Malaysia offers a wide range of food choices, ranging from fine dining to street food. Breakfast is usually served 6–10.30am, lunch 11.30am–2.30pm and dinner 6.30–11pm, although some places open until 2am or even later. However, you can usually find restaurants or stalls serving food any time of the day.
Ethnic and religious influences play a role in determining ingredients used and the preparation of dishes. Restaurants holding halal certification indicate that they follow strict Muslim dietary regulations and do not serve pork or alcohol. All restaurants offer the use of table utensils, but at some eateries (especially where roti canai or rice is served) customers prefer to use their hands. If you are using your hands to eat, use your right hand, never your left. Scoop up the rice with your fingers only, not onto your palm.
Certain dishes are associated with the festive occasions celebrated in the country. Lemang (rice cooked with coconut in a hollowed bamboo stick over charcoal or wood fire) and rendang (meat curry) are associated with Hari Raya Aidil Fitri. Snacks such as laddu and muruku are favourites during Deepavali. And no Chinese New Year celebration would be complete without the tossing of yee sang, a fish salad with sweet dressing.
Vegetarian options can be found at Chinese and Indian restaurants as encouraged by Buddhist and Hindu beliefs.
For the full Malaysian experience, try the local fare, which is not only different according to where you are, but subdivides into ethnic and regional varieties too. Peranakan (or Nonya) cuisine, which combines Chinese and Malay ingredients and cooking styles, is best enjoyed in Melaka and Penang. Popular dishes include kari kapitan (curry chicken) and otak-otak (fishcake with spices steamed in banana leaf). The east coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu offer authentic Malay cuisine, including rice and fish dishes such as nasi dagang and barbecued chicken (ayam percik). In the south, Batu Pahat, Johor, is known for its nasi briyani gam (rice cooked with spices and raisins) and Muar for its mee bandung (noodles with prawns and beef in gravy).
Sarawak has its own specialities derived from its Malay, Indian, Chinese and Dayak heritages. The spicy Sarawak laksa is a big favourite, as is umei – a Melanau dish of raw, marinated fish blended with limes, chilli and shallots. Fresh seafood, venison, wild boar, pansoh manok – an Iban chicken dish cooked in bamboo tubes with rice wine – are not to be missed. In Kuching, the old streets of Chinatown are lined with coffee shops serving fresh Chinese noodle dishes. Sabah is known for its excellent seafood, as well as its vegetable dishes. Best of all is sayur manis, a green leafy vegetable with a slightly crunchy stem and sweet green leaves. Try it in oyster sauce.
Fine-dining establishments are found mainly in the cities or the tourist belt, but elsewhere restaurants and food stalls are readily available. All of Malaysia’s medium- and top- class hotels have decent restaurants, with some of the nation’s best found in five-star hotels.
In addition to Malaysian cuisine, restaurants serving Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mediterranean and Vietnamese food are easily found. The best regional food is often served in hawker stalls, sold on the streets or in coffee shops. The main shopping malls will also have a range of food choices, and an assortment of street foods can be found at pasar malams (night markets), which include restaurants, fast-food places, food courts and places for nibbles. Although you can sometimes get authentic preparations in restaurants, the atmosphere at these venues cannot be replicated.
Alcohol is expensive in Malaysia compared with some other Asian destinations. It is freely available in pubs, hotels, Western restaurants and Chinese eateries, as well as in supermarkets in most towns, though less so in the traditionally Islamic states of Terengganu and Kelantan.
Wine is growing in popularity and easily found at Western restaurants, wine shops and supermarkets. Imported beer is mostly served at pubs, beer bars and microbrewing outlets. Local brews include toddy and rice wines such as tuak and li hing. Toddy is made from the fermented sap of coconut palm. If trying this brew, make sure it comes from a regulated source.
Local coffee and tea pack a punch, and may be too sweet for unsuspecting drinkers as they are sometimes served with condensed milk and sugar. Ipoh white coffee has won a wide following because of its creamy smooth taste and strong flavour. Teh tarik (pulled tea) is also a Malaysian favourite. Tea is poured back and forth with outstretched arms from a mug into a glass.
11 Jalan Balai Polis
tel: 03-2072 5915
Eating here is a little like dining in a museum as the walls are lined with photos and memorabilia of the local Chinese laundryman’s association. It’s one of the city’s most atmospheric settings and Chinese (mostly Nyonya) and Asian dishes keep regulars and travellers coming back for more.
