petronas tower kuala lumpur malaysia

The Joy Of Malaysian Cuisine

When it comes to food, culture and traditions are bound to play an important part. This is no different for Malaysians. As such, their national cuisine has its own distinctive flavors, with a mixture of spices and ingredients that are indigenous to the area. Unfortunately, not many people know about Malaysian food. Even if they do, it’t always the best-known dishes or local specialties. What most people think of when you say ‘Malaysian food’ is something like this: Green curry chicken, sambal sting ray and rendang (beef in coconut milk). While these might be delicious dishes, they’re not exactly representative of what it means to eat Malaysian food (and certainly aren’t limited to just those three things!).

photo of noodles on a bowl

What’s unique about Malaysian food?

In short, almost everything. Malaysia’s climate and culture is unique. This has an extremely large impact on the types of food you’ll find there. Malaysia has a tropical climate which means it’s hot, humid and often rainy. This is reflected in its food, which is often served with a cooling factor. Most dishes are light, fragrant and not very spicy. They’re also made with ingredients that grow easily in tropical climates (like coconut milk, palm sugar and rice). Malaysia also has a diverse range of cultures. This is thanks to its colorful history of colonization by the Chinese, British, Indians and Arabs. As a result, Malaysian food often has a blend of flavors from each of these cultures.

customer choosing raw kebab in street stall at night

Rice is a staple: Be ready to eat it often

Malaysia has a long and strong tradition of eating rice. This grain is almost always part of any meal you eat there (even when eating Western foods like lasagna, burgers or pasta). Rice is a staple of the Malaysian diet. You’ll find it in most traditional dishes and snacks. The most popular varieties are Jasmine or Basmati. Indeed, eating out in Malaysia often feels like a rice eating contest. You’ll be given a large mound of rice with almost every meal. You may think you can eat your way through it, but you’ll soon find your belly full and rice spilling out of your mouth!

close up photo of assorted grains

Seafood is insanely popular

The warm, tropical waters off Malaysia’s coast are home to a huge variety of fish and seafood. Eating seafood is a big part of local culture and is enjoyed by both rich and poor alike. You’ll find it eaten at every meal, in all its different forms: Fresh, dried, salted, or spiced and deep-fried. Rice with dried prawns is a common snack enjoyed by all and sundry. Despite the name, they’re not prawns that have been dried out, but rather small shrimps that have been preserved in salt. They’re usually eaten with sweet tamarind sauce and are a popular street food. Other popular snacks are squid with chili and salt, dried anchovies and dried fish.

It’s extremely flavorful and fragrant

Malaysian food is never bland or flavorless. It’s almost always packed full of flavor with lots of herbs and spices. You’ll often find combinations of flavors you’ve never tried before. This is usually thanks to the abundant supply of spices that are cultivated in the region. Most of the spices and herbs used in Malaysian cooking are native to Southeast Asia. This includes the likes of lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, lemon basil and chilli.

Nonya cuisine: A fusion of Chinese and Malay cuisine

Malaysia has a large Chinese population and Chinese culinary traditions have shaped Malaysian food. The two cuisines have found a unique blend which is called Nonya cuisine. It’s a fusion of Malaysian and Chinese cooking that can be seen in everyday dishes like laksa, popiah or rojak. Nonya cuisine is very distinct. It’s a mixture of Chinese and Malay flavors and styles. It uses Chinese ingredients and cooking methods but is seasoned with Malay herbs and spices. Some of the most popular Nonya dishes are laksa, popiah and rojak. Laksa is a spicy noodle soup with a creamy coconut milk base.

There’s a lot of Indian influence too

The other major ethnic group in Malaysia are the Indians. The Indian influence on Malaysian food can be seen in everyday dishes like roti canai, chicken tikka masala, nasi goreng and paratha. Indentured workers from India came to the region during British colonization. They brought their culture and cooking techniques with them. They’re responsible for many of the spices and herbs that are commonly used in Malaysian cooking.

Don’t expect your usual curries and spices

The Indian influence on Malaysian cuisine can be seen in the quantity of spices used in cooking. Curries and other hot spices are used regularly in many different dishes. Lemongrass is the most commonly used herb in Malaysian cooking. It’s used in almost every dish. You’ll also find galangal, lemongrass, turmeric, chili, ginger, tamarind and coconut milk. As well as these, you’ll find many other spices that are rarely used in other cuisines.

man standing while facing concrete buildings

So…Where should you go to eat Malaysian food?

If you want to experience Malaysian food at its best, head to any one of these cities. Each has its own unique mix of foods and flavors. Malaysian cuisine is a melting pot of cultures, so each city has its own distinct take on it. This offers you a chance to try different variations on Malaysian food and gives you a better idea of what it’s like to live as a Malaysian. If you want to experience the best of Malaysian food, head to Kuala Lumpur. This city is the capital and the most cosmopolitan out of all of the others. It’s also the most Westernized with the most tourists and expats. This makes it the best place to get a wide variety of authentic Malaysian dishes.

Bottom line

Malaysian cuisine is a vibrant mix of cultures. It’s one of the most culturally diverse cuisines in the world. It’s a perfect introduction to Asian cuisine. It’s delicious, unique, light and very fragrant. Most importantly, it’s very easy to fall in love with. However, before you dive in, it’s important to understand the differences between the various types of Malaysian food. Otherwise, you may find yourself disappointed and missing out on the experience.