siew Pau (燒包) is a speciality of Seremban, being a baked pastry stuffed with a pork filling.
- Steamboat (火鍋), also known as hot pot, is do-it-yourself soup Chinese style. You get a pot of broth bubbling on a tabletop burner, pick meat, fish and veggies to your liking from a menu or buffet table, then cook it to your liking. When finished, add in noodles or ask for rice to fill you up. This usually requires a minimum of two people, and the more the merrier.
- Wantan mee (雲吞麵) is a Cantonese dish, comprising of thin noodles topped with wantan dumplings of seasoned minced pork, char siew and boiled vegetables. In Kuala Lumpur and Penang, the noodles are usually tossed in dark soy sauce, while in Singapore, the noodles are usually tossed in sambal chilli sauce and served with pickled green chilli on the side. Unlike the soupy Hong Kong version, it is usually served dry.
- Yong tau foo (酿豆腐) literally means "stuffed tofu", but it's more exciting than it sounds. The diner selects their favorites from a vast assortment of tofu, fish paste, seafood and vegetables and they are then sliced into bite-size pieces, cooked briefly in boiling water and then served either in broth as soup or "dry" with the broth in a separate bowl. The dish can be eaten by itself or with any choice of noodles. Essential accompaniments are spicy chili sauce and a distinctive brown sweet sauce for dipping. Although originally a Hakka dish from Meizhou, the local version differs significantly from the original Chinese one. The Kuala Lumpur suburb of Ampang is best known for this dish.
The smallest of Malaysia's and Singapore's 'Big 3', the Indians have had a disproportionately large impact on the culinary scene, with the mamak (Indian Muslim, see below) stall having acquired a place in every Malaysian city and town, and nasi kandar restaurants offering a wide variety of side dishes to ladle onto your rice. Authentic Indian food in Malaysia and Singapore includes typical South Indian specialties such as dosai, idli, sambhar and uttapam, as well as some North Indian items like naan, chapati, korma, and tandoori chicken. In addition, however, a number of Indian dishes have been "Malaysianized" and adopted by the entire population, including:
- Nasi kandar is rice and whatever you want to go with it, with a wide variety of curries and other Indian dishes to choose from. Originally from Penang, but can now be found all over the country.
- Fish head curry is, true to the name, a gigantic curried fish head cooked whole until it's ready to fall apart. There are two distinct styles: the fiery Indian and the milder Chinese kind (the latter is sometimes served as a broth for vermicelli noodles).
- "Mamak-style" mee goreng is a ubiquitous dish found at mamak stalls, a stir-fried noodle dish loved by Malaysians.
- Nasi briyani (sometimes spelled nasi beriani) is assembled by layering the flavorful rice with tender pieces of spiced-cooked lamb, mutton, goat or chicken. At nasi kandar restaurants, it refers to rice that is cooked without the meat, and is merely a choice of rice [instead of plain steamed rice] to eat with your selection of curries and side dishes.
- Roti canai (in Malaysia) / roti prata (in Singapore) is the Malaysian and Singaporean adaptation of the South Indian parotta, flat bread tossed in the air like pizza, fried in oil, and eaten dipped in curry. The plain version is usually dubbed "roti kosong". Other variations include roti telur (with egg), roti telur bawang (with egg and onions), murtabak (stuffed with chicken, mutton, beef or fish), roti boom (with condensed milk) and roti tisu (made very thin like tissue paper, and laced with caramelized sugar).
- Putu mayam is composed of vermicelli-like rice noodles usually mixed with shredded coconut and some jaggery.
The Eurasians are the descendants of Europeans who married the local Asians, and trace their origins to the Portuguese colonisation of Malacca in 1511. That said, there are also many Eurasians of Dutch and British descent due to the history of those countries' colonialism in the region. As would be expected, their cuisine reflects a mix of Asian and European influences, which include localised versions of several British dishes.
- Devil's curry / curry debal is often considered to be the signature dish of the Eurasian community, tracing its origin to the Portuguese Eurasians in Malacca. It consists of chicken cooked in a very spicy curry made with candlenuts, vinegar and galangal, and is traditionally eaten for Christmas.
- Pang susi is a bun modelled after European-style bread, albeit made with sweet potato, and with a savoury meat filling
- Sugee cake is a European-style cake that is believed to have originated from the Portuguese-Indian community in Goa.
- Shephard's pie is the local variant of the classic British dish.
Where to eat
The cheapest places to eat are hawker stalls and coffeeshops, known as kedai kopi in Malay or kopitiam in Hokkien. These shops sell, besides coffee, many other types of food and drinks. Particularly popular and tasty are mamak stalls, run by Indian Muslims and serving up localized Indian fare like roti canai. Most hawker stalls stay open till late and some even operate on shifts so you can find the same stall offering different food at different points throughout the day. You can also do take away from any stall, just ask for bungkus (Malay) or ta pao (Cantonese). A hawker meal will rarely cost you over RM5 in Malaysia or $4 in Singapore. Hawker stalls generally located by the roadside in Malaysia, but have been moved into purpose-built government hawker centres in Singapore. Hygiene standards in Malaysia, while not up to that of Western countries, are still reasonable and much better than in China, India and most of the rest of Southeast Asia. In Singapore, hygiene standards are strictly regulated and are for the most part on par with the West. Just be observant, and generally speaking, if a stall is patronised by locals, it should be safe to eat there.
