Centuries of trade, colonisation, and immigration have left their culinary mark on Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei in the form of cuisines so multifaceted it would take months of non-stop grazing to truly grasp their breadth. Nowhere else in Asia are the elements of three great culinary traditions – those of China, India and the Malay archipelago – so intertwined. The result is dishes both starkly monocultural (think Chinese wonton noodles and the southern Indian rolled 'pancakes' called dosa) and confusingly – but delightfully – multicultural (debal, a Melakan Eurasian stew, marries European-originated red wine vinegar, Indian black-mustard seeds, Chinese soy sauce and Malay candlenuts).
Half the fun of taking breakfast in one of Singapore's or Malaysia's Little Indias is watching the tea wallah toss-pour an order of teh tarik ('pulled' tea) from one cup to the other. Locals love their leaves; tea is also brewed with ginger for teh halia, drunk hot or iced, with or without milk (teh ais or teh-o ais), and soured with lime juice (teh limau). For an especially rich cuppa head to an Indian cafe and ask for teh susu kerabu, hot tea with boiled fresh cow's milk. Kopi (coffee) is also extremely popular, and the inky, thick brew owes its distinctive colour and flavour to the fact that its beans are roasted with sugar. Kopi is served in Chinese coffee shops (ask for kopi-o if you don't want sweetened condensed milk in yours, kopi gao if you want it especially strong, and kopi bing if you want it milky and iced) and is an excellent antidote to jet lag.
Caffeine-free alternatives include freshly squeezed or blended vegetable and fruit juices, sticky-sweet fresh sugar-cane juice (nice with a squeeze of calamansi), and kelapa muda, or young coconut water, drunk straight from the fruit with a straw. Other, more unusual drinks are ee bee chui (barley boiled with water, pandan leaf and rock sugar), air mata kucing (made with dried longan), and cincau or herbal grass jelly (if you ask for a 'Michael Jackson' yours will include a splash of soy milk). Chinese salted plums add an oddly refreshing dimension to sweetened lime juice, in asam boi.
Thanks to sky-high duties, alcohol is pricey in Singapore and Malaysia (and banned or, more accurately, limited to hotels and high-end restaurants in Brunei); for a cheap, boozy night out stick to locally brewed beers like Tiger, Carlsberg and Guinness. Chinese stores stock a variety of less expensive and sometimes surprisingly palatable hard liquors.
Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore have similar populations, share a tropical climate and were all at one time home to important trading ports along the spice route. As a result, their cuisines are characterised by comparable flavours and are built on a shared foundation of basic ingredients.
Chillies (cili), both fresh and dried, are a kitchen staple. (Chilli-phobes need not worry; the region boasts plenty of mild dishes too.) Capsicum stars in sambal, a dip cum relish; its many varieties incorporate ingredients ranging from dried shrimp to fruit and are served alongside humble soup noodles, lavish rice spreads and every meal in between. Chillies are the base of rempah (called bumbu in Brunei), a pounded paste also containing, at its most basic, garlic and shallots, which forms the foundation of curries, soups and stews.
Herbs and aromatics like coriander, mint, daun kesom (polygonum, a peppery, slightly astringent leaf also known as laksa leaf), celery leaves (from the slender, jade-green Asian variety rather than thick-stemmed, mild-flavoured Western celery) daun kunyit (turmeric leaves), curry leaves, lemongrass and wild lime leaves impart a fresh liveliness to curries and noodle dishes. Fragrant pandan leaves are often called 'Southeast Asian vanilla' for the light, slightly sweet essence they lend to sweets. (Pandan is also a natural deodoriser, so don't be surprised to see a bundle of leaves stashed beneath the rear window of your taxi).
Sourness is also an important facet of the region's cuisines. Asam (sour) curries and noodle dishes derive piquancy primarily from tamarind and asam keping, the flesh of a tart fruit related to the mangosteen that's sliced into thin coins and dried. Malay cooks also make sour soups and sambals with a tiny green fruit called belimbing, a relative of the star fruit. Both limes and calamansi, a cross between lime and Mandarin orange, are juiced for salads; slices are served with laksa and other noodle dishes.
Grated coconut is dry-fried, sometimes with dried chillies and other flavourings, to make kerisik, a garnish for rice, and is an ingredient in many kuih (sweets), where it's often paired with gula Melaka, a distinctive dark brown sugar made by boiling the sap collected from cut flower stalks of the coconut palm.
