Malaysian-born chef Ping Coombes gives us the inside track on the gastronomic highlights of her food-loving nation, and the best places to sample them
In Malaysia, you’re constantly surrounded by great food,” says Ping Coombes, 2014 MasterChef winner and now Scott Dunn food consultant. “You’ll find delicious, inexpensive food everywhere. So people eat out a lot.”
Malaysia is a country where different ethnic groups – predominantly Malay, Chinese and Indian – have blended together to create a rich and diverse culture. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the country’s world-famous food. Ping, who hails from Ipoh, a town in Malaysia famed for its cuisine, channelled some of this culinary wizardry into the dishes that propelled her to victory in MasterChef.
Eating out in Malaysia, she explains, tends to be a very informal affair. Much of the best food is found in markets, malls or “hawker” food courts – often a covered area with basic seating surrounded by different stalls, each of which serves a particular speciality. “It’s all very casual,” says Ping. “And because it’s so cheap, you want to try everything.”
The kopitiam, which translates as “coffee shop”, is another local institution. And your first port of call when seeking out classic Malaysian dishes such as satay, char kway teow (stir-fried flat noodles with prawns or cockles and eggs) or nasi lemak (coconut rice with anchovies, peanuts, eggs and cucumber) is a Mamak stall. The Mamak are Malaysians of Tamil Muslim origin, whose forefathers mostly migrated from South India to the Malay Peninsula. “There are Mamak stalls all over the country,” says Ping, “They all have rows of different curries and you drink something called teh tarik, which is very strong tea sweetened with condensed milk.
“every year I go back to Malaysia and every year i discover some amazing new food experience”
“Every year I go back to Malaysia with my family to celebrate Chinese New Year,” Ping adds, “and every year I discover some new food experience. So if you’re thinking of going to Malaysia, here are my recommendations for 10 unmissable gastronomic highlights…”
Penang is world-famous for its cuisine, and one of the most popular local delicacies is a dish called assam laksa – basically a sour fish and tamarind-based soup. It’s distinct to Malaysia but especially to Penang. The most iconic place to eat it is in Air Itam, a suburb of George Town. There’s a huge temple on a hill and at the foot of the hill you’ll find a stall run by an old man. It’s certainly not smart or picturesque, but it’s always full of people who have made the pilgrimage there just to try the famous assam laksa.
A visit to the night market or pasar malam is an evening ritual for Malaysians. It’s hot, sweaty and noisy, and you can buy anything from clothes to kitchen implements. The most famous night market in Kuala Lumpur is Petaling Street. There’s a stall there where they do the most amazing muah chee, a kind of sweet, glutinous rice. They cut it into little pieces and then roll it in sugar, crushed peanuts and sesame. There’s also a very famous chicken rice stall, where they cook the rice in clay pots, and a seafood stall where they serve wok-fried snails that are so spicy, you have to drink ice-cold beer to cool down your mouth. It’s a real experience.
If you want to bring a Malaysian delicacy home with you, I recommend a dried fish called ikan bilis. It’s a type of anchovy that they harvest from the seas around Malaysia. They boil the fish on board to preserve them and when they go back on shore they drain them and lay them to dry in the sun. You can have them fried with peanuts as a snack, and they make the most delicious soup. You’ll find them in any dried seafood stall. But the best place to buy them is in Pangkor Island, which is two hours from Ipoh, and where there’s a beautiful resort called Pangkor Laut. It’s a wonderful place and the ikan bilis are the best in Malaysia.
Cameron Highlands is a beautiful, lush region where people go to escape the heat. Because of its altitude, the weather is much cooler, like an Indian hill station. In fact it’s where they filmed the Channel 4 series, Indian Summers. Cameron Highlands is famous for its black tea, which is still hand-picked and very flavoursome. The BOH plantation in Habu was the first tea plantation in Malaysia and there’s a lovely café there that overlooks the tea gardens. The area is also famous for its vegetables. The best way to eat them is in a local dish called a “steamboat” – basically a pot of hot stock in which you dunk fresh vegetables to cook them. Because the vegetables are so fresh, it’s totally delicious.
If you want more of a fine dining experience there’s a restaurant in Shah Alam, about 25 miles west of Kuala Lumpur, called Dewakan, which has modernised Malaysian food in really imaginative ways. Bizarrely, it’s located on the Glenmarie campus of KDU University College, but the 10-course tasting menu is extraordinary, and over 80 percent of the produce they use is sourced in Malaysia. It gets rave reviews, and is often compared with Copenhagen’s Noma, so you’ll need to book well in advance.
One great thing about Malaysia is that everywhere is child friendly. Anywhere there’s street food we expect children to be there, even when it’s quite late. One dish that kids love is roti canai, which is a type of flaky, paratha-type bread cooked on a griddle and flipped in the air like a pizza. You dip it in condensed milk – we eat that for breakfast. You can also have it with a layer of banana inside the flakes – that’s very popular with kids. You can find roti canai all over Malaysia. And if you want to try it in London there’s a place called Roti King next to Euston station that’s really famous.
The Atmosphere 360 restaurant and bar at the top of the iconic KL Tower has one of the highest viewing decks in the city, and floor-to-ceiling windows. Best of all, as you may have guessed from the name, it revolves. The food isn’t always that amazing but the view is spectacular and it’s a great place to enjoy a sundowner. Malaysia doesn’t really have any signature cocktails to speak of but the barmen here do some interesting infusions with ingredients that are native to the country, such as kaffir lime and lemongrass – basically a Malaysian take on classic cocktails.
People often ask me the best place to eat Malaysian food in the UK and there are some great options. I think Chi Kitchen in London’s Oxford Street (and also Birmingham) is the best. Then again, I would say that because I’m the executive chef! Mandy Yin of streetfood trader Sambal Shiok is another rising star of Anglo-Malaysian cuisine. She’s currently running a pop-up in a Soho pub, The Sun and 13 Cantons. And I’m very impressed by Guan Chua, star of Channel 4’s The Taste, who hosts a supper club [check his blog TheBoyWhoAteTheWorld for details]. But if you want to experience the ultimate Malaysian food experience, there’s only one place to go... Malaysia.
Satay celup is a dish you only really find in one place in Malaysia, in the city of Melaka. There’s a legendary stall there called Capitol Satay Celup. I queued for an hour when I went there but it was definitely worth it. The idea of satay celup is a bit like fondue but instead of cheese they have a pot of satay sauce bubbling away in the middle of the table. There’s a buffet full of skewers of vegetables, seafood, meat, etc. You pick what you want, go back to your table and they bring the satay sauce to you. You then cook your skewer in the bubbling sauce, and use it as a dip. It’s genius – so simple but so amazing.
My hometown of Ipoh is famous for its white coffee, which originated in two cafés in the old town, Sin Yoon Loong and Nam Heong. They’re on opposite sides of the same street. No one really knows which invented Ipoh White Coffee – both claim to have been the first. The coffee beans are roasted with margarine. It has an aroma like no other coffee. It’s sweetened with condensed milk and has a frothy top. To go with it you eat kaya toast, which is very thin slices of bread toasted on charcoal, with a slab of cold, salted butter and a thick layer of coconut curd. And you can also have soft-boiled eggs with soy sauce and white pepper – the ultimate breakfast.
Call Scott Dunn on 020 3603 3566 to arrange your tailor-made trip to Malaysia