Malaysian actor and guitarist of pop-punk band Pasca Sini, Anwar Hadi waxes lyrical about his favourite dishes from around Malaysia that he reckons everyone must try at least once.
Ask anyone who has lived in Malaysia for any amount of time, the number one thing that they would say is unique about Malaysia is the food. The endless diversity and its deliciousness can be described as unrivalled. Layered on top of that is the reality that different states in Malaysia each have their own specialty food items, so savouring these dishes is akin to taking a tour of the wonderful Malaysian food map.
We start our tour in the northernmost state in Peninsula Malaysia, Perlis. Here, you must try the glutinous rice (pulut) with ‘Harumanis’ mango, or mangga. Touted as one of the best mangoes in the world, it is a seasonal fruit that is known for its aromatic smell and distinctly sweet flavour. Harumanis season is between the months of April and May every year, so if you ever find yourself in the northern region of Peninsula Malaysia during that time, keep an eye out for this delicious fruity dessert. It is pulut mangga in all its glory.
To locals, the island of Penang is synonymous with nasi kandar. Nasi kandar is a meal of steamed rice, which can be plain or mildly flavoured, and served with a variety of curries and side dishes. My personal favourite nasi kandar variation is steamed rice with mixed curries (or as the locals say, “kuah campur”), fried chicken and stir fried cabbage. Anywhere you stand in Penang, you’ll never be more than a mile away from a nasi kandar restaurant. My personal favourite spots are Nasi Kandar Kampung Melayu and Shariff Nasi Kandar.
The most famous dish to come out of Perak would be the delicious beef dish called the Rendang Tok. It is usually made for special occasions such as weddings or Eid celebrations. Just having it by itself with steamed rice would suffice, as the soft, cubed beef flesh melts in your mouth with its burst of flavours that is both sweet and savoury. It is an absolute must try to anyone thinking about experiencing the food of Perak.
In the East Coast of the Peninsula, we find the rice noodle dish called the Laksam. It is made up of rolled-up thick flat rice noodles and served in a rich gravy of mackerel, coconut, ginger and tamarind. It is creamy and tends to be sweet. You would think that a sweeter fish dish would be ludicrous, but the Terengganu people not only know how to make it work, but they make it one of the tastiest eating experiences you’ll ever have.
The people of Negeri Sembilan are very proud of their dish Masak Lemak Cili Api (Spicy Chilli Curry). It is a versatile dish, as it can be made with chicken, beef or prawn as its main protein. It tends to be very spicy, as its name suggests. The mixture of coconut milk, chilis and turmeric make for a very potent flavour profile that will have you sweating under your collar. Make sure to have a glass of cool water nearby when eating this particular dish, as it will knock your socks off.
The southernmost state of Peninsula Malaysia is home to the traditionally Johorian dish, Kacang Pool (translated to Pool Beans). Usually served with toast and sunny- side up egg, it is a dish made up of fava beans or baked beans, minced beef, tamarind, coriander powder and ghee. It is a great mid-afternoon snack for when you don’t want something too heavy, but still want something delicious. Not many places outside of Johor serve this dish, so definitely get your taste of the famous Southern dish whenever you’re there.
And now we go to East Malaysia, where the food is equally amazing. There are several variations of the Laksa dish throughout Malaysia, from Johorean Laksa to Penang Laksa. This Sarawakian Laksa is definitely unique and bursting with its own flavour and identity. It’s on the spicier side, as its broth is a mixture of chili, onion, garlic, chilli and coconut milk. It is served with rice vermicelli and prawns, shredded chicken and fried egg slices. It’s a fantastic dish that only the people of Sarawak could have made.
Of course, the variety of food in Malaysia is even more colourful than I can portray in this article alone. I implore you to go on your own adventure of discovering the myriad dishes that Malaysia has to offer, and you’d be amazed at how we’ve been able to pack such a diverse array of food in our humble nation.
Anwar Hadi is a writer, actor and musician. He has been involved in multiple web-shows, the latest being hosting DestinasiTV’s The Nasi Kandar Show where he reviews Nasi Kandar from around Malaysia. He is part of the improvised comedy group called Pinball Monkeys and plays guitar for local rock band Pasca Sini, both of which have published albums on multiple streaming sites. He can be followed at instagram.com/nooranwarhadi.