International Cooking: Food from Malaysia

Sorry this post is a little late; I’ve been busy! This is a week I was looking forward to. I already touched on some aspects of Malaysian cuisine when I cooked food from Brunei and Indonesia, and I was excited to find some similar dishes. However, food from Malaysia is pretty diverse, as you will see!


Malaysia is in Southeast Asia and is separated by the South China Sea into Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia. Peninsular Malaysia is south of Thailand, while East Malaysia is part of the island of Borneo, which is shared with Brunei and Indonesia.

The region has been inhabited by native people for thousands of years, and it is thought that traders from India and China arrived as early as the first century AD. This has resulted in strong Indian and Chinese influences, not just on food but on religion and other cultural aspects.

The city of Malacca became an important center for trade, but was conquered by Portugal in the 16th century and later taken by the Dutch. Eventually, the British Empire established itself in the region and took control of multiple areas, including Malacca.

Malaysia gained independence in 1957, but it wasn’t the country we know today; it was originally a smaller area known as ‘Malaya.’ A few years later, Malaya united with a few other British crown colonies, including Singapore, to become Malaysia. Singapore was expelled in 1965, resulting in today’s Malaysia.

Malaysia continues to be a very multicultural and multiethnic country, which has resulted in some conflict over the years. About half the population is ethnically Malay, with strong minorities of Chinese, Indian, and various indigenous groups. The economy has performed well since independence, and Malaysia ranks high on the Human Development Index. Additionally, it’s one of the world’s 17 megadiverse countries, with many endemic species (meaning those species are not naturally found anywhere else).

What Do People Eat in Malaysia?

Malaysian cuisine varies greatly depending on which part of the country you are in. You can find a wide range of dishes, with the most obvious influences coming from China and India. However, some dishes are also shared with Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines.

Traders from the Middle East often passed through Malaysia, and Portuguese, Dutch, and English colonists and traders introduced all kinds of foods such as peanuts, pineapples, avocado, tomatoes, squash, and pumpkin. This has led to a diverse range of ingredients in Malaysian cooking.

Malaysia’s most important staple food is rice, which comes in many varieties. Plain white rice is commonly served with many meals, but rice can also be made into rice noodles. These aren’t the only popular noodles either; wheat and cellophane noodles are also used in many dishes.

Although Malaysia does not produce wheat, Western-style white bread and Indian breads such as roti are common, as are traditional Chinese steamed bao. Wheat is also used to make oven-baked buns and pastries.

Malaysians eat a wide range of meat, with pork being less common since around 60% of the country is Muslim. Fish and seafood of all kinds are prominent.

Malaysia is a tropical country so can grow a wide range of fruit and vegetables year-round. Vegetarian food is becoming more popular, and these days you can find exclusively vegetarian Chinese restaurants.

No matter where you are in the country, chili is a popular ingredient. Strong flavors such as shrimp paste and anchovies feature in lots of dishes, and coconut milk is popular for soups and curries. A variety of fresh aromatics such as garlic, ginger, lemongrass, and galangal feature heavily in some regions, while in others, dry spices such as coriander and cinnamon are used. I think that this is one of the most diverse countries I have covered so far when it comes to the sheer variety of seasonings used across the country!

What I Made

Scroll down to read about other popular Malaysian dishes I didn’t make!

Char Kway Teow (Stir-Fried Noodles)

Char Kway Teow (Stir-Fried Noodles)

This is a popular rice noodle dish not just in Malaysia, but also in nearby countries such as Singapore and Indonesia. It’s supposed to be made with wide rice noodles, which I thought I had seen at the grocery store before, but I couldn’t find them so I used thinner noodles.

First, I soaked my noodles in warm water for a while. Next, I combined dark soy sauce, regular soy sauce, fish sauce, shrimp paste, oyster sauce, white pepper, and sugar to make the sauce.

