With its cultural mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian, Malaysia was the home of ‘fusion’ cuisine before the concept was even born. This is a nation that loves to eat out, but not in fancy restaurants. The country’s best food is cooked in front of hungry eyes, at bargain prices, in the streets and in hawker centres. For this whistlestop tour of the peninsula’s signature delectables, we start north-west in Penang and drop down the west coast to Melaka, before heading over to the east coast.
1 Penang: Char kway teow
This large island is UNESCO-recognised for its traditional Chinese shophouses and clan temples with rooftop ceramic dragons. The Chinese community mostly arrived in the mid-19th century, living in villages on stilted jetties over the water, and a rich and tasty local cuisine is part of their legacy. Listen to the clatter of woks as they throw together broad rice noodles with bean sprouts, prawns, eggs, chives and thin slices of Chinese salami.
2 Pangkor: Ikan bilis
These days the island of Pangkor Laut may be more internationally known for its luxury resort, but for Malaysians it’s synonymous with anchovies, which are landed in huge glittering quantities, blanched in seawater and spread out on giant mats to dry. Lightly spiced and mixed with peanuts, ikan bilis (dried anchovies) is served as a snack, but also makes its way into the local breakfast pick-me-up of choice, nasi lemak — a glorious combination of coconut rice, boiled eggs and spicy shrimp paste.
3 Mersing: Seafood
Mersing, the jumping-off port for the holiday destination of Tioman Island, is also a major fishing port. This is the place to watch the boats surging into the river mouth on the tide, before feasting on the crabs they bring back, steamed Chinese-style, with rice wine and ginger.
4 Kuala Lumpur: Banana leaf curry
The Brickfields district of KL is home to the capital’s Indian population. Even the Chinese flock here for banana leaf curry, an assortment of vegetable curries, rice and dhal, served on a banana leaf and eaten with your fingers. This is a real bargain, because the meal is replenished as often as you wish. Wash it down with lassi, a savoury yogurt drink.
5 Kota Bharu: Nasi dagang
In the northern state of Kelantan, on the border with Thailand, coconut milk features heavily in the local cuisine, meaning dishes tend to be creamier than elsewhere. One of the most popular local dishes is nasi dagang, a tasty mix of different types of rice, cooked with coconut milk and fenugreek to create a deliciously rich texture. It’s then served with fish curry.
6 Kuala Lumpur: Satay
This is one of Malaysia’s most popular foods, commonly found in the evenings crackling aromatically over red-hot charcoal on street corners and in hawker centres. Marinated beef or chicken is skewered with bamboo kebab-style and then grilled, before being served with sliced onions, cucumber, rice cubes and a spicy peanut sauce. Locals believe the best satay is from Kajang, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, where the meat is chunkier and the blend of turmeric and lemongrass in the marinade gives it an attractive yellow tinge.
7 Melaka: Laksa
The Nyonya are the ultimate fusionistas — these are Chinese settlers in the Straits of Melaka who adopted local Malay culture. There’s a whole book of Nyonya cuisine, but the dish that has virtually become the national dish is laksa, a spicy fish-based soup, creamy with coconut, bulked out with rice noodles, with a tangy kick.
Published in the Malaysia 2016 guide, distributed with the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)