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National Food of Malaysia: Top 18 Dishes

Welcome to our culinary tour through the dynamic flavors and rich traditions of Malaysian cuisine! As we start this adventure together, you may find yourself pondering questions such as: What are the iconic dishes that define Malaysia’s gastronomic identity? How do these dishes reflect the diverse cultural influences and regional variations within the country? And what makes Malaysian cuisine a truly unique and tantalizing culinary experience? Prepare to satisfy your curiosity and taste buds as we uncover the answers to these fascinating questions and more.

In this article, we’ll be your guide to exploring the top 18 dishes that show the core of Malaysia’s national food culture. From beloved classics like Nasi Lemak and Rendang to lesser-known treasures like Seri-Aji Banana Fritter and Sambal Udang, each dish offers a glimpse into Malaysia’s rich culinary heritage and the fusion of flavors that define its cuisine.

Join us on a culinary adventure that celebrates the diversity, complexity, and magnetic flavors of Malaysia’s national food.

Top 8 National Foods of Malaysia

1. Nasi Lemak

photo by stu_spivack

Nasi Lemak, often honored as Malaysia’s national dish, is a rich and flavorful meal that revolves around rice cooked in coconut milk. The name itself, with “Nasi” meaning rice and “Lemak” translating to rich or tasty, reflects the luxurious nature of the dish. Traditionally served with sambal (a chili sauce with shrimp paste), fried dried anchovies, roasted peanuts, and a variety of side dishes like egg, tofu, calamari, and fried chicken, Nasi Lemak offers a diverse and satisfying eating experience. While it is typically enjoyed for breakfast, its popularity has grown, making it a beloved choice for any time of day.

2. Rendang

photo by stu_spivack

Rendang, a staple of Malaysian festive cuisine, is often misidentified as a curry, but experts know it is quite distinct. This dish is prepared by slowly stewing meat; beef, chicken, or lamb; in a mixture of coconut milk and spices until the liquid evaporates, allowing the flavors to deeply infuse the meat. The result is a delicate and richly spiced dish that is particularly cherished during celebrations and special occasions throughout Malaysia.

3. Laksa

photo by su-lin

Laksa, a spicy noodle soup, is a perfect part of Malaysian cuisine that has gained international acclaim. There are several variations, each with its unique flavor profile. One popular version is Penang’s asam laksa, known for its tangy flavored fish broth, offering a perfect balance of spicy and sour notes. Whether made with fish or prawns, laksa’s intense and aromatic flavors make it a favorite for those who enjoy a bit of heat in their meals.

4. Murtabak

photo by Mojackjutaily

Murtabak is a hearty Malaysian dish that promises to satisfy even the hungriest appetites. This pan-fried bread is stuffed with minced meat and onions, creating a filling and flavorful meal. Often accompanied by a spicy dipping sauce, murtabak is best when the meat is robustly seasoned, ensuring a burst of taste with every bite. Its rich, spicy-sour flavor profile makes it a memorable and fulfilling culinary experience.

5. Wonton Mee

photo by Lynac

Wonton mee, a dish of Chinese origin, has been welcomed and uniquely adapted in Malaysia, particularly in Penang. This dish features springy egg noodles served al dente with a sticky soy sauce and lard oil mixture, accompanied by leafy green Chinese kale, sliced green onions, pickled green chilies, and wontons. In Penang, the wontons are often fried, adding a distinctive twist to the traditional preparation found elsewhere in Malaysia. The addition of fiery sambal on the side elevates the dish, making it a local favorite.

6. Char Koay Teow

photo by Alpha 

Char Koay Teow is a must-try Malaysian pan-fried noodle dish known for its wide, flat noodles cooked with egg, green lettuce, bean sprouts, and seafood. It comes in both Chinese and Malay versions, with regional variations adding local flair. The Penang version, renowned for its delicious mix of flavors and ingredients, stands out as particularly iconic. This dish is beloved across Malaysia for its satisfying combination of textures and tastes.

7. Satay

photo by BrokenSphere

Satay, a beloved Malaysian street food, consists of skewered and grilled meat typically served with a rich peanut sauce. Popular choices include chicken and beef, marinated in a blend of spices before grilling. Satay’s versatility shines through with options like tofu satay for vegetarians and chicken satay salad for a lighter meal. Whether enjoyed as a main dish or a complementary side, satay’s marinated and grilled flavors are a culinary delight that appeals to a wide range of tastes.

