Colleen Taylor Sen and Bruce Kraig, noted culinary experts and editors of Street Food: Everything You Need to Know About Open-Air Stands, Carts & Food Trucks Across the Globe, have come together to produce some bonus information on Malaysia not included in the book! Read on to learn all about Malaysian street food, from the Iban specialty Manok Pansoh to the sweet shaved ice treat Chendul, not to mention all of the delicacies in between.
Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy in Southeast Asia, consisting of 13 states and 3 Federal territories, one of which is the capital Kuala Lumpur. It consists of two regions similar in size and terrain and separated by the South China Sea: Peninsular Malaysia, which has a land border with Thailand and is linked to Singapore by a causeway and a bridge, and East Malaysia on the island of Borneo, which Malaysia shares with Brunei and Indonesia. The population is around 31 million, 80% of whom live on the Peninsula. Malaysia’s tropical climate produces a multitude of fruits and vegetables, while the long seacoast makes fish and seafood readily available.
Malaysia is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society, reflecting its geography and history. Waves of migration from the mainland over thousands of years brought settlers speaking a Malay language into the Philippines, the Indonesian Islands, including Borneo, and into Peninsular Malaysia. Because the region held a central position in the ancient spice route, traders and settlers from India started arriving in the first century CE, bringing Hinduism and Buddhism and exerting considerable influence on the region’s culture and politics. Islam was brought by Indian traders in the 12th century and gradually became the dominant religion. Today, Islam is the official religion of the state of Malaysia. Traders from China settled in large groups from the 15th century; others were brought by the British to work in the tin mines in the early 19th century.
The Portuguese, the Dutch and the British established an early colonial presence but from the early 19th century the British took direct and indirect control over parts of the peninsula and Borneo. They brought in Indian and Chinese laborers to work on the rubber and palm plantations which they established. In 1948, the peninsular territories were united as the Federation of Malaya; in 1957 they achieved total independence from Britain. In 1963 Malaya united with North Borneo (Sabah), Sarawak and Singapore to become Malaysia. Singapore left the Federation in 1965 and became an independent country.
About two-thirds of the population consists of native ethnic groups, called bumiputra. The largest of these indigenous groups are Malays as well as various ethnic groups of Borneo, smaller original populations (called orang asli), and ancient Thai- or Khmer-speaking settlers. Around a quarter of the total Malaysian population are of Chinese origin, mainly from Hokkien and Teochew, while 7% are South Asian, mainly Tamils.
Malaysia’s cuisine reflects this religious and ethnic diversity. It shares much in common with the cuisines of Thailand, Indonesia, and other Southeast Asian countries, including the use of coconut, pandan leaves, palm sugar for sweetness, galangal, turmeric and other gingers for spiciness. Calamansi limes (limau kasturi), unripe mangoes, tamarind add the dimension of sour; fermented fish sauces add complexity and depth of flavor. Sambal is a thick paste made by grinding chiles in a mortar and pestle with many of the above basic ingredients in combinations depending on regional traditions or family preferences. It may be used as a condiment for cooking, but also as a fiery relish at table. No meal is complete without a side relish like the hot and pungent sambal belacan, made by pounding together chiles, lime, sometimes shallots, and the pressed and dried fermented shrimp paste called belacan.
There are four main culinary heritages in Malaysia: Malay, Chinese, Indian, and Colonial European. While the various communities have retained their distinctive dishes, they have also produced some delicious hybrids. Descendants of Chinese immigrants, called Peranakans, took Malay wives, affectionately called Nyonyas, who developed a distinct and celebrated cuisine called Nyonya or Peranakan cuisine. It combines Chinese recipes and taste sensibilities with Malay cooking techniques, and incorporated local ingredients including bitter petai beans, torch ginger flowers, candlenuts, and spices such as cardamom and mace. The fermented seeds of the keluak or pangi tree stars in the iconic Nyonya chicken stew called Ayam Buah Keluak. A well-known Nyonya dish from Melaka is Curry Kapitan. (A Kapitan was a prominent member or leader of the Chinese community who served as an intermediary for Malay rulers). In this Nyonya version of Indian chicken curry, pieces of chicken are sautéed in an aromatic paste containing ginger, galangal, lemongrass, candlenuts and “Indian” spices, then simmered in coconut milk laced with a little tamarind for a touch of sourness.
