Type Of Hawker Food In Malaysia Essay

(CNN) — In an age when the term "underrated" gets tossed about with impunity, it may be difficult to take us seriously when we say Malaysian food isn't getting the global recognition it deserves.

But the fact is, this stuff is good.

The sum of many delicious parts, Malaysian cuisine's influences include Chinese, Indian and Malay.

In some ways it's similar to Indonesian food, with the two nations sharing many of the same dishes. (Warning: debates over dish origins can turn nasty in these parts -- such is the passion of the region's food lovers.)

Regardless, once you're in Malaysia and eating, you'll quickly dispense with historical concerns and wonder instead where your next meal is coming from and how you can you get to it sooner.

To help narrow your choices here are 40 of Malaysia's top dishes, in no particular order.

1. Mee goreng mamak

Mee goreng mamak.

courtesy tourism malaysia

This Indian Muslim dish is the complete package. Yellow noodles. Beef or chicken. Shrimp. Soy sauce, veggies and eggs. A bit of chili tossed in for an irresistible jolt.

Sounds simple, right?

Sadly, you can try to replicate this one at home, but it's just not going to taste the way it did when you chowed down at that gritty Malaysian hawker stall.

2. Apam balik

This is the ultimate Malaysian pancake.

Courtesy Yun Huang Yong/Creative Commons/Flickr

You haven't truly experienced Malaysian food until you thrill your taste buds with this sweet treat.

A pancake-style snack wedded with the compact package of an omelet, apam balik is stuffed with more than a sufficient amount of sugar, peanuts and the occasional sprinkle of corn -- it's a dish that's constantly being reinvented.

3. Nasi kerabu

Don't let the blue rice put you off.

Courtesy Yun Huang Yong/Creative Commons/Flickr

If the blue rice doesn't spark your curiosity, the lines of people around the country waiting to order this favorite Kelantanese dish should.

From the state of Kelantan in northern peninsular Malaysia, nasi kerabu gets its eye-grabbing color from telang flowers, which are crushed and mixed into flour.

The aquamarine dish is topped with bean sprouts and fried coconut, then drenched in spicy budu, a fermented fish sauce.

In true Kelantan style, you use your hands to dig into this one.

4. Ayam percik (chicken with percik sauce)

Delicious chicken.

Courtesy Alpha/Creative Commons/Flickr

KFC's popularity in the region (and across Asia) over other fast food chains won't surprise those familiar with ayam percik.

Basically, it's barbecued chicken slathered in spicy chili, garlic and ginger sauce mixed with coconut milk.

With the right amount of percik sauce, this staple Malaysian stall food packs more zing than anything the Colonel can muster.

5. Nasi lemak

Nasi lemak -- food of a nation.

Dan Tham/CNN

Some call nasi lemak Malaysia's unofficial national dish. Everyone else calls it delicious.

Nasi lemak is basically rice cooked in coconut milk.

It's the sides that matter.

Depending on where you are in Malaysia, it comes with a variety of accompaniments such as hard-boiled egg, peanuts, vegetables, lamb/chicken/or beef curry, seafood and sambal (chili-based sauce).

Nasi lemak is traditionally eaten for breakfast but these days people are ordering it any time of day.

6. Roti john

A Muslim trader prepares a Roti John during a Ramadan bazaar in Kuala Lumpur.

Rahman Roslan/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images

Whoever John was, it's apparent that he preferred his sandwiches made with grilled minced meat and egg in the middle of slim bread, and drowned in a confection of condiments.

Mayonnaise, ketchup, barbecue and chili sauce -- choose one or choose them all.

7. Rendang (beef, chicken or lamb)

It's not a curry, OK?

Courtesy Alpha/Creative commons/Flickr

Though sometimes erroneously called a curry, Malaysian food aficionados point out that this chunky cauldron of coconut milk and spices is nothing of the sort.

The difference is in how it's prepared: slowly simmered (to let the meat absorb the spices) until the rosy liquid completely evaporates.

A favorite, especially during festive seasons, rendang is found across Malaysia.

8. Kuih

Kuih is one of Malaysia's favorite desserts.


