Nasi lemak: a versatile fragrant coconut rice dish served with various accompaniments, e.g. eggs (either done sunny side up or boiled), sambal sotong, rendang, ayam goreng, etc. It is the most defining feature of a Malay-style breakfast.

Malay cuisine is the traditional food of the ethnic Malays of Southeast Asia, residing in modern-day Malaysia, Indonesia (parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan), Singapore, Brunei, Southern Thailand and the Philippines (mostly southern) as well as Cocos Islands, Christmas Island, Sri Lanka and South Africa.

The main characteristic of traditional Malay cuisine is the generous use of spices. Coconut milk is also important in giving Malay dishes their rich, creamy character. The other foundation is belacan (prawn paste), which is used as a base for sambal, a rich sauce or condiment made from belacan, chilli peppers, onions and garlic. Malay cooking also makes plentiful use of lemongrass and galangal.[1]

Nearly every Malay meal is served with rice, which is also the staple food in many other Asian cultures. Although there are various types of dishes in a Malay meal, all are served at once, not in courses. A typical meal consists of a plate of rice for each person on the table. Dishes are meant to be shared among the diners and each dish is provided with a spoon. The diner proceeds to spoon the dishes of his choosing onto his rice plate. Food is eaten delicately with the fingers of the right hand, never with the left which is used for personal ablutions, and Malays rarely use utensils.[2]

History and influences

It is uncertain when the Malay culinary traditions took shape, but the earliest record of the tradition is from the 15th century when Malacca Sultanate became the important trade centre in the Malay archipelago.[3] The most important legacy of Malacca derived from its involvement in the spice trade, its openness to the ingredients and culinary techniques introduced by foreigners notably the Arabs, Persians, Chinese and Indians and its cultivation of a rich eclectic gastronomy. Malacca was also a catalyst for the development of two other rich and unique culinary cultures which are the fusion of Malay with Chinese and European traditions, cuisines respectively known as Nyonya and Eurasian. In the centuries before and after Malacca, there were other non-Malay groups from Buginese and Javanese to Minangkabau who were absorbed into Malay society at different times, aided by similarity in lifestyle and a common religion, and had varying degrees of influence on Malay food.[4]

It is important to understand the nuance and differences of what makes a dish Malay, which is intertwined with the differences between the concept of Malay as an ethnic group or as a race. In Indonesia, Malay cuisine more specifically refers to the cuisine of ethnic Malay people who traditionally inhabit the east coast of Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula and coastal Borneo. In Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and outside the Malay archipelago (such as Sri Lanka and South Africa) however, the term "Malay cuisine" often takes a broader scope, which includes the culinary traditions of other neighbouring common Austronesian peoples, often including Minangkabaus, Javanese and Bugis, or even their fusion derivatives.

Nasi lemak, rice cooked in rich coconut milk, is probably the most popular dish, ubiquitous in Malay towns and villages. Nasi lemak is considered Malaysia's national dish.[5] Another example is ketupat or nasi himpit, compressed rice cooked in palm leaves. It is popular especially during Hari Raya. Various meats and vegetables could be made into gulai or kari, a type of curry dish with variations of spice mixtures that display an Indian influence long present in Malay cuisine. Since most Malays are Muslims, Malay cuisine rigorously observes Islamic halal dietary law. Protein intake is mostly taken from beef, water buffalo, goat, and lamb, and also includes poultry and fish. Pork, non-halal meat, and alcohol are prohibited. Laksa, a fusion of Malay and Chinese cuisine, is also a popular dish. Malay cuisine has also adopted some neighbouring food traditions, such as rendang adopted from Minangkabau cuisine in Sumatra, nasi ulam from Betawi cuisine and satays from Javanese cuisine in Java. However, the Malays have developed distinctive tastes and recipes.

Malay cuisine has also spread outside the Malay archipelago and influenced other cuisine there. Bobotie is a South African dish with its origins in Cape Malay. It consists of spiced minced meat baked with an egg-based topping. Of the many dishes common to South Africa, bobotie is perhaps closest to being the national dish because it is not commonly found in any other country. The recipe originates from the Dutch East India Company colonies in Batavia, with the name derived from the Indonesian bobotok. In other countries, kalu dodol is a Sri Lankan dessert with Sri Lankan Malay origins. It consists of kithul jaggery (from the sap of the toddy palm), rice flour and coconut milk.


