In Malaysia, it’s no secret that life revolves around food.
In fact, food is so entrenched in daily life that the average Malaysian typically consumes about six meals a day: breakfast, ‘elevenses’ (a pre-lunch snack & drink), lunch, an afternoon snack, dinner and, if they’re awake, a late night hawker snack.
Malaysians are so serious about their food that over here, phrases like sudah makan (have you eaten?) and apa khabar (“how are you”) and virtually interchangeable.
But this fascination with food isn’t a coincidence. The country’s history of colonial occupations and merchant settlers from around the region has resulted in a vibrant mish mash, underpinned by a diverse mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Thai and Arabic influences.
For those set to travel in Malaysia, this makes the country culinary heaven for nomadic foodies.
I’ve long enjoyed the benefits of the country’s delicious cuisine, thanks to my own Malaysian heritage. My summer holidays would basically consist of piling into my grandmother’s kitchen and watching as she would heap our plates with freshly-cooked roti canai, chicken rendang curry and sizzling satay.
But while Malaysia as a whole may be regarded as the holy grail of Southeast Asian food destinations, there are two cities in particular that have become world-famous for their flare for food: the island of Penang and Kuala Lumpur, the nation’s capital.
Both are blessed with a bustling street food culture, diverse populations and stately colonial buildings that make them ideal for walking and eating (although not necessarily in that order). But if tucking into exotic and unusual street fare is your idea of fun, these two cities are a must.
Here is everything you need to know about exploring Malaysia’s food capitals.
Widely considered to be the food capital of Malaysia (and the region), Penang is also one of Malaysia’s most intriguing UNESCO Heritage Sites. George Town in particular, is a labyrinth of colorfully tiled footpaths, shop houses and hawkers that spill out onto the pavement.
The island retains proud culinary traditions that many vendors have kept alive in family-run shop houses that typically specialize in only one thing. Like in other parts of Asia, these shops are the best (and cheapest) places to eat like a local.
Whereas Kuala Lumpur’s street food scene has given way to urban development and modern dining trends, Penang retains a charming yet chaotic street food culture that won’t be found anywhere else in Malaysia.
Here, visitors can watch food being cooked on the streets. You can smell the aromas of fresh spices being thrown into flaming woks and listen to vendors chatting away as they debone fish by hand on the sidewalk. Many ingredients, such as soy sauce or shrimp paste, are still made locally and the old-fashioned way, adding to the authentic taste of Penang street food.
Penang is also the birthplace of Malaysia’s famous ‘Nyonya’ cuisine, a fusion of Malay, Chinese and Indian dishes born out of inter-racial marriages between local Malays and Chinese settlers. Nyonya restaurants abound in Penang, dishing up local favourites like fish curry and assam prawns.
Where to find it
As is the case in Kuala Lumpur, timing determines the availability of what you can eat in Penang. Specialties like assam laksa (fish laksa), best eaten from local mamak (hawker) stalls, are available from 2pm in the afternoon and are perfect for appeasing those pesky afternoon hunger pangs.
Most of these dishes, though, can be found in and around George Town, mostly in traditional shop houses. The added benefit of eating here is that you’re merely steps from the city’s collection of grand colonial buildings and Islamic architecture, which are definitely worth exploring.
But if, like me, you like to have a bit of everything (because you simply cannot decide!), heading to one of Penang’s hawker markets will give you a cheap, laid back and comprehensive introduction to local fare. Hawker markets can be found in Batu Ferringhi, a stone’s throw from most of Penang’s luxury resorts, and in George Town.
What to try
1) Assam Laksa
Also known as “Penang laksa”, this sour specialty brings together contrasting flavors that, on first impressions, shouldn’t go together at all. But somehow this combination of mackerel, tamarind and chilli served on top of white noodles and smothered in cilantro, shallots and pineapple just works. The final result is a lip-smacking sour soup you struggle to find anywhere else.
Try it at: Cecil Market Food Court
2) Char Kway Teow
Rich in texture and explosive in taste, this stir-fried noodle continues to win hearts and stomachs all over the world. Flat rice noodles are stir-fried vigorously with succulent prawns, chewy Chinese sausage, crispy sprouts and completed with a splash of chilli.
Try it at: Kafe Heng Huat, Lg Selamat Hawker Stalls
On the list of strange food combinations, Rojak is up there. This unusual salad combines apple, pineapple, unripe mango and guava, with salty additions like dried squid, peanuts, Chinese fritters and deep fried tofu. Smothered in a belacan (shrimp paste) dressing, chilli and limejuice, there’s nothing subtle about Rojak’s flavours. Definitely one for the adventurous!