Malaysia’s street food life is one of the most vibrant in the world. Internationally, Kuala Lumpur and Penang are the best known meccas, constantly in the media limelight (CNN recently called Penang Asia’s greatest street food city), their street food vendors passionately debated by enthusiasts on the internet. But other major cities such as Ipoh, Melaka, Johor Bahru and, on Borneo, Kuching and Kota Kinabalu also have thriving street food scenes and provide excellent opportunities to sample regional cuisine. Even smaller and less-visited cities offer local specialties such as fish grilled over charcoal in Kuala Perlis or Kelantanese nasi kerabu, rice tinted blue with the butterfly-pea flower (bunga telang) and served with fried chicken and salted fish in Kota Bharu.
As in other parts of the world, gentrification and rising real estate values have led to the consolidation of street food vendors into permanent stalls in hawkers centers as well as food courts in air-conditioned shopping malls. This has drastically reduced the number of mobile peddlers and portable food carts operating on roadsides or other makeshift urban spaces. Ironically, a lot of Malaysian food as well as eating habits originated from and are still associated with streetside food peddlers. For instance, a standard meal of rice and a choice of two stews or side dishes is called nasi kandar after the shoulder pole (kandar) once used by the ambulant vendor to carry his rice and his curries.
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.
Laksa is often called the “national dish” of Malaysia, nevertheless there are no two versions of laksa that are the same. This noodle soup differs not just from region to region but within towns. Ipoh, Kuala Kangsar, Kuching all have celebrated laksas that radically different, but even with long-established local traditions, laksas are still not produced from set recipes or answer to standardized expectations. The Asam Laksa of Penang or Melaka Curry Mee differ considerably from one vendor or one family to the next. Differences extend to details including the types of aromatic herbs used as garnish, or even the side dishes (e.g. fried salted fish or rice cakes) that are served with it.
Laksa does not just include those noodles in rich and spicy coconut curries. A large class of laksa are so-called asams (asam means sour), generally boiled fish soups, generally not containing coconut milk at all (there are exceptions), but flavored with sour fruits like tamarind or asam gelugor (dried Garcinia). Penang Asam Laksa, one of the most celebrated of these sour soups, is also a pinnacle of Southeast Asian fish cookery. Chub mackerel or ikan kembung is a popular choice for this soup and is cooked with tamarind and other aromatics, shredded off the bone to produce a thick, cloudy stock, which turns even more fragrant and pungent with the addition of a flavoring paste of chiles, lemongrass, galangal, shallots and belacan. It is usually garnished with bean sprouts, Polygonum leaves (daun kesom), julienned torch ginger flower (bunga kantan), sometimes a spoonful of a prawn paste called hae ko. In contrast, the laksa of northern states such as Kelantan or Terengganu (laksa utara) might prefer other types of fishes including eel or flatfishes, boiled with coconut milk to make a “white sauce” (kuoh putih) poured like a gravy over noodles, with mint or Polygonum leaves, raw sliced onions, chopped yardlong beans on top. Sometimes described as a Malay (i.e. not Nyonya) type of laksa, these northern laksa are often eaten with fingers. The laksa of Perlis is served with either a grilled glutinous rice roll stuffed with dried shrimp (pulut udang) or turnovers stuffed with coconut flakes (kuih spera), either one meant to be broken, crushed and mixed into the laksa.
Marinated pieces of chicken, goat, pork, or other meats, strung on short skewers made of bamboo or of the midrib of coconut leaves are grilled on distinctive satay grills: long, narrow, rectangular grills which might be set on a work surface at waist level or even set low by a crouching vendor on the ground. Satay vendors can be spotted from far away as they tend their charcoal fire, fanning vigorously with a traditional palm-leaf fan and causing enticing aromas of burning fat to waft through the area. Satay is typically served with cucumber, onions, bite-sized pieces of a rice cake wrapped in banana leaf called lontong. The sambal served with satay is made with chiles, belacan, various aromatics and spices, and ground roasted peanuts.