I sauteéd some Chinese sausage (lap cheong), then added garlic and shrimp. I was also supposed to add something called fish tofu at this point, but I omitted it. Next, I added some shaoxing wine followed by the noodles, then the sauce, and then chives. I was meant to use garlic chives, and for some reason I decided to replace them with regular chives. I think that green onions would have been a much better option!

I made some space in the wok and added beaten eggs. After they were cooked, I added bean sprouts and mixed everything together.

I was meant to serve this with chili garlic paste or chili oil but I forgot. However, I still think this was delicious! There was a lot of flavor and it was easy to make; I can see myself making this again (hopefully with the proper ingredients).

The recipe I used here is from The Woks of Life.

Karipap (Curry Puffs)

Karipap (Curry Puffs)

These curry puffs can have a wide range of fillings, and they are popular in Singapore as well. They have a spiral pattern which is created by layering two types of dough—one oil-based, and one water-based.

First, I made the filling. I cooked some onion, then added chicken, salt, and pepper. After a few minutes, I added potatoes and hot curry powder. A few minutes later, I added chicken stock and let everything cook until the potatoes were tender. Finally, I stirred in a little flour, since the mixture holds together better as a filling when it’s thickened.

Next, I moved on to the dough(s). For the water dough, I combined flour, salt, sugar, butter, and water. The oil dough consisted of flour, butter, and shortening (the recipe used lard). I let the dough rest for about 30 minutes.

I flattened the water dough into a disc and topped it with the oil dough. I wrapped the water dough around it and let this rest for another 15 minutes. Then I rolled the dough out and rolled it up, before rolling it out and rolling it up again. After another short rest, I cut the dough into equal pieces.

To make each curry puff, I rolled out a piece of dough, filled it with the filling mixture, and sealed it well. I tried to make the seals pretty in a way I had done before but it took a few before I remembered how to do it properly!

Karipap are usually deep-fried, but they can also be baked so that’s what I decided to do. I thought they came out great! The filling was delicious and the pastry was very flaky.

The recipe I used is from What To Cook Today.

Ayam Percik (Spicy Grilled Chicken)

Ayam Percik (Spicy Grilled Chicken)

This is chicken that is seasoned with aromatics such as garlic, ginger, and lemongrass, then traditionally grilled over charcoal. I cooked mine on the stove instead.

First, I marinated chicken thighs in salt, turmeric, and sambal oelek (a type of chili paste) for a few hours.

Next I ground up more sambal oelek with shallots, ginger, garlic, and coriander seeds. I also added almonds. The original recipe called for candlenuts and said macadamias would be a good substitute, but they are kind of expensive so I used the almonds instead. I only needed a small amount so I didn’t feel it would make a big difference. I cooked the paste made from grinding these ingredients, then added tamarind concentrate, lemongrass, coconut milk, salt, and sugar. The recipe actually never said when to add the lemongrass but it was listed with the tamarind so I put it in here.

After a few minutes, I added the chicken, and then I let it cook for about 25 minutes or so, until it was cooked through and the sauce had thickened a bit. I removed the chicken and continued cooking the sauce to thicken it further.

The aromatics really shone here; I thought this dish was delicious. (And I did top the chicken with some of the sauce after taking the photo; I was trying to avoid having it look too messy.)

This recipe is from What To Cook Today.

Nasi Lemak (Coconut Milk Rice)

Nasi Lemak (Coconut Milk Rice)

This is a popular meal in Malaysia, so much so that it’s considered the national dish. Nasi lemak is also common in Brunei; I actually made a simple version for Brunei week. It consists of rice cooked with coconut milk and pandan leaves, typically served with a spicy anchovy chili sauce, peanuts, cucumber, and boiled eggs. To make a more filling meal, fried chicken, curry, or even seafood may also be added.

The recipe I used suggested lemongrass as a substitute for the pandan leaves if they were too hard to get, and since I needed to buy lemongrass anyway, I took that route. The flavor is not the same, but it tastes good in a different way. I cooked jasmine rice in coconut milk and water with some lemongrass.

