The cross-cultural ingredients that make delightful Malaysian food

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One of the joys of visiting Malaysia is taking in the mix of cultural influences that has shaped the country. Colourful Hindu shrines, mosques and Chinese temples jostle for our attention in the space of just a few hundred metres and these influences have helped to create some truly delightful cuisines that are unique to Malaysia.

Here is an overview of the three main Malaysian cuisines but to really understand them you just have to try them. There are some classic dishes described and some recommendations for the best places to try them but if you follow your nose, keep your eyes peeled for restaurant vouchers and your ears open for where the locals are heading then you should not go far wrong.

Classic Malay cuisine


Aromatic blends of chilli, lemon grass, pandan leaves, daun kesum (laksa leaf), turmeric and bunga kantan (wild ginger) are just some of the spices ground up and sautéed to create the mouth-watering rempahs (spice pastes) that form the basis of many Malay dishes.

Look out for ayam goreng kunyit (deep fried chicken marinated in a base of turmeric and other spices), ikan asam pedas (fish stew flavoured with tamarind, chili, tomatoes, okra and daun kesum), rendang (a spicy meat stew – originating from Indonesia), curry laksa (a coconut-based curry sauce) and sambal sotong (squid cooked in a sambal-based sauce made from chillies, shallots, garlic, stewed tomatoes, tamarind paste and a shrimp paste known as belacan).

    Where to try Malay cuisine:

  • Di Atas Sungai (Penang)
  • Ibunda (KL)
  • Kafe Bawang Merah (Selangor)

Mamak cuisine


The large ethnic Indian population in Malaysia means there are subtle twists on classic Indian dishes that have appeared throughout the country. Whilst South Indian dishes abound so do those that are the result of Indian Muslims adapting their dishes to local surroundings and these are known as Mamak cuisine.

A great culinary experience can be had at buffet-style Mamak eateries called nasi kandar which adopt the Indonesian nasi padang concept of charging you for only what you have eaten. You can expect fluffy white rice, a variety of succulent, spicy curries and a selection of breads, papadums and pickles.

    Where to try Mamak cuisine:

  • Haji Shariff Cendol (Negeri Sembilan)
  • Madam Kwan Midvalley Megamall (KL)
  • Restoran SS2 Murni (Selangor)

Nyonya cuisine

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Nyonya food was developed by the Malaysian Nyonya (Straits Chinese) and Peranakan (those with mixed Chinese/Malay ancestry) communities. A literal melting pot of cultural influences Nyonya dishes are based around typically Chinese ingredients that are blended with classic South-East Asian spices and ingredients such as coconut milk, lemon grass, turmeric, screwpine leaves, chillies and sambal. The resulting food is a fusion of the best of Chinese, Malay and Thai cuisine.

To get a taste of the best Nyonya cuisine try and sample itek tim (a soup made from duck, preserved mustard leaf and cabbage flavoured with nutmeg seed, Chinese mushrooms, tomatoes and peppercorns), kerabu bee hoon (a salad with rice vermicelli mixed with sambal belacan, honey lime juice and finely-chopped herbs and spices), lam mee (birthday noodles that consist of long yellow rice noodles cooked in a rich prawn and chicken gravy) or masak lemak (a coconut-based vegetable stew).

    Where to try Nyonya cuisine:

  • Nyonya Colors (KL)
  • Peranakan House (Selangor)

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