We've been devouring Auria Abraham's Malaysian sauces since we first tried them months ago. (There's a a reason they're in our holiday gift guide.) Hungry for more Malay cuisine, we asked founder Auria for her go-to list of places to eat. If you're also hungry after reading this, you might want to sign up for her five-day culinary tour of Malaysia this February.
MALAYSIA — I was born in Seremban, a small valley town in Malaysia. I came to the United States in the early 1990s to study film scoring in Boston. I left my entire family behind, planning to return as soon as I was finished with college, like my two brothers did before me. Apparently, life had other plans for me: I now live and work in Brooklyn, where I create Auria’s Malaysian Kitchen, a line of sambal (chili paste) and kaya (coconut jam) sauces. I travel home every year to spend time with my mum, who is now in her 80s, and also to get my fill of Malaysian cuisine.
Let’s pause for a quick history lesson: Back in the 1500s, when sea-based global trade was developing, Malaysia found itself smack dab between the Western world and Asia. Melaka, a port town with protected and easy access across from Indonesia, was very sought after, first by the Portuguese, who were then kicked out by the Dutch, who were in turn kicked out by the British, who brought Indians over to work in their rubber plantations. The Chinese arrived for mining and trading. This means that unlike most other countries in Asia, we have been a total melting pot for centuries, and this is reflected in our cuisine. So we’ll have noodles (Chinese) but they’ll be served with curry (Indian). At Christmas, my mother served shepherd’s pie, which might not make sense until you realize she grew up under British rule.
This may explain why food is our favorite national pastime. Malaysians love talking about it and sharing the new great eateries. Whenever I go home, I hear "I have to take you to..." or "you must try..." When I add these to the ever-growing list the childhood favorites that I have to revisit — the Po Piah lady, the corner chicken rice shop, the late-night roti canai joint — it makes for very filling, food-focused trips. After five years of bringing a taste of Malaysia to the U.S., I’m finally bringing the U.S. to Malaysia through a culinary discovery tour in February 2019, which includes many of my favorite spots in the list below, which are organized from south to north. When you’re in Malaysia, on our tour or on your own, eat like a local!
Melaka – The Port Town Where Malaysia Was Born
Cendol Jam Besar (Clock Tower Cendol)
Bandar Hilir, 75200 Melaka
Head to Melaka, a historic port town south of Kuala Lumpur, for a day of sightseeing: You'll see the red fort left behind from the Dutch colonial days, as well as Peranakan Chinese history and culture. If you find yourself parched from walking around in the sun, there's nothing more Melaka than a refreshing bowl of cendol. Operating since the early 1950s and easy to find near the large clock tower in the center of town, Cendol Jam Besar serves many variations, but I'm a purist, so my order is always just plain cendol — shaved ice, slightly salted coconut milk, palm sugar flavored with pandan (also known as gula Melaka, as it hails from here) and green tapioca squigglies. If you're feeling brave, try their durian with sticky rice.
With three long blocks dedicated to the pleasures of feasting, you'll see things you've never seen before, smell great and not-so-great aromas, and will, I guarantee, be propositioned by individuals of vague gender orientation.
3 Jalan Temenggong, Bandar Hilir, 75100 Melaka
A wonderful Indian banana leaf lunch joint in the middle of Melaka. Pick your proteins — dry mutton curry and squid sambal are my favorites — then take a seat. A banana leaf is placed in front of you and piled high with rice, an array of vegetable dishes, and crispy papadums. Pair this with a hot tea: As it cools, the sweet milkiness will help you manage the intense spice levels.
From Melaka driving north through the state of Selangor, these are the stops.
Warong Kak Ina
Jalan SS19/2 47500 Subang Jaya, Selangor
A warong is a small, family-owned restaurant or café, and that's exactly what you'll find at Kak Ina's, where the owner serves authentic Malay dishes from an array of serving platters that will leave you in awe of how colorful food can be. Have her make you a dish of nasi kerabu (blue rice) and ask for ikan keli bakar, grilled fish with the absolute real deal sambal belacan (sambal with fermented shrimp).
Lim Kee Grilled Fish and Seafood
33, Jalan Alor, Bukit Bintang, 50200 Kuala Lumpur
The permanent street fair Jalan Aloris a fun evening out, a feast for the senses and definitely best explored at night without children. With three long blocks dedicated to the pleasures of feasting, you'll see things you've never seen before, smell great and not-so-great aromas, and will, I guarantee, be propositioned by individuals of vague gender orientation. If you're sensitive to any of these things, then Jalan Alor is not for you, and that would be a very sad thing. I recommend walking from one end to the other to look at everything available. If you come across the fresh sugarcane stall, have some. It's a taste that takes me right back to my school days. Then head into Lim Kee and order their scrumptious grilled stingray, chili crab, and kai lan with garlic. If you still have room for more, get salted duck yolk squid and grilled king prawns. It’s a pricier meal than most on this list, but definitely worth it.
