An important aspect of traveling to a foreign country is figuring out the food and how we’ll eat, and while it’s also one of the most exciting aspects, it can turn out to be quite stressful.
That first introduction to an Asian hawker center can feel a bit overwhelming. My advice for the uninitiated is to go when hungry. That’s because there is no choice but to dive in and do what the locals do – and that’s eat.
Our friends Lemuel and Errol guided us through their local night markets. It gave us an edge and helped us make our way through the eating part of our South East Asia journey.
The market was buzzing with groups of people sitting about eating and talking.
We strolled around checking out the many different food stands, and I thought that it seemed a similar principle to a Western style food hall but without rubbishy junky food outlets. It is fast food but not sterilised as we know it in Australia.
Having made our choices, we ordered from the vendors and then pointed in the general direction of where we’d be sitting. Within 5 minutes or so our food arrived (no designer plating here) and we paid the very few Ringgits.
Not long after we sat down a person came to the table asking what we wanted to drink. You will always have something to drink, whether it is beer, soft drink or iced tea. This person will have a hawker stand just selling drinks and maybe desserts.
This scenario plays out every night of the year in every town and village throughout Malaysia. The majority of Malaysians eat out every night, socialising with family and friends, and they very rarely cook food at home. The food is healthy, tasty, varied and cheap.
In Ipoh, we learned that the famous dish there is “nga choy kai” or “ayam taugeh”, simply translated as “bean sprouts chicken”. We were told that Lou Wong was the best place in Ipoh to try this local delicacy so that’s where we ended up. The dish is simply chicken breast poached in a sweet soy and sesame broth, served with flat rice noodles and the plump and crunchy bean sprouts on the side. It was delicious but the flavours were not as punchy as we’d usually prefer.
The Cameron Highlands food offerings were quite varied and good quality, very much targeted at the throngs of tourists. We chomped on some of the best tandoori and roti we’ve ever had anywhere, and hotpot restaurants almost outnumbered the Indian places.
By the time we reached the famed golden crown of Malaysian food, Penang, we felt confident about ordering and getting what we wanted.
During our weeks in Penang we latched on to a few local favourites and the only time we had a disaster was when we decided to have a slap up dinner at the “European” style restaurant next door to our Airbnb apartment. The meal was a shocker but the service was brilliant, so no complaints from us. It just made us laugh and we thought that Malaysian’s may not necessarily make the best French chefs.
An amazing discovery in Penang was down a funny laneway where street hawkers were cooking strange looking satays. Feeling particularly brave, Dave bought what we were told were vegetables and they turned out to be the most delicious onion pakora type satays. One each wasn’t enough so Dave went back and bought a couple more. Then the following day we walked back down that lane but it was later in the morning and the stall was closed. We thought it was just as well because we could easily have had them each day, though a few days later we made sure to get there early.
Oh, and we did a fabulous cooking class whilst in Penang with a locally famous chef, Pearly Kee. I think I’ll have to write a separate blog post about that experience because it was just such an action-packed adventure and so much to tell.
Langkawi Island served up some real treats for us, especially along the seafront at outdoor markets where local families gathered throughout the afternoon and into the evening. Langkawi is a more rustic and laid back version of the rest of Malaysia and this is reflected in their eating style.
Overall, we found Malaysia a really easy place to find and enjoy food. In every case the people were friendly and they seemed to go out of their way to make sure we were happy with our food choices.
There are food vendors literally everywhere you go. Walking along a bumpy back street there will be a little mobile stall set up with someone cooking up unusual offerings. It wasn’t always to our taste but if it looked ok we’d give it a try and we were almost always well rewarded
I don’t think we ever spent more than $5AUD for the two of us for any meal. The average price for a healthy delicious meal at a food market was around $1.50, although ordering a beer was usually more expensive than the food. If we ate at a restaurant the prices were a bit higher but certainly nothing like we’d pay outside of Asia.
What we particularly loved about traveling around Malaysia was the vast diversity of food options. With a population mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultural and regional influences we were spoiled for choice.
Malay dishes often contain beef, chicken, mutton or fish; but never pork as Malay food needs to be halal. Chinese dishes often contain pork. Indian dishes are often vegetarian; and they never contain beef, though Indians do eat chicken, mutton and fish.
Most dishes will be served with some vegetables; either mixed through the dish or served as a side dish.
We ate our way through just about every style of Malaysian food although there are some things we just have to go back for…..