Malaysia's top attraction must be the food - the variety is endless, the choices astounding, the value unbeatable! Be it Chinese, Malay, Indian or Western, you'll find it all and more, especially in the big cities.
Surprisingly, Malay food is not as easily found in the cities as Chinese or Indian food, except for satay, which is commonly available.
The most highly appreciated Malay dish in Malaysia is, without a doubt, satay. This consists of delicious bite-sized pieces of chicken, mutton or beef, skewered, and then grilled over a charcoal fire. A spicy peanut sauce accompanies this dish. Other Malay dishes worth trying include tahu goreng (fried soybean curd stuffed with bean sprouts, topped with a peanut sauce), ikan bilis (tiny anchovies fried till crisp), ikan assam (fried fish in a sour tamarind curry) sambal udang (fiery curry prawns) and rendang (spicy meat curry prepared with coconut milk). A popular breakfast dish is nasi lemak which is rice cooked in coconut milk and served with sambal ikan bilis, squid sambal, egg, cucumber slices and peanuts. Sambal is a very spicy chilli paste, popular with all Malaysians. Nasi dagang is commonly found in Kelantan and Trengganu. It consists of glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk and served with fish curry, sambal and cucumber pickle. Indonesian food is best represented in Malaysia in the form of gado gado, a salad with a peanut sauce dressing. Another firm favourite is nasi padang, where you can select as many dishes as you want from the window display and share the food amongst yourselves.
Indian food is one of the region's greatest delights and indeed many people say that it is easier to find good Indian food in Malaysia than in India!
In Indian food everywhere, you will encounter the myriad spices or masala, the lentil soup known as dhal, the yoghurt drink known as lassi and the condiments known as chutney.
A typical Indian meal starts with a simple rice plate being placed in front of you. If you ask for one in a vegetarian restaurant, you won't get a plate at all, but a large banana leaf. On this a large mound of rice is placed, then scoops of a variety of vegetable curries are tossed in. With your right hand, you then knead the curries into your rice and eat away. When your banana leaf starts to get empty you'll suddenly find it refilled as this is basically a 'as much as you can eat' meal. In a 'banana leaf' restaurant however, you will get to choose from a whole range of meat curries and fried seafood to go with your meal. When you've finished, fold the banana leaf in two with the fold towards you, to indicate that you've had enough.
Other vegetarian dishes include the popular masala thosai, a thin slightly sourish pancake which is rolled around the masala (spiced vegetables) with some rasam (spicy soup) on the side, provides about the cheapest light meal you could ask for.
An equivalent snack meal in Indian Muslim restaurants is murtabak, made from paper-thin dough filled with egg and minced mutton and lightly grilled. Then there's the ever-popular roti canai, made from murtabak dough, which you dip into a bowl of dhal or curry.
Another popular favourite is biryani. Served with a chicken or mutton curry, the dish takes its name from the saffon-coloured rice it is usually served with. Finally there's tandoori, which takes its name from the clay tandoor oven in which meat is cooked after being marinated overnight in a yoghurt and spice mixture.
One of the things you can't possibly not try is Indian Rojak, a salad dish of bean sprouts, fishcakes, prawn fritters, beancurd and squid in a sweet spicy peanut sauce.
Like many Asian countries with a substantial Chinese population, Chinese food means Cantonese food, especially in Kuala Lumpur. This type of food is usually stir-fried with a touch of oil to ensure that the result is crisp and fresh.
As compared to Kuala Lumpur and surrounds, the type of Chinese food found in the northern state of Penang and the southern state of Johor is Hokkien, Hakka or Hainanese style.
The best-known Hainanese dish which is found throughout Malaysia is Hainanese chicken rice. The rice's distinctive aroma comes from the boiling it with chicken stock. It is served with steamed or roasted chicken, cucumber slices and accompanied by clear soup and soy sauce/chilli sauce. Hakka food is most commonly associated with yong tau foo, pieces of soybean curd stuffed with minced meat. The vegetables that come with it - red chillies, brinjal, ladies fingers - are also stuffed with the same minced meat. If there is one thing the visitor should not miss, it's the commonly-found Chinese coffeeshops featuring hawker stalls selling all sorts of noodles, rice, grilled fish, squid and lots lots more!