Variety, variety, variety -- that's way to explore kuih, or Malay-style pastries. Small enough to snap up in a gulp and sugary enough to give you a modest jitter, kuih vendors are the most colorful stalls of all.

This kaleidoscope of soft, sugary morsels goes quickly -- few pieces are left by the time daylight begins to fade.

9. Nasi kandar

Nasi Kandar is easy to make and tasty too.

Courtesy amrufm/creative commons/flickr

Nasi kandar is essentially rice served with your choice of toppings, which commonly include curry, fish, egg and okra.

Everything is laid out buffet style, though you can also order a la carte.

Found all over Malaysia, nasi kandar eateries are extremely popular, most open 24 hours and run by ethnic Indian Muslims.

10. Laksa

Laksa: Malaysia's greatest export.

Courtesy LWYang/Creative Commons/Flickr

A staple of Malaysian cuisine, laksa eateries have been migrating abroad in recent years, making appearances in Bangkok, Shanghai and further afield.

There are multiple variations. For anyone who enjoys a taste of the volcanic kind, this spicy noodle soup can get you there in its curry form.

Some like it with fish, others prawns.

Our favorite is Penang's asam laksa, in which tamarind features heavily ("asam" is Malay for tamarind) to create a spicy-sour fish broth.

11. Popia basah (wet spring roll)

A hefty sort of spring roll, popia basah speaks to those in need of the familiar crispy snack, but without the added oil.

Not to be confused with wet rolls found in parts of Vietnam, popia basah comes complete with its own regional-specific flavor. In place of lettuce, the Malay wet spring roll has turnips, fried onions and bean sprouts.

12. Bubur (porridges)

Bubur vendors are easy to spot. They're the stall with the giant steel pots and matching ladles.

The contents of these coconut milk-based, sometimes sugary soups include a medley of vegetables and meats, and even dyed balls of flour and coconut milk.

There's no standard recipe in preparing bubur -- different regions boast their own specialty.

13. Roti jala

Curry and crepe make the perfect foodie couple

Courtesy Alpha/Creative Commons/Flickr

Roti jala, or net bread, gets its name from the net-like formation that's created by making zigzagging lines with flour on a large skillet.

The final product is folded up like a crepe and usually served with chicken curry. Roti jala is eaten any time of the day.

14. Cendawan goreng (fried mushrooms)

Deep-fried fungus doesn't get better than this. One version, cendawan goreng, is typically peppered with chili or barbecue seasoning, giving it its own sass.

Eaten as an appetizer or snack, with a meal or while on foot, this one will have you imagining what else you can fry -- and how else it can be seasoned.

15. Sambal udang

Sambal udang is a Peranakan dish, created by descendants of 15th-and-16th-century Chinese immigrants.

The Baba Nyonya people, also known as Peranakan or Straits Chinese, are mainly of Chinese descent, originally from Fujian province in southeastern China.

They settled along the coast of Malaysia mainly in Penang and Melaka, as well as parts of Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia. These days, they're famous for their incredible food.

A popular Peranakan dish, sambal udang is all about prawns. Whole prawns are sent swimming into a delicious pool of sambal -- chili paste -- that's flavored with prawn paste. The addition of tamarind juice gives it a tangy kick.

16. Murtabak

Murtabak will fill you up.

Courtesy Muhammad Ashiq/Creative Commons/Flickr

This pan-fried bread stuffed with minced meat and onions and dipped in spicy sauce is a meal and a half, only recommended to the famished.

Perfect murtabak is made with a robust amount of minced meat, so that the taste comes through on the first bite.

So spicy-sour it'll make your tongue curl.

17. Asam pedas

Nazlina Hussin, founder of the popular Penang cooking school Nazlina Spice Station, says it'd be outrageous not to include asam pedas on any short list of her country's best foods.

A fish curry popular throughout peninsular Malaysia, it's commonly made with freshwater fish or stingray.

Asam, which means tamarind, features heavily, along with ginger, shrimp paste, garlic, chilies and other herbs.

18. Lemang

Eaten with a meat or vegetable dish, lemang is glutinous rice mixed with coconut milk, which is cooked in bamboo.

