The guide to eating in Malaysia

Mee Hoon Soup and Chicken Satay

Malaysia is a great country for any fan of Asian food. Like Singapore, Malaysia is influenced by Indian, Chinese, Thai and Middle Eastern cultures, with several dishes that are distinctly Malaysian. That means that there should be something for just about every taste bud. Despite the plethora of dining options, eating in Malaysia isn’t completely straightforward. Here are a few things I wish I’d known before I went and that I learned along the way.

Do your homework

Part of the fun of dining in Malaysia is wandering the streets and waiting for inspiration to strike. That game plan backfires when it lands you in a back alley staring down a menu without any recognizable words or a single picture, plus a waitress who can’t give you a recommendation because she doesn’t know what you like. The good news is that you’re probably not going to die. The bad news is that you probably won’t find your new favorite dish this way.

Doing a little bit of homework beforehand can alleviate this potential stress. Start by researching some of the most common dishes from each of the influencing cultures and the ingredients in them. You’re not trying to limit yourself here or avoid trying something new, but if you’re feeling overwhelmed and you have a few items that you know you’ll like, chances are you can find one of those if all else fails.

Our recommendations:

  • Mee goreng: A fried noodle dish, which usually includes shrimp and may have chicken or another meat.
  • Dosai/Thosai: An Indian pancake served with curries, usually for breakfast. You can get it filled with cheese, egg, onion, etc.
  • Porridge: Savory rice porridge usually topped with green onion, ginger, and sesame oil. May have fish in it.
  • Tom yam soup: A spicy noodle soup with lime. May have meat, and you may be given a choice of noodles or served a default.
  • Biryani/Briyani: A fragrant Indian rice dish, which usually includes a Tandoori oven-roasted meat, served with curry.
  • Char kuey taow: Fried ricecake noodles, usually made with shrimp, soy sauce, chili, bean sprout and chives.
  • Chicken Tikka Masala: Chicken slow roasted in a tandoori oven served in a tomato and cream curry. Best with naan.
  • Nasi Lemak: The national dish of Malaysia, it’s a basic coconut rice, served with several items like roasted peanuts, curried chicken, fish and various other things on the side. Great breakfast dish.
  • Nasi Goreng: A basic fried rice dish for the tamer palates.

It also helps to do a little homework on the various neighborhoods where you’re visiting. Don’t go into Chinatown wondering why you can’t find good briyani or Little India looking for the best char kuey taow.

Ordering

Once you’ve decided on a restaurant, you have to figure out how to order. Some restaurants are going to be little groups of food carts with seating behind, others may be more traditional restaurants where you take a seat and a waiter gives you a menu. Usually, it’s not hard to figure out based on what the locals are doing how things work. Sometimes there’s a hybrid going on and you’ll get your food from a stall or counter and a waiter will come around to take your drink order. Just keep an eye out for where the menus are located, because that’s a pretty surefire sign that you’re meant to order at that spot.

Pointing at the menu
If you are at a restaurant in Malaysia where you get a menu in hand, make sure you speak clearly and follow it up with a point to the item on the menu. You may think you’re saying Nasi Lemak as perfectly as it’s ever been said, but they still might not understand you. Also be very clear when ordering your drink, especially if you can’t point. I had an instance where “Kopi ‘O’ Ice,” or a black iced coffee, was heard as “Kopi no ice,” which would be a hot coffee with milk and sugar.

Spiciness
Sometimes, a certain dish will come with either a spicy or not spicy option, which can be daunting when you aren’t sure how spicy that really means. You could always ask, but they may not be able to accurately describe, or their hot could be more than you’d prefer. The best solution Kelly came up with (I just say spicy and go to town) is to shrug and wince a little to show that she wouldn’t mind some spice, but definitely not too hot. Hasn’t steered her wrong so far. In general, I like spicy food, but I’m not one to sign up for hot sauce or chili eating contests, and I never found the food too spicy. We have heard the food is spicier elsewhere in Southeast Asia, so if you do like some spice, you should be OK to give the spicy dishes a try here.

