Malaysian Food and Drink
The crossroads of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine, Malaysian food is an excellent way to sample local fare. Look out for regional specialities and Nyonya (Peranakan) cuisine, a fusion between Malay and Chinese cooking.
Malaysians are very proud of their cooking and most towns or even villages have their own delicious specialities such as Kajang satay, Ipoh chicken rice, Kelantanese nasi minyak and 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.
Generally, you can eat pretty much anywhere in Malaysia. Food outlets are comparatively clean – the only thing you should avoid is ice for your drinks when you frequent the street or hawker stalls since the blocks of ice used there might not be up to your hygienic standards. In restaurants this is not a problem. Also you might want to avoid ordering water from hawker stalls as it is often unboiled tap water.
Where to eat in Malaysia
Some of the more interesting places to eat Malaysian food are the hawker stalls and coffeeshops, known as kedai kopi in Malay or kopitiam in Chinese. Despite the name, these usually sell a lot more than coffee! Particularly popular and tasty are mamak stalls, run by Indian Muslims and serving up localized Indian fare. 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 times throughout the day. You can also order “take away” from any stall, just ask for bungkus (Malay) or ta pao (Chinese). A hawker meal will rarely cost you over RM5.
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 an excellent value by most standards; check prices before ordering though. Local prawns are huge, Chinese-style steamed fish is a treat and crab served with sticky chili sauce is particularly popular.
For some less adventurous options, try the Malaysian food courts in shopping malls. They 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 McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut and the usual suspects plus imitators throughout Malaysia.
Finding halal food in Malaysia is easy, but most Chinese restaurants are not halal, ask if in doubt. Meals at Malay restaurants and Western fast food restaurants like McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut are halal. Restaurants at major hotels serve halal food. Generally local Muslims will eat at Western, Chinese and Indian eateries if there is a halal sign or a framed picture of Quranic verses on the walls at the payment counter.
Vegetarianism is well understood and every restaurant will be able to come up with something on request, but don’t rely entirely on menu descriptions: innocuous-seeming dishes like “fried vegetables” etc will often contain pork bits, shrimp paste (belacan), fish sauce etc. Indian restaurants usually have very good vegetarian selections, and purely vegetarian Chinese restaurants (often serving remarkable “mock meat” products made from tofu, gluten etc) are also not uncommon. Getting vegetarian food in rural areas, especially those near fishing villages, may be more difficult.
Malaysians like both coffee (kopi) and tea (teh), especially the national drink teh tarik (“pulled tea”), hence named after the theatrical ‘pulling’ motion used to pour it. By default, both will be served hot, sweet and with a dose of condensed milk unless requested otherwise.
Another local favourite is the kopi tongkat ali ginseng, a mixture of coffee, a local aphrodisiacal root, and ginseng served with condensed milk that’s touted as an alternative to Viagra and Red Bull combined [and is usually advertised with a picture of a bed broken in half!].
Other popular nonalcoholic options include the chocolate drink Milo and lime juice (limau). Freshly made fruit juices are also widely available, as well as a wide range of canned drinks (some familiar, some less so).
Although Malaysia is a self-proclaimed Islamic country, alcohol is widely available, however some states (notably Kelantan and Terengganu) place considerable restrictions on sales by and to Muslims.