Malaysia is a nation obsessed with food. When it’s makan time (that’s ‘eating’ in Malay) you can be sure that it’s always a gratifying affair. People take time to enjoy what’s on their plate, to relish and respect it, and to be truly thankful for it. It’s little wonder as Malaysia’s culinary heritage is one of Southeast Asia’s richest and most diverse, fuelled by an exotic world of herbs and spices and influenced by a myriad of colourful cuisines from through the ages.
The best way to get to know a culture is through its food and this is especially true for Malaysia where “have you eaten” is a form of greeting.
All in the Rice
A must try is the treasured Malay favourite, nasi lemak – literally translated, ‘fatty rice’. Eaten mainly for breakfast and commonly sold at hawker stalls in the early mornings, nasi lemak is synonymous with Malay cuisine and a great place to start your culinary journey. The lemak here actually refers to the key ingredient used in making the nasi, or ‘rice’, which is coconut cream and what you get is a fluffy, fragrant rice that works in perfect harmony with the many accompaniments available. Whether you have it at its most basic, with peanuts, dried anchovies, a hard-boiled egg and sambal (an addictive, hot and spicy sauce), or with added embellishments such as chicken curry, beef rendang, squid fritters or fried fish you’ll be hooked from the first bite.
Soup for the Soul
If you’re a lover of complex broths, then the perennial laksa will be right up your street. There’s something for everyone here, whether you like it creamy and smooth, hot and spicy or sweet and sour. Originally thought to be a dish of peranakan origin (Chinese/Malay mix), there are many different types of laksa, generally split into curry-based or tamarind-based, with an array of regional specialities. Some of the favourites include the Sarawak laksa, which combines a soup base of tamarind, sambal belacan, coconut milk and lemon grass, topped with omelette strips and served with vermicelli noodles. Others include the spicy-sour Assam laksa, prevalent in Penang; the Nyonya laksa which is rich in coconut gravy and influenced by Thai cuisine and the dry Kelantan laksa served with thicker noodles and fish meat.
World of Curry
From the Indian quarter, we recommend you go for the full monty with banana leaf rice. Best eaten with your hands, this South Indian speciality is the best way to dive right into the array of curries, pickles, veggies and meats found in this colourful cuisine. This is full on comfort food at its best, a feast for both the eyes and the stomach with a huge range of dishes to try. Take your rice, mix it with any of the curries you’re presented with and enjoy with side dishes like dry chicken varuval, aromatic crab curry, buttery mutton and lime pickle. Wash it down with a cup of tangy rasam, an Indian soup that will also help you digest the carbo-curry load. Look for those restaurants that serve it the proper way, on an actual banana leaf not plate and be prepared for a fully-fledged flavour assault.
King of Fruits
What would Malaysian cuisine be without a mention of the King of Fruits, the durian? This thorny delicacy can be sniffed from a mile away and depending on where you lie, is either an exquisite aroma or offensive odour. The love/hate relationship is well known but it’s a must try at least once. Many different cultivars of durian exist, each with their own distinct colour and flavour, ranging from pale yellow, bitter and creamy to deep orange, milky and sweet. Some are easier on the palate than others, lighter in nature and with less after taste while others contain alcoholic notes. Musang King variant (D198) is the top of the range variant produced from the Malaysian orchards. Durian season is in second half of the year, when festivals honouring the fruit crop up, offering vast buffets of the fruit. This is the best opportunity to taste the different varieties in one sitting, as well as other local fruits such as mangosteens, rambutan and cempedak.