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. Out late? Pull out a few ringgit and take your pick of char kuey teow, wide rice noodles and prawns fired up in a screaming hot wok with chili and soy; or fluffy ghee-coated naan; or a plastic bag of pickled mango; or a bowl of tom yum; or squid smothered in spicy-tart sambal.
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.
I recently spent eight days on a culinary tour through Malaysia with four New York chefs, eating our way through hawker stall after hawker stall, restaurant after home-cooked meal. It was an aggressively food-focused trip, with cooking classes and market tours and such. But I get the sense that it'd be hard to visit a Malaysian city and not get a culinary tour. Vendors with woks and griddles line the streets, day and night; the pop of spattering grease, the hiss of water meeting heat, clouds of chicken-scented satay smoke, the unmistakable whiff of toasting shrimp paste, live fires and bright lights—it assaults every sense. Banana trees and pandan might be in your backyard. Highway rest stops sell fresh sugar cane juice. There's just no ignoring the food culture.
For our purposes, of course, nothing could be better.
China, India, Portugal, England...
The story of Malaysian food is that of the nation's history, of course; but food itself (namely, the spice trade) played a major part in that history.
Imagine any aquatic trade route of, say, the 12th century onward—and there's a good chance Malaysia is smack in the middle of it. Peninsular Malaysia (the modern-day nation straddles two land masses, peninsula and island) together with Indonesia's islands of Sumatra and Java reach far south of the Asian continent, such that a sailor trying to navigate the region essentially has to pass through the narrow strait between them. Chinese merchants trading with India? They'd sail right through. Middle Eastern traders getting to China? The Spanish sailing to the Philipinnes? The Japanese and the Javanese? Their paths all intersected in Malaysia, and they all did business in that peninsula's port cities, including Malacca and Penang.
Situated between China and India, Malaysia saw substantial migration from both regions back to the 1st century AD. In later centuries, many Chinese migrants (largely Hokkien, Cantonese, or Teochew) married Malay women; their descendants are known as Peranakan Chinese (or Straits Chinese), and their cuisine, with its own distinct traditions, known as nonya.
So you've already got Malay groups, Chinese groups, Indian groups, and a distinct Chinese-Malay population, and that's before the Europeans even really get involved. Malacca was captured by the Portuguese in 1511, then the Dutch in 1643; the British East India company established a base on Penang by 1786 and the British Empire gradually consolidated colonial control over Malaysia, maintaining a presence until after World War II.
Roughly speaking, the population is today about 50% ethnic Malay, 25% Chinese, and 7% Indian; like the population, some elements of these cuisines have fused and evolved, while others have remained distinct.
Food evolving from these three cultures plays a huge role in the Malaysian diet, but further influence is seen from the Portuguese (particularly in Malacca) and the British (ingredients like Worcestershire sauce pop up in now-traditional dishes, and afternoon tea is still something of a custom).
Add in the nearby nations of Thailand and Indonesia and you've got a dizzying array of flavors and methods and foods coming together in a single population.
Note: It's worth saying, as prompted by this comment thread, that when I refer to Malaysian cuisine, I simply mean food that is prepared often and eaten widely in Malaysia; I am not suggesting that it originated in that country, or isn't consumed elsewhere. Indonesia may claim satay and rendang as their own, for example, but they still figure heavily in Malaysian food culture.
Where and How to Eat
In many cities, no matter the hour of day or night, street hawkers will be selling everything from wok-tossed noodles to sambal squid—and someone will be buying and eating it. The nation has plenty of restaurants, of course, but a great deal of eating happens on the street, either from stands that line roads or in clusters of hawker stalls. One doesn't get a sense of strict mealtimes, of a lunch rush at 12:30 and a dinner at 7; eating seems an all-day activity.
Nor are their strict divisions between breakfast food and supper. Breakfast might be griddled flatbread roti canai, essentially Indian paratha served with curry; congee, Chinese rice porridge; or nasi lemak, coconut water-steamed rice with fried anchovies, spicy sambal, and often a curry to complete. (That's Malaysia for you: distinctly Indian, Chinese, and Malay options for a morning meal.) All that fish and spice might seem unusual for a Westerner first thing in the morning. But nasi lemak might be a dinner, too, and roti canai is a mighty satisfying midnight snack. Divisions that govern some Western cuisines break down a bit. Even sweet and savory aren't as distinct as we're accustomed to: fruit salads often have the shrimp paste belacan in their dressing, and spicy-pungent sambal is served even with some desserts.
The Building Blocks
If you know one word in Malaysian cookery, it should be sambal: a blend of chilies, Calamansi lime juice, and fermented shrimp paste (belacan) that's served with, in, or alongside just about every plate of food. Even in this basic condiment, from those three ingredients, it's already spicy, sweet, tart, salty, and pungently fishy—the defining, intersecting flavors of Malaysian cuisine.
You'll have to get to know belacan, too, a paste of dried, fermented shrimp that's used in just about everything. Different from other Southeast Asian shrimp pastes, belacan is sold as a hardened, solid block; it's cut into slices and generally toasted and cooked before it's used. It's prominent in sambals, but shows up in just about any kind of stew or curry, and even in sweeter applications, like fruit salads. That's not to say all these dishes necessarily taste fishy, or overly pungent (though the belacan itself certainly is!); rather, it lends a savory, full-flavored backdrop that may be recognizable as funky and fishy, but may not be. It's something of an acquired taste, but I have to admit that I find myself missing it now that I'm back in the States.
