Malaysian Cuisine - Local Dining3 Jun 2013
If shopping is the national pastime in Malaysia, then food is the national obsession. It’s not uncommon to be greeted by the phrase “Sudah makan?” or “Have you eaten?” and such is the joy found in eating by Malaysians that it’ll often be the first thing they take you to do.
Eating here is more than an exercise in nourishment, it’s an all round social experience as you chat over a spicy, local rice dish, gossip over a warm drink at the local coffee shop or celebrate over a fine three-course meal.
In Malaysian cuisine itself, though, is where the enjoyment and delight truly lies. Fusing the very best flavours from around the region and influences from around the world, the local food is typically hot, spicy and often, fried.
Malaysian food has its roots in the culinary tradition of its multi racial society and the three main communities: Malay, Chinese and Indian are responsible for the largest inspiration. However, Western eateries are frequented by both locals and foreigners, and can be found alongside their local equivalents across the country.
Variety, therefore, best describes the culinary culture of Malaysia. Dishes to be savoured can be found for as little as a couple of ringgit at almost any hour of the night or day, making dining out often a cheaper and more popular option than eating at home. In fact, central to the Malaysian food culture is late night eating out.
You’ll often find local families still dining in shopping mall food courts and eateries, kids in tow, as the shops begin to close. Eating at eight or nine o’clock in the evening is quite normal for Malaysians and you may find yourself dining alone if visiting restaurants considerably earlier than this.
The on street “mamak” stalls, though, are by far the most authentic and best value way to eat in Malaysia. However, it may take you a few weeks to pluck up the confidence to try roadside eating for yourself.
Therefore, to ease you into the local cuisine, there are still plenty of more familiar restaurants offering excellent food, at prices significantly lower than you would expect. Even, for example, the very highest-end restaurants at the five-star hotels manage to serve exceptional cuisine for less than you would find at the same hotel in other parts of the world.
Malaysia’s Muslim status undoubtedly aids halal-seekers and restaurants of all cuisines across the country prepare and serve food according to the Islamic guidelines. However, this status also means that alcohol in Malaysia, though freely available, is comparatively highly taxed.
As such, in some of the more popular bars you may end up paying a similar amount for beer, wines and spirits as you might in a large Western city.
This section explores Malaysian cuisine in more detail—from the local mamak eateries to the finest fine dining establishments—offers information about restaurant practices and services and recommends a range of restaurants to try throughout the country.
And, should you find yourself confused by a hawker stall’s menu, our Making Sense of the Menu on page 241 should unveil the basics.
Combining Malay, Indian and Chinese influences, Malaysian cuisine also comprises a hybrid of food derived from cross cultural influences such as Mamak (Indian Muslim) and Nyonya (Malay/Chinese) cuisine.
Therefore it is inevitable that Malaysia should earn the distinction of an epicurean paradise with an incredible range of flavours; from traditional local fare savoured at busy local hawker stalls to international dishes served at the finest restaurants.
Newcomers may be surprised to see how much rice is consumed in Malaysia, but rice is to Malaysians what bread is to Europeans. It features in most meals; breakfast, lunch and dinner. As such, don’t be perturbed by the large sacks of rice available at supermarkets; Malaysians buy rice in mass quantities and you too may start cooking more for yourself.
Malay food is usually rather understated and heavy on natural home-grown ingredients such as coconut, chilli, lemon grass, lime leaves, galangal (ginger-like root), spices and tumeric figure prominently, cooked with fish, meat or vegetables. A traditional accompaniment to meals is a hot sambal (curry paste) made of ground chilli, shrimp paste and condiments.
Indian food was brought to Malaysia by immigrants from North and South India. The cuisine varies in emphasis and ingredients depending on the regions from which it originates. North Indian food tends to rely more on meat, especially mutton and chicken cooked with youghurt and lentils (neither North nor South Indians eat beef), and served with breads—naan, chapati, paratha and roti—rather than rice. The most famous style North Indian cooking is Tandoori—named after the clay oven in which the food is cooked.
South Indian (and Sri Lankan) food tend to be spicier and more reliant on vegetables. Its staples are the dosai or thosai (pancake), often served at breakfast time (Indian Muslims actually serve a similar dish, murtabak which is a grilled roti pancake with egg, onion and minced meat) and is best washed down with teh tarik—frothy milk tea. South Indians also serve banana leaf meals (usually vegetarian) during lunch which can be an interesting and efficient way in which to enjoy your meal.
The dominant style of Chinese cooking—at least in terms of restaurant numbers—is Cantonese. The Chinese enjoy rice as a staple but noodles also feature prominently in great variety and combinations. The noodles are usually served in a soup base or fried with slivers of meat, prawns and vegetables.
Curried noodles usually come with chicken and tofu. They are also popular for their clay pot dishes and the steamboat (pieces of meat, chicken and vegetables dunked into a steaming hot broth until cooked).
The Peranakan or Straits-born Chinese, also known as the Baba-Nyonyas have a rich culinary tradition, still evident across Malaysia. The elaborate style of cooking involves a fine blend of many ingredients including the juices of certain seeds and fruits that are added to gravies and curries to enhance the flavours.
Halal status and certification is important to restaurants in Malaysia. The majority of establishments are halal accredited or, at the very least, pork-free, with only a few exceptions well advertised as being such. For meat—or other food products for that matter— to be considered halal, it must meet a number of requirements interpreted from the Quran.
Restaurants or similar eateries wishing to receive halal certification must follow the guidelines stringently. Fortunately, halal food in Malaysia can be enjoyed in a range of styles, settings and establishments all over the country.