Malaysian food seems to get its origins from India's rich curries, influenced by Thailand's herbs and spices. You'll find delicious blends of coconut milk and curry, shrimp paste and chilies, accented by exotic flavors of galangal (similar to turmeric), lime, and lemon grass. Sometimes pungent, a few of the dishes have a deep flavor from fermented shrimp paste that is an acquired taste for Western palates. By and large, Malaysian food is delicious, but in multicultural Malaysia, so is the Chinese food, the Peranakan food, the Indian food -- the list goes on. You'll also find fresh seafood almost everywhere.
I strongly recommend eating in a hawker stall, especially in Penang, which is famous for its local cuisine. Although almost all of the food you encounter in a hawker center will be safe for eating, it is advisable to go for freshly cooked hot or soupy dishes.
Do not drink tap water anywhere in Malaysia. If you ask for water, either make sure it's boiled or buy mineral water. Otherwise, drink refrigerated canned beverages.
Taxes & Service Charges -- A 10% service charge and 5% government tax are levied in large restaurants, but hawkers charge a flat price without tax.
How to Eat Like a Malaysian -- Many Malaysians eat with their right hands and off banana leaves when they are having nasi padang or nasi kandar (rice with mixed dishes). If you choose to follow suit, wash your hands first and try to use your right hand because the left is considered unclean (traditionally, it's the hand used to wash after a visit to the toilet).
Penang: Malaysia's Food Capital
Penang is world famous for its street food. There is a lot of Chinese food, plus Peranakan favorites, due to the greater proportion of Chinese living on the island. Here you'll find char kway teow (fried flat noodles with seafood), murtabak (mutton, egg, and onion fried inside Indian bread and dipped in dhal), and rojak (a spicy fruit and seafood salad), along with classics like fried spring rolls and satay.
A Malay meal always revolves around rice, accompanied by curries, fried chicken or fish, vegetable dishes, and small portions of condiments, called sambal. Some of these condiments can be harsh to foreign noses, particularly sambal belacan, which is made with extremely pungent fermented shrimp paste. Malays also favor seafood, especially fish, prawns, and squid. As all Malays are Muslim, you won't find pork on the menu and most restaurants are halal. Where you see mutton, most times it's goat, which is preferred over lamb for its milder, less musty taste and smell.
A good example of a local favorite is nasi lemak, rice cooked in coconut milk and served with fried chicken, prawn crackers, dried anchovies, a bit of egg, and a dark, sweet chili sauce. Other favorites are curry-based dishes like kari ayam, a mellow, almost creamy golden curry with chunks of chicken meat and potatoes; and rendang, stewing beef with a dry curry that's as sweet as it is savory.
Probably the most famous Malay dish is satay, barbecued skewers of marinated chicken, beef, or mutton that are dipped in a chili peanut sauce. Another great dish is ikan bakar, which is fish smothered in chili sauce and grilled in foil over an open flame.
An interesting local variation to try is Malay food influenced by Indian Muslim cooking. Mamak, or Indian Muslim, stalls specialize in a dish called roti canai, fried bread to be dipped in curry or dhal cha (vegetarian curry); as well as murtabak, which is bread fried with egg, onion, and meat, which is also dipped in curry. These dishes are best enjoyed with a cup of teh tarik, frothy tea made with sweetened condensed milk.
Regional variations are also notable, particularly when it comes to Penang, which is famous for its food. A perfect example of how region affects a dish can be found in laksa, a seafood noodle soup created by the Peranakans. In Singapore, laksa has a rich, spicy, coconut-based broth, almost like gravy. Alternately, Penang laksa is not coconut based, but is a fish broth with a tangy and fiery flavor from sour tamarind and spicy bird's-eye chili. Yet another variation, Sarawak laksa also forgoes coconut milk and instead focuses on a base of sambal belacan, or fermented shrimp paste. There are as many variations of laksa as there are towns.
Sarawak and Sabah also have their own unique cuisines, but mostly visitors will find typical Malay, Chinese, and Indian dishes, but with local twists. One of my favorite purely indigenous dishes is umai, raw mackerel seasoned with onion, chili, and salt, "cooked" in lime juice. It can be found primarily in Sarawak, but sometimes also in Sabah.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.