Friday, October 16, 2009

What dishes truly define Malaysian cuisine?

With one of the great food cultures of the world, Malaysia's cuisine is all about spice, flavour and passion. And diversity, combining as it does Malay, Indian and Chinese cuisines, plus English and Portuguese influences, not to mention the influence of its Southeast Asian neighbours.

All of which prompts the question - what dishes can truly be considered as Malaysian cuisine? Are rendang, nasi goreng and satay Indonesian or Malaysian? Is Hainan chicken rice Singaporean or Malaysian? Or indeed, Hainanese?

"We cannot continue to let other countries hijack our food," declared Malaysias tourism minister Ng Yen Yen some weeks ago, listing a number of dishes she claimed to be Malaysian in origin. Ironically, she said this at the same time that tensions continue to simmer in the region over claims that Malaysia is trying to claim Indonesian food and culture as its own.

So how do you truly define the experience that is Malaysian cuisine?


Let's just say someone knew nothing about Malaysian food, and you had to choose exactly 5 dishes which would best demonstrate what Malaysian cuisine is all about.

Reducing the vast Malaysian culinary canon to only 5 dishes is not easy. But I put this challenge to several Malaysian friends who are all opinionated about food (as are all Malaysians, when you think about it.) And here is what they came up with:

CJ Foo:
Roti canai
Char kway teow
Nasi lemak
Prawn mee
Bak kut teh / chik kut teh

Shaz Lydia
Masak Lemak Cili Padi Ayam
Char Kway Teow
Nasi Lemak
Asam Laksa
Mee Kari

" I think the masak lemak would be a favourite amongst the "Selangor-ians" and "Malacca-ans". Not everyone appreciates a pot of thick and pedas coconut milk kampung style.
I loooove my food and I think its just cruel that I only get to pick 5 :p. Each State has its own special dish and I think only by sampling all these special dishes can a person really capture the essence of Malaysian cuisine."

Jerry Yeu:
Curry laksa
Char kway teow
Indian mee goreng
Roti canai
Nasi lemak

" Indian mee goreng gets the nod because it encapsulate the 3 main cuisines of Malaysia - Malay, Indian and Chinese into one."

Adrian Ho:
nasi lemak
char kuay teow
roti canai
kaya toast

Aveena Anantharajah:
Nasi Lemak
Char Kway Teow
Roti Canai

"Cendol scrapes in over Ais Kacang. Regarding laksa, I'm not being specific on purpose here - malaysian food is so different in flavours and richness from the different regions you order it from."

Juan Jin:
curry laksa - my facts may be wrong or debatable but this is my take on this dish: noodles (chinese though one of your more recent entries argues otherwise. LOL...) curry based soup (indian) liberal use of santan (malay) complementing each other in one big delicious bowl. can't think of any other malaysian dish right now which represents all 3 major races.
chicken rice - with sticky sweet char siew and vinegary chili sauce, this has gotta be my personal favourite hawker food of all time. end of story.
yee sang [raw marinated fish salad] - the gimmickiness of this dish gets me every chinese new year. but the communal spirit of sharing and unabashed mess you make tossing the ingredients higher and higher while spouting auspicious chinese sayings is just so festive and homey. love it!
cendol - go anywhere in the world except malaysia asking for maggoty strands of flour dyed with the juice of screwpine leaves, immersed in crushed ice, palm sugar and coconut cream and people will just think you're a crazy person. LOL.
apam balik - the skooshy doughy kind and not the crispy crunchy one. malaysian pancakes with sugar, peanuts and creamed corn. yummmmm....


Some interesting choices there. I'd question if some of them are primarily Malaysian (yee sang is really from Guangzhou, and I swear satay is Indonesian). But I guess it shows that a variety of dishes encapsulate Malaysia for different people, depending on each individual's culture and experiences.

I also had to veto a couple of selections that kept coming up. Nasi dagang, for example, may be one of the most commonly eaten dishes in Malaysia, but it is really a style of eating with infinite variations, rather than a dish itself. Same goes for banana leaf rice, which is really from India to boot. However, nasi lemak stays, because even though it is also rice-with-accompaniments, it is a standardised dish with a set variety of sides.

It is clear though that there is a big 3 among Malaysian dishes - nasi lemak, roti canai, and char kway teow. Almost everyone agreed on those.

So what about this non-Malaysian self-styled expert?

Christopher Mitchell:
Nasi lemak - If you had to pick a Malaysian national dish, you could not go past this one.
Roti canai - While its roots are in India, this type of roti is quintessentially Malaysian. Comes in a number of variations, both sweet and savoury, I could eat it as the basis of every meal every day, except I would become obese and die.
Char kway teow - While it obviously has Chinese ancestors, CKT is THE Malaysian noodle. There can be no other. My favourite noodle dish ever.
Curry laksa - It's as if someone took the essence of Malaysia and threw it in a bowl.
Rojak - we have this salad in Indonesia too, but the Malaysian version is in a different league. It's also one of the only dishes here that could almost be considered healthy.

Things that no one chose, but should not be forgotten:
Kangkung belacan
Ais kacang

And while I did not ask for a national drink, I think the unanimous choice was teh tarek.

Do you disagree? Yes, I'm sure you do. Leave a comment and tell me what you think should be in the top 5 Malaysian dishes.

For more on food in Malaysia, try:

The Guide to Ordering Food in Malaysia

The Malaysian-Indian food experience

Sister's Char Kway Teow, Penang

Penang's Famous Mung Bean Cookies

Penang, Street Food Capital of Asia.

Terengganu Cuisine

Addicted to Kuih

Roti Canai Terbang - The Way of the Flying Roti

Breakfast at Bakti Woodlands, Kuala Lumpur

Lina's Popiah, SS3, Petaling Jaya

Vegetarian Dim Sum at Nature's Recipe Cafe, Petaling Jaya

Salam from Malaysia


  1. hahaha hey bro !! you couldve picked a better pic ! but i like the representation !

  2. I think you look very handsome in that pic, Jerry.