You can smell the char kuey teow stall before you see it. And you can see the smoke as soon as you smell it—a smoldering, sultry cloud wafting down Kimberley Street, a prime street food strip in Georgetown, on the Malaysian island of Penang.
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When I first started jotting down notes for this post in Malaysia, it was a list of "10 Malaysian Dishes You Should Know." After a few more days grazing in Penang, ten turned into fifteen. By the time I got to Kuala Lumpur, my list had sambal stains all over it... and five more dishes. (Once you start getting excited about Malaysian food, it's really hard to stop.) Here are 25 Malaysian dishes you should know—laksa and rendang are only the beginning.
One of the greatest things about street vendors is the performance involved. When your food's prepared in front of you, you've got a front-row seat to noodle-tossing, dough-stretching, and—probably my favorite in Malaysia—tea-pulling.
Roti canai is probably Malaysia's more famous roti, but the lacy, crepe-like pancakes known as roti jala are even prettier—and much simpler to make. A simple batter of eggs, coconut milk, and flour is drizzled in concentric circles onto a hot pan, cooking in seconds and then folded to form a loose, netlike pancake whose nooks and crannies are ideally suited to mopping up curries and sauces.
The noodle soup laksa is one of Malaysia's iconic dishes, which takes many names and even more forms. But today, we're talking curry laksa, its broth rich with coconut milk, topped with prawns and egg and spicy sambal. Come see how it's made, step by step!
It only takes a first spoonful of dessert soup tong sui, or a first sip of iced coffee or lemongrass juice, to understand that Malaysia has a serious sweet tooth. And their selection of sweets is wide and varied, from chewy glutinous rice cakes to palm sugar-stuffed crepes to shaved ice of many kinds. Check out a few sweet treats to know!
I don't think I'd ever been to an eatery famous for its toast, but that's why locals and visitors crowd Toh Soon Cafe, a Chinese coffee shop (or kopitiam) occupying the better part of an alley off Campbell Street in the city of Georgetown.
One of Malaysia's better-known dishes is beef rendang, a slow-cooked dry curry deeply spiced with ginger and turmeric, kaffir lime and chilis. 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. The ingredient list is long, but the process is dead simple; learn how to make it here!
America gets a lot of credit as a melting pot. But it's got nothing on Malaysia. Walk down a street in Penang and you'll pass an Indian man pulling tissue-thin dough for roti canai next to Chinese women tossing noodles in pork lard. You can eat dim sum for breakfast and mutton curry for lunch. You'll dip coriander-turmeric fried chicken in a Worcestershire-based sauce. Chinese, Malay, Indian, Thai; it's how these culinary traditions alternately merge and remain distinct that makes Malaysian cookery so fascinating—and so hard to summarize concisely, a Venn diagram of flavor whose every overlapping sliver is its own compelling story.