235 Jalan Tun Razak
tel: 03-2145 0366
The ‘passage’ is set back from the road and a little difficult to see, but for those who drive here there’s abundant parking. A comprehensive menu of mostly northern Indian specialities including tandoori and many vegetarian dishes is served in an elaborate setting. The wine list is limited but there are plenty of cold beers and juices to quell the spicy food.
25 Tengkat Thong Shin
tel: 03-2144 8225
While many Vietnamese food outlets claim authenticity, few have achieved the success of Sao Nam, now with two outlets – KL and suburban Plaza Damas. Trendy diners devour dishes like mangosteen and prawn salad and chicken pho (noodle soup). Sao Nam KL is located near the Jalan Alor food street and serves creative food with a well-considered wine list. Closed on Monday.
tel: 04-955 6787
Located at Bon Ton Resort, this restaurant has a menu featuring tantalising “West-meets-spice” cuisine. The Nyonya platter is the house speciality – nine different types of meat and seafood cooked in a variety of spices and served with rice on a banana leaf. Leave room for dessert if you can. Also caters to animal-lovers, vegetarians and children.
Even if you miss this self-service restaurant at the road bend after the surau (mosque), you will not miss the number of cars parked at the road shoulder or the locals heading to it during lunchtime. Serves an assortment of Malay dishes buffet-style and soup. First get your plate of rice, and then take whatever you would like to eat. Present your food plate to the lady at the counter and pay for it. You can also order ABC, a sweet dessert topped with ice shavings. Open Sat–Thur 10am until the food runs out, closed on Fridays and during Ramadan.
tel: 04-955 1363
Tables on the beach offer great sunset views. Excellent steaks, buttered potatoes, herb salad, waffles and cream, and coffee, not to mention the fabulous margaritas, possibly the best on the island. The menu changes nightly.
31D Abu Siti Lane
A family-owned restaurant specialising in traditional Nonya (Peranakan) cuisine. A complimentary appetiser of ikan bilis with onion and chillis with a kerabu twist is the start to a delicious meal. Mama’s speciality dishes are tau eu bak (pork cooked in dark soya sauce) and perut ikan (stewed fish stomach with vegetables – tastes better than the name suggests). Closed Mondays.
Lone Pine Hotel, 97 Jalan Batu Feringgi
tel: 04-886 8566
Facing the hotel pool and the casuarina-lined beach, this restaurant housed in a colonial-era building has indoor and outdoor seating. At night, the atmosphere is very romantic. The Chinese menu concentrates on Hainanese dishes, but includes dishes such as fish curry, chicken rice and filet mignon.
49 & 51 Lebuh Queen
tel: 04-262 5367
Having been around for 45 years, Tajuddin Hussain has perfected its nasi kandar (Penang-style rice and curries). The huge dining area is simply furnished, with wooden tables and plastic chairs. While the outlet specialises in tomato rice and roast chicken, the nasi briyani is also worth trying.
75 Jalan Melaka Raya 24, Taman Melaka Raya
tel: 06-286 8819
While Penang’s nyonya food is Thai influenced, Melaka’s nyonya cuisine derives its flavours from the Malay, Chinese and Chitty communities. Try udang goreng assam (stir-fried prawns in tamarind paste), chicken pongteh (stew) and the telur dadar cincaluk (spicy omelette with fermented shrimp paste).
4 D’Aranjo Road, Portuguese Settlement, Ujong Pasir
This restaurant serves authentic Portuguese cuisine. Try the baked fish (seabass or red snapper), curry debal chicken (can be quite spicy), fried brinjals and the black pepper crabs. Call ahead to reserve a table (and your fish), because once their stock of fish runs out, they will close for the day.
6 Jalan Kia Peng
tel: 03-2143 1908
With a heritage of over 50 years of solid Hakka culinary tradition, this family-run restaurant is the best place for authentic Hakka food. Unmissable are the Hakka noodles with minced pork sauce, mui choy kau yuk (braised pork belly layered with preserved vegetables) and the unique stewed fish head with fermented red rice.
Menara Taipan, Jalan Puncak, Off Jalan P. Ramlee
tel: 03-2072 4452
Self-taught chef and caterer Nathalie Arbefeuille has been wowing Kuala Lumpur with modern French cuisine in her fine-dining outlet. The creative menu changes monthly, and diners can select from the à la carte menu or the set menu, which includes a dégustation option. Not to be missed are her signature macaroons.
Read more about restaurants in Malaysia in Insight Guides: Malaysia
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