Nasi Ayam (Hainanese Chicken Rice) and Nasi Ayam (Claypot Chicken Rice)
Nasi (rice) Ayam (chicken) in Bahasa Melayu (Malay language) refers to at least two very popular kinds of street food in Malaysia. The first is the dish of Hainanese origin, beloved in Chinatowns throughout Southeast Asia. Hainanese chicken rice stalls (as well as stalls offering roasted or grilled chicken rice) are ubiquitous in Malaysia. These are almost always small specialist businesses that rent space in an alley, a hawker center, in front of a store, or that have an arrangement with a kopitiam or with fellow street food business owners to share facilities (e.g. simple tables and plastic stools for customers). In Malaysia as in Singapore, the gently-poached “Hainanese” chicken is served with rice that has been sautéed in chicken fat before being simmered in chicken broth made fragrant with ginger, garlic, sometimes also a pandan leaf. In Melaka, following age-old local street food tradition, this rice is rolled into balls sometimes as big as a fist.
A quite different kind of stall specializes in claypot chicken rice also called nasi ayam. Here, a broad table is required to hold rows of terracotta charcoal braziers-the primordial Southeast Asian cooking stove. Covered clay-and-sand pots are set on top of these portable stoves (a typical small business has about 12-15) to cook individual portions of rice topped with pieces of chicken cooked with soy sauce, ginger, salted fish, Chinese dried sausage, chopped green onions (variations might include dried shiitakes or a garnish of fried anchovies). Masters of claypot rice juggle multiple orders while ensuring that the rice is always fluffy but develops the prized charred crust at the bottom. To connoisseurs, the smokiness that develops with this crust and from the use of charcoal fire is an essential part of the dish!
Roti Canai and Murtabak
Roti canai is a multilayered flatbread made from a simple dough of wheat flour and water, kneaded and oiled with clarified butter (ghee) and proofed overnight. For each order, a ball of this dough is flattened, stretched, repeatedly tossed and slapped against the working surface until paper-thin and translucent, then rolled into a flat round, or otherwise folded into a square to be griddled till golden and crispy. One of Malaysia’s most iconic street foods, roti canai is specifically associated with mamak, i.e. Muslim eateries where it is always served with a gravy or a thin curry with a few tiny pieces of meat or vegetables to use as a dip. Upscale restaurants nowadays often alter that original focus on the delicious bread by piling on meat in the stew. An egg is sometimes spread on the thin dough before the final folds to make roti telur. Or it could be sprinkled with sliced onions for roti bawang. There are also sweet versions with banana and coconut custard (kaya). Roti stuffed with a thick layer of minced meat, beaten egg, vegetables or potatoes is called a murtabak.
Bak Kut Teh (Pork Rib Tonic)
This rich and complex soup is regarded as a health tonic, being prepared by simmering pork ribs with dried medicinal roots and dried spices including star anise, cassia, cloves, fennel seeds and peppercorn. Depending on the individual recipe, the tonic ingredients might include such popular and traditional medicinal roots as those of dang gui (Chinese angelica) or chuan xiong (Sichuanese lovage). Goji berries and dried Chinese jujubes are also considered tonic elements and add sweetness.
Although well-known throughout Southeast Asia among the Chinese diaspora, it was in Malaysia that bak kut teh gained special fame-in particular as a street food once served to laborers from humble stalls or from pushcarts by ambulant peddlers. Today, it is an iconic “hawker” dish in both Malaysia and Singapore, and can be found at specialists operating in rented stalls next to or inside traditional kopitiams, at food courts, and even from luxurious restaurant chains.
Bak kwa (Hokkienese preserved meat)
This savory-sweet dried meat (called bak kwa in Hokkienese, rou gan in Madarin), sold in pressed wafer-thin squares, is popular as a street snack and as a delicacy during the Chinese New Year period. The meat develops rich savoriness and the flavors of caramelized sugars through the slow process of drying, which even today is still often done over a charcoal fire.
