Indian murtabak. Fried keoy teow. Nyonya laksa. Peranakan kari kapitan. Malaysians love to makan (eat) several times a day, and eating at hawker stalls and street carts is often cheaper than cooking. Given their love of food, and their varied cultural and culinary heritage, there’s a lot to choose from. My list of favorites is even too much for one blog post, so to keep it short, here are a few of my top Malaysians snacks. There’s rarely a bad time for a Malaysian snack.
Satay is probably the dish on this list most people will recognize and there’s good reason why satay, which was born in Indonesia, migrated to the Western world. It’s grilled meat on a stick that you slather in peanut sauce and it’s freaking delicious. Varieties of meat (typically chicken, beef, or pork at the non-halal stalls) cut into small pieces marinated in a sweet turmeric and garlic concoction until it’s almost cured, and then grilled for a few minutes over very hot coals.
The sauce is not sticky sweet and creamy like Thai peanut sauce, but typically a mixture of chopped peanuts, herbs, garlic, chili oil, sometimes pineapple and other mysterious bits. Don’t think too hard about it or you might accidentally stab your cheek with a skewer.
I was very skeptical about cendol (sometimes spelled chendul). Who thought a dessert topped with cold beans would be good? Well it turns out that cendol is actually quite fabulous for taste but also textural reasons and the beans actually punctuate the composition. There are many different varieties of cendol, but our introduction was in George Town at the famous street stalls off Penang Road. It starts with a ball of finely shaved ice, drenched with liquid palm sugar (or gula melaka), topped with some green rice flour noodles (like the consistency of tapioca bubbles), a ladle of thick coconut milk, and a spoon of the beans.
The jelly noodles and soft beans squish between your teeth. The sweet, caramel gula melaka saturates the creamy coconut milk. The ice cools you from the 95-degree heat. Whoever thought of cendol got this crazy combination just right.
A word about ice in SE Asia: Traveler advice warns about not consuming ice from street stalls in SE Asia. We were careful about this at first and then stopped worrying about it and we never got sick from ice. For the most part it seems water in urban Malaysia is treated and filtered water is ubiquitous. Use your own discretion.
As if I didn’t already fall in love with every spring roll I’ve ever met. And then Malaysia goes and introduces me to the popiah. When most people think of Southeast Asian spring rolls, glutenous rice paper wrapping comes to mind, but popiah starts with a crepe-like, wheat flower wrapping. The innards are usually steamed turnips, bean sprouts, jicama and sliced tofu, but each stall seems to add their own flair.
“Spicy?”, they usually ask. I usually said yes, but the spice in the savory sauce added to the filling tastes to me a bit like horseradish, but perhaps that’s the Malaysian turnips. Popiah can be fried, but I think they are best fresh to enjoy the soft texture of the wrapping.
Kari (curry) puff
We didn’t pack much food for the 11-hour overnight train ride from Surat Thani, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia, thinking there would be something on the train. At least time to grab a bit at the border. There wasn’t. By the time we boarded the ferry to George Town, we were hungry, so hungry that I was almost weepy. As I watched the George Town skyline from the ferry, Peter disappeared and returned holding a little pastry. “She called it a curry puff.” Crispy dough filled with spicy curries potatoes and chicken, like a cross between an empanada and a samosa. It may have been the hunger, or my obsession with savory pastries, but it was one of the best things I had ever eaten. You’ll find them for sale in multiples, sometimes as cheap as 3 for 1RM ($0.30) at most Indian snack shacks, street-side kiosks, and many bakeries. Stock up for the train ride.
Now that you’ve snacked on meat, sweets, and carbs it might be time for some fruits and veggies. Rojak, with its eclectic mix of ingredients, is not only a delicious way to get your daily serving, but it’s also really fun to eat. The word rojak is also used colloquially in Malay to describe the country’s multicultural heritage. And there are just as many versions of rojak as there are cultures.
The version I liked the most was a fruit salad of pineapple, cucumber, jicama, and sometimes green mangoes. Of course there is sauce: a thick, molasses-colored sauce of prawn paste, lime, sugar, chili and sometimes tamarind. Then crushed peanuts. Then sweet, fried fritters called youtiao. Instead of a fork or chopsticks you’ll get a pair of skewers to stab the tart, coated pieces of sweet, crunchy fritter and fruit. No, you don’t have to share if you don’t want to.
Snacks on their own, these five snacks together would make a perfect Malaysian meal. But in Malaysia, it’s acceptable to just nosh throughout the day, hovering around the street stalls in a patch of shade and washing it all down with a 100 Plus.
What’s your favorite Malaysian snack or appetizer?