Belacan (dried shrimp paste) embodies the Malaysian, Singaporean and Bruneian love of fishy flavours. A black, sticky-sweet version native to Penang, called hae ko, dresses vegetable and fruit salad (rojak) and is stirred into asam laksa, a sour fishy noodle dish, right before serving. Other well-loved condiments made from the fruits of the sea include cincalok (cencalu in Brunei), krill mixed with salt and sugar and left to ferment (it's often eaten with rice and eggs) and budu, a sludgy long-fermented anchovy sauce favoured by Malay cooks. These piscine condiments lend umami to many a sambal, dipping sauce and curry and, though certainly odoriferous, can be addictive; after a few weeks of sampling you may find yourself wishing you could sneak a block of belacan past your home country's custom agents.
No local kitchen is complete without sauces that were originally introduced to the region by the Chinese: soy sauce (and its sweetened cousin kecap manis), fermented salted bean paste (taucu), oyster sauce and hoisin sauce.
For the Love of Sambal
There are as many variations of sambal as there are Malay cooks. Mild to fiery, made with fresh or dried chillies, and incorporating ingredients from dried fish to fruit, this cross between a dip and a relish accompanies simple soup noodles, lavish feasts and every meal in between. The most common variation is sambal belacan, made from fresh or dried red chillies pounded with dried belacan (fermented prawn paste). If its pungent punch puts you off initially, try, try again – sambal belacan is rarely loved at first bite but often proves addictive in the long run.
Habits & Customs
Fork and spoon are the cutlery of choice, except in Western-oriented establishments or kopitiam serving chops and fish and chips, where you might get a knife too. Don't put the fork in your mouth, but use it to gently nudge food onto your spoon. Chinese noodles and dishes served in Chinese restaurants are usually eaten with chopsticks (though fork and spoon are available on request). Malays and Indians eat rice-based meals with their right hand only, using thumb to manoeuvre rice onto the balls of the fingers and then into the mouth. (This is easier done if you moisten your rice with curries and side dishes and mash the lot together.) Wash your hands before and after with water from the teapot-like container on the table (Malay eateries) or at a communal sink at the side or rear of the room. Napkins are a rarity so it's always a good idea to carry a pack of tissues.
In some Chinese eateries you'll be given a basin of hot water containing saucers, chopsticks, bowls and cutlery. This is meant to allow for hygiene concerns; remove the items and dry them off or shake them dry.
Staples & Specialities
Though chillies are a mainstay of Malaysian cuisine, few dishes are prohibitively spicy. Curries start with rempah – a pounded paste of chillies and aromatics like garlic, shallots, serai (lemongrass), kunyit (turmeric) and lengkuas (galangal). Dried spices – coriander seeds, fennel seeds, cumin, fenugreek – might also be included, especially if the dish is Indian-influenced. Curries and sweets are made lemak (fatty and rich) with coconut milk.
Those who have overindulged in kuih might repent with a dose of healthy tropical fruits. Nenas (pineapple), watermelon, jambu (rose apple), papaya and green guava are year-round choices, with more unusual fruits available seasonally. The dull brown skin of the ciku (sopadilla) hides supersweet flesh that tastes a bit like a date. Strip away the yellowish peel of the duku (also known as dokong and langsat) to find segmented, perfumed pearlescent flesh with a lychee-like flavour.
April and May are mango months, and come December to January and June to July, follow your nose to sample notoriously odoriferous love-it-or-hate-it durian. Should the king of fruits prove too repellent, consider the slightly smelly but wonderfully sweet yellow flesh of the young nangka (jackfruit).
Other tropical fruits you may come across at markets and street stalls:
- Buah nona The custard apple; a knobbly green skin conceals hard, black seeds and sweet, gloopy flesh with a granular texture.
- Buah salak Known as the snakeskin fruit because of its scaly skin; the exterior looks like a mutant strawberry and the soft flesh tastes like unripe bananas.
- Cempedak The Malaysian breadfruit; a huge green fruit with skin like the Thing from the Fantastic Four; the seeds and flesh are often curried or fried.
- Dragon fruit An alien-looking red pod with tonguelike flanges hiding fragrant, kiwi fruit-like flesh with lots of tiny edible seeds.
- Guava A green, apple-like ball containing sweet pink or white flesh.
