The Delicious Joy of Malaysian Food Culture

By Ida Abhari

My summer as an intern in Southeast Asia, broadly, and Malaysia, specifically, taught me a lot of things, ranging from the serious, like the intricacies of refugee resettlement, to the surprising, like the importance of food culture in Malaysia.

Malaysians, whether Chinese, Indian, or Malay, take eating very seriously. Everyone warned me that eating out in Malaysia would be cheaper than buying groceries and cooking. Since I really enjoy cooking, I didn’t want to believe them, but after several grocery trips and hundreds of ringgits (Malaysian currency) later, I was forced to admit that eating out was infinitely more desirable.

Malaysian cuisine is rich in flavors. The most ubiquitous dish is nasi lemak, a dish consisting of rice steamed with coconut milk and pandan leaves, served with fried chicken and a boiled egg. Malaysians don’t pronounce the “k” in nasi lemak, and I was also surprised to learn that nasi lemak is also often eaten for breakfast, albeit in smaller portions. Another ubiquitious and delicious food, roti canai (pronounced with a “ch”), is a flatbread cooked with copious amounts of oil and can be filled with eggs, onions, or other savory or sweet fillings.

The beautiful thing about Malaysia though is that both visitors and locals are not limited to one type of cuisine. Indian food and Chinese food is abundant and of high quality, as Indian and Chinese Malaysians have inhabited Malaysia since before it gained independence. A trip to Brickfields, a mostly-Indian section of Kuala Lumpur, with a group of friends from my internship yielded delicious naan, tandoori chicken, and various chutneys.

One of the best and simplest meals I had was my first proper meal in Kuala Lumpur. Mr. Fong, the man from whom I rented an apartment for my first month there, took me to his favorite, and likely, the best, Hainanese chicken rice restaurant in the Chinatown section of Kuala Lumpur. Calling it a restaurant is a bit of a stretch – there is really no service, and you sit at the nearest empty table you can find. Like the restaurants surrounding it, the place we went to was more of a street food stall with a room of empty tables facing the street. The chicken rice, however, was divine – tender, juicy, flavorful, fresh chicken pieces on a bed of perfectly cooked rice, complemented by the subtle, nearly tasteless soup we were served to whet our appetites beforehand.

Actually, street food is where Malaysians reign supreme. My walk home from the metro station every day took me past stalls of freshly cut fruit, vegetables, and various types of noodle dishes being prepared in the stalls in Bukit Bintang, one of Kuala Lumpur’s busiest areas. Other stalls, known as mamak stalls, serve halal food such as various noodles (known as mee in Malay), roti canai, the sweet, sweet delicious teh tarik, and various other Malaysian staples.

I hate to admit it, but there is one major regret I have about my time in Malaysia. I never tried durian, the king of fruit, with its notorious smell and almost creamy, gooey yellow interior. Several times people either praised or demonized the durian; yet it was obvious that it had left a strong impression on all who had tasted it.

Though I stared at the durian vendors on my walks home many times, I could never bring myself to buy one. What if I didn’t know how to pick the right one? What if I picked a bad one? How would I open it? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that next time, I need to eat a durian.

Featured image from Wikimedia Commons

Ida just graduated from USC’s Philosophy and International Relations programs, with a minor in Iranian Studies. A proud Southern California native, Ida gets excited when it rains and considers In-N-Out to be an essential part of any healthy diet. In high school, her parents signed up to be part of a homestay program for international students, so she had the opportunity to meet and live with students from around the world – and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Having grown up with parents who are immigrants themselves, Ida is fluent in Persian (Farsi) and can understand the difficulties of adjusting to a new way of life. At USC, Ida wrote and edited for the Daily Trojan and competed for the Mock Trial team.