A Cooking Class with Mamaj Kim
What's more fun than learning to cook the cuisine of a country while you're there? Mamaj Kim, a local celebrity chef offers classes for cooks of all levels in her home in the Shah Alamneighborhood in Kuala Lampur. A master of Malaysian cuisine, she'll show you how to make popular dishes such as curry laksa, beef rendang, Nyonya devil curry, and assam laksa. Pick one dish to learn with her, and you'll enjoy making it over and over again for guests at your dinner table for years to come. Message her via Facebook to set a date and time.
Klang – The Port Town West of Kuala Lampur
Chong Kok Kopitiam
5 Jalan Stesen, 41000 Klang, Selangor
Klang is a port town about 45 minutes from Kuala Lumpur known for its many eateries serving decadent seafood fare and also for this place. Chong Kok is a traditional kopitiam (coffee shop) that's been serving a simple but scrumptious quintessential Malaysian breakfast since 1940: kaya toast, soft boiled eggs, black coffee, and nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf)with squid curry. Yes, curry. For breakfast.
Love Mom Restaurant
12, Lorong Menalu, Taman Chi Liung, 41200 Klang
Another spot in Klang, this Indian lunch spot's chatty proprietor hovers over her clientele like a mother hen. She's known for her appam, or hoppers, Sri Lankan rice pancakes that are soft and fluffy in the middle and delicately crispy at the edges. Naturally sweet from the coconut milk in the center, most people eat them with palm sugar. I like mine spiced with fish curry gravy. Go ahead, have three. I do.
Penang – The Food Capital of Malaysia
The British named this town "the pearl of the Orient," which is sweet. We're more partial to "the food capital of the world."
Pun Chun Chicken Biscuits and Restaurant
38-40, Jalan Besar, 35500 Bidor, Perak
If you have the time, drive from Kuala Lumpur north to Penang. It's a four-hour drive that rewards you with stunning vistas of sweeping valleys, verdant mountains, and limestone caves for exploring. About 90 minutes into your trip, stop in the tiny town of Bidor, which is famous for this one eatery. Pun Chun has been making fresh, toothsome egg noodles by hand each morning for more than 70 years. If you're there on a weekday, order dry duck drumstick noodles. If you're lucky enough to be there on a Saturday or Sunday, have curry mee, topped with fatty char siew and fried wontons. This dish is life changing.
Restoran Tajuddin Hussain
49 & 51, Queen Street, George Town, 10200 George Town, Penang
Here's a meal so delicious, you'll dream about it for the rest of your days. The mixed rice dish nasi kandar may be commonly served by Indian Muslims in Malaysia, but there's nothing common about Tajuddin Hussain's rendition. It's a meal of rice accompanied with your choice of curries — seafood, meat or vegetarian. Your order comes on green serving dishes in small enough portions to try a number of things. The curries are insanely delectable, spicy with rich gravies. The must-haves here are chicken ros, beautifully tender squid curry, and buttery mutton korma. Pro-tip: Get there around 11:30 a.m. for lunch, as it gets very crowded.
Persiaran Gurney (near the roundabout), Penang
Gurney Drive, sometimes referred to as Gurney Esplanade, is arguably the finest hawker center experience in all of Asia. My wish for any traveler is to have three nights to go back here again and again so they can try pretty much everything that catches their eye. If all you have is one evening to experience this culinary treasure, here are my suggestions, although I strongly invite you to wander the entire open-air space slowly and take it all in before making your choices: char kuay teow, char koay kak, ikan bakar (grilled fish), baby oyster omelet, Penang rojak, and chee cheong fun. Which should you choose? It’s easy: Just look for the busiest stalls. That's where you'll find the best versions of these dishes. If you find yourself sadly full to bursting before you've tried everything you wanted to try, don't be shy to take your orders to go. Just say “tapow" after you've placed your order, and you'll be enjoying it later in your hotel room.
Keep exploring Malaysia with Auria on her five-day culinary discovery tour in February. Then see why when Malaysia has a party, you'll be on the guest list, and discover Malaysia’s national dish ... in a parking lot.