15 of the Best Things I Ate in Malaysia

Malaysia's food scene is as colorful and diverse as its people. With the country composed of Malays, Chinese, and Indians, travelers are sure to find a variety of flavors that all seem to blend seamlessly together. In this amazing country, four major religions also co-exist—Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity—further contributing to the diversity of culinary styles and offerings.

To be honest, I never thought what a true foodie paradise Malaysia is until I had the chance to visit it two weeks ago. When Pinoys think of food tripping outside our shores, the first things that come to mind are Thailand, Taiwan (especially recently), and Japan. I can’t believe we almost never even think of Malaysia—after all, Penang is considered the street food capital of Southeast Asia!

This typical notion, for me, needs to change—Malaysia is high up there in my list. The famous Kuala Lumpur food street, Jalan Alor, has dizzying array of delicious options. Penang and Ipoh, cities filled with charming historic buildings, lure you with the aroma of food as you walk around. Confession: currently, Malaysia is my favorite place for food, after Thailand and Vietnam.

Below, I have compiled my favorite eats during my 5-day stay in Malaysia. The list includes everything I loved—from street food to restaurant finds—from KL, Ipoh, and Penang. Have you tried anything from the below? Can you recommend more food for my next visit to Malaysia? Drop me some comments!

1 | Char Koay Teow

Not to be mistaken for the pad thai, the char koay teow is a noodle dish made of rice cake strips, stir-fried in pork fat and soy sauce, and mixed with prawns, egg, bean sprouts, and Chinese sausage. It actually reminds you of pad thai, except that it lacks the sour flavor from the Thai dish—the char koay teow is salty and rich. It’s popular all over Malaysia, and I can understand why: it’s so easy to eat, and perfect for any time of day—even after a night of drinking! I loved the one served at Joo Hooi Café in Georgetown, Penang.

2 | Koay Teow Th'ng

Yes, it’s called like that. Don’t ask me why. Just try it when you go—it’s a noodle soup served with duck meat, sliced pork, fish balls, fish cakes, spring onions, and garlic bits. IT IS SO FUCKING GOOD. It is proof that soups don’t have to be all murky and colorful to be delicious—the koay teow th'ng has a clear broth filled with flavor. It is also so comforting that if you ever feel lonely and wish to end your life, just get a bowl of this and feel all your woes vanish. Try it from Pitt Street Koay Teow Th’ng in Georgetown, Penang.

3 | Roti Bak Kwa

If you are looking for a light yet satisfying meal, go for a roti bak kwabak kwa (Chinese dried meat) served in a pillowy bun. This is probably among my top 3 eats in Malaysia. The bak kwa at Ba Kua King in Joo Hooi Café is so good—freshly grilled over charcoal, and served in the softest bread. You may add more fillings if you wish—I highly recommend their delicious pork floss. After this bak kwa, I told myself I am never eating those wrapped up jerkies everyone brings back home from Hong Kong or Singapore ever again.

4 | Assam Laksa

If you love the Singaporean laksa, don’t be surprised when you take your first slurp of the Malaysian style. The Assam laksa, which originated in Penang, has a completely different flavor—the soup is made up of mackerel and tamarind, therefore giving it a sour and fishy taste. This flavor fuses with lemongrass, galangal, and chili, as well as pineapple and onions from the toppings—complex, unique, and quite addictive after a while. Air Itam is a popular place for Assam laksa, but I had mine at the dependable Joo Hooi Café.

5 | Lor Bak

If I didn’t know any better, I would say this is simply kikiam; but in Malaysia, they call it lor bak, or five-spice meat rolls. They are wrapped in thin pieces of bean curd skin before being deep-fried, sliced, and served with a stick—yes, just like kikiam! Even the sauces are the same: chili sauce and a thick starchy one similar to what we have in Manila. I tried the chicken version and it was really good—I ordered one first, then I ended up asking for three more.

