Food in Malaysia, tell me what’s your flavour?

Lets re-re-wind a month to when we bid farewell to Malaysia. The cultural mix in Malaysia leads to a rich selection of culinary delights on offer, local Malay cuisine from the indigenous population, Chinese and Indian from centuries of migration and trading. It’s been a treat to have such a fantastic selection to suit the backpacker budget, after 8 weeks munching our way across and around Malaysia, here’s my verdict on it’s food.

Firstly, you’re never very far from a food stall in Malaysia, there seems to be a coffee shop (kopitiam) on nearly every street corner with a gas burner and a couple of pots at the front serving food, whether it’s Chinese, Indian or the simple nasi campur. Following the general rule whilst travelling, if it’s popular the food must be good, we’ve had some delicious food and our most expensive dinner only set us back £11 for two! Arriving in the country, we feasted on Chinese dishes, these were the zing our taste buds needed after rice and stew in the Philippines! Chinese soon became our go to favourite, unless there was a particular local dish we want to try. 

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We were taken to a indigenous restaurant in Kuching, the food was delicious; a Durian based dish and bamboo chicken

One of those local dishes happened to be laksa, a classic Malay dishes with a host of regional variations. A noodle soup, made with rice or vermicelli noodles and a broth, either curry and coconut milk or slightly sour with tamarind depending on which region you’re in, served with prawns, chicken or fish and for me enough chilli and spice to make your nose run, yet you can still appreciate the flavours in the dish, delicious. It’s a tough choice as to which was my favourite Sarawak or Penang or the first one I had in Sabah with a really rich coconut sauce. The hostel we stayed at in Kuching had a few foodies staying at the same time that pointed us in the direction of ‘the’ restaurant to go to for Sarawak laksa in Kuching, Choon Hui Kopitiam, recommended by food critic Anthony Bourdain no less! It was a delicious laksa and well worth joining the hoards at breakfast time for a bowl. Instagramers, I recommend following @jaspereats – one of foodies we met, his posts have some great explanations and descriptions of the dishes he tries on his travels.

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A selection of laksa, clockwise from top left: Penang, Sabah and Sarawak at Choon Hui

Kuching was our favourite place for food, there were some great eateries. After being pointed in the direction of Chinatown on our first night we spotted a busy kopitiam and ordered ourselves two bowls of food, it was called kueh chap and we understood it contained pork but that was it. To our delight we had stumbled upon a really tasty dish, pork noodle soup, made with massive ribbon noodles and the best broth we’d tasted since Japan. It generally contains pork offal, I’m not sure if ours did or if the staff thought ‘they’re western, they won’t like that’, not that it would have bothered us!

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Kueh chap, still Mike’s favourite dish to this day

We were surprised by the prevalence of and variety of Chinese food stalls, admittedly each stall generally offered only one dish. I could spent all day describing the different ones we tried but I’ll just give you a synopsis; firstly rice porridge, an apt description for a westerner, porridge made with rice and water, although this is a savoury dish and eaten any time of day, we’ve had it at 8 am and midnight, served with meat or fish and garnished with dried anchovies and onions. Next noodles; there’s been so many different types, ranging in size from mee hoon (thin vermicelli) to kueh teow (big flat rice noodles looking more like pappardelle pasta than noodles to me at first). Then follows the serving and cooking method, as a soup or dry (with a small bowl of broth to accompany it) or alternatively goreng (fried). Malaysia, being an Islamic country, you only find pork at Chinese restaurants, although many dishes at other restaurants have ‘sausage’ in them but it is chicken sausage.

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Keuh teow cooked at speed

In addition to every city having a Chinatown, they would often have a little India as well, especially in peninsular Malaysia. Little India or often just India street was a great stop for lunch and a banana leaf curry. I loved the presentation of a banana leaf curry and its simplicity; first a banana leaf is placed in front of you, followed by a large serving of rice, then a ladle each of three vegetable curries, dished out from a large stainless steel caddy and finally a poppadom, a delicious meal and for around £1. Another cheap and simple dish is roti canai; flatbread served with curry sauce, you could often ‘jazz it up’ with a selection of fillings, egg, banana, magarine and sugar were a few we tried. Indian food was a tasty alternative but could often be more expensive than the other options available, especially if you ordered curry dishes from the menu.

Frequently in more muslim areas you would find lots of places serving nasi campur; rice and a variety of dishes in serving trays to choose from to accompany it. A large portion of rice, a serving of your chosen dish and a small spoon of the sauce from most of the dishes on offer too, tasty and often pretty spicy. We tried a local speciality of nasi campur, nasi kerabu at the night market in Kota Bahru, up in the north of peninsular Malaysia. It was blue rice, served with ayam percik, chicken marinated in a whole host of spices and this version had a tomato based sauce, so good that we decided to stay in the town an extra day so we could have it again! At the night market we also discovered murtabak, a stuffed pancake or deep fried bread, this one felt a little healthier as it was cooked on a hot plate with our favourite filling banana. We have since seen murtabak at other stalls deep fried but we preferred this one and the lady preparing them trying to explain to Mike how she makes it!

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Nasi kerabu, blue rice plus all the delicious accompaniments

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Murtabak in Kota Bahru, doesn’t look that appealing but tastes great

Not forgetting the food that I can only describe as a collection of the weird and wonderful! This was our first experience of trying durian fruit, frequently prohibited in hostels due to it’s pungent smell but don’t let that put you off, a durian milkshake was a nice easy way to try the fruit.

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Montage of the weird and wonderful; hello kitty bun, durian milkshake and deep fried squid

Finally time to move on to cakes and all things sweet, there’s been some tasty treats on offer. Our favourite has to be kek lapis, made from lots of thin layers of flavoured sponge cake, coloured according to the flavour. We discovered this delight in Kuching at Hari Raya when we visited the open houses, all of the cakes we tried that day were homemade, makes a Victoria sponge seem dull in comparison! Again like in the Philippines, drinks and bread are all sweet, tea and coffee comes with condensed or sweetened milk. After the first two weeks I gave up trying to find unsweetened drinks in restaurants and am now a fan of teh ais, iced tea with condensed milk (there shouldn’t be any additional sugar added but it’s so sweet it’s hard to tell!). Hostels and guesthouses frequently have breakfast included, consisting of bread for toasting with jam, kaya (a type of jam made from coconut, egg and sugar) and if you’re lucky peanut butter, yum yum!

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Kek lepis, we had a great time in the shop trying all the different flavours before settling on this one, pandan (screw pine).

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