Malaysia: Southeast Asia's Next Great Foodie Destination
Malaysian food mixes in so many cultures—Arabic, Chinese, Thai, Indian, and more—that you could never appreciate them all in one sitting. So bring your appetite.
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THE COLONIAL TIME CAPSULE
Compared with fast-paced Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, a three-hour bus ride south, might as well be cast in resin. Malaysia's oldest city was once the region's top commercial maritime post, which explains the ruined 500-year-old Portuguese fort and 18th-century Dutch Protestant church. The town's true legacy, though, is not its supply of postcard-ready relics, but its recipes. This is where Malaysia's fusion cuisine all began.
One of Malacca's most popular and eclectic attractions is the half-mile-long Jonker Street, a row of antiques and souvenir shops that transforms into the city's main night market on weekends. Jonker 88, a kitschy café decorated with tattered Chinese lanterns and framed photos of Bruce Lee, caters to the daytime crowd. It's most famous for its cendol, an unbelievable Southeast Asian twist on a snow cone: Vendors fill a bowl with short, fat, pea-flour noodles and kidney beans, followed by a mound of shaved ice and a ladle full of gula Malacca, the town's namesake dark, smoky, palm-sugar syrup. The sweet snack will sustain you through a long stroll along the neighborhood's dreamy, lamp-lit canals (88 Jalan Hang Jebat, jonker88.com, cendol $1.25).
It's not uncommon to find restaurants around town that have been perfecting their recipes since—well, forever. At Capitol Satay, the kitchen has produced the same addictive peanut-sauce fondue steamboat for 55 years. Patrons select from skewers loaded with more than 80 different foods (chicken, beef, crab-stuffed tofu, fish wontons, okra) then dip them into buckets filled with boiling satay (a peanut-based dip) at each table. A side of soft bread cubes is always on hand to mop up the fragrant sauce. Be warned: You will stuff yourself silly here. In fact, there's a "wall of champions" at the back of the restaurant displaying laminated photos of patrons labeled with names, dates, and the number of sticks eaten. If you beat the record—currently at 201—you eat for free. "Next time," third-generation owner Low Yong Cheng offers, "don't eat breakfast. Don't eat lunch. Just come here." Noted. (41 Lorong Bukit Cina, 011-60/6-283-5508, skewers 25¢)
Travelers who want a deeper sense of Malaccan culture can find it at the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum, a 115-year-old former residence of a Peranakan, or Straits Chinese, family. (Baba refers to the area's 15th- and 16th-century Chinese settlers; nyonya the Malay women they married.) Their offspring, many of whom were part of the wealthy merchant class, decorated their homes lavishly with embroidered silk wall hangings and woodwork carved by Chinese masters; examples of both are lovingly preserved in the museum (48-50 Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, 011-60/6-283-1273, entry $3.25).
Local chefs apply that same spare-no-expense attention to every detail of their food. A short walk from the museum, you'll find Donald & Lily's, a simple café built in the back of the family's home. The house Nyonya laksa combines fresh coconut-milk soup, gumball-size fish balls, and pillowy tofu squares, all topped with shredded egg and cucumber and a dollop of chile paste. Producing the labor-intensive dish begins with a daily grind: Lily prepares the herbs by hand with a mortar and pestle every morning. "A real Nyonya laksa will never have anything from a package or a can," Lily says—and she's not afraid to back it up. Her daughter, Jenny, has been known to give kitchen tours to their more inquisitive patrons (behind 31 Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, 011-60/6-284-8907, Nyonya laksa $1.25).
Malacca's famous fusion applies to many of the locales, too. Built in a century-old home in the city's historic district, several of the 14 rooms at the Courtyard @ Heeren hotel have handmade colonial-era tiles or four-poster beds, and they're all equipped with rainfall showers and Wi-Fi (91 Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, courtyardatheeren.com, doubles from $66).
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If KL is all urban rush and Malacca is frozen-in-time ambience, Penang is understated and slightly frayed. The capital, George Town, is a jumble of quiet streets lined by crumbling, pastel-hued houses with distinctive arched doorways. (UNESCO granted George Town and Malacca World Heritage status in 2008 for their architecture.) You could spend days wandering George Town's narrow alleys and incense-filled temples or months eating your way through the city's hawker centers—casual, open-air complexes filled with vendors of cheap, local meals starting at about $1 per dish.