- Jambu merah Rose apple; elongated pink or red fruit with a smooth, shiny skin and pale, watery flesh; a good thirst quencher on a hot day.
- Longan A tiny, hard ball like a mini lychee with sweet, perfumed flesh; peel it, eat the flesh and spit out the hard seeds.
- Mangosteen A hard, purple shell conceals delightfully fragrant white segments, some containing a tough seed that you can spit out or swallow.
* Pomelo Like a grapefruit on steroids, with a thick pithy green skin hiding sweet, tangy segments; cut into the skin, peel off the pith then break open the segments and munch on the flesh inside.
- Rambutan People have different theories about what rambutans look like, not all repeatable in polite company; the hairy shell contains sweet, translucent flesh, which you scrape off the seed with your teeth.
- Soursop A sack-like fruit with tasty but tart granular flesh and hard, black seeds; it's only ripe when soft and it goes off within days so eat it quickly.
- Starfruit The star-shaped cross-section is the giveaway; the yellow flesh is sweet and tangy and believed by many to lower blood pressure.
- Tamarind Fresh tamarind comes in a curved, brown pod; the hard seeds are hidden inside the delicious, tart flesh.
Meat & Seafood
In Malaysia, religion often dictates a diner's choice of protein. Haram (forbidden) to Muslims, babi (pork) is the king of meats for Chinese; some hawkers even drizzle noodles with melted lard. Whether roasted till crispy-skinned (char yoke) or marinated and barbecued till sweetly charred (char siew), the meat is eaten with rice, added to noodles, and stuffed into steamed and baked buns. Malaysian Hakka (a Chinese ethnic group) are renowned for succulent, long-cooked pork dishes like khaw yoke, sliced belly seasoned with five spice, layered with sliced taro and steamed.
Chicken (ayam) is tremendously popular in Malaysia and Singapore, but more of a special occasion meat in Brunei (as is beef or buffalo). Malay eateries offer a variety of chicken curries, and the meat regularly turns up on skewers, grilled and served with peanut sauce for satay. Another oft-enjoyed fowl is itik (duck), roasted and served over rice, simmered in star anise-scented broth and eaten with yellow mee, or stewed with aromatics for a spicy Indian Muslim curry.
Tough local beef (daging) is best cooked long and slowly, for dishes like coconut milk-based rendang. Chinese-style beef noodles feature tender chunks of beef and springy meatballs in a rich, mildly spiced broth lightened with pickled mustard. Indian Muslims do amazing things with mutton; it's worth searching out sup kambing, stewed mutton riblets (and other parts, if you wish) in a thick soup, flavoured with loads of aromatics and chillies that's eaten with sliced white bread.
Lengthy coastlines and abundant rivers and estuaries mean that seafood forms much of the diet for many of the region's residents. The region's wet markets devote whole sections to dried seafood, with some stalls specialising in ikan bilis – tiny dried anchovies that are deep-fried till crispy and incorporated into sambal or sprinkled atop noodle and rice dishes – and others displaying an array of salted dried fish.
Chop to It!
Dine at enough kopi tiam (coffee shops) and you're bound to run into lamb chops and mushroom soup. Though these may seem out of place on a menu that also features belacan (fermented prawn paste), fried rice and fish in sour curry, these dishes are as much a part of the Malaysian culinary universe as laksa lemak (curry laksa). Western classics like chops (pork and chicken, in addition to lamb) and fish and chips are Malaysia's intergenerational comfort foods. They were introduced by the British but popularised in the early decades of the 20th century by the Hainanese immigrants who served as their private cooks – and later became known throughout the country for their prowess in the kitchen. The best versions, found in old-time kopi tiam sporting original floor tiles and peeling paint, are astoundingly authentic. Seek them out when a break from local fare is in order, and eat a bit of history.
Rice & Noodles
The locals would be hard-pressed to choose between nasi (rice) and mee (noodles) – one or the other features in almost every meal. Rice is boiled in water or stock to make porridge (congee or bubur), fried with chillies and shallots for nasi goreng, and packed into banana leaf-lined bamboo tubes, cooked, then sliced and doused with coconut-and-vegetable gravy for the Malay dish lontong. Glutinous (sticky) rice – both white and black – is a common kuih ingredient; Malays mix glutinous rice with sugar and allow it to ferment for sweet-and-sour, slightly alcoholic tapai, which goes nicely with ice cream.
