When I first started jotting down notes for this post, scribbling in my notebook in an idle moment after breakfast, it was a list of "10 Malaysian Dishes You Should Know." I certainly couldn't have named you ten characteristic Malaysian foods before I'd gotten on a plane to Penang. And I liked the idea of a brief snapshot of what a person could eat in Kuala Lumpur or Melaka, or look for on a restaurant menu back in the States or Australia or anywhere else.
But after a few more days grazing in Penang, those ten dishes turned into fifteen. By the time I got to Kuala Lumpur, that list had sambal stains all over it... and six or seven more ideas to include. I couldn't bear to leave any behind. "But how could I not mention satay? I have to mention satay. And how could I pick between laksas? And how could I leave out nasi goreng? And what if Serious Eaters never understand how good char kuey teow is?"
You get the idea.
"I'm just blown away by the richness of the food culture."
So it's easy to get carried away. But I'd like to defend myself: I'm not an indecisive self-editor or over-enthused American. I'm just blown away by the richness of the food culture. When you're talking about "Malaysian food," as we've mentioned before, you're talking about half a dozen things at once. Malay, Chinese, Indian—there are so many culinary traditions colliding in this nation that it's impossible to sum it up neatly.
"We have many restaurants which serve Chinese food exactly the same as it is served, say, in Hong Kong," says Penang-based food writer Helen Ong. "On the other hand, certain dishes have been changed to suit local ingredients and tastes." So some "Malaysian" eats may closely resemble foods characteristic of other Asian culinary traditions. Some seem like cross-cuisine mashups. Some are just their own thing altogether.
And in a country where the eating never seems to stop, you've got the opportunity to get to know quite a few dishes. "We are very proud of the fact that in Malaysia, we can eat up to six meals a day," says Ong. "A typical day can start with breakfast, then elevenses, followed by lunch. A light bowl of noodles fills any gaps between 4pm and 5pm, and dinner is our main meal of the day." Hawkers serve to that schedule. Some may appear only in the mornings, others after dark, even through breakfast and lunch and late-night foods aren't really that different. In cities like Penang and Melaka, though, it's no trouble to find street food at any hour of the day.
The takeaway: There's a lot to eat, and a lot of meals in which to do so.