The time-consuming process to make lemang starts by lining hollowed-out shoots with banana leaves.

The bamboo is left over a fire to slowly cook the rice in a process known as tapai.

The result is sticky, wet rice that can, and regularly does, make a nice substitute for its plain Jane counterpart.

19. Otak-otak

Perhaps named by someone with an offbeat sense of humor, otak-otak translates as "brains" in Malay -- but it gets this graphic moniker from its appearance, not its taste or ingredients.

This fish paste mixture of spices and diced onions is loosely wrapped in a banana leaf and barbecued over charcoal until the pinkish contents become warm and the leaves are slightly charred.

No fuss or frills when it comes to eating -- picking at it straight from the leaf is the only way to do it.

20. Tepung pelita

A kind of kuih (Malay-style pastry), tepung pelita easily takes the cake when compared to its post-dinner relatives. At some point just about everyone has over-indulged in this two-layered coconut milk-based sweet.

On the top layer, thick coconut milk with salt; on the bottom, a similar milky liquid mixed with sugar and pandan leaves to turn it green.

Served in bite-sized pandan leaf bowls, the packaging of tepung pelita makes it easy to fulfill those gluttonous desires.

21. Rempeyek

Few snacks come saltier, or more gratifying, than rempeyek.

This top Malaysian food is commonly made by deep frying a doughy batter into a thin brittle and topping it with peanuts and anchovies.

The amount of salt can vary and there are variations that use dried shrimp or garlic instead of anchovies.

22. Satay

Meat on a stick. When does this concept not work?

Courtesy Marufish/Creative Commons/Flickr

Though considered by many to be a dish native to Thailand, satay is actually believed to have originated in Indonesia.

Origins aside, can we all just agree that meat on a stick is good?

Malaysia has its own variations of the grilled skewers, served nationwide in chicken, beef or pork forms (the latter in non-Muslim venues only).

Sauces vary from region to region, including the peanut sauce that's loved the world over.

23. Rojak

Rojak ("mixture" in Malay) is essentially a fried dough fritter with fruits and veggies, though there are regional variations.

But vegetarians shouldn't get their hopes up. The whole mixture is combined with Malaysia's ever-popular shrimp paste.

It's the perfect combination of sweet, spicy and sour.

24. Putu piring

Like roti jala, putu piring is enjoyed in India and Malaysia.

Putu piring has the taste of a cake, with the added bonus of pockets of palm sugar.

It's plate-like shape is formed by flattening the flour before covering it in a white cloth and placing it in a conical steamer.

25. Satar

If otak-otak is the hodge-podge, hot dog variety of grilled fish, then satar is its more refined cousin.

At one bazaar in Kelana Jaya, Malaysia, a vendor has set up what he calls "mackerel-filled food from the east coast."

Roasted in a banana leaf, the process and look are a Photostat of otak-otak, but with more fish, less spice and larger portions.

26. Roti canai

An Indian-inspired flatbread, roti canai is made with flour, butter and water, though some will toss condensed milk in to sweeten it up.

The whole concoction is flattened, folded, oiled and cooked on a heavily oiled skillet, resulting in a sublimely fluffy piece of bread with a crispy exterior.

You can eat this one as a snack on its own or use it to scoop up a side of curry.

27. Mee rebus

In case you haven't noticed, Malaysia has done a lot with the simple Chinese noodle.

Another one to set your taste buds into party mode, mee rebus is made with blanched yellow noodles drowned in an insanely addictive curry-like potato-based gravy and spices like lemongrass and ginger.

It's similar to mee goreng.

Common proteins added to the mix include prawns, mutton and dried anchovies.

Garnishes include lime, spouts and halved boiled eggs.

28. Gulai ayam kampung

This chicken curry dish can be cooked in a number of ways. For instance, in the "village" style, traditional herbs and potatoes are tossed in.

The best thing about gulai ayam is the smell. Turmeric and kaffir lime leaves, plus lemongrass, give it an irresistible aroma. Palm sugar and coconut paste add that extra oomph to knock your socks off.

29. Lor bak

A Nyonya specialty of Penang, lor bak is braised pork that has been marinated in five-spice powder before being wrapped in soft bean curd skin and deep-fried.