8. Rojak

photo by Choo Yut Shing

Rojak is a lively Malaysian salad that exemplifies the country’s diverse culinary influences. This dish combines bean curds, fried dough fritters, cuttlefish, and cucumbers, all tossed in a sweet-spicy, thick peanut sauce. While its unique combination of flavors and textures might not appeal to everyone, rojak is a favorite among many Malaysians. The dish’s bold taste and deep-fried elements make it a standout option, best enjoyed with a refreshing drink to balance its richness.

6 Traditional Dishes to Eat

9. Seri-Aji Banana Fritter

photo by Toni Girl

Banana Fritters, known locally as Pisang Goreng, is a beloved street snack in Malaysia found at nearly every corner. Made from a mixture of banana, Seri-Aji Banana Fritter Flour, and water, these fritters are deep-fried to a golden brown, achieving a crispy exterior while maintaining a sweet and creamy interior. Perfect for using up ripe bananas, these fritters are a flavorful and satisfying treat, ideal for an evening snack.

10. Air Batu Campur (ABC)

photo by 水泳男

Air Batu Campur, commonly referred to as Ais Kacang, is a perfect Malaysian dessert that offers a refreshing rest from the heat. This shaved ice treat is lavishly topped with ingredients like red beans, condensed milk, various syrups, cornflakes, peanuts, fruits, and even ice cream. Dating back to the early 1900s, ABC is also popular in Singapore and stands out as an ideal way to cool off during hot Malaysian days, delivering a delightful combination of textures and flavors.

11. Mee Rebus

photo by Alpha

Mee Rebus is a comforting noodle dish featuring yellow noodles bathed in a thick, flavorful gravy. The gravy, made from mashed sweet potatoes, shrimp broth, herbs, and sometimes ground peanuts, is key to the dish’s appeal. Topped with a hard-boiled egg, spring onions, bean sprouts, fried shallots, tau pok (fried beancurd), sliced green chilies, and a splash of lime juice, Mee Rebus is a versatile dish enjoyed for breakfast or as a main meal, cherished for its rich and satisfying flavors.

12. Ketupat

photo by idban secandri

Ketupat is a traditional rice dumpling wrapped in complex woven coconut leaves, originating from Indonesia but widely popular in Malaysia. Often served with satays and as a staple at Malay festivals, weddings, and traditional gatherings, Ketupat is more than just food; it is also a cultural symbol. Historically, it was displayed at entrances to ward off evil spirits. During major festivals, decorative Ketupats can be seen adorning Malay homes, reflecting its cultural significance.

13. Roti Canai

photo by Yun Huang Yong

Roti Canai is the rockstar of Indian-inspired flatbreads in Malaysia. No matter the time of day, it’s always a hit, especially for breakfast. You can go classic with lentil curry or spice things up with chicken, fish, or mutton curry. The fun part is the customization; onions, egg, cheese, sardines, they name it! There’s even a sweet side with condensed milk, bananas, and chocolate cream. Flaky, buttery layers make Roti Canai a Malaysian food favorite, beloved for its versatility and deliciousness.

14. Sambal Udang

Sambal Udang is a spicy shrimp dish that seafood lovers adore, featuring delicious shrimp marinated in a blend of spices, including dark soy sauce and palm sugar, then pan-fried in a tasty sambal sauce. Depending on the region, additional vegetables and herbs may be incorporated, adding to its rich flavor profile. Typically served with steamed rice or noodles and sometimes eaten on banana leaves, Sambal Udang offers a delectable, spicy-savory experience that highlights the lively flavors of Malaysian cuisine.

See Also Traditional Malaysian Clothing

Spices: The Heart of Malaysian Cooking

photo by Ethan Crowley

In Malaysian cuisine, spices are fundamental and are divided into two main categories: wet and dry. Dry spices, often referred to as the four siblings, include star anise, cinnamon or cassia, cardamom, and clove. These spices are indispensable in Malay soups and curries, typically used whole or blended into convenient spice mixes tailored for seafood curry, meat curry, soup, or masala.

Wet spices are equally crucial in Malay cooking, including fresh chilies, ginger, onion, shallots, and garlic. Ginger is particularly used for meat and chicken dishes, while galangal, a relative of ginger, is reserved for specific dishes like beef rendang. Turmeric is essential in fish dishes, often used in its powdered form but fresh turmeric provides a brighter color and better aroma, despite its tendency to stain.

