A classic Malaysian breakfast of Indian derivation, though this flaky finger food is good any time of day (and really good at about three in the morning). A dough of flour, egg, and ghee (clarified butter) is incredibly, almost unbelievably elastic; it's stretched quickly into a tissue-thin sheet, like pizza dough but even more dramatic, then folded back up and griddled. In its best form, right off the griddle, it's flaky and crisp like a good croissant on the outside, soft and steaming and a little bit chewy on the inside. It's also served with curry, often lentil dal; other versions are cooked with egg, or onion, or sardines.
A whole genre, rather than a distinct dish, you'll find curries of all sorts on Malaysian tables, a bowl of rice usually not far away. Malaysian versions tend to start with a rempah, a complex paste of spices and aromatics that's cooked together and forms the base of the curry; like so many of the country's dishes, they tend to make use of coconut milk, too. They're often served with…
Thin, netlike crepes with turmeric and coconut milk, the batter quickly drizzled in concentric circles to form the elegant, delicate shape. (Learn to make them here!) They're always served alongside another dish, like the curry we just met, though I harbor fantasies of making a pile and sprinkling them with cinnamon-sugar, or drizzling them with melted Nutella, or just buttering them and eating them plain for breakfast…
The richer member of the laksa family, thanks to coconut. (Learn how to make curry laksa here!) The rempah (spice paste) of turmeric and ginger and lemongrass, chilies and belacan, imparts flavor to the coconut milk broth; along with noodles, it'll be topped with shrimp, tofu puffs (that soak up the rich broth), cucumber, fish balls, and eggs.
"Wait, I thought satay was Thai!" Malaysians will proudly declare that they have the best satay, and that others have just been more successful at marketing it. (Thailand and Indonesia, to name two, might contest that.) But you'll see satay all over the place in Malaysia, towering piles of skewers in hawker stalls that are tossed on the grill once you order. Penang food writer Helen Ong distinguishes Malaysian satay by its peanut-based "sweet and slightly piquant sauce" and the "meats marinated with local spices."
As easy to find as a sandwich in America, nasi lemak could be considered Malaysia's national dish—a little banana leaf parcel that cradles a bed of coconut rice with spicy sambal, crunchy dried anchovies (ikan bilis), roasted peanuts, cucumber, and egg (sometimes sliced of hard-boiled, sometimes cooked like a flat omelet). While considered classic comfort food, it's a showcase of flavors and textures, from the delicate coconut to the brash belacan, the tender bite of rice and the salty crunch of anchovies. The simplest elements really matter here: rice that's suffused with the flavor of coconut milk and sometimes further fragranced with pandan; sambal that's bright-tasting and spicy but balanced. It's often eaten as a breakfast food, but can be a snack at any time of the day, and to bulk it up, it might be served with a seafood or chicken curry, or vegetables, or beef rendang.
Hainanese chicken rice
Like many of Malaysia's signature dishes, it originated somewhere else (Hainan, natch) but adapted to suit local taste. It's chicken boiled in stock and served cool alongside rice (which has also been cooked in chicken stock) and dipping sauce. "It is quite different than it is in Hainan Island--we have added chili to the ginger and garlic condiment it goes with," says Malaysian food writer Helen Ong. "We like our food spicy!"
Stir-fried noodles, which take many forms. You'll often see yellow noodles quickly wok'd up with soy, garlic, shallots, and chilies; along with them might be shrimp or chicken, beef or vegetables. It's fantastic street food; many hawkers use roaring charcoal fires, and their smoky flavor really makes anything cooked over it.
A slow-cooked dry curry deeply spiced with ginger and turmeric, kaffir lime and chilis. (You'll find chicken, vegetable, and seafood rendang as well.) In Malaysian fashion, it fuses sweet, sour, and savory elements, the curry picking up a creamy richness from two forms of coconut and an elusive tang from asam keping, slices of a sour sun-dried fruit. (Learn how to make it here!)
