Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei collectively form a hungry traveller’s dream destination – a multiethnic region boasting a wide-ranging cuisine shaped over the centuries by the Muslim, European, Indonesian, Indian and Chinese traders, colonisers and labourers who have landed on its shores. Come mealtime, you’ll find yourself spoiled for choice. Fancy breakfasting on Chinese dim sum? How about an Indian dosa (savoury pancake) for lunch, followed by a selection of rich Malaysian curries for dinner?
Indeed, if the region has any single culinary constant at all, it’s undoubtedly noodles. But even these differ from country to country and coast to coast. Asam laksa, the Penang take on laksa, combines fantastically toothsome wide, flat rice noodles doused with a tart, fishy, herbal broth, while across the South China Sea in Sarawak, laksa is breakfast food, and residents wake up to a spicy, coconut-rich curry soup packed with rice vermicelli, omelette strips, chicken and prawns. In Penang, Hokkien mee is a spicy noodle soup with bean sprouts, pork and prawns, but elsewhere in Malaysia it’s a mound of thick stir-fried noodles with pork and cabbage in a dark soy sauce.
Rice also features prominently across the region. Nasi lemak, an unofficial 'national dish' of Malaysia, is rice steamed with coconut milk and cream, and topped with ikan bilis (small, dried sardines or anchovies), peanuts, sliced cucumber, sweet-hot sambal and half a hard-boiled egg (curry optional); banana leaf rice – rice served on a banana leaf 'plate' with a choice of curries – is daily Indian fare.
For the best of multi-culinary Malaysia, Penang is generally regarded as the region’s gastronomic ground zero. KL residents have been known to make the four-hour drive to Penang for a single meal, and hungry Singaporeans pack out hotels on weekends. In addition to regional Chinese food, mamak (halal Indian) specialties, southern Indian treats and Malay dishes, the island is a hot spot for Peranakan or Nonya cooking, born of intermarriage between Chinese immigrants and local women. Culinary fusion is also a theme in Melaka, the former Portuguese outpost where you’ll find Cristang (a blend of Portuguese and local cooking styles) dishes such as debal, a fiery Eurasian stew.
If it’s all a bit too overwhelming, head to the peninsular east coast – the heartland of traditional Malay cooking. The states of Kelantan and Terengganu have been considerably isolated from the rest of the country, and have received few Chinese and Indian immigrants. Consequently, regional specialities have remained staunchly Malay. Graze the region long enough and you may develop a few cavities; local cooks excel at making all manner of kuih, Malay-style sweets, and even savoury dishes have a noticeably sweet edge.
And if you’re looking to diverge from the local cuisine altogether, then look no farther than Singapore; the island nation’s high-end dining scene is second to none in Southeast Asia. Whether you’re hankering for handmade papardelle (pasta), steak frites, sparklingly fresh sashimi or a molecular gastronomic morsel quick-frozen in liquid nitrogen and bedecked with foam, you’ll find it in a posh restaurant there.
In this region, where the choices are endless, gastronomic malaise is unlikely to be a problem. That’s a blessing, but also a curse of sorts – so many dishes, so little time.
Borneo (Sarawak & Sabah)
Sarawak’s highlanders specialise in dishes cooked in bamboo, like the chicken dish ayam pansoh (a special occasion dish of chicken wrapped in tapioca leaves and cooked with water inside a length of bamboo).
If you’re in Kota Kinabalu, consider splurging on a meal of bounty from the South China Sea, chosen by your own self from a fish tank and cooked to order at one of the city’s many seafood restaurants. Another seafood specialty worthy of mention is hinava (sometimes called umai, and also found in Sarawak), raw fish seasoned simply with lime juice, herbs and chillies.
If Brunei had a national dish, it would be ambuyat, a glutinous mass made from the pith of the sago tree, ground to a powder and mixed with water. Served by twisting around chopsticks or long-twined forks, ambuyat is usually dipped into cacah, a sambal belacan- and tamarind-based sweet-and-tart sauce, and accompanied by boiled or smoked seafood and salads. Ambuyat itself doesn’t have a taste – it’s the sauce that gives it its zing. Shrimp-and-chilli mixes are the most popular, although you can technically dip the dish in anything you’d like.
If you are invited to a Bruneian home, you’ll probably be served bualulu with your tea. This simple dessert is made from eggs, flour and sugar. Kuripit sagu, a biscuit-like version of buahulu, is jazzed up with mild coconut flavours.