Key supporting players? Chilis, alongside or instead of sambal; kaffir lime leaf and rind; large, meaty candlenuts; shallots and lemongrass; sweet soybean paste and sweet soy; palm sugar; and edible roots (turmeric, galangal, ginger), generally used fresh. Many dishes start out with a spice paste (rempah) formed by pounding roots and chilis and aromatics together, which is then wok-fried in a bit of oil; a single whiff of that frying up is enough to get your stomach growling, no matter what ends up added to it.
From the Sea
Part peninsula, part island, Malaysia is never far from the sea, and its cuisine reflects that. Even dishes that aren't primarily seafood often contain belacan (see above) or any number of dried fish or shellfish; the ubiquitous nasi lemak, for instance, tops coconut-steamed rice with peanuts and dried anchovies (ikan bilis) in addition to the already shrimp-laced sambal.
And seafood is used fresh, too—tossed in sambal, cooked in curries for asam pedas, grilled in banana leaf for ikan bakar, incorporated into soups like asam laksa. You'll find everything from squid and prawns to sting ray and eel.
Bananas and Coconut
Sure, we're all familiar with banana and coconut—but usually, just as a yellow oblong fruit and grated, white flesh. In Malaysia, these plants are put through every permutation imaginable.
Banana fruits are eaten, of course, but you'll see banana flowers just as often—and banana leaves just about everywhere. The flower is a striking pink and about the size of a football; while it's bitter and tannic raw, once cooked it softens and mellows to a woodsy, pleasant, almost artichoke-like taste and texture.
The leaves? Part gentle flavoring agent, part cooking implement, they can snugly hold fish on a grill, wrap around delicate sweets, or serve as the placemat for an Indian lunch.
Coconut spans every spectrum of savory to sweet, light to heavy; it's got so many uses it's practically a food group. First, there's the coconut cream and milk, used so commonly they're more or less a dairy equivalent—they're in crepe-like flatbread batter and soup broths, curries and desserts, used to steam rice and thicken sauces. There's the grated fruit itself, used often in desserts, but also toasted for kerisik, used as a thickening agent that also adds a toasty richness to stews and curries.
Beef rendang, laksa lemak, roti jala, nasi lemak—whether or not they taste like it, all these classic dishes rely heavily on coconut.
Fruits and Their Uses
If I could smuggle anything back to the States, it'd be a bag of Calamansi limes. Or a box. Or maybe just a bag of seeds to plant. The grape-sized fruits have a thin, fragrant rind, a beautiful orange interior, and a complicated, compelling flavor that's simultaneously sweet and acidic and refreshingly bright—lime meets kumquat meets tangerine, say. They're a perfect final squeeze over grilled fish or laksa or many Nonya-style salads, and (though this is my infatuated American talking) pretty delicious eaten on their own. (I requested a side plate of Calamansis more than a few times on this trip.*)
*Usually because they make bad gin taste better.
Reflecting the country's love for sweet, salty, and sour, pickled fruit stands are just about everywhere.
Tropical fruit lovers will find everything from the familiar mangos (much sweeter and less fibrous than most we get in the States) to perhaps less familiar fruits, including dragonfruit and rambutan and mangosteens.
As polarizing as it is fragrant, durians are just about everywhere in Malaysia, as is their characteristic smell (which reminds me, frankly, of red onions that have gone off). It's either eaten fresh or used in desserts, though sugar and coconut don't really mask its, er, distinctive flavor. Most Westerners can't stomach either the taste or the smell on first encounter. (I love enough stinky cheeses and fermented foodstuffs to relate to durian-lovers, but can't stand the stuff; given a choice of eating durian or not eating for a day, I'd probably choose the latter.)
Rice and Noodles
Rice or noodles (or both!) make an appearance at just about every meal. Rice, in particular, shows up in everything from breakfast to lunch to dessert. In the morning, it might take the form of congee, or get cooked in coconut milk and topped with peanuts, sambal, and fried anchovies for nasi lemak; at times it's served plain as a side (accompanying just about every curry), at times it's the main event (when fried for nasi goreng, say). Noodles are another favorite, whether in soup (like laksa), stir-fried (char keuy teow), or stewed.
There's More To Say, Of Course...
Malaysia's a big country, and no two corners of it would give you the same eating experience. Penang, near the Thai border, echos that country's tendency toward tart, spicy flavors; eastern parts of the peninsula are inclined toward more traditional Malay foods; and of course, the capital city of Kuala Lumpur has the international scope of any modern metropolis. An overview of a country's cuisine is only the big picture; within the nation itself, there's endless variation and diversity.
Why It's Awesome
What struck me again and again about Malaysian food was how multi-faceted it was. In its origins, for sure; the strong culinary traditions that weave together. But in its flavors, as well. Even the simplest elements have so much going on. Sambal, say, isn't just a hot sauce: it's spicy but tart, umami-laden, bright and just a touch sweet and fragrant with citrus and chili. So a dish as straightforward as squid tossed in sambal has a complexity unexpected given how simple it really is.
And that's true in just about every element of the cuisine. Soft, crepelike pancake roti jala are an essentially neutral vehicle for sopping up curry, but even on their own, they've got subtle flavors of coconut and turmeric. A green mango salad we ate at a steam table miles outside Kuala Lumpur had a dressing of belacan and Calamansi and a host of aromatics so elusive and fascinating we couldn't pin them down, but couldn't stop digging our forks in. It's food that's gut-level satisfying but thought-provoking at once.
A year-round street food culture just means that Malaysian food is that much easier to appreciate. There's a theatricality to many of the hawkers, their flaming woks and flying dough, and an artistry; the element of performance only adds to the experience.