These Are the Best Dishes to Try in Every Malaysian State

These Are the Best Dishes to Try in Every Malaysian State

The food scene in Malaysia is diverse, with dishes boasting an array of tantalising flavours. Find out what unique cuisine each state is home to and some of the must-try dishes!

If there’s one thing that’s irrevocably great about Malaysia, it’s the food. With so many different cultural ethnicities in one country, people in Malaysia enjoy an unbelievably wide range of different cuisines and local flavours. It’s thus, no wonder that Malaysia is often one of the top foodie havens in the region.

While some foods are generally loved throughout the country (like nasi lemak), each of the 13 states in Malaysia actually have their own unique dishes for which they are famous for. After hours of research and coming to terms with the fact that I will be lynched either way for my choices, here’s a definitive list of the representative dishes of Malaysia’s 13 states.

But before we begin, I have a confession to make: I cheated. There were so many wonderful dishes to choose from that I couldn’t possibly only pick one for every state. So, instead, I set aside a special mention for the dish that almost made it but fell just short. Take a look and see how many of these scrumptious culinary delights you’ve actually tasted!  

Perlis – Ikan Bakar

Image credit: Ikan bakar Lynda

We start with the northernmost state of Malaysia (and its smallest): Perlis. When visiting Perlis, the one dish everyone must try is the state’s iconic ikan bakar (grilled fish). Preparation is simple. Fresh fish is marinated in turmeric, salt, and pepper and grilled over a charcoal grill to give it a smokey flavour. The dish is served with air asam (a spicy, sour dipping sauce) and special Perlis chilli sauce, made with various herbs and spices.  

Special Mention – Pulut Mempelam

Image credit: Mempelam Perlis

Since it shares a border with Thailand, Perlis does incorporate some Thai influence in its food. This is most apparent with pulut mempelam, sticky rice with mango. The twist here is pulut mempelam is served only with local mempelam mango which is sweeter and much more fragrant.

Kedah – Nasi Ulam

Image credit: huppypie

Kedah is the largest producer of rice in Malaysia and aptly enough, its representative dish is one which highlights and elevates this humble crop. Nasi ulam is rice mixed with various raw vegetables and spices such as ginger flower, bird’s eye chilli, and cucumber. It is often topped with kerisik, which is toasted grated coconut. This gives the dish an aromatic finish before some lime juice is drizzled over it. You can have it as it is or pair it with some meat or other side dishes.

Special Mention – Laksa Kedah

Image credit: Jue Asna

Laksa Kedah is another unique dish from Kedah. Also known as laksa utara (northern laksa), the dish combines rice noodles with various vegetables and herbs in a savoury, fish-based gravy. Dig into one of Malaysia’s most beloved dishes and enjoy the unforgettable contrast of flavours!

Penang – Char Koay Teow

Image credit: Carina Ong

Honestly, Penang gave me a hard time but in the end, I went with arguably its most famous street food: Char Koay Teow. Flat rice noodles are quickly stir-fried in a cast iron wok with ingredients like bean sprouts, juicy shrimp, egg and Chinese sausage to produce this world-famous delicacy. Some hawkers even up the ante by cooking the dish over a charcoal fire and by using duck eggs instead of conventional chicken eggs.

Special Mention – Cendol

Image credit: Icemoon

Cendol is no doubt one of the top traditional desserts in Malaysia. It is so simple yet so sinfully satisfying, especially on a hot, sunny day. The most basic cendol consists of coconut milk, pandan-flavoured rice jelly, brown sugar syrup and shaved ice. But there are some vendors who top this beloved dessert with red beans and, can you believe it, durian! Now THAT’S as Malaysian as it gets!

Perak – Gai Si Hor Fun

Image credit: mmmsedap

Perak is another state that is predominantly known as a foodie’s paradise. It’s most iconic dish is gai si hor fun. Basically, in a bowl, you get springy flat rice noodles, tender shredded chicken, succulent shrimp, some chives and a seafood (usually prawns) broth that just blends everything together perfectly. It’s a popular breakfast food in Perak and most people wash it down with yet another famous Perakian delicacy: Ipoh white coffee.

Special Mention – Hainanese Chicken Rice

Image credit: Williamnyk

What makes the Hainanese Chicken Rice in Perak so special is the flavoursome chicken. Poached to perfection in order to retain the tenderness of the meat, the chicken is garnished with a sprinkling of herbs and drizzled with soy sauce and aromatic oil. In Perak, the dish is often accompanied with crunchy bean sprouts. It’s also possible to combine this dish with the aforementioned hor fun for an even more exciting culinary experience.