Nearly every culture and language has contributed to the culinary language, including Malay with its own food terminology embracing its preparation, methods of cooking, and numerous food names.[6] Malay food terminology has been shaped by cultural transmission over many generations.[7] Traditionally Malay parents would pass down the skills and processes of cooking to their children through daily cooking activities as well as traditional events, including wedding ceremonies.[8]

Food preparation

Typical festive fare during Hari Raya Puasa or Hari Raya Haji (clockwise from bottom left): beef soup, nasi himpit (compressed rice cubes), beef rendang and sayur lodeh.

In Malay food preparation, the ingredients used are often described as spicy and flavorful as it is a melting pot of spices, herbs and roots. Strong, tangy and flavorful fresh herbs, spices and ingredients such as serai (lemongrass), pandan (screwpine), kemangi (a type of basil), kesum (polygonum), buah pala (nutmeg), kunyit (turmeric) and bunga kantan (wild ginger buds), biji sawi (mustard seeds) and halba (fenugreek) are often used. There are also a number of terms used for the equipment and utensils used for food preparation.[9] Traditional cooking equipment includes several types of grinders called lesung batu (pestle and mortar), batu giling (stone roller), and the batu boh (mill) used for preparing spices and pastes. Vegetables are diced on a landas (wooden cutting board); while a coconut scraper or kukur niyur is indispensable in making both curries and sweets. Pastries are also made for desserts and for this a torak (rolling pin) and papan penorak (pastry board) are considered essential.

Cooking methods

Tempoyak ikan patin, pangasius fish in fermented durian sauce

Traditional cooking methods in Malay cuisine are quite similar to life in Malay villages, slow and relaxed, as most Malay food is cooked on low heat for a long time compared to Chinese food.[10] There are numerous methods of cooking which consist of dry and moist methods.[11] Tumis (using a small amount of oil or fat in a shallow pan over relatively high heat), salai (food smoked or grilled with the ingredients often cut into pieces or thinly sliced to facilitate fast cooking), sangai (food, mainly dried spices, fried without oil), and layur (warmed over low heat to dry) are examples of terms for dry-heat cooking methods. On the other hand, moist-heat cooking methods includes terms such as tanak (cooking in a pot, especially rice), jerang (boiling or simmering), celur (blanching or dipping food such as vegetables into hot water) and reneh (simmering or boiling food).[12]


As defined by Ainuddin, Malay food has five characteristics:

Regional cuisine variations


Ambuyat, national dish of Brunei

Bruneian Malay cuisine is often spicy and commonly eaten with either rice or noodles. Beef rendang, nasi lemak and pajeri nanas are popular foods in Brunei.[13] Among the few dishes peculiar to Brunei is ambuyat, a sticky ball of flavourless sago starch, which is wrapped around a bamboo fork and dipped into a spicy and sour gravy.

Nasi katok, which literally means "knock rice", is a popular meal which consists of plain rice, fried chicken and sambal, a spicy relish made from ground chilli peppers and a variety of secondary ingredients including but not limited to shrimp paste, garlic, ginger, shallot, scallion, palm sugar, lime juice, vinegar and anchovies. Nasi katok is traditionally served wrapped in brown paper.


Otak-otak in banana leaf

The cuisine of Malay Indonesians spread on the east coast of Sumatra and Kalimantan, primarily West Kalimantan. Because of the close ethnic kinship and proximity to Malaysian Malays, many dishes are shared between the two countries. For example, nasi lemak and nasi ulam are considered native dishes of Riau and Jambi. Malay cuisine also shares many similarities with the neighboring Minangkabau cuisine of West Sumatra, Palembangese cuisine of South Sumatra and Acehnese cuisine of Aceh, such as sharing gulai, asam pedas, kari, lemang, nasi minyak, pempek, pindang, rendang and roti canai. This is due to the fact that the Minangkabaus are culturally closely related to the Malays. Malay Indonesian cuisine has also been influenced by Arab, Betawi, Chinese, Indian and Javanese cuisine.

Otak-otak is a dish involving fish pieces wrapped in banana leaves. The grilled fish cake is made of ground fish mixed with tapioca starch and spices.

Sambal belacan made of fresh chillies and belacan

Tempoyak is a fermented durian sauce[14] and sambal belacan is a Malay-style sambal made of fresh chillies and toasted belacan in a stone mortar. Both are familiar condiments in Sumatra.

Other Malay Indonesian dishes include acar, amplang, ayam goreng, ayam pansuh, ayam penyet, ayam percik, begedil, bihun goreng, bobotok, bubur asyura, bubur cha cha, bubur lambuk, bubur pedas, cincalok, epok-epok, various gulai, ikan bakar, various ikan patin dishes, kangkung belacan, kemplang, ketupat, kwetiau goreng, various laksa, lepat, lontong, martabak, mi celor, mi goreng, mi kari, mi rebus, nasi ambeng, nasi briyani, various nasi goreng, nasi kari, nasi kebuli, pekasam, rojak, roti jala, roti john, roti tisu, sambal sotong, samosa, satay, sayur lodeh, various siput gonggong dishes, soto, soto mi, sup ikan, sup kambing, sup rusa, tauhu goreng, tekwan, terang bulan and ulam.