Sit and wait
Unlike Singapore, where hawker stalls may say self-service and intend for you to stand and wait for your food, every food stall we found in Malaysia will happily take your order, then let you go sit down and bring you your food when it’s ready. The food courts in Malaysia by and large aren’t the size of Singaporean hawker centers (read all about them here), so they won’t have trouble finding you.

Eating

If you’re from the West, the methods for eating in Malaysia may be foreign to you (pun intended). The first order of business, is that like Singapore, napkins are seldom provided, so bring a pack of tissues or a handkerchief. Whether you’re slurping soup or eating curries, you’ll want to be able to wipe up. It’s rather embarrassing to have the waiter bring you a personal stash of tissues because you look like such a lost cause (although, to be fair, neither time did I actually have anything on my face). It inspired me to buy a handkerchief. It was really the only thing separating me from the locals.

Utensils
The utensils you get are going to vary depending on what type of cuisine you’re eating but are generally going to be one of the following:

  • Chopsticks and soup spoon: Often the locals will use the chopsticks to neatly place a few noodles in their soup spoon rather than slurping up a foot-long noodle. The chopsticks also come in handy for picking up veggies or meat in your soup.
  • Fork and spoon: To cut meat, you use the fork normally, then shred your meat off the bone with the spoon. You can also use the fork to pile rice or noodles onto your spoon.
  • Your own hands: Tear a piece of naan or other Indian bread and use it to scoop up curry. Locals will also use their hands to eat biryani, but we didn’t feel that proficient.

Most restaurants in Malaysia are going to have a fork for you to use, so if you aren’t good with chopsticks or aren’t keen to eat your Indian food with your hands and naan, don’t fret. The real key to all of this is figuring out how much you want to feel like a tourist vs. eating the food like the locals. Kelly and I ate enough Sushi/Ramen/Indian in NYC before this trip that we feel pretty proficient with the local methods, but we aren’t masters.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a knife anywhere in Malaysia. This is where the fork and spoon comes in, usually at Indian restaurants. Many locals use these when it’s not a naan dish, so don’t feel like you’re cheating if you do.

Paying, tipping and cleanup

Paying
Even if you are at a restaurant where a waiter took your order and brought your food, chances are you go up to a register to pay when you’re done. We only ate at a sit-down restaurant where the check was handled like a Western restaurant twice. When you go to the cashier, the waiter may or may not have brought a receipt to your table or the cashier, so it helps to remember what you ordered.

If you ordered from a food stall and then found a seat to wait for your food, more than likely they will expect payment as soon as they arrive with the food, so it helps to have cash easy to access in those scenarios.

Generally avoid credit cards if you can, because most restaurants in Malaysia simply don’t accept them, and those that do may pass on the fees to the consumer. If a credit card is all you have or want to carry, just look for the card logos or ask. Worst case scenario is that they say no and you move on, but you may end up searching for a while.

Tipping
It’s not common to tip in Malaysia, because there is often a service fee figured into the price. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy to figure out, because unlike Singapore, it’s not always easily itemized on a register-generated receipt. We haven’t run into any trouble by just not tipping unless they did something above and beyond (rare). If you feel like you need or want to tip, 10 percent is the max you really need to. That’s what the standard included service fee is, and anything past that would seem opulent. Even a few times where we tipped, the waiter seemed taken aback by our generosity.

Cleanup
It’s a natural reaction to want to clean up after eating at a food court, throwing away your trash or dropping your dishes off somewhere, but if you observe the locals you’ll see it’s pretty rare. Feel free to look around for a trash can and use it if you feel so inclined, but they are a rare sight in Malaysia and the staff usually comes by to clean up after you’ve left.

The quirks of eating in Malaysia may take some getting used to, but if you do your homework, stay patient and try to be observant of the locals, you just might make it out alive. If you have any questions or want to share your own strange stories from dining in Malaysia, feel free to leave a comment below.

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