I know this topic is on the minds of many visitors to Malaysia, you are either concerned that Malaysian food is too spicy, or you’re keen to find out what spicy dishes are a must try. So let me start by addressing the main question, is Malaysian food spicy?
The answer is yes and no. A lot of Malaysian dishes definitely have a kick to them and can be classified under the pretty hot and spicy it’s-burning-my-tongue category. But there is of course a happy medium. Take the national dish, Nasi Lemak for instance. In itself, it’s not a spicy dish, but more on the fragrant and flavorful side. The catch is that it’s served with sambal, or spicy chili paste on the side.
Here’s a quick list of dishes you can safely eat that have no chili or chili served on the side…
- Chicken Rice
- Nasi Minyak (fragent rice)
- Wan Ton Noodle
- Masala Dosa
- Yong Tau Foo
And the following list I suggest to try if you’re looking for that kick…
- Curry Noodle
- Nasi Lemak
- Mee Mamak
- Asam Laksa
Before going any further, it’s important to remember that Malaysia is a very diverse country with several cultures and ethnic groups having an influence on the dishes. Each has their own flare and flavors some spicy and others non-spicy. So by examining these cultures and what they bring to the table you’ll get a better understanding of Malaysian food.
The Major Influences In Malaysian Cuisine
The 3 major cultures that have influenced Malaysian food are Malay, Chinese and Indian. Let’s take a look at each one.
Malay cooking is aromatic, strong and tends to be spicy. Malay cuisine utilizes many of the herbs and spices found throughout South East Asia. Many tourists are a little skeptical to try it for the first time and I always like to tell them to take it slow if you are not used to the spices we use. Give your stomach time to adjust.
One condiment you’ll find coming with a lot of Malay dishes is called Sambal, or spicy chili paste. As with the Nasi lemak. Ginger, lemongrass, shallots, chilies, and garlic are the main ingredients which are blended together and then sautéed.
Other herbs like galangal (lengkuas), turmeric (kunyit), kaffir lime leaves, laksa leaves (daun kesom), wild ginger flower buds or torch ginger (bunga kantan) and screwpine leaves (pandan leaves) are used to add flavor and zest to poultry, meat, and seafood.
Most of the food you’ll find, like a popular Malay dish called Gulai (thick coconut gravy), will be cooked with chilies so therefore it will be spicy. If you go for my personal favorite, Beef Rendang, expect it to have some heat to it (for me the more the better!). For those who are not up for spicy food, you could try a nice and warm Malay clear soup. It’s usually made with seafood (crab soup which is said to be good for dengue fever), chicken or meat.
India is well known for its spices so Indian food is bursting with different harmonies of flavor, but not everything is “spicy”. Indian food has quite a range, however as with Malay cooking and the Malay people, Indians love spicy foods. A large part of the population is considered Malaysian-Indian, so finding Indian delicacies isn’t difficult.
Curries are the most popular and well known of Indian dishes and they can get rather spicy. It’s a popular dish not just among the locals, but a lot of our foodie tourists love to indulge in authentic Indian-Malaysian curries. Curry powder is a mixture of turmeric, chili powder, ground coriander, ground cumin, ground ginger and pepper, and can be bought in mild, medium or hot. Curries can be made with just about anything like mutton, fish, chicken or meat (cows are sacred to Hindu Indians since cows give milk and was a favorite of Lord Krishna, so they don’t normally eat beef) and even vegetables.
But if spicy isn’t your thing, Indian food has plenty of other options that will leave your tongue in tact. One dish that isn’t too spicy is butter chicken. Boneless chicken cooked in a heavy gravy of butter, chili powder, cumin, ginger, and garlic. Samosas are another option which are deep fried pockets of chicken, meat or vegetables. Other dishes, like Roti Canai, served spicy sauce (Dahl and Curry) on the side.
Malaysian Chinese cuisine comes from the Chinese immigrants who brought their recipes with them and were then influenced by their new home in Malaysia. A majority of the immigrants hailed from southern China, but what’s interesting is the difference in the food that comes from the different provinces. So there are modified dishes with roots in Fujian, Cantonese, Hakka and Teochew cuisines.