One step up on the scale is the kedai makanan or the more Western-style restoran. A type to look out for is the nasi kandar restaurant (also known as nasi campur or nasi padang), with a vast range of curries and toppings to ladle on top of your rice.
Seafood restaurants (makanan laut) are comparatively pricy but still excellent values by most standards; do check prices before ordering though. Local prawns are gigantic, Chinese-style steamed fish is a treat and crab served with sticky chilli sauce is particularly popular.
Last but not least, some less adventurous options. Food courts in shopping malls are a good way to sample local delicacies in air-conditioned comfort, paying only a small premium over hawker prices. And yes, you can also find McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut and the usual suspects plus imitators throughout Malaysia.
Finding halal food in Malaysia and Brunei is easy since they are Muslim-majority countries, but most Chinese stalls and restaurants are not halal. Ask if in doubt. Meals at Malay and most Indian restaurants, as well as Western fast food restaurants like McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut are halal. Restaurants at major hotels in Malaysia are not certified 'halal' as they serve alcohol as well, but with the exception of Chinese restaurants, they generally don't serve pork. As the Iban, Kadazan and some other indigenous ethnic groups from East Malaysia are mostly Christian, their food is generally not halal. In Singapore, although Muslims are a minority, there is also no shortage of halal food, with many Malay and Indian Muslim options in every neighbourhood, as well as all the Western fast food chains being halal. Local Muslims will eat at Western, Chinese and Indian eateries if there is a halal sign on the walls. Most of the restaurants tend to display their halal certification or halal sign on their places. Halal certification is awarded and enforced by a government agency, which is Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia (JAKIM) in Malaysia, Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS) in Singapore and Kementerian Hal Ehwal Ugama (KHEU) in Brunei.
There are no kosher establishments in Malaysia or Brunei. In Singapore, there is one kosher restaurant as well as a small kosher supermarket serving the tiny Jewish community; check with the Jewish Welfare Board for details. There are also Jewish organisations in Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, so you might want to arrange with them to stock up if you wish to visit Malaysia or Brunei after visiting one of those countries.
Vegetarianism is well-understood by the Chinese and Indian communities (not so by the Muslim Malays and indigenous minorities) and many restaurants or hawker stalls will be able to come up with something on request (DO state "no meat, no fish, no seafood - ASK for vegetables and/or eggs ONLY"), but don't rely entirely on menu descriptions: innocuous-seeming dishes like "fried vegetables", etc. will often contain pork bits in non-halal Chinese restaurants, shrimp paste (belacan, commonly used in Malay and spicy Chinese dishes), fish sauce, etc. Indian restaurants usually have very good vegetarian selections - the roti (Indian flat bread - any kind; including roti canai, roti naan, capati, tosai) are good choices, and DO insist on being given dhal (lentil-based curry dip) lest you'll be given a fish curry dip. Purely vegetarian Chinese restaurants (often serving remarkable "mock meat" products made from tofu, gluten, etc.) are quite easy to find in big urban areas with a large ethnic Chinese population. Getting vegetarian food in rural areas, especially those near fishing villages or in Muslim/Malay-dominated regions, may be more difficult, but learning some basic Malay vocabulary will go a long way to help you get your message across — see the Malay phrasebook. Upmarket Western restaurants such as those serving Italian cuisine will normally have some good vegetarian options.
Veganism is rarely understood in this part of the world and is largely mistaken as a synonym for vegetarianism, yet the safest bet for a vegan is to patronize a Chinese Buddhist vegetarian restaurant. Most Chinese vegetarian restaurants are essentially vegan and operated on Buddhist principles of non-killing and compassion, and thus they abstain from using dairy products, eggs, and the 5 fetid vegetables (members of the allium family such as onions, shallots, garlic and green onions that are discouraged in Mahayana Buddhism). And if you're still feeling uneasy or unsure, do not hesitate to ask.
Coeliac disease is poorly understood and trace quantities of gluten can be found in innocuous things like soy sauce. Fortunately rice is a staple of the region and, despite the name, glutinous (sticky) rice is gluten-free. South Indian food is also a great option, since traditional South Indian "breads" like dosas and idlis are made from rice and lentils, not wheat.
If you're allergic to shellfish, great caution is called for, because belacan (shrimp paste) is a standard part of the Malay rempah (spice mixture), even if you can't taste it, and it's used quite a lot in Chinese restaurants, too. Many dishes use ground dried shrimp in addition to or instead of belacan, and many others include whole little dried shrimps. Fish sauce (budu), while not as pervasive as in Thailand and Vietnam, is also part of Malaysian cuisine.