I cannot believe it has taken me THIS LONG to write this post! After an entire YEAR from when I came to Kuala Lumpur for the first time. I guess I just wanted to do as good of a job as possible and to be as thorough as possible. But I realized that there is no way I can possibly eat every single dish offered in Malaysia. And plus, once I found my favorites, I just keep on eating them over and over.
So I think this is about as good as it’s going to get for now. That is, until I start branching out, going to different areas of the country, or convincing local friends to take me to eat new things. I’ve included all the most popular dishes (and local favorites) that a first time visitor should not miss!
Here we go (in no particular order)!
1. Nasi Lemak
I said this list is not ordered, but no surprise that this is #1.
Nasi Lemak is Malaysia’s national dish, and you have not officially visited this country if you don’t eat this! The simplest version of nasi lemak is just coconut rice, sambal paste (a spicy shrimp paste), fried anchovies, peanuts, and hard boiled egg. Fancier versions will have fried chicken (ayam goreng) or chicken rendang on the side.
A lot of people agree that the best nasi lemak in Kuala Lumpur is Village Park Restaurant. EVERYONE who goes there gets just one thing: the nasi lemak with fried chicken. The chicken is fried with some kind of magical spiced crust, and it is sooooo good! If you’re visiting KL, it’s definitely worth the 30 minute Uber ride (from the city center) to come here to eat. And of course, because the sambal paste is a little spicy, it’s best washed down with lemon ice drinks.
2. Char Kuey Teow
This popular national noodle dish is one of my favorite Malaysian foods! If I see this on the menu, then it’s very hard for me to order something else. This dish is of Chinese origin from the Teochew area. It’s flat rice noodles stir-fried with egg, sprouts, prawns, and cockles (which I usually request to leave off). The best places will also top it with Chinese sausage! You can ask for it to be made with chili sauce if you want it spicy.
I kind of feel like this is the Chinese version of Pad Thai.
3. Curry Laksa (Curry Mee)
Another favorite of mine! This soup noodle is made with a fragrant spicy coconut soup base. Typically, the bowl will include soft tofu puffs, prawns, and bean sprouts. The type of noodle used is usually thicker yellow noodles so there’s some kind of bite. But some places also do half thin rice vermicelli. I love this for the fiery coconuty taste.
A variation is Aram Laksa (from Penang), which has a fish soup base and fish meat. Personally, I really don’t like this version because it’s just way too fishy. And a lot of locals don’t like it either!
4. Prawn Mee
This is another Penang noodle soup made with a spicy shrimp soup. The broth gets its strong shrimpy flavor buy boiling for hours with shrimp head and shells. You can choose the noodles you want, but I believe the most authentic version is half yellow noodles and half thin vermicelli rice noodles.
5. Roti Canai
I think this is also unofficially considered Malaysia’s national dish. Everyone says there’s 2 things you must eat in Malaysia: nasi lemak and roti canai.
Roti canai is an Indian influenced flatbread/pancake. It’s made with a lot of butter and oil, so it’s flakey and fluffy. And the pan frying gives it a crispness on the outside. You can get it with just about any filling imaginable, including egg, onion, cheese, etc. And it’s typically served with dhal (lentil soup) and curries. Roti canai is a staple in mamaks (24-hr Muslim-Indian eateries) everywhere.
6. Bak Kut Teh (肉骨茶)
The literal Chinese translation of this dish is pork bone tea. Despite the name, the meat is not stewed in tea. Rather, the pork rib meat is stewed in complex herbal soup. The meat is simmered for hours until super tender. For more flavor, you can dip the pork into chili padi sauce for a spice kick. Usually, this is eaten with fried onion rice, fried dough pieces, and veggies on the side.
7. Chili Pan Mee
I love this one also! It’s a dry noodle dish made with the thicker round noodles, topped with fried anchovies, minced pork, and a soft poached egg. What really makes this dish is the dried chili mix. Use as much as you want until you get the desired spice level. Mix everything up and enjoy! I love how the poached egg and chili mix form this kind of thick sauce that coats the noodles very well.
There is a soupy version of this dish as well (actually, I think the soup version came first). The soup is a pork bone and anchovy broth. I haven’t had it, because I like the dry version too much!
8. Chicken Rice
The classic chicken rice. It is SO simple but amazingly delicious! You can either get the boiled chicken or roasted chicken (which I prefer). The chicken is served with rice that has been cooked with garlic, ginger, and chicken stock, so it has a really aromatic taste. And the best part – that amazing chili ginger dip!
Oh, and it’s always chicken rice. Never chicken and rice, as I’ve been corrected.
9. Roasted Pork Rice
A must for pork lovers! I believe this dish was perfected by the Cantonese. Imagine a strip of pork belly with a layer of tender meat, melt-in-your-mouth fat, and (the best part!) the perfect crunchy crispy skin. Again, this is served with that delicious rice and chili sauce that’s like crack.
10. Hokkien Mee
This is another one of Malaysia’s most famous dishes. Though honestly, I’m not entirely sure what this is or why it’s so special. It’s noodles in a black sauce (black sauce = soy + mushroom sauce) with pork belly pieces and cabbage.
I think my problem is that the black sauce doesn’t have a ton of flavor (but this is coming from someone who likes everything spicy). You may have to dress it up yourself with chili sauce, garlic sauce, or pickled chilies.
11. Wantan Mee
This is another staple Chinese food court item. It’s basically thin yellow egg noodles with black sauce. You can choose the type of meat on the side, but char siu pork is usually the popular one. And then there’s the all-important pickled green chilis to achieve the balance of flavor.
Side note: I could not figure out why this dish is called wantan mee, when there are no wontons in it! But it is typically served with soup on the side with a few wontons.
12. Fish Head Noodle
Don’t worry, you don’t actually have to get it with the fish head. Most people like it with fish fillet pieces. The fish is usually lightly battered and fried. The soup is made with evaporated milk (watch out those lactose intolerant!), flavored with chicken stock, ginger, and sour plums. It’s all topped off with picked mustard greens and fresh sliced tomatoes. It’s a lightly fragrant soup with a mild taste of the ocean.
13. Pork Noodle
Malaysians really like their noodles, don’t they. But this is another good one! From what I can tell, it’s dried noodle with minced pork and sausage pieces in black sauce. It’s always served with pork meatball soup on the side, which is probably my favorite part! You’ll also get a small dipping dish of chili padi. Soak the pork meatballs in it for a spice kick!
This is a very Malay snack of Indonesian origin (and it’s even their national dish), that Malaysians like to think of as their own. It’s sticks of grilled meat – usually beef, chicken, or lamb – prepared in spices. They are eaten dipped in peanut sauce, with cucumbers and onion on the side.
We’re onto dessert now! And of course you can’t come to Malaysia without trying cendol, Malaysia’s national dessert! It’s shaved iced with an assortment of really odd toppings, such as corn, beans, and green noodles. Then it’s doused with this brown sugar juice and condensed milk. I’m not really a fan of cendol. It’s WAY too sweet and cloying. I’d rather stick with ice cream. :)
To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of traditional Malaysian desserts. They really like their sugar over here, so most desserts tend to be sugar overload. But I think it’d be fun to hunt down different Malaysian desserts for my next food project. :D
To see even more yummy traditional Malaysian foods, see what I ate at my local night market!
Have you tried any of these? Which of these would you eat?
*Yes, I know there are popular foods I didn’t include, such as banana leaf. I couldn’t find a picture, so it had to be left out. Let me know what else I missed and I will do a Part 2!