Lor bak is served with two dipping sauces, a spicy red chili sauce and a gravy thickened with cornstarch and a beaten egg called lor.

30. Ikan bakar

A fish dish you won't forget.

Melanie Wood/CNN

The direct translation of this dish means "burned fish."

You shouldn't let that turn you off. This is one tasty grilled bit of seafood.

After being marinated in the all-important sambal, the fish is placed on a banana leaf and grilled over a flame. Great for sharing.

31. Char kuey teow

We asked author and chef Norman Musa, one of Malaysia's most famous exports, which dish he'd be outraged not to see on a list of the country's top dishes. This is the one.

Another one to thank China's migrants for, char kuey teow --- made with flat rice noodles --- is one of Southeast Asia's most popular noodle dishes.

The noodles are fried with pork lard, dark and light soy sauce, chili, de-shelled cockles, bean sprouts, Chinese chives and sometimes prawn and egg.

Essential to the dish is good "wok hei" or breath of wok, the qualities and tastes imparted by cooking on a wok using high heat.

32. Chai tow kway

In this dish, rice flour and grated white radish is mixed and steamed into large slabs or cakes.

These are cut up into little pieces and fried with preserved turnip, soy sauce, fish sauce, eggs, garlic and spring onions.

You can have it "white" or "black" (with sweet dark soy sauce added). Also known as fried carrot cake or chye tow kueh, this grease-laden belly warmer is available at many hawker centers.

33. Goreng pisang

The popular Malay snack of goreng pisang (banana fritters) is one of those dishes that has variations in banana-growing countries around the world.

The deep-frying helps caramelize the natural sugars in the bananas, making them even sweeter than they were to begin with. Some of Malaysia's Chinese versions have unusually delicate and puffy batter.

34. Chicken curry kapitan

This isn't an ordinary curry. A Peranakan dish, chicken curry kapitan has a tangy flavor made from tamarind juice, candlenuts, fresh turmeric root and belacan (shrimp paste.)

As for the name, kapitan was the title of an Indian or Chinese leader in Penang. Legend has it a kapitan once asked his cook "what's for dinner tonight?" The chef replied, "Chicken curry, Kapitan!"

35. Ketupat

Weaving a little basket of goodness.


It would be a crime against the dumpling gods to leave this fancy little package off a list of Malaysia's top foods.

More of a side than a main dish, ketupat comes in several varieties. Basically, it involves weaving a pouch made of palm leaves around a handful of rice. The rice expands and compresses, resulting in a neat little bundle you can dip in your curry or rendang.

36. Jeu hoo char

Another Peranakan great -- we could easily put together a list of 40 delicious Peranakan dishes -- this salad features a finely shredded mixture of stir-fried carrots, onions, mushrooms, pork and cuttlefish.

This dish is particularly popular during festivals -- especially Chinese New Year.

37. Kaya toast

This puts your regular buttered toast to shame.

Courtesy T.Tseng/Creative commons/Flickr

Kaya is a sweet and fragrant coconut custard jam, slathered onto thin slices of warm toast with ample butter. It's as divine as it sounds, particularly when downed with a cup of thick black coffee.

Many locals have this for breakfast supplemented by two soft-boiled eggs with soy sauce and pepper.

38. Ais kachang

Shaved ice desserts are always a popular treat in the tropics.

Ice kachang (ice with beans) evolved from the humble ice ball drenched with syrup to be the little ice mountain served in a bowl, drizzled with creamed corn, condensed milk, gula melaka and brightly colored syrups.

Dig into it and you'll discover other goodies hidden within -- red beans, palm seeds and cubed jellies.

39. Air tebu

While inhabitants of some regions in Asia prefer to gnaw on sugar cane (China and Vietnam, for instance), others take a more refined approach when it comes to extracting the sweet nectar within.

Much of the smoke wafting through Malaysia's bazaar crowds comes from pots of boiling, frying liquid, but a significant portion also originates from the engine of a sugar cane grinder.

Stalks are fed into industrial-sized juicers; the liquid is collected and served by the bag and bottle. There's no dearth of syrupy drinks on offer, but air tebu is the only one that comes with a show.