Try it at: Ho Wei Jeng at the Esplanade Food Centre
4) Nonya Cuisine
This hearty cuisine combines the best of Malay and Chinese flavors into one exquisite culinary experience. The distinct dishes are laden with fragrant herbs, curry pastes and spices, with a noticeable prevalence of pork. Preparation is also rigorous, requiring hours of pounding and marinating ingredients.
Try it at: Mama’s Nyonya Cuisine, George Town
5) Char Koay Kak
Translated to mean “pan-fried radish cakes”, this humble dish is big on flavour. A satisfyingly salty mix of radish cakes, dried vegetables, bean sprouts, and egg folded in with a sauce made from soya sauce, dark soya sauce, and chilli paste, char koay kak is a must, especially at one of Penang’s local hawker markets.
Try it at: Batu Lanchang Market Hawker Centre
Once in uninhabitable marshland, Kuala Lumpur is now one of Southeast Asia’s most liveable cities, thanks in part to its bustling enclaves such as Little India and Chinatown, where authentic cuisine sits side by side with hearty Malaysian fare.
While a lot of Kuala Lumpur’s traditional street food precincts have given way to modern high rises, good street food is still relatively easy to find. But whether it’s a tasty street food snack from the trunk of a motorbike or a Wagyu steak at the high-rise Troika Star Dining, you won’t be short for choice in the capital.
Kuala Lumpur’s Indian and Chinese populations have played a key role in influencing its cuisine, meaning curries; noodles and tasty street food snacks are all part of eating your way through this vibrant city. Expect lots of spices, fresh herbs and plenty of kaffir lime leaves.
Where to find it
If you’re hankering for some Indian fare, there’s only one place to go: Bricksfield, aka “Little India”. And with Kuala Lumpur playing host to some of the best north Indian eateries outside of India, you’d be crazy not to. The colourful streets teem with authentic Indian eateries, making it the perfect place to tuck into chicken biryani, spicy curries, and pickled condiments – all served on one big banana leaf, of course.
The next stop on your food tour of KL should be Chinatown, located on the pedestrianized strip of Petaling Street. This myriad of food stalls really comes alive at lunchtime, with everything from Hokkien mee (stir-fried egg noodles with sambal) to Chinese roast duck and my personal favourite, curry laksa.
But without fail, Jalan Alor, or “Food Street” is undoubtedly the food mecca of Kuala Lumpur. Tucked away behind the retail precinct of Bukit Bintang, Jalan Alor is home to every Malaysian street food treat you can imagine, whether it’s tasty sizzling satay or the finger-licking Chinese barbecued chicken wings.
What to eat
1) Curry Laksa
One of the signature Nyonya dishes of the Chinese Malay community, curry laksa, or curry mee, is as tasty as it is gorgeous to look at. A tasty coconut milk-based curry soup topped with egg noodles, cockles, fried bean curd, chicken and prawns, you’ll struggle not to lick the bowl when you’re done.
Try it at: Alor Corner Curry Noodle, Jalan Alor “Food Street”
These little sticks of heaven will completely revolutionise how you look at barbecued meat. Typically made using sliced chicken or beef, each stick is brushed with oil and spices whilst rotated over piping hot coals, until they’re grilled to perfection. Dunk it in a deliciously spicy peanut sauce and you’ll struggle not to fall in love with satay.
Try it at: Fat Brother Satay, Jalan Alor “Food Street”
3) Ice Kacang
Perfect for combatting KL’s grizzly summer heat, this brightly coloured dessert is as much a feast for the eyes as much it is for the stomach. Using shaved ice and brown sugar syrup; it is then topped with corn kernels, red beans and assorted jellies, before being drizzled with condensed milk. If you have a sweet tooth, then ice kacang is the sugar rush you’ve been waiting for.
Try it at: Ah Keong, Brickfields “Little India” or Petaling Street
4) Roti Canai
Sold at traditional mamak stalls, this interpretation of Indian flatbread manages to be flaky and crispy on the outside whilst being deliciously light and fluffy on the inside. Usually served with dhal (lentil curry) or any type of curry, this Malaysian staple is a must-try for visitors.
Try it at: Valentine Roti, Jalan Semarak
Chaotic but efficient, the rickety mess halls of Brickfields pack out each day as office workers pour in for one thing: biryani. Cooked with marinated mutton or chicken, the rice is seasoned with a fragrant cocktail of spices: cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nuts and chopped coriander.
Also try it at: Vishal’s Traditional Chettinad and North Indian Cuisine, Brickfields
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