Johor state boasts two tasty Malay noodle specialties: mee bandung, yellow noodles topped with a zippy, tomatoey shrimp gravy; and mee rebus, the same type of noodles doused with a sweet-savoury sauce thickened with sweet potatoes. The state also has its own variation on the laksa theme, consisting of spaghetti in a thin spicy fish gravy topped with chopped fresh herbs.
Pahang's rivers are known for ikan patin, known in English as silver catfish, a freshwater fish that's a local delicacy.
Kedah & Perlis
Thai culinary influence extends to foods in Malaysia’s west-coast states of Perlis and Kedah, where fish sauce is as common a seasoning as belacan. Here, look for laksa utara, a lighter but still spicy and intensely fish-flavoured version of Penang’s asam laksa.
Farther south is Ipoh, the mostly Chinese capital of Perak state and a town with a reputation for excellent eating. Pasta lovers rave over Ipoh’s rice noodles, said to derive their exceptional silky smoothness from the town’s water. Judge for yourself with the local version of Hainanese chicken – served with a side of barely blanched bean sprouts and noodles instead of rice – and hor fun, rice noodle soup with shredded chicken breast.
Kelantan & Terengganu
Kelantan state’s capital, Kota Bharu, boasts Malaysia’s most beautiful wet market, as well as plenty of places to try specialties like ayam percik (chilli paste–marinated chicken, grilled and doused with coconut sauce) and visually arresting nasi kerabu (rice tinted blue with natural colouring obtained from dried pea flowers).
In Terengganu state, a vendor dishing up mounds of red rice signals nasi dagang. The slightly nut-flavoured grain is cooked with coconut milk and eaten with fried chicken and sambal.
Kuala Lumpur & Negeri Sembilan
Almost all of Malaysia’s specialties can be found in KL, but two dishes in particular are more easily found here than elsewhere: pan mee (literally ‘board noodles’), thick and chewy wheat noodles tossed with dark soy and garnished with chopped pork, ikan bilis and shredded cloud ear mushrooms; and sang har mee (‘fresh sea noodles’), huge freshwater prawns in gravy flavoured with rice wine and prawn fat served over crispy noodles.
Farther south, in Negeri Sembilan state, descendents of Minangkabau, who immigrated from the Indonesian island of Sumatra hundreds of years ago, dish up a mean nasi padang – rice accompanied by a parade of fiery curries, gulai (fish and vegetables cooked in mild coconut milk gravy), soups and sambal.
Melaka’s specialities include ayam pong teh (chicken cooked with soybean paste, dark soy sauce and sugar), ikan cili garam (fish curry), satay celup (skewered meat, seafood, and vegetables cooked at the table in a tub of peanut-based sauce) and Hainanese chicken served with rice moulded into balls.
Often overlooked here is Cristang cuisine, the edible result of intermarriage between Portuguese colonisers and locals that's an intriguing blend of Chinese/Peranakan, Indian, Malay and, of course, European ingredients.
Penang is known for its Peranakan or Nonya cuisine, a fusion of Chinese and Malay (and sometimes also Thai) ingredients and cooking techniques. Examples include kerabu beehoon, rice vermicelli tossed with sambal and lime juice and garnished with fresh herbs, and otak otak, curried fish ‘custard’ steamed in a banana leaf.
It is also the home of nasi kandar, rice eaten with a variety of curries, a mamak specialty named after the kandar (shoulder pole) from which ambulant vendors once suspended their pots of rice and curry.
Penang’s hawker food is a must. Wide, flat kway teow noodles are stir-fried with prawns, cockles, egg and bean sprouts for the hawker speciality char kway teow. Other don’t-miss dishes include the laksa twins: asam (round rice noodles in a hot and sour fish gravy topped with slivered pineapple, cucumber, mint leaves and slightly astringent torch ginger flower) and lemak (with a coconut milk-based broth).
Singapore’s culinary landscape is a near replica of Malaysia’s, but in miniature. Still, Singaporeans do lay special claim to a few dishes, including crab stir-fried with black pepper, and fried carrot cake (squares of radish-flour cake stir-fried with bean sprouts, chilli sauce and salted radish). Kari kepala ikan (fish-head curry) was allegedly invented by a Singaporean-Indian cook playing to the Chinese love of fish cheeks. Hainanese chicken-rice, a plate of rice flavoured with garlic and broth, tender poached chicken, sliced cucumber and dipping sauces, assumes similarly iconic status here.
Singaporeans love their roti prata (the equivalent of Malaysia’s roti canai) for breakfast, and have their own version of laksa – called Katong laksa for the neighbourhood that birthed it – noodles in a prawn and coconut-milk-based, highly spiced soup.