6 | Hokkien Mee

Hokkien Mee is a dish consisting of egg noodles and vermicelli noodles in a spicy prawn-based soup, a bit reminiscent of tom yum with its slight acidity. A bowl in Penang can be fully loaded: prawns, pork ribs, hard-boiled eggs, water spinach (kangkong), lard, and even pig skin—and of course, sambal, which is usually served on a spoon so that you can control how spicy you want your soup to be. Hunt for this dish at the New Lane Hawker Center in Penang (or in any cafe/night market).

7 | Teochew Chendol

It’s a simple creation really—some shaved ice, green rice flour jelly, red beans, milk, and gula Melaka—but somehow eating it on the streets, right by a massive mural of the dish, and after you have lined up for it makes it taste even more satisfying. I almost didn’t try it because of the queue, even conditioning my mind by chanting “I hate sweets”—but I’m glad I did. Get it line at Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol right by Joo Hooi Café.

8 | Tauge Ayam

From Penang, let’s go all the way to Ipoh to try their iconic street food: the tauge ayam, or bean sprouts chicken rice. It is actually just steamed chicken, like Hainanese chicken, served with soy sauce and chili with crushed ginger, paired with the most delicious bean sprouts ever. I love tauge, so imagine my happiness seeing such plump bean sprouts in a delicious light sauce. Get some steamed rice—and an extra, for good measure!

9 | Egg Tart

Ipoh is studded with lots of pastry shops, and you can’t visit without trying the famous egg tarts. If you see a long queue, just hop in line—that was how my fellow travelers discovered Lam Fong Biscuit, a famous (well, apparently, LOL) shop selling insanely good egg tarts. The crust is flaky, the center is sweet, runny, velvety, and yummy—what can I say? This was heaven in a bite! It makes me think of Portugal’s pastel de nata—another item in my food bucket list! 

10 | Seafood Popiah

Pork, seafood, tofu, peanuts, turnips, and veggies combine together to form a fresh spring roll with a delicate covering—like that of a crepe, but thinner. I loved how there’s so many different elements in one bite. It is usually smothered in some kind of gravy, which kind of soaks up the wrapping to be honest, but who cares as long as it’s tasty, right?

11 | Satay

What goes into a single skewer of barbecued meat? Well, in Malaysia, you have shallots, lemongrass, garlic, ginger, coriander, cumin, turmeric, sugar, and salt—and this makes all the difference. Each bite is so flavorful (and delightfully smoky) that I won’t blame you if you forget all about the peanut sauce.

12 | Hot Pot

OK, so here’s a first: I entered a hot pot restaurant expecting comforting bowls of soup but guess what? I found myself trying to finish a humongous plate of stir-fried noodles, meats, and vegetables. I’m not complaining—it was incredible! At the Hot Pot Kitchen in Sunway Pyramid Mall in Selangor (about 15 minutes from Kuala Lumpur), expect delicious Sichuan-style hot pot, where you can choose your ingredients and your desired level of spice. Warning: the “fragrant-spicy” (level 2) was already too spicy for me, and to think I love Indian food!

13 | Rendang

Whatever you do, don’t leave Malaysia without trying the rendang—one of its national dishes. Usually made with lamb or beef, the rendang is cooked with coconut milk alongside a smorgasbord of spices—resulting in a creamy, spicy, meaty creation. LOVE.

14 | Ayam Percik

Ayam percik, or Malaysian-style roast chicken, is an incredibly flavorful and tasty treatment of the poultry. It has turmeric, cumin, coriander, lemongrass, coconut milk, and tamarind in its marinade, and is typically served with a spicy coconut-based sauce. So addicting!

15 | Nasi Lemak

Here’s the thing with nasi lemak: it’s just rice. Rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan. Served with the usual garnishes—sambal, cucumber, anchovies, roasted peanuts, hard-boiled eggs—you can eat it as is but I highly suggest getting more substantial protein, like fried chicken (ayam goreng) or beef and fish. Better than plain rice? When in Malaysia, yes.

Do you love the food in Malaysia? What other dishes can you add to the list? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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