Rice flour, mixed with water and allowed to ferment, becomes the batter for Indian idli, steamed cakes to eat with dhal (stewed lentils), and apam, crispy-chewy pancakes cooked in special concave pans. Rice flour-based dough is transformed into sweet dumplings like onde-onde, coconut flake-dusted, pandan-hued balls hiding a filling of semi-liquid gula Melaka (palm sugar).
Many varieties of noodle are made from rice flour, both the wide, flat kway teow and mee hoon (or bee hoon, rice vermicelli). Chee cheong fun – steamed rice flour sheets – are sliced into strips and topped with sweet brown and red chilli sauces; stubby loh see fun (literally ‘rat-tail noodles’) are stewed in a claypot with dark soy sauce.
Round yellow noodles form the basis of the Muslim Indian dish mee mamak. The Chinese favourite won ton mee , found anywhere in the region, comprises wheat-and-egg vermicelli, a clear meat broth and silky-skinned dumplings.
A primary starch for Bruneians and some indigenous communities in the eastern Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak is sago flour, laboriously extracted from the trunk of a variety of palm tree. In Brunei, it's mixed with water and cooked to make ambuyat (or ambulung), a sticky whitish paste. It was popularised during WWII, when the Japanese invaded Borneo and cut off the rice supply.
The locals are passionate about sweets; vendors of cakes and pastries lie in wait on street corners, footpaths and in markets. Many kuih incorporate coconut, grated or in the form of milk, and palm sugar; among the tastiest are ketayap, rice flour 'pancakes' rolled around a mix of the two, and putu piring (steamed rice flour 'flapjacks' filled with palm sugar and topped with coconut). Some kuih – pulut panggang (banana leaf-wrapped and grilled glutinous rice-and-coconut tubes filled with grated coconut, chopped dried chillies and dried shrimp), for example – combine sweet and savoury flavours to fantastic effect.
Tong sui (the Chinese name for 'sweet soups'), like sweet potato and sago pearls in a coconut milk-based broth, are reviving snacks. Perhaps the region's most beloved dessert is cendol, a heat-beating mound of shaved ice and chewy mung-bean-flour 'pasta' doused with fresh coconut milk and palm sugar syrup. ABC (for ais batu campur or 'mixed ice'), its more flamboyant cousin, is a hillock of shaved ice garnished with fluorescent-coloured (and mostly artificial-tasting) syrups, jellies, red beans, palm seeds and sweet corn. Don't leave the region without investigating the colourful sub-continental mithai (sweets) stacked in Little India shop windows; our favourite is creamy, buttery – and, yes, tooth-achingly sweet – milk halva.
Vegetable lovers will have a field day. Every rice-based Malay meal includes ulam, a selection of fresh and blanched vegetables – wing beans, cucumbers, okra, eggplant and the fresh legume petai (or stink bean, so-named for its strong garlicky taste) – and fresh herbs to eat on their own or dip into sambal. Indians cook cauliflower and leafy vegetables like cabbage, spinach and roselle (sturdy leaves with an appealing sourness) with coconut milk and turmeric. Other greens – daun ubi (sweet potato leaves), kangkong (water spinach), Chinese broccoli and yellow-flowered mustard – are stir-fried with sambal belacan or garlic. The humble jicama is particularly versatile; it's sliced and added raw to rojak; grated, steamed, and rolled into popiah (soft spring rolls), and mashed, formed into a cake and topped with deep-fried shallots and chillies for Chinese oh kuih. Sweet corn is plentiful, sold by vendors grilled or off-the-cob and steamed, at almost every night market.
Tahu (soy beans) are consumed in many forms. Soy-milk lovers can indulge in the freshest of the fresh at Chinese wet markets, where a vendor selling deep-fried crullers (long fried-doughnut sticks) for dipping is never far away. Dou fu (soft fresh bean curd), eaten plain or doused with syrup, makes a great light snack. Yong tauhu is a healthy Hakka favourite of firm bean curd and vegetables like okra and eggplant stuffed with ground fish paste and served with chilli sauce. Fucuk, which is the chewy skin that forms on the surface of boiling soy milk, is fried golden or eaten fresh in noodle dishes, and absorbent deep-fried tauhu pok (bean curd 'puffs') are added to noodles and stews. Malays often cook with tempeh, a fermented soy bean cake with a nutty flavour, stir-frying it with kecap manis, lemongrass and chillies, and stewing it with vegetables in mild coconut gravy.