Next, it was time to prepare the sambal/sauce. This was meant to be made with dried anchovies, called ‘ikan bilis’; I had a go at drying some from a jar in the oven which actually seemed to work quite well. I’m sure it’s not the same, but I didn’t think dried anchovies were an ingredient I wanted hanging around my kitchen as I wasn’t sure how much I would use them. I finished preparing the ingredients by grinding some dried chilies (that I’d soaked) along with fresh chili, shallots, garlic, and a little shrimp paste.

I started cooking some sliced onion in oil, then transferred it to a plate and added the chili mixture. After a few minutes, I added sugar, tamarind concentrate, and some of the liquid I had saved from soaking the dried chilies. After a few minutes more, I stirred in the cooked onion and dried anchovies.

Next it was time to plate! I decided to serve my nasi lemak with ayam percik; I don’t know if that would make sense in Malaysia but it made sense to me. It was a combination I really enjoyed.

Although this was generally quite good, I am not really sold on the sambal. Maybe one day I will try making it with dried anchovies if I find another way to use the leftovers.

The recipe I used for this is from Marion’s Kitchen.

Chicken Curry Kapitan (Chicken and Potato Curry)

Chicken Curry Kapitan (Chicken and Potato Curry)

This popular curry is made from chicken and potato cooked in a thick, flavorful sauce, and typically served with rice and/or roti. It is said that cooks made this curry to serve to captains or chiefs during Western colonization in Malaysia, and that’s where the name comes from.

First I coated chicken thighs with oil, salt, and turmeric, and let them sit for a few hours. Then I browned the chicken on all sides and set it aside.

I ground dried chilies (which I soaked first) with almonds (instead of candlenuts), lemongrass, turmeric, galangal, ginger, garlic, shallots, and fresh chilies to make the spice paste.

I cooked the spice paste in oil for a few minutes, then added finely chopped makrut lime leaves, shrimp paste, and tamarind concentrate. A few minutes later, I added coconut milk, water, and the browned chicken. Once the chicken was nearly done, I added large chunks of potato and let the whole thing simmer until everything was cooked through.

I found this to be a very flavorful dish and I loved how the potatoes soaked up the seasoning. I think this is something I would make again! I served it with rice and roti canai (next dish).

This is another recipe from What To Cook Today.

Roti Canai (Flatbread)

Roti Canai (Flatbread)

There are a few types of roti (a type of flatbread) popular in Malaysia, but this one seemed a little unique so I thought I would try it.

The dough was made from bread flour, egg, butter, water, salt, and a little sweetened condensed milk. I found the inclusion of the condensed milk interesting. I divided the dough into small balls and let it rest in the fridge overnight.

To shape the roti the next day, I took one dough ball and spread it on a buttered work surface, making it as thin as possible. The butter helps the dough stretch; the recipe said to just add more if needed and it works. Once the dough was see-through, I rolled up the dough into a log, then curled it up in a spiral shape and let it rest for a bit.

To cook my roti canai, I first flattened each dough spiral a bit, then cooked it in butter for a few minutes on each side until done. I had to reduce the heat to medium-low because at medium, which is what the recipe called for, my butter was burning and my roti canai weren’t really cooking through without getting too dark. I think my stove runs a little hot though.

Once cooked, I was supposed to fluff up the roti canai by holding them on either side and squeezing towards the middle. This didn’t really seem to work for me. Luckily the looks didn’t matter because they were delicious!

This recipe came from El Mundo Eats.

Assam Laksa (Sour and Spicy Fish Soup with Noodles)

Assam Laksa (Sour and Spicy Fish Soup with Noodles)

There are many variations of laksa, which is a spicy noodle dish popular in Southeast Asia. The noodles, toppings, and broth can all vary greatly. This version is made with fish and thick rice noodles, and the broth is sour, sweet, and spicy.