Sirap bandung drinks

Malaysian Malay cuisine bears many similarities to Malay Indonesian cuisine. It has also been influenced by Chinese, Indian, Thai, Javanese and Minangkabau cuisine. Many Malay dishes revolve around the rempah, which is usually sauteed in oil to draw out its flavours to form the base of a dish. A dipping relish called sambal is an essential accompaniment for most Malay dishes.

Nasi lemak is rice cooked in rich coconut milk and considered Malaysia's national dish.

The drink sirap bandung consists of evaporated or condensed milk flavoured with rose syrup, giving it a pink colour. The drink is an adaptation of rose milk from India.

Other Malay dishes in Malaysia include apam balik, ayam goreng, ayam masak merah, ayam pansuh, ayam percik, bubur pedas, char kway teow, cincalok, ikan bakar, various kari, karipap, kebebe, kerabu, keropok lekor, kerutuk daging, various laksa, Maggi goreng, masak lemak, mee bandung, mee Jawa, mee kolo, mee siam, mee soto, mee wantan, nasi ambeng, nasi beriani, nasi dagang, Nasi kerabu, nasi goreng, nasi paprik, nasi tumpang, pek nga, roti canai, roti john, satay, taugeh ayam, tempoyak and ulam.


Situated between Malaysia and Indonesia, Singaporean Malay dishes are influenced by the food of the neighbouring Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Java and the Riau Islands. Despite absorbing regional influences, it tends to be adapted to local tastes and differ from its counterparts in neighbouring countries.[15] Hence, Singaporean Malay cuisine features a unique set of influences, especially from Minangkabau and Javanese cuisine.

Dendeng is a thinly sliced dried meat. It is preserved through a mixture of sugar and spices and dried via a frying process and shows Minangkabau influences.

Other Malay Singaporean dishes include assam pedas, bakso, curry puff, gulai daun ubi, Katong laksa, ketupat, lemak siput, mee siam, mee goreng, naan, nasi goreng, nasi lemak, nasi padang, rojak bandung, roti john, sambal stingray, satay, satay bee hoon, soto and sup tulang.

South Africa

Sosatie made up of chicken

Cape Malay cuisine is a tradition of the Cape Malay people in South Africa. It has been influenced by Malay and Javanese cuisine. Thus, Cape Malay influence has brought spicy curries, sambals, pickled fish and a variety of fish stews to South Africa. Adaptations of traditional foods such as bobotie and sosatie are staples in many South African homes. Faldela Williams wrote three cookbooks, including the Cape Malay Cookbook, which was instrumental in preserving the cultural traditions of Cape Malay cuisine.[16][17]

Sosatie is a traditional Cape Malay dish of meat (usually lamb or mutton) cooked on skewers.[18] The term is derived from sate (skewered meat) and saus (spicy sauce). To prepare it, mutton chunks are marinated overnight in fried onions, chillies, garlic, curry leaves and tamarind juice, then threaded on skewers and either pan-fried or grilled.[19]

Cape Malay yellow rice, a sweet dish made with raisins, cinnamon and sugar, also has its origins in Cape Malay cookery, often referred to as Cape Malay yellow rice.[20]

Other Cape Malay dishes include biryani, boeber, chutney, falooda, frikkadel, koesister, roti, sambals, samoosa and tomato bredie.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan Malay cuisine has played a significant role in shaping Sri Lankan cuisine. Achcharu is a dish that originates from the local Malay community and is now widely popular among all ethnic groups in the country.[21][22] It is a selection of vegetables in a pickled sauce and blends sweet, sour and spicy flavours.[23] Mee goreng and nasi goreng are also popular, a result of cultural influences from Indonesia and the country's Malay community.[24][25][26]

Other Sri Lankan Malay dishes include varieties of curry, ekor sop, kalu dodol, sambals and watalappam.

List of Malay dishes



Malay condiments


Kue and kuih

Main articles: Kue and kuih

Kue and kuih (plural: kuih muih)[34] is a selection of confectionery eaten as a snack during the morning or during midday, and is an important feature of festive occasions. It is a tradition shared by both the Malay and the Peranakan communities.


