Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia is a foodie paradise for those looking to experience authentic Malay food which mixes flavors from the melting pot of cultures that thrive in the metropolitan city. Indian, Chinese, and Halal influences blend together to create the scrumptious Malay cuisine. We’ve put together a food guide of our 10 favorite dishes, drinks, and more to help you navigate your hunger in KL. Malay food isn’t pretty but it sure is delicious. The dishes here are primarily vegetarian or contain fish as I do not eat meat.
Figuring out what each food even is can be a maze, especially if it’s your first visit to KL. Luckily, we were invited on the Food Tour Malaysia Off The Eaten Track Dinner Tour where we discovered what carrot cake actually is (nope, not what you’d expect) and more. We had an amazing host, Charlie, who was incredibly informative not only about the local cuisine but also its influence on culture and historical importance. If you book the tour try to do it on your first night in Malaysia so you can test and try various dishes to discover which you love, and which you never ever want to taste again. The tour visits traditional night markets far outside the city center so you won’t just be visiting the same stalls that are near your accommodation but local joints where no other tourists will be in sight. We even got to visit a market that is only open during Islamic holidays where we tried the majority of the foods detailed below.
You would never recognize this dish. Malaysia doesn’t do carrot cake the western way. There are no carrots or cake involved. Extract any images of sweet nutty cake layered with cream cheese. Instead, the savory treat calls for white radishes, which the Chinese refer to as white carrots. The radish is grated and mixed with rice flour in a steam. The chunks formed are a cake–the texture is similar to what I imagine a chunk of pasta would feel like. The chunks are then stir-fried in a mix of soy sauce, pepper, garlic, chili flakes, spring onion, bean sprouts, and egg. The taste is simple and delicious. This is one of my favorite Malay dishes! The consistency is strange but the flavor is amazing, don’t miss it. You can even have it for breakfast as the locals do. After all, who can resist cake in the morning?
Or more simply known as a Chinese pancake. Just like carrot cake, this dish isn’t exactly what you’d expect. It is however circular and sweet but those are just about the only qualities it shares with a western pancake. Instead, it’s more like a decadent taco. Balik actually means return in Malay and apam is bread so essentially the name simply means folded dough. This actually isn’t a dessert but it is a traditional Hokkien Chinese snack that’s very popular through South East Asia. The batter calls for the usual suspects – flour, eggs, sugar, baking soda, water, and my favorite ingredient, coconut milk. The result is crispy and flaky. Sometimes they’re filled with more butter and sugar, ours had some crushed peanuts inside which made it extra crunchy and tasty.
This gooey dish rules the land in Malaysia. We found it everywhere we went but the very best rendition we tried was while at the holiday market in KL with Food Tour Malaysia. The reason is simple – it was the only time we got to have the dish prepared over charcoal instead of gas. Every restaurant has their own way of preparing the sticky noodle dish. It’s usually prepared with lard and chunks of pork and sometimes I even had to say I was Muslim (which I am not) in order to get cooks to understand I absolutely did not want any pork in my dish. Hokkien Mee calls not for just one type of noodle, but two. There’s thick rice noodles and thin glass noodles, which are usually made from sweet potatoes. The noodles are flash fried with a dark soy gravy and tossed with shrimp, cabbage, chili flakes, and an egg that’s cracked into the mix at the last second.
This traditional Malaysian dish is an absolute must try, if you can find it. It’s usually only prepared at the end of Ramadan and can’t really be reproduced at home due to the cooking process. That is unless you have access to bamboo sticks and a massive fire. We drove up to a streetside vendor where hundreds of bamboo sticks were blazing and emitting a sweet coconut stench into the air. It couldn’t have smelled better! Those roasting bamboo sticks are lined inside with banana leaves that are stuffed with rice soaked in coconut milk and seasoned with salt. It is an incredibly simple dish, that takes 3 hours to cook and packs a drool-worthy sweet and savory flavor. To open the bamboo the chefs expertly slice the wood with a massive machete then delicately chop the leaf covered rice into bite-sized rounds.
FISH HEAD CURRY
Fish head curry wasn’t especially high on my must-try list of dishes. I had never prepared my own fish until two years ago and seeing their heads still gives me the creeps. Charlie from Food Tour Malaysia was a total champ and expected us to be a little adverse to a fish head floating in our meal so he had it removed before the dish was brought to our table. All of the flavor, none of the eye contact. It’s hard to track down exactly where fish head curry originated before becoming wildly popular in Malaysia and Singapore. The dish can be found in India and China, in Malaysia it is usually prepared with red snapper and an array of in-season veggies such as green beans, eggplant, and potatoes. Everything is simmered in a spicy broth enriched with coconut milk. Locals fight over who will get to eat the fish brain and the prized piece – the eyes. I’ve tried fish cheek, it’s amazing, but that’s as daring as I’ve gotten so far. Maybe next time!
After spending six months in India I was fairly certain I’d be swearing off the cuisine for an extended period of time. KL had other plans for me. The majority of people of Indian descent in KL come from the southern Tamil region. Aka, India’s best food–fight me on this north India food lovers! However, rather than the usual coconut milk, it seemed that condensed milk was the cream of choice. It was even deemed ‘special sauce’ at the Tamil stall we visited on the food tour but was literally just condensed milk in a metal tin. I was a bit bewildered by the food options as nothing was even remotely close to what I was used to in India which was a delightful surprise. The roti canai was served with dal curry and fish curry and afterward we had dosa dipped in special sauce. The highlight was easily the very best mango lassi of my life which was overflowing with freshly cut fruit.
This is another favorite simple but delicious dish. It is usually vegetarian and sold on the streets so if you are like me and don’t eat meat only purchase these if the vendor can confirm that they’re meat-free. Typically it is rice steamed in coconut milk and then wrapped in pandan leaves–the aroma is incredible and the taste is even better!
Pandan and coconut go together in Malaysia like peanut butter and jelly. Kueh Dadar is a dangerously sweet dessert that has to be tried at least once. The tiny sponge cake gets its green color from pandan leaves. Inside you’ll find palm sugar and coconut. Typically these are served warm but I prefer them once they’ve cooled down a bit.
To say I have an all-time favorite fruit is a pretty big statement but mangosteen would have to be a top contender. I was spoiled in Sri Lanka to be able to purchase 10 fruits for $1 USD and the cost in Malaysia is only slightly higher. I love watching people eat the fruit for the first time and being utterly confused about how to open it and which part to eat. This powerful little fruit is everything, it’s sweet, tangy, crunchy, smooth, and refreshing. It also has a lot of anti-inflammatory properties which may keep my asthma at bay.
No, this isn’t coffee made from a lightly roasted bean like other white coffees. In fact, it would be better to call this coffee extra dark. White coffee in Malaysia is a relevantly new commonplace. It started back in the 1950s when a Hainanese man from Ipoh started roasting coffee at a high temperature then lacing it with caramel. I used to love caramel coffee but got used to drinking my caffeine dark and nasty while living in Spain and Italy. Locals take it with steamed milk or condensed milk but black white coffee is the way to go in my opinion. No sugar needed.
Obviously, there are many more dishes to try in Malaysia, but these were some of our favorites. I’ll be back soon with a Penang Food Guide also in collaboration with Food Tour Malaysia! We are happiest when eating street food! We even enjoyed the touristy Jalan Alor street food market and found it had some of the most affordable and delicious seafood in the city. Have you been to Malaysia? What was your favorite meal? Tell us in the comments!
Thank you Food Tour Malaysia for treating me to an amazing night of tasting the very best of KL. Our tour was complimentary in exchange for this story. All opinions and photos are my own. Please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.