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.
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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.
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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?
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I like this introduction into Malaysian goodies 🙂 Hopefully we’ll check them out soon.
I hope you do! So much to eat in Malaysia. Enjoy!
Love Malaysian food and would give anything for a big bowl of cendol right now. But you can keep the rojak—that shrimp paste ruins everything it’s in as far as my palate is concerned and I just didn’t dig the fishy sweet taste of it.
And don’t forget delicious roti canai! Not portable to say the least, but so very delicious!
I am going to Malaysia next year and I am eager to try everything from your list!
Try everything and then some, there’s so much good food to eat in Malaysia.
If you ever needed an excuse to travel to Malaysia it has to be for the food. So many awesome treats. I know it’s cliche but satay is still right up there for me. So hard to find anything close to the real deal outside of Malaysia or Indo. Could have some right now!!!
Definitely, Guy. Our next trip to Malaysia will be purely culinary.
I am not familiar with Malaysian food, so this offered a great recap of what everything is. Wow… 11 hours on a train ride with no snacks. Looks like you found some good food once you arrived 11 hours later. Rojak looks interesting and something I’d like to try sometime.
Rojak is one of the odder things we ate.
Cendol would definitely be my snack of choice. It sounds delicious and refreshing. I know how humid it gets in Malaysia!
All those textures and tastes! I’m famished now. I love bean toppings on the desserts in our Pan Asian neighborhood and fruit dishes are some of my favorites too. Would love to try them in Malaysia myself!
I think satay is the only Malaysian food I know so far. All the others mentioned here looks yummy too, so I’d really like to travel to Malaysia one day, just for its food! Thanks for sharing this post!
That’s exactly our plan. The purpose of our next trip to Malaysia will be to eat!
It honestly all looks good and I would not hesitate to try any of these, which is huge because I tend to live on power bars overseas!
Live on power bars? More power to you! But yes, do try the Malaysian snacks, you’ll never want a power bar again.
I love satay and rojak! I haven’t been back to Malaysia for quite a long time and you make me wanna go for some food trip.
All of this food looks so good! I always love satay, but have never tried any of the other foods you mentioned. Popiah looks like it would be right up my alley!
It’s all SO good!
I’ve been coming back to Malaysia a lot of times and I regret not exploring much on the local food. I normally see Indian food around but not really Malaysian food. I am coming back next month and I will surely try them out! You make me crave for them!
Yeah, in our experience, too, Indian and Chinese are the more prominent cuisines in the streets of Malaysia.