Fish head curry
Fish stews are popular throughout Malaysia. In particular, stews of the head of fishes such as kerapu (grouper) or ikan merah (snapper) are specially prized. Connoisseurs speak of the richly gelatinous flavor and texture of fish heads, and of the delicate fish cheek meat. There are countless recipes for fish head curries in Malaysia’s different culinary traditions including many fascinating hybrids. Tamarind, green mango or another sour fruit might be added in different Malay or Nyonya traditions of asam pedas (sour and pungent fish cookery). Coconut milk might or might not be included to enrich. Many Chinese or Nyonya versions might be better described as fish head noodle soups. There are uncomplicated versions with just a few ingredients: ground fresh chiles, a few aromatics, perhaps ground candlenuts (buah keras) to thicken. But there are also recipes with elaborate combinations/pastes of herbs and spices (rempah). Malay recipes derived from different Tamil or Keralan traditions might include a rempah with spices such as fenugreek or mustard seeds, both spices not typically used in Malay cooking. At eateries run by Malaysians of Indian origin, these spices might be introduced into the dish through a different technique: by being “tempered” in hot oil and added at the end of cooking.
O-a-chien or O-chian (Fried Oyster Omelet) (second O-chian: capitalize)
A famous street food of the Hokkienese diaspora throughout Southeast Asia, o-a-chian is also widely available in Malaysian cities such as Penang, from specialist pushcarts, usually manned by a single person. As in many other cities in the region, small tropical oysters are sautéed and folded to cook with eggs beaten with a little sweet potato or tapioca starch to add a desired gummy texture. The omelet is usually allowed to turn lightly brown and crisp on the outside as a contrast to the soft oysters. The o-chian of Kuching (Sarawak) is distinctly different, and unique. Here, a wet batter of flour, water and egg is fried, while constantly being pushed or swirled outwards from the center, until it has turned to a thin, crunchy, often slightly-concave disk. As the batter sets, oysters are added near the center to produce what is in effect a large round oyster fritter. Chopped cilantro leaves or scallions are sprinkled on top to finish the dish.
Ikan bakar (Grilled fish and shellfish)
Because of all the charcoal smoke generated while grilling seafood, stalls offering ikan bakar (also called ikan panggang) tend to be businesses operating outdoors in the open air or under a tent at locales like the night market (pasar malam). Large ikan bakar restaurants, roofed, but open on all four sides are also often seen by major roadsides or highways. The range of seafood depends on what is freshest in the market of the region but national favorites include ikan pari (ray or skate) as well as different rich, oily fishes in the jack or mackerel family (e.g. ikan kembung or ikan cencaru, a type of scad), fishes that hold up to the powerful sambal (spice paste), often belacan-based, that is used to flavor or as marinade. Other vendors might specialize in a seabass like ikan siakap, a snapper (janahak), or fishes with fine, delicate flavor such as pomfret or farmed milkfish, grilled directly over fire, or sometimes protected by a wrapping of banana leaf. Large prawns (udang), cuttlefish (sotong) or in season, crab, are also proudly featured. The customer’s selection is served with rice and the house’s chile dip, but typically a range of vegetable dishes (sayur) is also available for families to construct a full meal from on a night out.
Sweet Dishes and Fruit
Kueh are small pastries or cakes which share the same Southeast Asian heritage as the family of sweetmeats called Kanom Thai or the traditional rice-and-coconut-based sweets of the Philippines called Kakanin. These are all quintessential Southeast Asian street food, steamed, griddled or fried right out on the street in olden days, to be eaten as a snack at all times of the day. Nowadays, in both Malaysia and Singapore, they might be served as part of afternoon tea (a tradition adopted from the British) or as an after-meal dessert.
The word kueh comes from the Hokkienese word for cake, but today it has come to refer to a vast range of sweet and savory street snacks: fritters, dumpling, crepes, European-style wafers, puddings, custards, cookies, various Indian, Eurasian or Nyonya curry puffs, and even fried plantain (pisang goreng, kuih kodok. There are hundreds of varieties and regional forms of kueh, many of them very elaborate.
