Header image courtesy of Melanie Lim (via Unsplash)
Whether you are looking to dig into a five-star meal or chow down on humble café fare, you are sure to find an excellent feast in Malaysia. However, what truly sets the country apart in terms of gastronomical offerings is its vibrant street food. You could spend a few weeks traversing all over the country just to sample a bit of everything and still have more to explore. Here, we break down some of the top street food dishes to sample in Malaysia.
Penang is the ultimate food lover’s paradise, and char kway teow—a stir-fried flat rice noodle dish—is one of the must-tries when visiting the island. You will find many copycat versions of this abroad, but nothing is quite like the original. It was originally known as a labourer’s dish, the meal of fishermen, farmers, and shellfish farmers, but has since evolved over the years to become a mainstay in Malaysian cuisine. Char kway teow comes in both “wet” (with sauce) and “dry” (without sauce) variants, with the latter being more popular.
Numerous ingredients come together to make char kway teow. Rice noodles are stir-fried in a wok with chicken eggs or duck eggs. Other ingredients include bean sprouts, chives, and prawns—the bigger the prawns, the more generous the hawker. Fresh cockles are sometimes added to enhance the subtle savouriness, while crispy fried pork lard adds to the flavour. Spice levels can be adjusted according to taste, from blindingly hot to not spicy at all.
While this dish can be easily found on the menus of hawker stalls, coffee shops, and night markets, it has become more difficult to find truly authentic versions, as most of the OG hawkers who have perfected the dish have retired in recent years. Siam Road Charcoal Char Koay Teow is one of the last remaining bastions and sees queues snaking down the block during peak hours. The rice noodles are cooked over charcoal, lending a delicious smokiness.
Siam Road Charcoal Char Koay Teow, 82 Jalan Siam, 10050 George Town, Penang
Malaysia is a potpourri of cultures and cuisines, a product of its rich history. Boasting a large Chinese community, influences from the Chiuchow and Fujian regions in China have trickled over, bringing the oyster omelette to the local food scene. Variations of the original have also sprung up in various Asian countries such as Thailand and Taiwan.
Rather than a main dish, the oyster omelette is known more as a side, because just one dish will not suffice! It can be found in various cities such as Melaka, Kuala Lumpur, and Ipoh, but many hail Penang’s version as the best. The typical oyster omelette consists of gooey tapioca or cornstarch, eggs, fresh oysters, and coriander, best served with a sour-and-spicy chilli sauce. Fried until perfectly brown, the oysters have to be cooked just right to prevent them from becoming rubbery. Some hawker stalls have crispy omelettes while others are soft and fluffy.
For a crispy version, hit up OO White Coffee Café in the heart of George Town. An old-school alternative is the oyster-generous Kedai Kopi Seng Thor. A dash of ginger is added to its chilli sauce—a true mark of authenticity.
OO White Coffee Cafe, 262 & 264, Lebuh Carnarvon, George Town, 10100 George Town, Penang | (+6) 017 477 3521
Kedai Kopi Seng Thor, 160, Lebuh Carnarvon, George Town, 10100 George Town, Penang | (+6) 16 221 0347
The ubiquity of this rice dish is such that you may even find it on your flight if you are on a low-cost airline heading to Malaysia. It is the pièce de résistance of Malaysian food that can be eaten at any time of the day and is known as the national dish. Odd and quirky versions of it have sprung up over the years and you will even find nasi lemak ice cream or nasi lemak burger, although they might not suit everyone’s palates.
The rice is cooked with coconut milk and pandan, and served with cucumbers, fried anchovies, peanuts, a boiled egg, and sambal or spicy shrimp paste. Nasi lemak goes with almost anything, so take your pick of protein as a side dish, whether it be fried chicken or fried squid. For takeaways, it is typically expertly wrapped in banana leaves.
Village Park Restaurant in Selangor is well-known amongst locals and is the haunt of past prime ministers. Its signature is the spiced fried chicken—a sizeable chicken leg that is crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.
Village Park Restaurant, 5 Jalan SS 21/37, Damansara Utama, 47400 Petaling Jaya, Selangor | (+6) 012 273 8438
These sticky noodles are a speciality of the state and are said to have originated from the Kim Lian Hokkien Mee stall in 1927. The savoury dish has now spread to many other establishments around the region and the country. The chewy and thick noodles are coated with thick, dark soy sauce and tossed with pork, squid, fish cake, and cabbage over a charcoal fire, and served on a banana leaf with a sprinkling of crispy fried pork lard.
The original establishment where the dish hails from still stands to this day, where it is run by the fourth generation of the family. The noodles are served with a tiny saucer of chilli paste (you’ll see this to be a common custom in the country). Another famed Hokkien mee stall is Restoran Ahwa in Selangor, where servings are generous.
Restoran Ahwa, 66, Jalan 14/48, Seksyen 14, 46100 Petaling Jaya, Selangor | (+6) 012 212 0623