What is that?
I don’t know, but it looks good.
Sure does. . . . Wanna get some?
We already ate lunch.
Yeah, but . . . wow, do you smell that?
OK, two of those please.
We must have had some variation of this conversation every single day in Malaysia. Unlike Thailand and Vietnam, we had no clue what Malaysian food was about before we arrived in KL. We learned that dining out in Malaysia doesn’t mean just Malay food, but also Indian food, Chinese food, Western food …. All new, all exciting, and all delicious. Let us introduce you to some of our favorites.
Our first stop in George Town was Tak Sen, a Cantonese restaurant just a block over from our guest house. The menu is vast, but the house speciality is the sweet and smoky Char Siu, translated on the menu as double cooked pork belly with chili. The excellent EatingAsia blog, whose recommendations for places to eat in Malaysia never led us astray, accurately describes this dish as bacon candy. The sweetness of the glaze hits your taste buds first, followed by the smoky savoriness of the pork, with a little hit from the chilis on the way down. This may be the best pork we’ve ever had. And if you know how much we love barbecue, that’s saying something.
Char kway teow
To us, it seems that char kway teow is to Malaysia as pad thai is to Thailand — it’s the ubiquitous, extremely tasty local noodle stir fry. This one uses wide strips of egg noodles, stir fried in pork lard with shrimp, cockles, bean sprouts, chives, egg, and crispy pork lardons. We’ve been told it’s not real char kway teow unless it’s cooked in a wok over charcoal — which we found at one of the hawker stalls on New Lane in George Town.
On a rainy night in George Town when the street hawkers kept off the streets, we had dinner at Line Clear, a local nasi kandar institution that’s open 24 hours a day. Nasi kandar is a local Indian Muslim meal — you get a plate of steamed rice to top with your choice of curried meats and vegetables. Everything gets piled onto a single plate, the sauces from each curry added at the end to form one ugly, delicious and cheap meal. If you’re real adventureous, try to eat it with your right hand as the locals do!
Laksa is a spicy noodle soup filled with shredded fish, cucumbers, onions, chiles, pineapple, lettuce, mint, and noodles. Tamarind gives it a sour flavor.
Nyonya/Baba Laksa, the version we had in Melaka, adds coconut milk to the broth, and was our favorite.
Wanton noodles, stir fried or served in a soupy broth, was one of our favorite dishes in George Town. It’s a mix of sliced pork, stir fried greens, and pork dumplings that the cute grandma was making by hand in the corner.
In George Town, the majority of the local Chinese population are Hokkien and speak a local variant of the Hokkien language. Hokkien Mee is a very popular egg noodle soup — filled with shrimp, fish balls, hard boiled egg, and vegetables, topped off with fried shallots and sambal, a chile paste condiment.
Cendol is the most famous of a subcategory of ice/condensed milk/fruit jelly desserts in Malaysia. Locals in George Town are passionate about where you should get it, too. The stall on the right in the alleyway at Joo Hooi Cafe off Jalan Penang in George Town always had a big crowd. Cendol starts with a base of shaved ice, topped with sweetened condensed milk, green pandan flavored noodles, and a wide variety of fruits, jellies, canned beans, and more that I’m probably leaving out. It’s strange — something my 5-year-old self would concoct for dessert after raiding Mom’s pantry — but it definitely cools you off on hot Malaysian afternoon.
Sort of a side dish, sort of a dessert, rojak is a mix of fruits and vegetables, covered in a thick, toffee-like sauce and topped with chopped peanuts. Either way, it was a really interesting dish we recommend seeking out!
There are plenty of Chinese bakeries around George Town serving egg custard tarts, durian puffs, pineapple tarts, husband and wife cakes, and green bean cakes. Our favorite, though, was a hidden-away bakery called Leong Chee Kee that bakes these delicious, flaky, buttery coconut tarts.
Who knew that nutmeg juice was a thing? We were tipped off about it by a chef from Austin, TX that we met in the Cameron Highlands (check out his excellent food focused blog) and found it at many cafes in George Town. It’s the juice of the fruit that surrounds the pit that we know as nutmeg, and had a milky white color, somewhat chalky mouthfeel, and a sweet taste with that distinct nutmeg aroma.
Kaya on Anything
Kaya is a delicious coconut jam. It’s popular on toast as a snack to accompany coffee at the local kopitiams. It really transcends cultures — we had it on toast, Indian rotis, and stuffed into Chinese steamed buns.
Fried soft shell crabs
Melaka was one of our least favorite cities of the trip. Thankfully, the Riverview Guesthouse and its owner, Raymond, provided a comfortable and peaceful oasis in a hectic and touristy (in a bad way) city. Raymond gave us a map of his favorite places to eat in town and not a single one let us down. One of our favorites was a Chinese restaurant just down the street from the guesthouse and only a block away from the Hard Rock Cafe that dominates the center of town. Their specialities were lightly fried soft shell crabs and oyster omelettes, which together cost us less than one crappy burger would have been at the Hard Rock.
Another fascinating Asian breakfast…bak kee is a mixture of tofu and pork parts –sliced pork, cubes of pork belly, even liver and intestine if that’s your thing — in a dark broth flavored with Chinese herbs, served with a side of yam rice. The owner of the little shop in Melaka that sells only this single dish told us his stall had been in the family for 70 years!
Chinese chicken wings
These wings were another great find in the maze of hawker stalls on New Lane in George Town (which has the most good food per square foot of anywhere we’ve been so far). They’re covered in a sweet, aromatic glaze that turns thick and sticky as the wings are cooked on a rotisserie over charcoal.
I asked the vendor what was in his marinade as he was dunking another batch of wings in. “400 bucks and I’ll tell you,” he said with a grin. I suppose it’ll remain a secret.
Anyone interested in good eats in Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia, should read through the excellent EatingAsia blog. Her eating tour of George Town, published in the Wall Street Journal, is a great resource too.