The traditional repertory of kueh is based on very ancient Southeast Asian permutations on a handful of common ingredients: rice and glutinous rice, grated coconut or coconut milk, palm sugar, banana leaf to line or wrap, pandan as flavoring.
Putu piring is steamed rice cake stuffed with palm sugar made with a batter of rice flour and water scented with pandan.
Putu bambu is also stuffed with gula melaka and scented with pandan but steamed in a bamboo tube and then sprinkled with grated coconut.
In Penang, pushcart vendors sell Tamil putu mayong or mayam, thin rice flour noodles (string hoppers) often extruded right on the street to serve with grated palm sugar and coconut.
Kueh lapis is a cake made of stacked layers of steamed pudding made of glutinous rice flour and sometimes tapioca flour and coconut milk in alternating flavors and colors.
Pulut tai tai, a Nyonya specialty, is steamed glutinous rice, tinted blue with the butterfly pea flower (bunga telang), pressed into a dense cake and served with coconut custard (kaya).
There are various kueh baked inside a Dutch oven, a cast iron pot with live coals underneath and over the cover. There are many kinds of kueh that are steamed in banana leaf, stuffed with banana, or a peanut or sesame seed filling. Kueh also encompasses many Chinese sweets made from either wheat or mung bean flour and used for New Year and other ceremonies by Chinese migrants from Hokkien or Teochew, as well as those influenced by Dutch or Portuguese culinary traditions. Kek lapis legit or Dutch spekkoek is another elaborately layered cake, but baked from a dough of wheat flour, butter and sugar, and flavored with spices such as nutmeg or cloves. Housewives offering Sarawak kek lapis with intricate and colorful criss-crossing patterns can be found selling in lobbies of shopping malls or other urban niches in Kuching and Kota Kinabalu.
Though today it is increasingly difficult to see kueh being prepared right on the street, they are still products of small-scale artisans, often specialists in one single type, made at home or in tiny bakeries or confectionaries in small quantities to be delivered to market as soon as done or to be distributed and peddled on foot, on pushcarts and even in baskets on the back of motorcycles!
Fruits are a popular street food, sold fresh, pickled (jeruk), or in drinks. Roadside fruit stalls display seasonal imported and tropical fruits including pomelo, mangosteen, salak, rambutan and durian. Many of these fruits are offered already peeled, sliced, attractively arranged and packed in clear plastic bags or Styrofoam trays with a bamboo skewer for easy snacking on the run. Tart or crunchy fruits including juicy wedges of rose apple (jambu air) or different varieties of ripe or unripe/green mango that might be sprinkled with salt, chile powder and even fermented shrimp sauce, according to customer’s taste are popular. Vendors might also provide a prepared chile dip.
Rojak or buah rojak vendors are everywhere throughout Malaysia and specialize in chopped fruits including apple, pineapple, guava, jicama, cucumber which are mixed together to the customer’s specification. Cubes of deep-fried tofu, prawn crackers, bean-sprouts, ground peanuts, julienned torch ginger flower (bunga kantan) are also often added to this salad before it is dressed with a spicy sauce, often a salty-sweet variation of sambal belacan. Jeruk stalls often offer two dozen varieties of pickled fruits including such local fruits as nutmeg fruit or belimbi. These are often mixed together sometimes even with salted/preserved fruits (buah kering) to take away!
Popular in various incarnations throughout Southeast Asia, the basic ingredients of this shaved ice treat include coconut milk, palm sugar (gula melaka) and jelly noodles made from rice, mung bean or other flours and flavored with pandan leaf. Vendors might add their own special touches including sweet adzuki beans, sago pearls, bits of fresh fruit and even a scoop of ice cream. In a period when many traditional street food items have been disappearing from public spaces, cendol remains one of the few that can still often found from pushcarts or stalls in pedestrian areas, offering relief from the tropical heat to passersby at all times of the day.
Colleen Taylor Sen and Richard S. Tan