The extensive use of these spices gives Malay cuisine its robust and intense flavors, making subtlety a rarity. The rich blend of spices in Malay cooking, influenced significantly by Indian culinary traditions, ensures that every dish is full of lively and bold flavors, distinguishing Malay cuisine from others.

Malaysian Family Dining

photo by UN Women

Family dining in Malaysia is a cherished tradition where everyone gathers to share a meal, developing togetherness and conversation. Home-cooked meals typically include breakfast items like bread, eggs, cookies, cakes, or instant noodles, often accompanied by milk or a grain-based hot drink. For lunch and dinner, a typical Malaysian family meal consists of rice, vegetables, and a dish of meat such as pork, fish, or chicken, along with soup.

These meals are prepared using various cooking methods involving oil, such as frying, sautéing, grilling, and braising while steaming is also common for meats. Despite the lack of formal desserts after meals, sweet treats like red bean soup or pastries are enjoyed during breakfast or teatime.

The choice of dishes and cooking styles varies according to ethnic backgrounds and regional specialties. Dining out also offers a range of options from street hawker stalls to high-end restaurants, catering to different tastes and group sizes.

Street Food

15. Otak Otak

photo by closari

Otak Otak, known as “brain brain” for its soft, brain-like texture, is an ideal Malaysian street food. This fishcake, wrapped in banana leaves, is brightly flavored with aromatic herbs and exotic spices, and richly infused with coconut milk. Wild betel leaves are a key ingredient, imparting a unique and authentic taste. Street vendors often mix it with a dark Chinese sauce, adding an extra layer of flavor to this delightful dish. Otak Otak’s combination of textures and flavors makes it a must-try for anyone exploring Malaysian cuisine.

16. Apam Balik

photo by Yun Huang Yong

Let’s talk about Apam Balik, this unique pancake found only in the streets of Malaysia. It’s like a sweet, eggy dream made from sticky rice, with a creamy corn side that adds a delightful twist. Inside this fluffy pancake, you’ve got a crunchy, peanut-filled surprise! It’s a street food sensation in Southeast Asia, and when you’re in Malaysia, these giant-sized pancakes are a must-try. With its thick, honeycomb texture and thin, crispy corners, Apam Balik is a sweet treat that screams Malaysian street food goodness.

17. Lok Lok

photo by Gunarta

Lok Lok is a casual and interactive Malaysian street food experience where various meats and vegetables are served on skewers. Customers select their skewers and dip them into pots of boiling water available at street stalls to cook. Once cooked, the skewered foods are enjoyed with a choice of sauces and chilies. This communal and customizable eating style makes Lok Lok a popular and fun dining option, especially for street food lovers.

18. Cendol

Little known outside Southeast Asia, Cendol is a famous dessert in Malaysia, universal in restaurants and hawker centers. This icy dessert provides a respite from the tropical heat, with worm-like green jellies made of rice flour adding to its unique texture. Cendol can be eaten from a bowl or drunk through a straw, making it a refreshing treat after a hot bowl of Laksa. Though its origin is contested among countries like Indonesia and Vietnam, Cendol’s popularity across Southeast Asia is proof of its delightful taste and universal appeal.

Farm-to-Table Movement

photo by UN Women

The farm-to-table movement in Malaysia emphasizes sourcing locally grown produce and ingredients directly from nearby farms for use in meals at restaurants or for individual purchases. This movement aims to reconnect people with their food sources, promoting sustainability and healthier eating by reducing the reliance on mass-produced and pesticide-laden foods.

By choosing local, seasonal ingredients, the movement supports local farmers and reduces the carbon footprint associated with long-distance food transport. Dewakan, a restaurant in Malaysia, exemplifies this movement by focusing on the origin of its ingredients. Chef Darren Teoh, along with his team, prioritizes honoring the land’s bounty by sourcing ingredients from the surrounding seas, farms, mountains, and jungles.

He emphasizes the importance of working with suppliers and communities to maintain the demand and supply of local products, advocating for a return to healthier eating habits from the past, free from the harmful effects of pesticides. Dewakan aims to be a part of the conversation on sustainable dining and the benefits of farm-to-table practices.