You’ll find that a lot of Malaysian Chinese dishes that are not spicy, are still favored by the Malay who love other spicy foods. Dishes like Peking duck or Hainanese chicken rice where the rice is flavored with tropical pandan leaves are more aromatic and savory. But it’s still served with chilli sauce for dipping. If you dare.
Other popular Chinese dishes you’ll find that aren’t spicy are: Kolo Mee or Mee Kolok, Lor Bak and Sang Nyuk Mian.
Over 80% of Chinese Malaysians consider themselves Buddhists, and follow a strict vegetarian diet. Noodles and vegetables in broths are very popular and are normally not as spicy as other foods.
Smaller Ethnic Groups and Their Cuisine
Besides Indian, Malay and Chinese, you will find other influences to Malaysian food from smaller ethnic groups and cultures. If you get a chance I recommend trying some of these lesser known dishes as some of the really stand out in flavor.
Many people tend to confuse Indians with the Sikhs and Punjabi. It’s not difficult to do since they are similar races and religions. The rule of thumb is if you see a man wearing a turban, he is most likely a Sikh. The Sikh cuisine also offers a couple of non spicy dishes to add to your list of foods to try in Malaysia.
Shiks, like the Hindu and Chinese Malaysian Buddhists, follow a vegetarian diet. Their menu consists of dishes like Roti (bread made from wholemeal or brown wheat flour), sabzi (cooked vegetable) and dahl (lentil bean soup).
Paneer, a specially prepared cheese sliced in cubes, is similar to tofu when cooked and is more tender and tasty than veal or chicken. It’s a common addition to the vegetarian diet and on its own not spicy.
Marriages between Chinese immigrants and native Malaysians in Melaka and Penang during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries gave way to a hybrid Chinese-Malaysian cuisine known as Baba Nyonya or Peranekan. Most of these dishes are often not spicy and sometimes hard to find.
Taking the Chinese wok cooking style and marrying it with Malay ingredients and Indian spices has resulted in dishes such as : Laksa Nyonya (curry noodles with coconut milk), Ayam Pongteh (Nyonya stewed chicken), Udang Masak Lemak Nenas (curry prawns with pineapple- this one is a little spicy) and for dessert Nyonya Cendol.
One rare, hard to find specialties of the Baba Nyonya cuisine is Nasi Ulam. This is a rich dish prepared with lots of minced fish, vegetables and a mountain of raw herbs that have to be very finely sliced. This dish takes hours to prepare, but those who have been fortunate enough to try it say it’s well worth it. And it’s not spicy at all.
When given the opportunity, our guests jump at a chance to sample some of the recipes of the indigenous tribes of Southeast Asia. Their traditional cooking methods and recipes have been around for a very long time, so they have been perfected and unchanged.
Iban Tribe From Sarawak
The Ibans or Sea Dayaks stem from the Dayak peoples of Borneo, in South East Asia. Most Ibans are located in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. It’s believed that the term “Iban” was originally used by the Kayans. When the Kayans first encountered them, they referred to the Sea Dayaks in the upper Rajang river region as the “Hivan”.
The dish that is synonymous with this tribe is called Pansoh Manok. This is one of the dishes that is prepared in their traditional cooking style called Panish, which simply means the cooking of food or dish in a bamboo stem. Pansoh Manok, features chicken and lemongrass cooked in a bamboo log. The chicken is first marinated for about half an hour with the other ingredients before being placed in the bamboo stem. The open end is sealed with tapioca leaves and then the bamboo is placed by the wood fire to cook for about another 30 minutes.
The steam creates a gravy style broth and then it is served with hot, steamed rice. This is one dish that you have to try.
When it comes to eating or avoiding spicy food in Malaysia there is no hard and fast answer. There are many famous dishes in Malaysia that are known for being incredibly spicy. But as you have seen above, there are plenty of other options for those who don’t have the taste (or the stomach) for spicy foods. And don’t forget. Malaysia has incredible tropical fruits to try and there are plenty of mild noodle dishes for the kids to enjoy.