40. Wonton mee

Wonton mee. China's great gift to Southeast Asia.

Tsim Chai Kee

You'll find variations of wanton mee, a dish of Chinese origin, all over Asia, but the one in Penang stands out.

Springy egg noodles are served al dente with a sticky sauce made from soy sauce and lard oil. A spoonful of fiery sambal is added to the side.

It's topped with pieces of leafy green Chinese kale, sliced green onions, pickled green chilies and wontons. The wontons are either boiled or steamed, as you'll find them elsewhere in Malaysia, or fried, in a unique Penang twist.

Special thanks to author and restaurateur Chef Norman Musa, cooking school owner Nazlina Hussin and the other Malaysian locals who helped compile this list by sharing their favorite dishes, cooking tips and explanations.

Editor's note: This article was previously published in 2013. It was reformatted, updated and republished in 2017.

You know, the Chinese are funny people: so long as their eyes are open, they are looking for food.

–- an ethnic Chinese Malaysian man sizes up the Malaysian appetite for street food

Truth is, this quote applies to just about everyone in Malaysia. And why not? Like many of its neighbors in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is home to the holy trinity of street food enjoyment: availability, quality and price.

From stink bean squid sambal to giant prawns in huge buckets of satay sauce, Malaysia delivers an experience of culinary and cultural diversity. Here's a wee taste of the wide-ranging (Malay, Chinese, Indian and Indonesian) bites you might find.

Each region of Malaysia features its own culinary specialties. Here are a few favorites from our time in Penang, Kuala Lumpur, and Melaka.

Penang Eats

The key to effective dining in Penang: find a “hawker center” and start sampling. For the uninitiated, hawker centers are organized areas of street food vendors, outfitted with plastic chairs and tables.

Penang Curry Mee

A signature Penang soup that features yellow egg noodles (mee), vermicelli (bee hoon), bean sprouts, fried tofu and prawns – all simmered in a light coconut milk-based curry broth. Although curry mee may look similar to curry laksa, the curry mee broth is usually lighter and less heavy on the coconut milk.

Where to find it: Gurney Drive Hawker Center near Georgetown in Penang.

Char Kway Teow

Think Malaysia's version of pad Thai. Fried flat noodles, shrimp, fresh onions, bean sprouts, chili paste and a dose of scrambled eggs come together in this classic, delicious, and inexpensive Malaysian comfort food.

Where to find it: Gurney Drive Hawker Center near Georgetown in Penang.

Assam Laksa

Rice noodles, cucumber, onions, cabbage and chilies served in a fish broth and capped off with a spoonful of dark prawn paste (hae ko). Although we prefer traditional curry laksa or Penang curry mee, assam laksa is certainly worth a try, particularly if you are new to the Malaysian table.

Where to find it: New Lane Hawker Junction off of Macalister Road in Georgetown.

Chee Cheong Fun:

Fresh rice noodle rolls covered with prawn paste, peanut sauce and pepper sauce. Savory, zippy, nutty and sweet, this blend comes to the rescue of once bland-tasting rice noodles.

Where to find it: New Lane Hawker Junction off of Macalister Road in Georgetown.

Masala Dosa

A typical southern Indian dish composed of a flat, crispy chickpea flour pancake filled with potato and vegetable masala. Drench your dosa in vegetable sambar, and cilantro-mint coconut chutney – then roll up your sleeves and dig in…with your (right) hand.

Where to find it: Restaurant Daun Pisang – Sri Ananda Bahwan – at 55 Penang Street in Georgetown.

Indian snacks

Samosas (fried dough pockets filled with veggies and spices), chana masala (chickpeas mixed with spices and red onions), vada (spicy, savory donuts made of chickpea flour), and many other tasty Indian bites are available along the streets of Little India in Georgetown. Alternatively, try the friendly chana masala vendor next to the food court on Penang Hill.

Kuala Lumpur Eats

Although Kuala Lumpur has developed and gone high-tech, its people have thankfully not abandoned their street food roots.

Curry Laksa

The first thing out of our mouths when we checked into our guest house in Kuala Lumpur: “Where can we find the best curry laksa?

