10 Common Misconceptions About Malaysian Food

Print Friendly Version of this pagePrint Get a PDF version of this webpagePDF

Based on my own real-world interactions over the course of the last decade of running a Malaysian food business, here’s my list of 10 things people get wrong about Malaysian food –

  1. It equates with Malay food – Malaysia is a country of immigrants – our food is influenced by Malay, Chinese, Indian and Eurasian cooking styles and recipes; some of our dishes are a fusion of some or all of these cultures, and others are distinctly Chinese or Malay or Indian etc. I’ve heard people wish there were more Malay-style dishes on a restaurant menu (fair enough) and go on to complain that that particular restaurant was therefore not authentically Malaysian (invalid argument).
  2. It’s unhealthy – I’ve come across articles telling people how to ‘enjoy’ Asian food without wrecking their diet, eg. by eating Laksa without drinking the soup; I’ve also had someone justify their purchase of a curry and rice dish with the reasoning that they’d been ‘good all week after all’. There’s a lot of taboo still associated with coconut milk and the like; the fact is, coconut milk (and oil) has been scientifically proven to be good for you and may in fact help with weight maintenance. I’m constantly stunned with this kind of thinking, since frankly, the countries with the biggest obesity problems aren’t the ones you’d find in my part of the world 😉
  3. It’s the same as Thai/Indonesian food or we ‘steal’ recipes created in Indonesia and claim them as our own. Are there some crossovers? Sure. Are they distinctly different? Sometimes. As far as I’m concerned, the world is big enough for more than one version of Satay and Rendang – so, to those out there who get upset about us ‘stealing’ your rendang, I’d like to know where you got your satay and laksa recipes etc. etc. from. And if you claim we can’t call it ‘rendang’ because it’s nothing like yours, then you shouldn’t call your martabak what you do since it’s not even remotely martabak/murtabak. Nuff said.
  4. It shouldn’t contain pork (again, confusing it with Malay ie. halal food). I don’t eat pork and dislike it with a passion; however, Malaysian food, per pt 1, is made up of influences from a number of different cultures, and a lot of the contributions by other cultures do use pork in their recipes. Eg. Char Kway Teow, and even Har Meen (ie. Prawn Noodle Soup). Are there non-pork variations out there nowadays? Sure – mine for instance. But the traditional versions do contain pork.
  5. There’s only one way to do a dish ie. the one you know (laksa/satay/rendang) and the rest must be inauthentic. There’s practically a version of laksa and rendang to represent each State of the country – some are minor variations, others are so different you wouldn’t know it was the same dish. Same deal with lots of other dishes, so next time you eat at a Malaysian restaurant, just because the satay/laksa/rendang/nasi lemak etc. etc. isn’t the same as what you had during your Langkawi honeymoon, it may just be you’re eating a different version of it.
  6. Roti canai (flat, flaky Malaysian pancake) terminology – the ‘canai’ in roti canai does not refer to the dhal that may or may not come with it. Roti means bread in Malay (leavened OR unleavened – therefore, sliced bread is also called Roti). Roti canai is a type of roti. So when you ask for roti without the canai it doesn’t make sense. Or when you ask for roti canai instead of roti + kaya, we get confused whether you just want roti canai (ie. plain flat bread, without the kaya jam) or if you want roti (canai) + dhal – 99% of the time it’s the latter.
  7. The difference between roti canai and roti prata/paratha. There isn’t any. Roti canai is what we call it in Malaysia, roti prata is what it’s called in Singapore. There are two different ways to fold up the dough after it’s been flipped – either envelope-style, or twirled into a long rope then rolled up like a snail. An American chef once declared that roti when folded envelope-style is called one thing and when twirled is called the other – I forget which is which – that is incorrect. Unfortunately this misconception has taken hold online to the point where other people are correcting others incorrectly about it. In both countries they can be folded OR twirled and they’d still be called their respective (geographically-based) terms.
  8. Vegetable/non-meat dishes are vegetarian. A lot of things go into a Malaysian recipe. Just because a curry has only vegetables in it, for example, it does not automatically mean it’s vegetarian. Never assume something is vegetarian unless it’s explicitly stated likewise. We use ingredients in our spice mixes, sauces and stocks like shrimp paste, dried anchovies, chicken or beef stock or flavour boosters, fish sauce etc. etc. in lots of non-meat dishes.
  9. Malaysian food = Nyonya food – I’ve seen this term used somewhat too liberally, and interchangeably with Malaysian food by food reviewers; outside of Malaysia, most Malaysian restaurants are NOT Nyonya restaurants even if they have one or two Nyonya-influenced dishes on their menu. Nyonya cuisine is a subset of Malaysian cuisine; it’s a unique cooking style created by the first waves of Chinese immigrants to that part of the world who intermarried with local Malays (as opposed to the Chinese who came centuries later, from whom the current ethnic Chinese are descended); the dishes are distinctly different.  There are 2 Nyonya concentrations in Malaysia, one down south in Melaka, and one up north in Penang – the styles of cooking between these are also quite different. Nyonya culture extends beyond our geographical boundaries – as well as Singapore, there are concentrations of Nyonya in Indonesia; Singaporean Nyonya food is very similar to that of Melaka; I know nothing about Indonesian Nyonya food, unfortunately.
  10. Everything must be served piping hot – in fact in Malaysia we eat a lot of our dishes including curries at room temperature. (I know about Australian health codes, so no lecture required here, thanks – just pointing out how it’s done in Malaysia). Ditto with snacks like curry puffs (we don’t eat this with Thai sweet chilli, by the way) And the chicken in Hainanese Chicken Rice is deliberately cooled in an ice bath prior to cutting, so it’s MEANT to be cold.

There you have it, next time you visit a Malaysian restaurant with less well-informed friends or you read a review somewhere, you’ll be all the wiser and/or join me in my rage about all these factual misconceptions 🙂

Malaysian Dishes

Share and Enjoy !