Singaporeans and Malaysians have long tussled over where dishes like chilli crab, chicken rice and char kway teow originated. Even Malaysia’s former minister of tourism chimed in, claiming ownership of chilli crab, a dish believed to have come from Singapore.
This friendly feud stems from the neighbouring countries’ similar food cultures and their long and storied history prior to Singapore’s independence.
Despite this, there are some dishes that are no doubt, authentic Malaysian food. Some of these hail from Penang, a city in Northwest Malaysia considered the food capital of the nation, while others originate from the Malay kampungs, or villages, decades earlier.
These iconic dishes paint Malaysia’s diverse food landscape; no visit to Malaysia is complete without trying them. In the spirit of Merdeka day, here are five dishes that Malaysians are proud to call their own.
Considered Malaysia’s national dish, nasi lemak is the country’s favourite breakfast food. Coconut rice served with fried anchovies, roasted nuts, a fried egg, fried fish, rendang or chicken, slices of cucumber and a generous serving of sambal, the unique combination of sweet, oily and spicy is unmistakable.
Lemak, which means “fatty” in Malay, is derived from the rice which cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaves. It is popular breakfast food in Malaysia and in Singapore, but the high-fat levels from coconut milk and its fried side items make it any health authorities’ worst enemy.
Historians believe it has existed as early as 1909, as mentioned by English colonialist Richard Olaf Winstedt in his writings. It is believed that seaside villages in Malaysia used local ingredients of coconuts, anchovies and fish in the creation of nasi lemak.
In the 1970s, nasi lemak in takeaway packets was sold door-to-door throughout the Malay kampong. It was wrapped in triangular packets made from banana leaf, a practice that still exists today. You can still find nasi lemak sold this way in small eateries throughout Malaysia.
Its ubiquity in Singapore and Malaysia has led to other cultures adapting it to their own tastes or adding a twist to it. Chinese communities in Singapore have adapted it to their own tastes, serving it with slices of pork luncheon meat and with rice cooked with pandan leaves to turn it green. Even Mcdonalds’ Singapore took inspiration from the dish and came up with its own Nasi Lemak Burger
The Ramly burger is a popular street food in Malaysia. It was invented in 1980 by entrepreneur Ramly Bin Mokni who wanted to put a Malaysian spin on Western foods. All of Ramly’s burger patties are from halal meat sources, which are perfect for Muslim-majority Malaysia.
Singaporeans travel to Malaysia in droves to have Ramly burgers as meat products from Malaysia are banned in Singapore. Everyone who’s had a Ramly burger will never forget the first time they ate it – greasy, delicious beef or chicken patty cooked on a griddle, wrapped in egg and wedged between two buttery burger buns, embellished with lots of mayonnaise, chilli sauce and crunchy lettuce.
This heavenly combination makes for a melt-in-your-mouth formula that brings back memories of Malaysia.
Many have tried to recreate the burger at home, but they claim that the result just isn’t the same as those sold in street stalls. They speculate that tan excessive use of margarine to grease up the griddle is the key to street-stall level Ramly burgers. Or it could be the outdoor atmosphere adding to the burger’s flavour. It is anyone’s guess.
Asam laksa is Penang’s take on this noodle dish popular throughout Southeast Asia. The coconut gravy version of this dish is more well-known but the Penang version is gaining a foothold as well. Made with spicy fish broth with tamarind (or asam in Malay), and served with slices of pineapple, this truly unusual dish put Penang on the foodie map.
It is said that the Penang Peranakan community came up with this dish. The dish is made with poached mackerel, lemongrass, galangal and chilli. It is garnished with pineapple slices, thinly sliced onion, shrimp paste and torch ginger flower. An amalgamation of ingredients native to Malaysia and a mish-mash of sweet, spicy, sour, with an umami flavour from the mackerel, make Asam laksa a must-try for visitors to Penang.
If you have ever been hungover from a night out partying in Kuala Lumpur, chances are you have had some late night Lok Lok before heading home. Lok Lok is abundant in Malaysian cities like Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru, but rather uncommon elsewhere. However, its popularity is rising across the causeway, with an increasing number of Lok Lok eateries popping up in Singapore.
Lok Lok is a type of street food served in food trucks. It consists of skewers dipped in boiling water or broth, then dipped in different types of sauces before consuming. The skewers comprise tofu, fishballs, mini sausages, meatballs and vegetables. Sit-down cafes serving Lok Lok offer meat and seafood on top of the usual fare, with the skewers cooked in a hot pot placed in the middle of the dining table.
Known as an offshoot of nasi lemak, nasi kerabu consists of blue-coloured rice served with an assortment of meat and vegetable dishes, topped off with some sambal and fish crackers, or keropok. The rice is tinged blue by the butterfly pea’s petals, used as a natural food colouring in Southeast Asian cuisine. It is popular in the east coast Malaysian states such as Kelantan and Terengganu.
Nasi kerabu is a type of nasi ulam, or herb rice. Boiled with indigenous herbs such as pegagan (Indian pennywort), lemon basil, mint, lemongrass and ulam raja, which are herbs native to Southeast Asia, it is a dish from the ethnic Malay group in Indonesia and Malaysia. Because it comprises so many native herbs that are difficult to find in modern supermarkets, it is made only for special occasions.
In the old days, these herbs can be grown and harvested from backyard gardens. The fast-paced modern life means there is hardly any time to grow and forage these herbs, making the nasi kerabu a little less popular than nasi lemak.