Kelantan – Nasi Kerabu

Image credit: Williamnyk

Kelantan’s famous nasi kerabu instantly commands attention thanks to its colourful presentation. The dish is often served with fried chicken, various pickles and crunchy keropok (crackers). But the main star of the dish is the rice, which is dyed a hue of blue thanks to the Smurfs petals of the butterfly-pea flower that is used in the cooking process. Pair it with Kelantan’s famous ayam percik, grilled pieces of chicken topped with a fragrant sauce.

Special Mention – Laksam Kelantan

Image credit: Cuti Kelantan

The name might have tipped you off, but yes, Laksam Kelantan is basically a different version of laksa utara. The lime and tamarind are replaced with coconut milk, giving the dish a lighter colour and a creamier texture. The noodles used are also thicker and the toppings range from beef floss to sambal and even some jungle herbs (Kerabu).

Terengganu – Nasi Dagang

Image credit: Williamnyk

Nasi dagang is sometimes referred to as the ‘Nasi Lemak of the East Coast’ simply because of the coconut milk that is used to cook it. However, traders’ rice (as it is known in English) is far from the sambal and ikan bilis dish we all know and love. Nasi dagang in Terengganu is made using a mixture of jasmine and white sticky rice and is served with gulai ikan tongkol, a curry dish containing a local tuna species found abundantly off the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia.

Special Mention – Bubu Lambut

Image credit: Terengganu Tourism

Bubu lambut is one of those dishes which takes simple ingredients and turns them into unique delicacies. The dish is basically a porridge made with rice, herbs, sweet potatoes, and dried shrimp. Fun fact: bubu lambut is actually Terengganu Malay dialect for bubur lembut, meaning soft porridge in Bahasa Malaysia.

Pahang – Gulai Tempoyak Ikan Patin

Image credit: Gunawan Kartapranata

Arguably Pahang’s most famous dish, gulai tempoyak ikan patin can be considered the epitome of Malay cuisine thanks to the ingredients in the dish. This curry dish combines tender ikan patin (a type of catfish) with a special curry that’s made from fermented durian! A little bit odd for sure, but this delicacy is said to be extremely delicious and leaves a pleasant (depending on much you like durian) aftertaste.  

Special Mention – Nasi Kebuli

Image credit: Nasi Kebuli Bin Rossi

Thought to have originated from the Kuala Lipis district, this heritage dish is often served during special occasions and at dinner parties. Nasi Kebuli is a one-pot dish of rice, coconut oil, raisins, olives, aromatic spices and meat (usually chicken, but other varieties exist too). The visual is stunning and your palette is sure to be set alight by the wonderful coming together of the dish’s various flavours.

Selangor – Satay

Image credit: Marufish

Satay is basically skewered grilled meat served with spicy peanut sauce. The meat varies, ranging from normal poultry like chicken, beef, and lamb to more gamey options like wild boar and rabbit. While it is readily available throughout Malaysia, I have to concede that the best satay is found in Kajang, Selangor, a statement no doubt most Malaysians will agree with.

Special Mention – Hokkien Mee

Image credit: Alpha

As a Penangite, the first time I had ‘Hokkien Mee’ in the Selangor/Kuala Lumpur area was an unforgettable one. In Penang, Hokkien Mee is springy egg noodles in shrimp broth. In Selangor, it’s a slurpy, stir-fried dish with vegetables and meat. While it was not what I was expecting, it was certainly a delicious meal, hence why it’s my special mention for Selangor.

Negeri Sembilan – Siew Pau

While the famous siew pau (crispy baked Chinese pastry buns) of Seremban can’t be enjoyed by all Malaysians due to its non-Halal status, there isn’t any other food that’s more synonymous with Negeri Sembilan. The crumbly pastry is often filled with succulent meat fillings like pork or chicken and is one of the main reasons foodies flock to the state.

Special Mention: Chicken Curry Bun

This fantastic dish takes the French bread bowl and gives it a full Malaysian makeover. Yes, chicken curry bun is a simple combination of chicken curry and a freshly baked bun. The twist is that the chicken curry is INSIDE the bun, often wrapped in aluminium foil or cling wrap. Dipping fresh bread into savoury curries is a very Malaysian way to enjoy pastry but this delicacy takes the cake.