See Also Famous Malaysian Painters

Dining Etiquette

photo by lotusutol

Dos

1. Wash Their Hands: They always wash their hands thoroughly before eating or serving food. Cleanliness is highly valued.

2. Use the Right Hand: They use their right hand to pass food to their mouth and offer it to others. This is a sign of respect and cleanliness.

3. Communal Dining Etiquette: When dining communally, they take a small portion from shared serving plates onto their plate. If seated on the floor around a saprah, they wait for the host to indicate when to start eating.

4. Follow Utensil Customs: They follow the utensil etiquette of their dining companions. They use a spoon and fork for Malaysian and Indian meals, and chopsticks for Chinese meals.

5. Show Respect: They allow the host to order the dishes and dictate seating arrangements. The host or the most senior person should sit at the head of the table, farthest from the door.

6. Finish Your Plate: It’s polite to finish the food on their plate to show them enjoyed the meal. Leaving a small amount indicates they are satisfied and the meal is filling.

7. Offer Halal Food: If hosting, they ensure any Muslim guests are not served pork or alcohol. Similarly, they avoid beef for Hindu and Sikh guests.

Don’ts

1. Avoid the Left Hand: They do not use their left hand for eating or handling food, as it is considered unclean.

2. Don’t Use Personal Utensils for Serving: They avoid using their personal utensils to touch shared serving plates. They use the provided serving utensils for hygiene.

3. No Pointing with Feet: They never point at food or people with their feet, as this is seen as disrespectful.

4. Don’t Mix Utensils: They avoid mixing their utensils with the shared serving utensils.

5. Refrain from Loud Eating: They do not chew and talk at the same time. They take small bites and chew quietly.

6. Respect Communal Food: They do not put back any food they have already tasted into the communal dish. they place any disliked food aside on their own plate.

7. Avoid Drinking Mid-Meal: Although drinks are served with the meal, it’s better to drink only after they have finished eating.

8. Be Mindful of Leftovers: They avoid taking the last piece of food from a shared plate unless they offer to share it with others.

Global Influence and Popularity

photo by Suhairy Tri Yadhi

Malaysian food, celebrated for its dynamic flavors and diverse ingredients, has seen a surge in popularity across the globe. The rise of food delivery services has played a significant role in making Malaysian cuisine more accessible, allowing people to enjoy its unique dishes from the comfort of their homes. This convenience has introduced many to the rich, spicy, and fresh tastes that define Malaysian food, developing a global appreciation for its culinary diversity.

The historical textile of Malaysian cuisine is woven with influences from neighboring countries such as Indonesia, India, China, the Middle East, and Thailand. This blend of cultural influences creates a unique edge for Malaysian food, characterized by a harmonious fusion of flavors from various ethnic traditions. The resulting dishes are dynamic, richly spiced, and delicate, offering a gastronomic experience that charms taste buds and shows the country’s culinary heritage.

key Takings About National Food of Malaysia

1. Top National Food of Malaysia: Explore the heart of Malaysian cuisine with iconic dishes like Nasi Lemak and Rendang, showing the country’s rich culinary tradition and diverse flavors.

2. Traditional Dishes to Eat: Experience the heart of Malaysian food culture with delights like Seri-Aji Banana Fritter and Mee Rebus, offering a taste of local favorites enjoyed by generations.

3. Spices: The Heart of Malaysian Cooking: Explore the complex blend of spices that infuse Malaysian dishes with bold and lively flavors, creating a culinary experience unlike any other.

4. Malaysian Family Dining: Discover the warmth and togetherness of Malaysian family dining, where shared meals celebrate tradition, culture, and the joy of good food.

5. Street Food: Initiate a culinary adventure through Malaysia’s busy street food scene, where dishes like Otak Otak and Apam Balik delight the senses and show the country’s culinary creativity.

6. Farm to Table Movement: Join the movement towards sustainable and locally sourced ingredients, as restaurants like Dewakan lead the way in promoting healthier eating habits and supporting local communities.

7. Dining Etiquette: Learn the dos and don’ts of Malaysian dining etiquette, where respect, tradition, and hospitality are key ingredients in every meal.

8. Global Influence and Popularity: Experience the global phenomenon of Malaysian cuisine, as its dynamic flavors and diverse ingredients charm taste buds around the world, celebrating the country’s culinary heritage on a global stage.