The crossroads of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine, Malaysia is an excellent place 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 heartland of the Eurasian community of Portuguese descent.
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.
As eating is a favourite ‘pastime’ of Malaysians, the majority are adept at using chopsticks, regardless of background. Noodles and Chinese dishes typically come with these, while Malay and Indian food is traditionally eaten by hand, though a fork and spoon are often use to eat Malay and Indian food in restaurants and may be requested if not provided.
If eating by hand, always use your right hand to put your food in your mouth, as Malays and Indians traditionally use their left hand for dirty things like washing up after using the restroom. 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.
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. Hygiene standards in Malaysia, while not up to that of neighbouring Singapore or Western countries, is still reasonable and much better than say, China or most of the rest of Southeast Asia. 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 value 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.
Being a Muslim-majority country, finding halal food in Malaysia is easy, but most Chinese stalls and restaurants, as well as those serving some indigenous ethnic groups of East Malaysia such as the Iban and Kadazan, are not halal. Ask if in doubt. Meals at Malay restaurants and Western fast food restaurants like McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut are halal. Restaurants at major hotels are not certified ‘Halal’ as they serve alcohol as well, but with the exception of Chinese restaurants, they generally don’t serve pork. 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, usually JAKIM.
There are no kosher establishments in Malaysia, so Jewish visitors will have to bring their own food with them. Kosher grocery stores and restaurants can be found in neighbouring Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam, so you might want to stop in one of those countries to stock up before entering Malaysia.
Vegetarianism is well-understood by the Chinese and Indian communities (not so by the Muslim Malays and other 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 [onions, garlic, leeks, etc.] discouraged in Mahayana Buddhism). And if you’re still feeling uneasy or unsure, do not hesitate to ask.
Malaysians like both coffee (kopi) and tea (teh), especially the national drink teh tarik (“pulled tea”), 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; request teh o to skip the milk, teh ais for iced milky tea, or teh o ais for iced milkless tea. Drinking with no sugar at all is considered odd, but asking for kurang manis (less sugar) will ease the pain. However, if you really want no sugar at all, you can try asking for “teh kosong.”
Another peculiar 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).
There is also a local drink comprised of white soya milk and black grass jelly (cincau) called soya cincau. It can be ordered at most hawker centres and local roadside cafes (kedai kopi/kopitiam).
Although Malaysia has a Muslim majority, alcohol is available on licensed outlet for the consumption of its non-Muslim citizens (e.g., Chinese, Indigenous Sabahan, Indigenous Sarawakian and Indian) and non-Muslim foreigners. However, some states (notably Kelantan and Terengganu) ban the selling of alcohol. With the exception of tax-free islands (Labuan, Langkawi, Tioman) and duty free shops (for example in Johor Bahru), prices are comparatively high, with a can of beer costing RM7.50 or more even in supermarkets or 7-Eleven stores. However, in East Malaysia, smuggled liquors are widely available. The legal drinking age in Malaysia is 21.
In East Malaysia, particularly Sarawak, tuak is a common affair for any celebration or festivals such as Gawai Dayak and Christmas Day. Tuak is made from fermented rice which sometimes sugar, honey or other various condiments are added. It is normally served lukewarm without ice. Visitors can choose from ‘strong’ flavour of tuak (which is normally being fermented for years), or ‘mild’ flavour (which sometimes just being prepared a week or even a day before). In Sabah, cheap liquors are very widely available at most supermarkets and mini markets in the state. Other alcoholic drinks such as beer and whisky are also widely available. On the other hand, Tuak in Kelantan also can be considered as a liquor since that it contains trace amount of fermented nipah or sap juice. The alcohol content in Kelantan tuak can easily reach 50% after 3 days from the time it was extracted.
Tapai consists of cassava (less often, rice) that is fermented and eaten as a food (though the liquid in the bottom can also be drunk). As it is commonly eaten during Hari Raya Puasa, the major Muslim holiday celebrating the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, it is interesting that Islamic legal authorities associated with the Islamist opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) have given Muslims a special dispensation from laws against consuming alcohol, in the case of tapai.