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Taste of Southeast Asia: Dining in Malaysia

Jalan Alor street food market in Kuala Lumpur. Image: Visualhunt

Welcome back to the Taste of ASEAN, our food tour of Southeast Asia. We’ve been visiting the region to learn how culinary traditions in Southeast Asia are different from country to country. When traveling to Asia, sampling the local food is a highlight. So, come along with us to plan your itinerary and prepare your tummy for tropical and tasty holiday feasting!

Malaysian Cuisine

Today, welcome yourself to Malaysia.

Malaysia covers parts of the Malay Peninsula and most of the Island of Borneo. Due to its widespread geographic and multiethnic makeup, the cuisine reflects many influences. Most food comes with heavy Chinese, Indian, or native Malay influence. Other flavors come from neighboring Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia with sprinklings of influence from Europeans, who have frequented the ASEAN region since global trade routes began in the 16th Century.

Travelers on summer vacations will find Malaysian food to be diverse and highly complex. Sweet, savory, and sometimes spicy, let’s explore the colorful flavors of Malaysian food.

Char Kway Teow

Malaysian char kway teow noodles. Image: Visualhunt

This Chinese-influenced dish is so tasty that it went full-circle back to China where they call it Penang Char Kway Teow. Why not go world famous? Nobody can pass up a satisfying pile of noodles. Kway teow is the flat, wide rice noodles that make the base of this dish and char means stir-fried. From there, chefs add meat, vegetables, and a sauce made of chilis and dark soy sauce for the signature deep color.

In East Malaysia, the dish is made from sliced rice cake strips instead of noodles, which is arguably the more traditional ingredient. The local favorite in coastal places like Penang is a seafood version full of whole prawns and succulent cockles. Since Penang’s favorite vendor retired this year, there is a bit of a char kway teow shock. Don’t fret though, delicious versions are still available. Sister’s on Jalan Macalister adds soft crab meat and Duck Egg Char Koay Teow on Jalan Pasar adds—you guessed it—a nice duck egg on top. Penang’s next King or Queen of char kway teow will be crowned soon enough.


Murtabak. Image: Tourism Malaysia

A taste of Malaysia wouldn’t be complete without a fusion dish on the list. Murtabak is a roti canai fried flatbread folded around eggs, beef or goat meat, and vegetable mince. Then it gets slathered with curry gravy before being wrapped up. The flaky, eggy outside omelet gives this dish a lovely carb-tinged chew while sides of sweet pickles liven up the taste buds.

Murtabak is popular during Ramadan. From city to city, this delicious wrap can vary in flavor but the thing that makes it a murtabak is the fact that it’s “folded up”, which is the meaning in Arabic. Part Indian curry, part halal omelet, part mince pie, and 100% Malaysian, you can’t skip it. Travelers love the murtabak at TG’s on Tengkat Tong Shin in Kuala Lumpur. Just walk the streets and look for the golden packages like Malaysian food blogger VKeong found.  

Apam Balik

Apam balik. Image: Visualhunt

Apam balik turnover pancake is the snack you are always happy to see. Kuala Lumpur vendors serving this giant toasty moon-shaped treat are easy to spot by their circular griddle and tub of margarine. Great for breakfast, an afternoon snack, or saved for dessert, the apam balik is simple to love.

The first bite delights with crispy edges encrusted with savory margarine. The second bite reveals a bed of crunchy, warm peanuts that melt in your mouth. The third bite brings you to banana, sweet corn, and dough-filled ecstasy. By the last bite, you’ll be turning around to buy another.

We are partial to the street vendor on Lorong Pudu, opposite the Pudu Bus Terminal in Chinatown. There is nothing more convenient than grabbing one before hopping on the bus, and the busy location means they are always hot and fresh.

Whether sweet or savory, Malaysian dishes are vibrant and feature complex flavor combinations that leave you craving more. From the famous street foods of Penang to the bustling restaurants of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian food will be the feature of your summer vacations on your next visit.

Will you stay with us for the rest of this food journey? We are halfway through the Taste of ASEAN blog series, with five countries in Southeast Asia remaining, and five more delicious cuisines to discover. Come along for the rest, while we discover these ten amazing countries and their incredible dishes