Nevertheless, less formal open-air locales for street food still abound. Residential areas in every large town and city in Malaysia, as throughout Southeast Asia, have night markets (pasar malam) where vendors sell not only food but clothing and household goods at low prices in rows of tented stalls set up before nightfall. They are typically brightly-lit and attract big crowds. In the morning, shoppers visit pasar pagi (morning markets) to buy fresh produce for the day’s meals and enjoy breakfast or a snack. During the Ramadan month of fasting, so-called "Ramadan bazaars" pop-up throughout the country, offering a dizzying array of prepared food to eat on site or to take home for the fast-breaking iftar meal.
In traditional neighborhoods, tiny storefront eateries open to the street and often with seating extending to the sidewalk offer a range of dishes, including many famous street food items. A kopitiam is a traditional coffee shop run by Chinese that in addition to tea, coffee and other beverages offers various noodle or rice dishes including nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaves, often served with boiled eggs and sambal). A classic breakfast of roti bakar (bread toasted over a charcoal fire), kaya (coconut custard), and thick black coffee (kopi-o) is also associated with kopitiams.
A unique Malaysian institution are the mamak stalls owned by Tamil Muslims. They are open 24 hours a day and feature a buffet called nasi kandar where guests select from a display of dishes to eat over rice. So-called "banana leaf restaurants" owned by Tamil Hindus offer South Indian vegetarian curries together with such South Indian dishes as idlis, dosas, sambars, and rasam. [See the entry on India.]
The food in the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah on the island of Borneo reflects their proximity to the sea, rich jungle vegetation, and profusion of tribes and indigenous groups with their own cultures, some of which until recently were hunter-gatherers. Rice, cassava, sago and fish prepared in many different ways, are staples. Rarer delicacies such as sago worms, different kinds of wild ferns or fern tips for salads or for stir-frying, a wild mango called bambangan used in cooking as a souring agent can be found in open-air wet markets (tamu) of big cities and small towns of these states.
Many connoisseurs of street food consider the street food scene of Kuching (capital of Sarawak) and Kota Kinabalu (capital of Sabah) to rival those of the famous food cities on the peninsula. A vast range of nationally-recognized dishes associated with kopitiam or mamak stalls are available at open-air or streetside eateries in distinct and celebrated Sarawakian and Sabahan versions. These include various regional versions of Chinese and Nyonya noodle dishes such as Kuching's Kolo Mee Sarawak Laksa, Sarawakian O-a-chian and Sabahan yellow rice (Nasi Kuning). Heritage dishes of various indigenous peoples, including the Kadazan-Duzuns, the Dayaks and the Ibans can also be found at specialist hawker stalls. An Iban specialty is Manok Pansoh, chicken spiced with lemongrass, galangal, ginger, shallots and then stuffed into a bamboo tube to cook on an open fire.
The most famous street food market in Kota Kinabalu is the Filipino market, which has sections devoted to a large selection of dried and salted fish, handicrafts, fruit and vegetables and open-air food stalls. All the families who run the seafood grills at night are Tausugs from southern Philippines. Prepared foods include stunningly fresh fish and shellfish grilled to order, as well as sliced raw fish prepared in lime, onions, chiles and salt (a traditional preparation called hinava by the Kadazan-Dusun of Sabah and kinilaw by Filipinos). Also from the Philippine south seas are the Bajau-Laut, a sea-nomad people, represented by a few tables at the market. They offer "salads" of sliced green mangoes or different varieties of sea vegetables (agal-agal) mixed with chopped tomatoes, chiles, onions and lime. They also offer the emblematic latoh (another seaweed, usually called sea grapes or green caviar), mixed into one of those sour or sharp salads and served with putu, a word used for various types of rice cakes elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia but here referring to a dense roll of (grated cassava, steamed and eaten as a staple food.
Major Street Foods
Fried noodles and noodle soups
Noodles make up one of the biggest categories of street food in Malaysia; there are countless versions of stir-fried or braised noodles or soups using round or wide, flat rice noodles, beehun (fine thread-like rice vermicelli), thick or thin wheat flour noodles (mee). Throughout the country, hawkers offer dozens of regional forms of noodle dishes within the narrow expanse of a small market stall, oreven from a bicycle-pulled cart. Portable charcoal stoves for woks and vats of boiling broth or sauces are organized economically in this tight space. A seemingly chaotic array of pots or bowls hold pork lard for cooking, as well as dozens of additional ingredients and accoutrements. There are bins for fried shallots or garlic, chopped cilantro or chives, and the different aromatic sambals and chile pastes to flavor or to dollop on top at the end as garnish.
Traditional noodle soups brought long ago by Teochow or Hokkienese migrants have as a base a clear, sweet stock made by simmering pork bones or shrimp-heads and shells, or even a mix of the two. Combinations of traditionally-preferred as well as locally-available ingredients are incorporated or beautifully arranged on top. Johor's famous kuay teow (flat rice noodle) soup feature such a light, clear broth and, variously, fish cake, shrimp, slices of pork liver and kidney, minced pork. In Kuala Lumpur and the greater Klang Valley area, pork ball noodle soups are famous, as well as "pork noodle soups" (zhu rou fen or zhu yuk fun) topped with tripe or thinly sliced intestines. Hawkers often become legendary for unique combinations or touches which might include local oysters, filleted sea bass, dried or fresh homemade sausages, puffed fish maw, abalone slices, greens like choy sum or kangkung (water spinach).
In many Malaysian regional noodle soups, the traditional Chinese stock is completely transformed by the addition of different dried fishes, fermented fish or shrimp sauces, or with specially-prepared flavoring pastes (sambals). Such adaptations to local taste are often seen as examples of borrowing and hybridization in Nyonya cuiisine Penang Hokkien Mee or Hae (prawn) Mee uses such a thick sambal-enriched broth, with egg noodles (mee) or fine rice vermicelli, or both together, topped with prawns, sliced pork belly or a pork rib, hard-boiled egg, sometimes also fried bean curd or cubes of congealed pig's blood. Also considered examples of Nyonya innovation are the various spicy or sour noodle soups, called laksa, flavored either with a souring agent like tamarind, or with coconut milk in addition to the flavoring paste. The latter, often described as a "coconut curry" is the base of a soup like Penang Curry Mee, also called Penang Curry Laksa, which might be topped with fish cake, bean curd puffs, cuttlefish, eggplant and the mangrove clams locally called si-ham or kerang, taken off their shells. Other cities, including Melaka and Kuala Lumpur have their own distinctive Curry Mee. But the universe of laksa is so extensive and complex, it is almost always treated as its own dish, or as a separate category, as we do below.
There are many noodle "soups" that are served "dry" i.e. with only a little soup or a sauce poured over, or sprinkled with fragrant fermented fish sauce. The street stalls of Seremban and Ipoh are famous for Hakka Mee, egg noodles or rice noodles, served dry but napped with soy and fermented fish sauce and topped with minced pork or chicken. Kuching Kolo Mee has char siu (sliced barbecue pork), minced pork and a stalk of bok choy arranged beautifully on top. Then there are hawkers that offer noodles fried on a wok over a raging fire. Kuala Lumpur's Char Mee or Hokkien Mee is not a soup like Penang's, but thick egg noodles fried with pork, squid, prawns, fish cake, vegetables in a dark, thick sauce. Penang Char Kuay Teow, wide flat noodles stir-fried over high heat with shrimp, Chinese sausage, bean sprouts, si-ham clams, chives is today an item of fetish among visiting food tourists.