Hawker centres and street stalls: the best eats in Malaysia

Hawker centres: a variety of delicious Malaysian home-cooked dishes sold at a street market stall in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. Photo: Shutterstock
Hawker centres: a variety of delicious Malaysian home-cooked dishes sold at a street market stall in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. Photo: Shutterstock

Patronised by every level of society, hawker stalls are found all over Malaysia, from urban sites beside busy highways to idyllic seaside locations. Feeding and slaking the thirst of the nation is a round-the-clock affair: Malaysians, as a rule, live to eat and not the other way around. With such low prices, who can be bothered to cook? And as most hawkers specialise in only a few dishes, they have perfected their culinary skills to a degree where most people would prefer to eat out than in. Basic tables and stools are provided on site. Hawkers will often ask if you want to makan – “eat there,” or bungkus – “take away.” 

"The best eats in Malaysia no doubt belong on the streets or in hawker centres," says KJ Lai of Always Travelicious. "Many stalls have been around for years, or even generations, perfecting recipes. I visit the same stalls over and over again because I just don't get tired of eating the same thing, and I know that the flavours will never disappoint."

Street hawker and coffee shop on Chow Kit Road, Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Shutterstock

Where to eat

Each city has its own famous outdoor eating centre. In Kuala Lumpur (KL), head for Chinatown’s famed Jalan Alor for Chinese and other specialities. For Malay food, don’t miss the Pasar Minggu in Kampung Bahru. After dark in Penang, Gurney Drive offers an array of multi-ethnic treats by the sea. In fact, Tourism Malaysia tells Insight Guides that Penang is famous for its variety of delicious street food stalls, including hot spots that sell Nasi Kandar (a tasty mixed rice of Indian-Muslim origin). Another popular local dish is cendol, a refreshing dessert that helps cool down tourists while exploring the area's quaint and charming streets.

Meanwhile, Melaka’s best-known hawker scene for dinner and supper is at the old Newton Hawker Centre.

Locals and tourists alike head to the Kuching Open Air Food Court, which is open all day and night. In Miri, the Bandong Hawker Centre has 60 stalls offering Malay and Chinese food. Kota Kinabalu’s open-air hawker street next to KK Plaza comes alive in the evening.

Roti canai with spicy curry on a banana leaf. Photo: Shutterstock

Roti canai breakfast

Walk through any Malaysian town at breakfast, and the most crowded eateries will usually be those serving roti canai. Its English description, an unleavened pancake served with dhal, just doesn’t do it justice. It is deliciously light, flaky and crisp, the perfect vehicle to soak up spicy sauces and curries.

Most cooks show off their skills at the front of their shops; it takes years of practice to swing out the dough until it is paper thin. The theatrical flourishes when tossing the roti may appear excessive, but are needed to keep the pancake as light and flaky as possible.

A speciality of Indian-Muslim and now Malay cooks, the origins of roti canai probably lie in the Indian subcontinent, and like many Malaysian favourites, it has evolved over generations into a strictly localised dish. Variations include roti telur (with egg), roti sardin (canned tomato sardines) and as a dessert, roti pisang (bananas). This is also the food of choice for late night/early morning supper.

Other popular Indian breads are putu mayam (string hoppers), derived from the Keralan variety, the steamed Tamil lentil-and-rice idli and the unleavened poori.

Get there now: Taking in the Spelndour of Malaysia

Preparing roti canai for queuing customers. Photo: Shutterstock

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