Malaysian Cuisine

Durian Cake and Zuberbuhler’s Special
Raffles, Maugham and Lord Jim Country

“At the end of the tenth century Canton carried on direct trade with the Malay Peninsula.” —Friedrich Hirt and W. W. Rockhill [1]

Tang Dynasty horse from the Silk Road

Tang Dynasty Camel
From the Silk Road, 8th Century

For centuries the Malay Peninsula has been an important corridor in the southern sea route of the Spice Route.

The Strait of Malacca was an important point where Persian and Arab traders transferred spices. Malay seamen sailed Chinese junks as far as Ceylon and Aden.

Curly Haired Man, Malayan
Silk Road, Tang Dynasty

And some Malays even ended up on the camel routes of the northern Silk Road in the Tang Dynasty.

The country has been a center for cross-cultural contacts and borrowing. At the end of the colonial period, Malaysia got cobbled together incorporating Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Kalimantan, to create a complicated ethnic and cultural union.

The majority population was Malayan, with important Indian and Chinese minorities, plus indigenous peoples in the Eastern part of the country, and European cultural influences. This is the region we know from Stamford Raffles of Singapore, the stories of Maugham and Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.

Malaysian cuisine today combines European and local Asian elements in a unique and delicious manner. [2]

Colonial Heritage: There are traces of the Colonial heritage in dishes like Fried Canned Corned Beef (with Red Chili Peppers); Spicy Sardines (more chilies); and Roast Beef with Yorkshire Pudding; as well as Cheese Straws.

Fusion Food: This is Fusion cooking country, and an essential element of Malaysian cuisine is the impact of cultural borrowings on individual dishes and in the combination of dishes to make a menu.

A meal can include dishes from the main strands of Malay, Indian and Chinese cooking, plus one or more dishes of Thai or Sri Lankan origin, as well as European, all combining harmoniously.

A typical lunch or dinner meal might include a main dish of Malay origin, like a Chicken and Bamboo Shoot Curry, a Chinese stir-fried vegetable dish, an Indian Beef Ball Curry and European style Potato Salad.

Malaysian cooks are adapt a “Malayanising” recipes. If they serve a Malay style dish, like Nasi Goreng (Fried Rice), they might add a paste of pounded fresh Red Chilies and Shrimp Paste and Onions.

With a Chinese style noodle dish there might be something like a Pineapple and Cucumber Sambal.

A European stew might get served with additional Cloves and Cinnamon.  The Malaysian cook might serve an omelet with sliced Onions and Red Chilies and just before serving, add a dash of Soy Sauce.

When a Malaysian cook roasts a chicken he might add ground Cinnamon, Cloves and Black Pepper, Thick Soy Sauce and a little Sugar to give it a Chinese flavor.

The same chicken might appear another day with a blend of spices used to make Satay Paste to give it a typical Malay flavor.

The Chinese food of Malaysia embodies influences from several of the regions of China, notably a big input from the Teochew (Chaozhou) culture. It makes innovative use of local products including Duck, various seafoods, and items like Frog.

The Indian food is strongly influenced by cooking styles of the large Indian Muslim community. In consideration of the majority Muslim population, Pork appears on Malaysian menus much less often and restaurant menus often announce that they serve only Halal meats.

No-Pork Chinese: In many Chinese restaurants you will find a menu with two sides — on one side are listed dishes which might include Pork. The other side strictly eschews it.



Major Ingredients — Vegetables include —

  • Bamboo Shoots

    Bitter Melon

  • Bean Sprouts
  • Bitter Melon
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Cauliflower
  • Chinese Cabbage
  • Green Beans
  • Okra
  • Kerala Melon
  • Potatoes
  • Pumpkin
  • Snake Gourd (Ketola Utar)
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Yams
  • Tomatoes
  • Yam Beans
Cooking with Durian fruit


Some notable Fruits

  • Durian



  • Rambutan
  • Mangosteen
  • Litchi
  • Mango
  • Longan
  • Guava

Meats: The main ones include —

  • Beef

    Roast Duck

  • Pork
  • Chicken
  • Duck

Seafoods — Besides a variety of local fish varieties, also

  • Crab


  • Lobster
  • Oysters
  • Abalone
  • Frogs

Pomfret and Grouper are popular fishes.

