In my two weeks in Malaysia, I would learn more words for various foods than for anything else. Nasi? Rice. Mee? Noodles. Goreng? Fried. Ayam? Chicken. It was fitting, since Malaysia, with its mix of Chinese, Indian and Malay cultures, is known for being one of the best places for street food in Southeast Asia.
Of course, learning words is only one small piece of understanding. I needed to taste the flavors to bring the foods to life. With limited time in the country, I plotted out my must-try meals and got to it, first in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur and next in the place known for having the best food in Malaysia, Penang. These were among my favorite experiences.
At various Indian restaurants in Malaysia, a banana leaf is used for cooking, wrapping or serving food. In Penang, I had one of my best Indian meals served on a banana leaf at Sri Ananda Bahwan in George Town’s Little India. Three vegetarian dishes—cabbage, pumpkin with a tomato sauce and greens—decorated the placemat-sized leaf like the paint on an artist’s palette, along with a healthy serving of rice. I added a delicious chicken curry and naan to go with it.
Sri Ananda Bahwan; Lebuh Penang, George Town, Penang; Open daily from 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Lebuh Kimberley in George Town has a night market that my Airbnb host recommended for duck noodles, chicken feet and mee goreng. The only meal I had a chance to try there was the duck noodles (oops—I guess I will have to try the chicken feet next time!). As the name suggests, it was a simple dish of duck, rice noodles, a whole egg, soy sauce and green onions, with a side of a spicy sauce in which people dipped the duck. Highly recommended.
Kimberley Street Night Market; Lebuh Kimberley (between Jalan Kuala Kangsar and Lebuh Cintra); Opens roughly at 6 p.m.
Bak Kut Teh
The name of the dish bak kut teh translates to “meat bone tea.” Pork is simmered for several hours in a broth with spices such as star anise, cinnamon cloves and garlic. At Hong Xiang in George Town, they serve the broth in a pot with its own mini burner. According to their menu, the dish was brought to George Town in the 19th century by Chinese immigrants from Hokkien and is thought to help with energy and general health. You choose which part of the pork you want in your broth. I had my first serving of pork ankle.
Hong Xiang; 88 Jalan Macalister, George Town, Penang; Open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5:45 p.m. to 10:45 p.m.
I ate nasi kandar at several restaurants in Kuala Lumpur and Penang. At most of them, ordering the dish meant I went to a counter where they covered a plate in rice and then let me choose from multiple meat, fish and vegetable options to add to the plate such as lamb with tomato sauce, fried chicken, chicken curry, fried squid and cabbage. Once I made my choices, they added several curry sauces on top in varying degrees of spiciness. The heaving plate made for a filling and hearty meal.
In George Town, one of the most popular places for nasi kandar is Line Clear Nasi Kandar; 177 Jalan Penang; Open 24 hours
Nyonya food is a unique cuisine created from a combination of Chinese and Malay ingredients and cooking techniques. It dates back to early Chinese settlers who married Malays and started families that became the first generation of mixed Chinese-Malays in the country.
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay in George Town, Penang, is known for its Nyonya cuisine, in particular it’s Nyonya kuih, bite-sized snack or dessert foods. Of the kuih, I sampled the karipop—curried potatoes, chicken and chili paste wrapped in a pastry covering—as well as the rempah udang—glutinous rice, prawns, coconut and herbs—and the kuih pie tee or “top hats” as the woman who helped me choose what to eat called them—carrots, prawns, pork, cilantro and yam bean in a light and crispy flour shell. As my main meal, I tried their nasi lemak, which is considered to be the national dish of Malaysia. While in other restaurants nasi lemak was a mound of coconut rice in the center of the plate surrounded by a boiled egg, fried anchovies, toasted peanuts, cucumbers and sambal—a spicy chili-based sauce or relish—along with curried or fried chicken, at Moh Teng Pheow the plate held only the coconut rice, cucumber and sambal along with a small piece of fried fish and prawns. As you come and go from the restaurant, you have the added interest of walking through the open kitchen, where they prepare the food in multiple woks lined up on a long, rectangular table. Given the fascinating history and flavors in this cuisine, the warm and welcoming family that runs the restaurant, and my understanding that this cuisine is not available many places, in my opinion this is a top-of-the-list experience. For anyone living in London, I happened upon this web site of a chef who holds “Nyonya supper club” nights in the city.
Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay; Jalan Masjid (off of Lebuh Chulia), George Town, Penang; Open Tuesday-Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
I badly wanted to try the mee goreng at the famous stall on Bangkok Lane in Penang, but the day I went to look for it I got lost, had blisters on my toes and was just plain tired. I was on my way to get the bus home when I looked to my left and suddenly realized I was standing right in front of the stall. Aha! I watched as the man running the stall stir fried noodles in a large wok with ingredients said to include tomato sauce and a sweet potato gravy, and then sat down to wait for my vegetarian version of the dish with tofu. The result was nothing that would appeal to your eye, but it had a nutty flavor that made it among my favorite meals in Penang.
Bangkok Lane Mee Goreng; 280 Jalan Burma (at Seng Lee Coffeeshop), George Town, Penang; Open Tuesday-Sunday from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Char Koay Teow
Char koay teow is a specialty in Penang, made of flat rice noodles that are stir fried with shrimp, egg, bean sprouts, chives and dried sausage in a mix of soy sauce in a Chinese wok. Ah Leng in George Town is well-known for their char koay teow, so I waited for 45 minutes there one morning to taste it. It was worth the wait, with plump prawns and a delicious mix of flavors.
Ah Leng; 358 Jalan Dato Keramat; Open 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (closed Thursday)
Murtabak is a sandwich of sorts. It is generally made with meat, egg, onions and spices that are spread over a thin pancake that is then folded around the fillings, fried on a large griddle and served with a curry sauce for dipping. The version I tried had a very tasty chicken and dhal filling. I skipped the option to add “Cheezy Nacho.”
Mat Murtabak Gombak; Stall within 2 minutes walking distance of Masjid Jamek, Kuala Lumpur; No information on their hours or how often they are in that location, though I was there on a Friday afternoon. I also noticed they have a Facebook page with a different location listed, so that may be another option.
I ordered popiah in a few places in Malaysia, but my favorite was at a stall at the night market on New Lane (Lorong Baru) in George Town, where the woman making the spring rolls brushed hoisin sauce on thin crepes before adding a filling of tofu, chopped peanuts, lettuce and other vegetables, rolling them up and slicing them into thirds for me to devour.
Roasted Chicken Wings
Wong Ah Wah (W.A.W.), in the Bukit Bintang area of Kuala Lumpur, is known for its tender and smoky roasted chicken wings. The wings were yummy, and I also enjoyed the two other dishes I paired with them: fried fish with ginger and scallion and fried cabbage with garlic.
W.A.W.; 9 Jalan Alor, Kuala Lumpur; Open Monday to Saturday 5:30 p.m. until 4 a.m. On Sundays, they close at 12 a.m.
While I never actually bit into a malay doughnut, I developed an appreciation for them in another way. One afternoon, I wandered through a food market in the Chow Kit area of Kuala Lumpur studying the trays of food on display. A young man also shopping at one stall helped me identify some of the foods–fried beans, fried bananas and other snacks. As he noticed my eyes drift longingly to a platter of plump, sugar-coated doughnuts, he said with a bit of swagger in his tone, “Those aren’t Dunkin’ Donuts. Those are Malay doughnuts.” In a way, he said it all, but some may want to know exactly what makes them so special. Any doughnut experts care to share the secret?
So, was there anything I did not like?
Laksa. I combined a trip to the Kek Lok Si Temple with a stop at Penang Air Itam Laksa, a stall famous for having some of the best assam laksa in Penang. Assam laksa is a fish soup made with chili paste, tamarind water, rice noodles, vegetables, mint and shrimp paste. It has many devotees, but I found it too spicy and fishy for my taste.
Penang Air Itam Laksa; Junction of Jalan Pasar and Jalan Paya Terubong on the way to Kek Lok Si Temple, Penang; Open Monday to Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Malaysia is so packed with great food that I already have a list of places to try on my next visit–Tai Tong in George Town for dim sum; Hong Kee Wan Thun Mee, also in George Town, for its homemade noodles; mee rebus at the Bangkok Lane stall–said by some to be even better than the mee goreng; and more–lots more–Indian delights. Have you been to Malaysia? What are your favorite foods there? Where are your favorite places to eat?