Ask a group of Malaysians what the national past time is and I guarantee you that most, if not all, will say it’s eating. Eating in or eating out, Malaysians are obsessed with food. I would know, I was raised by two of them, and despite growing up in New Zealand, that food obsession is in my blood too! Food is such an integral part of Malaysian culture that people even greet each other by asking if the other has ‘eaten already?’. Not that it matters because even if you have, they’ll coax you into having another bite to eat…
On the bright side, there’s a good chance this meal will be completely different to your previous one because the variety of food in Malaysia is quite phenomenal. I think it’s the original fusion cuisine; a combination Chinese, Malay, and Indian food styles mish-mashed together to create one that is quintessentially Malaysian. But it gets even more interesting as you travel across the country as each region or city will have their own signature variation on a popular Malaysian dish, or even their own speciality dish!
During our recent trip to Malaysia, we travelled across the West Coast of the country from Penang to Melaka and took part in the country’s national past time with some gusto… We ate and ate and ate, and here are some of the best speciality dishes we discovered along the way!
Penang – Assam Laksa
I’ve eaten (and now made) many, many laksas in my time but they have almost never been the Penang version of this famous noodle dish. The laksa I know and love best has a rich, slightly sweet, coconut broth but the Penang assam laksa is quite different. Gone is that creamy curry soup and in its place is a distinctively tart broth made from tamarind and fish stock. It’s undoubtedly the most popular hawker stall dish in the city, but this pungent bowl of noodles won’t be to everyone’s tastes!
Cameron Highlands – Steamboat
As avid tea-drinkers, we thought a day trip to the Cameron Highlands to marvel at Malaysia’s tea plantations would be an exciting addition to our itinerary… we were wrong. It was quite a windy and traffic-jammed drive from our base in Ipoh and though the first sight of the plantations was quite breathtaking, the Boh Tea Visitors Centre was not. The saving grace was lunch at one of the many steamboat restaurants in nearby Brinchang.
My parents used to serve steamboat (or hotpot) dinners quite often when we had guests because it’s a very social meal. The table would be covered in a bounty of ingredients – seafood, meat, vegetables, noodles – and we would just throw in then fish out whatever we wanted. Even with just the two of us, there was still a mountain of food and it was ever bit the social and tasty experience I remember from my childhood, with the added novelty of a charcoal steamboat!
Ipoh – Ayam Tauge and Koitiau
After an afternoon of wandering round Ipoh’s old town on a street art hunt, I told a certain someone we were going to try this Ipoh speciality which literally translates to mean ‘chicken, beansprouts and rice noodles’. He was hardly pulsing with excitement. Not the most exotic ingredients, I know, but once given the Ipoh treatment, this flavoursome dish of poached chicken with beansprouts and rice noodles in broth is irresistible.
There are a pair of famous ‘ayam tauge’ restaurants right opposite each other but our taxi driver declared the one on Cowan Street to be the best in town so we went there, and did not regret it. Walking into the restaurant was a little daunting; it was still heaving when we arrived around 9pm, we had no idea of the table etiquette, and there was no obvious menu that either of us could read. But we shouldn’t have been so nervous; everyone comes here for the one and only thing they serve, all you have to do is tell the restaurant ‘uncle’ who takes your order how many portions you want!
Tanjung Tualang – Freshwater Prawns
When a London-based Malaysian foodblogger told me about this obscure little town that serves the ‘best prawns ever’, I was intrigued enough to make a slight detour on our road trip in search of them. The sleepy main street was far from inviting but as we rounded the corner, we spotted a row of restaurants with entrances flanked by tanks and figured we must have been in the right place. We picked a restaurant at random, immediately ordered half a kilo of prawns in garlic butter, and waited for the best prawns ever. Did they live up to their reputation? That’s a big, fat, juicy, sweet prawn, yes.
Kuala Lumpur – Crispy Skin Roast Duck
This technically isn’t a speciality dish of Kuala Lumpur but it is the signature dish of Sek Yuen, a legendary Chinese restaurant in the city which has been serving its loyal customers since the late 1940s. After seeing a snap of the roast duck on the instagram feed of another London-based Malaysian blogger, a certain someone and I were instantly sold. If the restaurant has a menu, we certainly didn’t see it; instead we told the ‘aunty’ we were here for the duck, she told us half a bird with some rice and greens would be enough, and that was that. She wasn’t wrong about it being plenty for us, and everyone else wasn’t wrong about the duck being delicious.
Melaka – Hainanese Chicken Rice Balls and Satay Celup
This is my family’s hometown so more often than not we’re either eating with family at home or going to restaurants that are run by family or friends. This means I never do any research into where to eat, we just go where we’re told! However, these are the two Melaka specialities that my parents will always let me indulge in. The Hainanese chicken is not dissimilar to Ipoh’s ayam tauge, but it’s the rice that’s been cooked in chicken broth and aromatics then shaped into balls that’s the talking point here. Why on earth they’re shaped like that, I have no idea but it does make eating them more fun!
Satay celup is another one of those social meals where everyone sort of gets involved in the cooking then shares the spoils. The first step is to choose what you want to eat from the huge range of ingredients all skewered up and stored in fridges; there’s everything from tiny clams to tofu to livers. The second step is to dunk them into the unctuous, spicy satay sauce boiling away in the middle of your table, and the third step is to wait. Pulling the skewers out of the sauce can be a bit of a lucky dip but that’s all part of the fun; if it’s not the skewer you want, it’ll be one someone else dunked in there!
Have you been to Malaysia? Did you try any of these speciality dishes?