Teh tarik

See also


  1. ^ James Alexander (2006). Malaysia Brunei & Singapore. New Holland Publishers. p. 58. ISBN 1-86011-309-5.
  2. ^ World and Its Peoples: Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Brunei. New York: Marshall Cavendish Corporation. 2008. p. 1222.
  3. ^ "Tracking down fine Malay food". Star Publications (M) Bhd. 17 October 2010. Archived from the original on 28 June 2011. Retrieved 18 March 2011.
  4. ^ Rosemary Brissenden (2007). Southeast Asian Food: Classic and Modern Dishes from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Periplus Editions. pp. 175–176. ISBN 978-0-7946-0488-2.
  5. ^ "Nasi Lemak". Archived from the original on 27 July 2010. Retrieved 6 July 2010.
  6. ^ Omar, Asmah (2004). The Encyclopedia of Malaysia, Languages and Literature. Singapore: Didier Millet. ISBN 9789813018525.
  7. ^ Mohamed, A; Mohamad, S; Hussain, H (2010). "Food gifts in Malay Weddings: Custom and Interpretation". Journal of Social Studies, Development and Environmental. 5 (1): 103–115.
  8. ^ Kasim, Aishah (2008). "Malay Language As a Foreign Language And The Singapore's" (PDF). GEMA Online Journal of Language Studies. 8 (1): 47–56.[permanent dead link]
  9. ^ Chan, Kim Lian (2011). Authenticity Representation of Malay Kelantan Ethnic Cuisine (doc). The 2nd International Research Symposium in Service Management. Yogyakarta. p. 458. Retrieved 9 February 2016.
  10. ^ S.H, Hassan (2011). "Consumption of functional food model for Malay Muslims in Malaysia". Journal of Islamic Marketing. 2 (2): 104–124. doi:10.1108/17590831111139839.
  11. ^ S.A, Rahman (2010). "Malay cultural and heritage tourism at Bukit Chandan, Kuala Kangsar, Perak, Malaysia". Unitar e-Journal. 6 (2). Archived from the original on 16 June 2016.
  12. ^ Abdullah, Khairunnisa (2014). Malay Cooking Method Terminologies: Understanding and Usage (PDF). 2nd ASEAN Entrepreneurship Conference 2014. Penang. pp. 7–12.[permanent dead link]
  13. ^ "Brunei - Cuisines of Brunei". 1Up Travel. 17 May 2007. Retrieved 30 September 2010.
  14. ^ "What Is Tempoyak?". Year of the Durian. 14 November 2014.
  15. ^ Minorities at Risk (MAR) Project assessment for Malays in Singapore Archived 28 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ Jackman, Rebecca (28 May 2014). "Cape Malay Cooking Guru Faldela Williams Dies at 62". Cape Times. Cape Town, South Africa. Retrieved 13 November 2016 – via HighBeam Research.[dead link]
  17. ^ Lewis, Esther (27 May 2014). "Faldela Williams lives on in cookbook". Johannesburg, South Africa: IOL. Archived from the original on 13 November 2016. Retrieved 13 November 2016.
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  19. ^ "Footprints in the Sand". South African Tourism. Archived from the original on 7 January 2007. Retrieved 19 January 2007.
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  21. ^ "Sri Lankan Malay Pickle (Malay Achcharu) - Food Corner". 29 September 2011.
  22. ^ "Malay Pickle (Sri Lankan Style)".
  23. ^ Kareem, Nasuha (21 September 2014). "Lavish Treats: Malay Pickle (Achcharu)".
  24. ^ "Nasi Goreng (Indonesian Fried Rice) - Food Corner". 30 April 2011.
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  27. ^ a b "15 Negeri Sembilan Dishes You Should Try Before You Die- Apam Johol". Says. Archived from the original on 6 December 2017. Retrieved 6 December 2017.
  28. ^ Borneo: Sabah, Brunei, Sarawak. Bradt Travel Guides. 2012. p. 106. ISBN 9781841623900.
  29. ^ Jonathan Chia (7 June 2010). "Sarawak "belacan beehoon": An all-time favourite". The Borneo Post. Retrieved 5 June 2015.
  30. ^ "Simple Malay Food Recipes". 18 April 2018. Retrieved 2 August 2020.
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  32. ^ "Pekasam". Department of Fisheries Malaysia. Archived from the original on 26 March 2014. Retrieved 26 March 2014.
  33. ^ Owen, Sri (1993). The Rice Book. Doubleday. ISBN 0-7112-2260-6.
  34. ^ "Kuih muih". Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia (in Indonesian). /kuih muih/ bermacam-macam kue
  35. ^ "Cape Malay Koesisters". Gateway Magazine. 25 April 2012.
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