Spices and Aromatics:

Fresh Ginger

Some important ones include — Anise, Candlenuts, Garlic, Cardamom, also

  • Cinnamon
  • Coriander
  • Cumin
  • Ginger
  • Soy Sauce
Turmeric root

Turmeric Root

as well as Shrimp Paste, Turmeric, Black Pepper, Red Chili Peppers, Star Anise. Coconut Milk is an essential preparation for cooks in this cuisine. Lemongrass is popular as in Grilled Chicken Wings with Turmeric and Lemongrass.

Besides Canlenuts, other unusual flavorings include Curry Leaves, Pandan Leaves, Lemon, Lime and Small Pandan leaves, and the Zedoar Root (Cucuria zedoaria, Malay Kunchor), which is used in a paste for making Satay. [3]

Tempeh, a form of fermented Soy Bean Curds, is used in a number of Malay dishes, including Gado Gado Salad and Sayur Lemak.

Important Dishes: There are many Curries, Satays and varieties of Rendang.  Popular favorites include Fish Ball Soup, Mee Siam, Fried Curry Puffs, and Laksa.  Cooking in Clay Pots is popular, [4] Rice specialties like Coconut Rice, Nasi Goreng and Nasi Minyak.   A good version of Chicken Wings is Grilled Chicken Wings with Turmeric and Lemongrass. A popular street food in the Penang area is Fried Rice Strips (Char Kway Teow) Sate (also spelled Satay) of all kinds are a national specialty, as in Beef Sate Malay Style.  

Desserts: A typical dessert like Agar Agar Chocolate Pudding incorporates Cocoa Powder as well as Vanilla combined with local elements like Agar Agar, so it has Fusion elements.

Durian Cake: There are surprises, too, like Durian Cake, which uses the Durian fruit to make a baked cake.  There are a wide variety of baked goods with a Malay flavor, many steamed, and many also showing European influence. Serikaya is a Malayan Steamed Custard made with Egg and Coconut Milk

Zuberbuhler’s Special: An interesting dish is Zuberbuhler’s Special, described as a kind of “Imitation Sukiyaki.” The chafing pot dish is made with Chicken instead of the usual Beef, and an array of vegetables which resembles those for Japanese Sukiyaki, including the eggs, which are actually cooked in the liquid of the chafing dish.

Rich Cakes: Malaysian cooking offers many cakes and othe pastries, some quite rich. Cakes made with 10 or more eggs are common. Some of the best cakes incorporate Coffee or Cocoa or both in the form of Mocha.

Hawker Style: A number of the most taste Malaysian dishes are made in what is called locally Hawker Style, that is, Malaysian street food, as it might be made for sale by a street vendor.  An example — Tauhu Hawker Style, a local take on Tofu.

For Further Information:

[1] Friedrich Hirt and W. W. Rockhill, Chau Ju-kua, on the ancient spice routes.  Also Edward H. Schafer, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand, on ancient Malayan spice trade. –  also
[2] “Malaysian cuisine,” article, Wikipedia  —
[3] “Zedoa,” article, Wikipedia —
[4] Ellice Handy, My Favourite Recipes (Singapore: Malaysia Printers Ltd., 1965). A classic first published in 1952 and a standby for Malaysia expatriates who want to prepare dishes the way their mothers and grandmothers did. Long out of print and a cult item for collectors, reissued in 2012 by Landmark Press. —
Some other cookbooks and references:
I. H. Burkill, A Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula (London: Crown Agents, 1935). Not exactly a dictionary, but a useful reference to local names and species. —
Gilda Tay, Indonesian and Malaysian Cooking (Sydney: Bay Books, 1978) —
Zakary Pelaccio, Eat with Your Hands (Ecco). Pelaccio is an American who apprenticed in a Malaysian restaurant and later opened the Fatty Crab Restaurant in Manhattan, focuses on what he calls “seriously messy” food. —
Linda Quo, A Wide Selection of Local Recipes (Petaling Jaya: Qoo, 1971).
Some online recipe sources: Rasa Malaysia – Easy Malaysian Recipes —






11 thoughts on “Malaysian Cuisine

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  4. Pingback: Beef Sate Malay Style | Pacific Rim Gourmet

  5. Pingback: Coconut Rice - Malaysian style side dish | Pacific Rim Gourmet

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