It pays to know who to ask. One of the employees walked us to his favorite stand just around the corner. Curry laksa, another coconut milk-based curry soup, features thickness – thick noodles, fried tofu, roasted eggplant, shrimp, bean sprouts, and a Southeast Asian stew of tasty bits that we couldn't identify. Spicy, rich, heavenly.

Where to find it: A street stall at the corner of Jalan Bukit Bintang and Jalan Sultan Ismail.

Dim Sum

We are all about dim sum – anywhere, anytime of day. So when we passed by this stand with steamer baskets stacked high, we couldn’t help but stop for a bite, or two…or three.

Where to find it: At the street-side restaurants along Jalan Bukit Bintang.

Sambal Sotong

Rich, roasted, and chock-full of tender squid, this dish had us coming back for more. Sambal sauces feature varying degrees of heat and sweetness depending on what's inside. Generally, you'll find some combination of tomato, shrimp paste, tamarind, chili paste, garlic, and lemon grass.

Where to find it: The best we tasted: a restaurant along Jalan Bukit Bintang called 1+1 Restaurant.

Stir-Fried Greens:

After all the rich foods like curry laksa and sambal satong, a simple dish of quick-fried greens with crispy-fried garlic, a pile of fresh rice and a small bowl of chili sauce was exactly what we needed to balance out all the coconut milk coursing through our veins.

Where to find it: 1+1 Restaurant along Jalan Bukit Bintang.

Melaka Eats (Malacca)

It’s actually worth spending a couple of days in sleepy Melaka (Malacca), if only to sample the Nyonya culinary specialties fused from Malay and Chinese influences (dating from the intermarriage of these two cultures centuries ago).

Satay Heaven

There ain't no satay like Capitol Satay.

The sequence: choose your dumplings and skewered vegetables, meat, and tofu from a display case, then settle into your seat – for you are about to be served. Known as satay celup (steamboat satay), the style of satay service at Capitol Satay has a whiff of hot pot influence. Instead of steaming with broth, your pot bubbles with a spicy, peanut-laden satay sauce. As our pot evaporated, waitresses were quick to top us off with buckets of ground peanuts and spicy masala.

The clincher for this place to go down in the Uncornered Market eating experience hall of fame: when a gaggle of giggling waitresses delivered gigantic prawns to our table…for free.

Where to find it: Capitol Satay is located at 41 Lorong Bukit Cina in Melaka. There’s usually a line outside, so come early, pace yourself…and smile, for you too may be treated to a dose of giant prawns.

Laksa Lemak Nyonya

For every region of Malaysia, it’s own version of laksa. To our taste, Melaka laksa might just take the prize. A thick coconut milk soup loaded with fish balls, fried tofu, cucumber, spring onions, lime, and a dollop of chili sauce on top. Embarrassingly, we licked the bowl clean.

Where to find it: Donald and Lily's Corner for Nonya food on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock (Heeren Street). This tiny place closes after lunch, so be sure to arrive early.

Tau Kua Rojak

Another typical Nonya dish featuring a balance of salty and sweet: fried bean curd (tau kua), cucumbers and pineapples topped with peanuts and rojak sauce (sweet and tangy, made from tamarind paste, shrimp paste, chili pepper, oyster sauce and brown sugar).

Where to find it: Donald and Lily's Corner for Nonya food on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock (Heeren Street).


The sweet send-off, cendol features finely crushed ice with gula melaka (or palm sugar) and coconut milk. The fluorescent gummy worm-like dough bits – themselves called cendol – are made from green pea flour and the pressed juice of the pandan leaf. Think of it as an exotic take on the snow cone.

Where to find it: The stand right in front of Donald and Lily’s Corner or at the restaurant directly across the street.

Malaysian Food Photo Essay

About Daniel Noll

Travel and life evangelist. Writer, speaker, storyteller and consultant. Connecting people to experiences that will change their lives. Originally from the U.S. Daniel has lived abroad since 2001 and most recently has been on the road since 2006. When he's not writing for the blog you can keep up with his adventures on Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus and Instagram.

Filed Under: Food, World Cuisine GuidesDestinations: MalaysiaTagged With: street-food Published on:


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