I made a mistake here. The recipe said that although mackerel was what would usually be used, canned sardines can work as a substitute. Since I can’t easily get fresh mackerel, I thought I would try the sardines. Read on to see how that went!

First I ground up some dried chilies (soaked first), shallots, garlic, and galangal. I added them to a pot of boiling water along with lemongrass, tamarind concentrate, and shrimp paste. I was also supposed to add dried tamarind peel and torch ginger bud (something I had never heard of before but it looks like a pink flower). Usually the fish would be cooked in the broth too, but since I was using canned sardines, I only added them at the last minute, after the soup had been simmering for a while. I also added some salt and sugar.

I poured the soup over cooked udon noodles (which were suggested as a substitute for the thick rice noodles). Then I added the toppings: cucumber, onion, pineapple chunks, fresh mint, and lettuce, as well as a squeeze of lime juice. A type of shrimp paste called ‘hae ko’ was also suggested as an accompaniment, but I did not use it.

I really didn’t enjoy the sardines in this soup. They just seemed weird. I probably should have just skipped this dish or tried harder to find fresh mackerel. The other ingredients tasted good though!

The recipe I loosely followed here is from What To Cook Today.

Kolo Mee (Dry Noodles with Pork and Wontons)

Kolo Mee (Dry Noodles with Pork and Wontons)

Kolo mee is a popular dry noodle dish in Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore. Along with the noodles, it typically includes wontons and char siu pork.

First, I marinated the pork for my char siu pork. I used pork tenderloin because I had seen that used in a similar recipe to the one I ended up using, and I didn’t want to make too much (like I would have if I had used the pork shoulder suggested). The marinade consisted of garlic, shallots, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, honey, brown sugar, and Chinese five spice. Red yeast power can also be included, which gives the pork the red color you usually see, but I did not include that.

After marinating overnight, I cooked the pork on the stove until done. I also poured in the remaining marinade, and after the pork was cooked I removed it and continued to cook the marinade to create a thick sauce. The recipe included a separate sauce, but I didn’t make that since I thought the marinade already tasted great!

I made the wonton filling while the pork was marinating. I used ground pork, shrimp, ginger, egg yolks, green onion, cornstarch, sesame oil, sugar, soy sauce, and white pepper. I let the mixture marinate in the fridge for an hour before making the wontons. I’ve made wonton dough from scratch before, but this time I used premade wonton wrappers.

Right before serving, I cooked the noodles and wontons and blanched some bok choy. I served everything together in bowls with some green onion, and put the reduced marinade on the table as a dipping sauce.

I really enjoyed this meal. I think this was my first time using a combination of pork and shrimp in wontons and I feel like the texture was nicer—softer—than when I used only pork. The flavor was good too, and I also enjoyed the pork, though I think it needed a little more salt.

This recipe came from What To Cook Today, as did the recipe for the char siu pork.

  • Beef rendang – a richly-flavored beef stew made from coconut milk and aromatic spices such as cinnamon, cloves, star anise, cardamom, and lemongrass. I made a version of this for Indonesia.
  • Ayam goreng – Malaysian fried chicken, seasoned with spices such as coriander, cumin, ginger, garlic, and galangal.
  • Popiah basah – fresh spring rolls, usually filled with vegetables but sometimes meat or seafood. The wrappers are thin and made from flour and water.
  • Rotiboy – soft buns made from leavened dough, filled with butter and topped with a crunchy, coffee-flavored crust.
  • Apam balik – a snack that is basically like a pancake folded over a filling, commonly consisting of sugar, peanuts, and sweet corn.
  • Mee rebus – noodles with lots of curry sauce which is based on potato or sweet potato. This is typically served with a boiled egg.

Final Thoughts

This was a great week! I would have liked to fit in more dishes. I probably enjoyed the kolo mee the most, with the char kway teow as a close second.

Next week, I will be cooking food from the Maldives.

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