Malaysia is a foodie’s paradise. The country is the centre of global crossroads, with influences from China, India, Thailand, and colonial Britain weaving an intricate tapestry of cuisine and culture. Coupled with fresh produce, a willingness to try anything and the average Malaysian’s love of food, the result is a veritable smorgasboard of dishes. The best food (and cheapest!) in Malaysia can generally be found on the street.
For those who are unused to grazing on street food, this primer will guide you to the best of Malaysian street food, and how to order and eat it like a local.
1. Roti canai
You’ll smell them before you see them making this delicious Indian flatbread, available at Malaysian mamak stalls. Balls of dough are kneaded, then flipped, folded on repeat to form thin, light crepe-like layers fried on a griddle of lots of ghee. The most basic form of this is plain old roti canai, but the locals have their own favourite variants. Try roti telur, which is the basic roti but with bits of caramelised onion and egg folded in, roti tisu, a flamboyant teepee-like, crisp and sweet bread, or roti planta, which has cooked with sugar and margarine. Roti will usually come with a side dish of dhaal, a lentil curry.
Where: Mamak stalls, which are often open late and are a favourite haunt of night owls
How: Pull up a plastic stool – most mamak stalls will have people come to take your order.
What: Order your roti with an accompanying glass of teh tarik and your choice of curries.
A quintessentially Malaysian dish, rojak is the local take on what is, in essence a fruit salad. But this isn’t just any old fruit salad. In the mix is usually pineapple, cucumber, green mango, jicama, crispy fried tofu puffs and bits of Chinese dough sticks. This is then slathered in a dark brown savoury, sweet and spicy sauce made from shrimp paste, chilli, tamarind and lime juice and sugar. The final touch is a generous sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds and crushed roasted peanuts. The combination of savoury, sweet, salty, spice and the different textures make this simple dish tremendously exciting.
Where: Roadside mobile stalls – look for a sign that says rojak
How: Order this to go – very few stalls will have chairs and tables. You can request it bagged closed or open. Usually if you’ve asked for an open baggie, you’ll also get a toothpicks to skewer the fruit and eat this on the go.
What: The mix and sauce differs from stall to stall. You may find offerings such as rose apple, water spinach and bean sprouts in your rojak – it’s part of the fun and the surprise.
3. Noodles and laksas
You’ll see them almost everywhere, with their great vats of steaming soups and frantic serving, especially at lunchtime. Noodles are a staple in Malaysia, and they come in a bewildering array of sauces, curries, soups and forms. The most basic is noodle soup, or kuay teow th’ng, served in a clear broth, with vegetables, meat mince or fish balls. There’s also laksas, both the normal kind and assam laksa, which is a highlight in Penang. If you prefer your noodles dry, there is char kuay teow (wok-fried flat rice noodles – best served with chilli and cockles), or wonton mee (egg noodles with dumplings in a soupy side dish) to try. Regardless of what type of noodles you prefer, this is the most common of all street foods available in Malaysia.
Where: Hawker centres will have at least two noodle shops, each may serve slightly different variations. Your best bet is to simply go ahead and try it.
How: Go up to the stall owner and order what you want. Your food will be brought to where you are sitting, at which point you should pay the server.
What: There’s egg noodles, rice noodles (thin or flat), there’s different types of soups and sauces and different accoutrements that come with each dish. Experiment to find your favourite.
4. Lok-Lok (Hot Pot)
You’ll usually find a lok lok stall at a night market. There’ll be a number of boiling pots and trays of stuff on sticks. There are also permanent stalls of lok lok vendors, which are considered a little more hygenic. Here you don’t have to share the hot pot with total strangers; instead you get one for your own table. The variety of food available depends on what’s on offer for the night. Usually there are seafood, meats, vegetables, wontons and tofu skewered and ready to go.
Where: Night markets often have a mobile lok-lok stall. Otherwise look for permanent shops with seating
How: Select your sticks and put them all on your plate. It’s self service, so you’ll have to cook them yourself by dipping the food into the hot pot. Keep the sticks – it’s how your bill will be tallied at the end.
What: My personal favourites for lok-lok include deep fried wontons, and if possible, ask for two different types of soup to cook you food in, for the variety
While we’re on the subject of food on sticks, satay is one of my favourite Malaysian street foods. The most authentic satay is cooked on a charcoal burner, which imparts a fabulous smoky flavour to the tender, deliciously marinated meats. Satay stalls usually offer beef, chicken or lamb meats. Whatever you order, it should always come with a side of fresh cucumber, raw red onion and peanut chilli dipping sauce – the highlight of any satay excursion.
Where: Keep your eyes peeled, usually at established shops, or as a mobile stall at a night market
How: Order a number – 10, 20, 30 sticks of each different type of meat you want to try. If you’re hungry, ask for a ketupat or two – rice wrapped in banana leaf.
What: Marinated meat on a stick, chargrilled to smoky perfection. There’s nothing really to add.
As with all street food, choose your vendor carefully. Pick stalls that have lots of local customers, and fast turnover. Don’t be alarmed by the presentation – this is street food after all, and when in doubt, ask. Let curiosity (and your nose!) guide you. Try everything. As we say in Malaysia – makan!