Char kuey teow
Probably the best thing I ate in Malaysia was a late-night snack of char kuey teow—frankly, I can't imagine anything tasting better than rice noodles stir-fried in seconds over a smoking, sparking charcoal fire, taken to go and inhaled from a little paper parcel while walking down the street in Penang. The noodles join soy, chili, prawns, often cockles, the shrimp paste belacan, bean sprouts, and egg. Two things can distinguish really good char kuey teow from that which is merely delicious: one, the smoke of cooking over those charcoal fires, rather than over gas; and gracing the noodles with pork lard, which many (but not all) Chinese vendors still do. Penang will tell you that its char kuey teow is the best. I certainly haven't done a comprehensive tour (man, that sounds fun), but from my limited experience, I won't challenge Penang's claim.
Translating to "burned fish," ikan bakar is the catch-all term for small grilled swimmers. You'll often see it wrapped in a banana leaf before it goes on the grill, so that the leaf gets direct heat contact, rather than the fish itself; it's generally marinated in a blend of turmeric, chilis, belacan, galangal, and those other now-familiar ingredients, and served with sambal.
Also popular in Taiwan, Singapore, and parts of China, the oyster omelet is just what it sounds like—whipped-up eggs and oysters, and in some regions, potato starch, which thickens up the batter. As may not surprise you at this point, it's often served with sambal.
Can be thought of as "Pile Of Fried Stuff." Pass a pasembur stand and you'll see any number of hard-to-identify golden brown crispy things (like a Denny's menu!); order a pasembur, and you'll see them get hacked up, piled on a plate along with vegetables and such, and doused in a thick, sweet peanut-based sauce. Just what's in one differs, but you might expect fried prawns, octopus, or squid; bean sprouts, shredded cucumber, and tofu; boiled potatoes or hard-boiled eggs. This guy is from Gurney Drive in Penang. (Elsewhere in the country, this dish might go by Rojak Mamak.)
Bak kut teh
Another adapted Southern Chinese dish, the soup, whose name translates to "meat bone tea," is a long-cooked broth of pork ribs, with herbs, garlic, and spices that usually include cinnamon and star anise. It's so rich from all that pork fat that, in many parts of Malaysia, it's always served with hot tea to cut the richness. Add-ins might include tofu puffs or mushrooms, but really, falling-apart pork in equally porky broth is the main attraction.
If you thought laksa was complicated, try Hokkien mee. What all versions have in common: noodles. And that's about it. In Penang (pictured here), it's an egg and rice noodle soup in a rich, savory shrimp stock; a pile of prawns, hard-boiled eggs, and bean sprouts bulk it up, fried shallots lend a salty crunch, and sambal (of course) adds acid and heat and even more shrimpy flavor. In Singapore, it's a dry dish with many of the same ingredients, but stir-fried rather than submerged in broth, with pork and squid as well as shrimp. In Kuala Lumpur? There's Hokkien char mee, another dry dish, where the noodles are stir-fried with dark soy, pork and squid—and, the best part, little bits of pork lard that get crisp and melty.
Fish head curry
Just what it sounds like. (You have to love those little teeth peeking out… see them at the bottom?) A whole fish head is stewed with vegetables and, often in Malaysia, tamarind (for that sour hit) and coconut milk (keeping things rich). It's another dish that Singapore will claim as their own.
Another cooked noodle dish, it's "very popular as a mid-afternoon snack," according to Helen Ong, and generally sold by Muslim Indian vendors. The yellow mee noodles are doused in a sauce of sweet potato and tomato, cooked (as are so many dishes) with a fried chili-based rempah. It's topped with fried egg, calamansi lime, fried tofu, fried shallots, and bean sprouts.
I love this dish in that it proves how compelling the most basic Malaysian flavors can be. Sambal is that blend of chilies, the shrimp paste belacan, and Calamansi lime that's served with just about every dish and on just about every table; here, it's quickly stir-fried with shrimp to impart all of those flavors. Fresh shrimp are pleasantly cooling against the spicy sambal—which just makes me go back for more sambal, of course. You'll also see plenty of other things sambal-ed: squid, sting ray…
Of all kinds. Seen here is the Nyonya-style inche kabin, spiced with turmeric and coriander before it's deep-fried, and served with—I love this—a dipping sauce of mustard, Calamansi lime, and Worcestershire sauce. (The British left a lot behind.) More conventional ayam goreng, crisp fried chicken, is so popular that it's on the McDonald's Malaysian menu.