Malacca – Chicken Rice Balls

Image credit: Naka7a

Chicken rice balls are a popular attraction in Malacca. It’s basically chicken rice but instead of eating your chicken with a plate of rice, you eat it with cute little rice balls. The usual condiments you’d expect with your chicken rice, such as chilli and soy sauce, are also included in a typical meal. Just watch how many of those balls you’re popping into your mouth! Cute as they may seem, they’re still made of rice, and the more you eat, the more calories you put on. Oh, the horror…

Special Mention: Satay Celup

Image credit: StephenHii

Okay, to be fair, satay celup is quite different from ordinary satay. For one, they’re not the typical skewered meat sticks you’ve come to expect. Rather, they’re an assortment of hot pot ingredients: meatballs, crab filaments, dumplings and the like. Yes, satay celup is basically hot pot on sticks, but instead of soup, you cook your food in a pot of boiling peanut sauce. It’s savoury, it’s hot, and it’s messy, but it’s also all part of a unique dining experience.

Johor – Laksa Johor

Image credit: Bunga Lawang Cafe

Yet another version of laksa on the list. Hmm…I’m starting to think Malaysians really like their laksa. Well, Laksa Johor is different in that instead of the typical rice noodles, Laksa Johor uses spaghetti as its staple ingredient. Yep, spaghetti as in spaghetti bolognese spaghetti. Yet, despite its more western take, the dish is still topped with traditional laksa toppings like shredded cucumber, bean sprouts and herbs. Now that’s what I call fusion food!

Special Mention: Biryani Gam

Despite being a popular food throughout Malaysia, biryani seems to be extra popular in Johor. This traditional dish comprises of turmeric-coated rice (yummy!) and succulent pieces of meat in gravy. That’s all there is to it. Simple, right? Yet, biryani’s fragrant aroma and savoury side dishes always hits the spot.

Sabah – Tuaran Mee

Image credit: Jason Thien

Tuaran mee is often cited as the best noodles in Sabah with some even going as far as to call the dish “Sabah’s gold noodles”. What is it? Well, it’s basically springy yellow egg noodles stir-fried to perfection and topped with char siew, crunchy vegetables and slices of chun kien, Hakka style spring roll. Ask any Sabahan about the dish that best represents Sabah and they’ll almost certainly say Tuaran mee.

Special Mention: Nigu Chap Mee

Image credit: Ngiu Chap Wong

Another noodle dish that Sabah is generally famous for is ngiu chap mee. This hearty dish consists of rice vermicelli noodles (mee hoon) in delicious beef broth served with an assortment of beef chunks, including brisket, short rib and even tendons if you want them. Slurp away as you savour every last bit of the dish. Personally, I think it’s the broth which makes the dish, so make sure you don’t waste a single drop!

Sarawak – Kolo Mee

Image credit: ccfoodtravel.com

If Sabah has Tuaran mee, then its neighbour Sarawak has kolo mee. A traditional Hakka dish, kolo mee is a delightful mix of springy noodles, char siew slices and minced meat. The noodles are often tossed lightly in some meat stock and soy sauce before being served. Some non-Halal versions of the dish also include lard which adds another dimension of flavour to the noodles. For me, this is one of my favourite Malaysian noodle dishes of all time.

Special Mention: Sarawak Laksa

Image credit: Williamnyk

And finally, we end the way we started, with more laksa. Sarawak Laksa’s main speciality is its toppings. Rather than shredded vegetables, this dish is topped with strips of omelette, chicken, and usually a succulent prawn. It’s much more filling compared to the other laksa varieties in Malaysia and certainly delicious down to the very last bite.

I hope I’ve shown you enough of the beauty of Malaysian food to convince you to hop on the next flight to Kuala Lumpur International Airport. You know what, print out this list, and take it with you wherever you travel in Malaysia and try to cross out as many of these entries as possible, like a foodie’s bucket list of Malaysia. You won’t regret it!

About Author

Darren Yeoh
Darren Yeoh

Darren enjoys the finer things in life and loves exploring unfamiliar places on foot, guided with nothing but instinct and a good-old fashioned map. He enjoys cultural experiences and exciting adventures and is not a stranger to travelling alone. When he's not putting his travel experiences into words, he's probably sitting behind his laptop, planning his upcoming adventure.

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