Especially popular is char kuey teow, fried flat noodles furnished with cockles, prawns, eggs, soy sauce and bean sprouts. Usually taken as breakfast or supper, bak kut teh consists of rice with pork ribs and Chinese mushrooms in a Chinese herbal soup.
A favourite Chinese brunch is dim sum, a variety of sweet & savoury delicacies featuring bite-sized rolls, meatballs, pastries and dumplings.
Nyonya cooking is a unique and extremely tasty blend of Chinese and Malay food. Chinese ingredients are used with local spices like chillies and coconut cream/milk. The popular Laksa lemak is a spicy coconut milk-based noodle soup, with beancurd, beansprouts and prawns in it.
Western Cuisine / Fast-food Joints
Good Western food can easily be found in the bigger cities but don't expect too much in the smaller villages. In any case staple fast-food joints such as McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken are present throughout the country and have become household names.
There is an incredible variety of local fruits available. Be adventurous and give them a try!
Want to try some local fruits? Just head towards any fruit vendors/stalls which you'll find in food centres or even just on the streets. Slices of mango, papaya, watermelon, guava are just some of the fruits you can find at these stalls. Here's a quick run-down:
Rambutans are the size of a large walnut or small tangerine and they're covered in soft red spines. You remove the skin to reveal the cool flesh around the pit/seed.
Most people are familiar with pineapples, with its sweet juicy yellow flesh... One of the finest tropical fruits, the mangosteen is about the size of a small orange or apple. The soft purple outer skin breaks open to reveal pure white segments shaped like orange segments but with a sweet-sour flavour. Jackfruit is better known as nangka in Malaysia. This is an enormous watermelon-sized fruit which hangs from trees and when opened, breaks up into a large number of bright orange-yellow segments with a slightly rubbery texture. From fruit-stalls, you can often buy several nangka segments skewered on a stick.
The starfruit gets its name from its cross-sectional star shape. A translucent green-yellow in colour, starfruit has a crisp, cool, watery taste. That's not to forget a host of other fruits, including coconuts, lychees, jambus, dukus, cikus, mangos and pomelos. Last but not least, the king of fruits - the controversial durian.
No fruit in all of Asia provokes such strong reactions as the durian. To some it is the 'King of Fruits' but to others, as Anthony Burgess described in his novel "Time for a Tiger", it smells "like eating a sweet raspberry blancmange in a lavatory".
It is a large oval fruit covered with stiff and sharp spines. Simply opening it requires some skill. When the shell is cracked open, pale yellow segments are revealed with a taste as distinctive as their smell. The nearest approximation would perhaps be onion-flavoured ice-cream. Its nutritional qualities are high: protein, calories, fiber and vitamins A and C. It is also thought by some to be a powerful aphrodisiac, so that villagers say that it is the only fruit which a tiger craves.
Drinks and Desserts
ABC (Air Batu Campur)
A literal translation would be something like "Mixed Ice Cubes" but it's definitely much more than that - nuts, sweetcorn, agar-agar, red beans, shaved ice, syrup and evaporated milk - are combined to make this refreshing dessert.
Little strands of green-coloured dough called 'cendol' are mixed with coconut milk, palm syrup and shaved ice, not to be missed.
The most popular local beverage, this is strong tea with sugar and sweetened condensed milk... a Malaysian speciality!
A seaweed jelly which makes a delicious and creamy dessert with coconut milk.
A thick, sweet concoction of yam, sweet potato, sago, sugar and coconut milk.
Soya Bean milk
Made from (what else?) soya beans, nothing can beat a cold glass of this from a roadside stall on a hot day. The taste is similar to sweetened milk but the taste is quite distinctive. Tau foo fah is a curdled version of soya bean milk and is flavoured with syrup.