• Traditional nasi lemak makers in Penang, Malaysia. (Ullstein Bild/Getty Images)Source: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images
Asia Unplated host Diana Chan picks five dishes you can’t miss when visiting her home country.
Audrey Bourget

20 Feb 2020 - 11:21 AM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2020 - 2:23 PM

“When I think about eating food in Malaysia, I think about the sights and the smells and the ambiance,” says Diana Chan, host of Asia Unplated. “A lot of it comes from the street food. So street food is virtually available at any time of the day in Malaysia. From early hours of the morning to late at night to wee hours of the morning again

“Growing up in Malaysia, my memories of food are very strong. One thing Malaysians are good at is eating and cooking,” she says.

“Growing up in Malaysia, my memories of food are very strong. One thing Malaysians are good at is eating and cooking,”

“Malaysia is very multicultural. One morning we’d eat something like a bowl of noodles, which is predominantly Chinese. Then another morning we’d have our national dish, nasi lemak, which is Malay. And then another day you’d go to an Indian shop and have roti canai.”

From a bowl of laksa with Italian influences to her take on a popular sweet, Chan talks us through five of her favourite Malaysian dishes.

1. Regional laksa

“There’s a common misconception about laksa. Everyone knows laksa, but most people think there is only one type, which is not true,” says Chan.

There are indeed several variations of the noodle dish, starting off with a base made with coconut milk, tamarind or a mix of both. On the series Asia Unplated, Chan invites Sijori Malay Eatery’s Engku Putri Irna Mysara to make a laksa from their home state of Johor. 

Laksa johor

The base of this laksa is made with fish stock, coconut milk and tamarind. “We also use spaghetti noodles,” says Chan. “The reason why is that back in the days, the sultan of Johor went to Italy and loved spaghetti so much that he brought it back and created this trend. It’s the most random thing, but it works.”

Because laksa Johor is drier than most laksa, its base feels like thick gravy. “I think of it like a fish Bolognese,” adds Chan.

Nyonya fish cakes

'Nyonya' cuisine is a hybrid of Chinese and Malay flavours. These fish cakes are a perfect example, infused with the taste and soul of both cultures.

Laksa Johor

Legend has it the old King of Johor traveled to Italy and fell in love with spaghetti. He brought it back to Malaysia and had his royal chefs create a sort of gravy to accompany it, creating laksa Johor.

2. Otak-otak or Nyonya fishcakes

Combining Chinese and Malay flavours, this ground fish paste is seasoned with spices and aromatics like galangal, turmeric and lemongrass. It’s then steamed or grilled in a banana or coconut leaf.

Anywhere in Muar, the capital of Johor, if you walk down the street you can smell the otak-otak grilling on the charcoal.

3. Nasi lemak

You can’t go to Malaysia and not have nasi lemak. The dish features a pile of coconut rice surrounded by an egg (boiled or fried), peanuts, dried anchovies, sambal, cucumber, and often a side like beef rendang, fried chicken or fish.

“It’s the most popular dish in Malaysia. It’s the national dish; they even serve it on flights. You can eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner; at any time of the day,” says Chan.

4. Char kway teow

To make this iconic dish, flat rice noodles are stir-fried in a wok with prawns, Chinese sausage, garlic chives, egg, beans sprouts and a sauce, which is unique to each chef.

Chan says the keys to her char kway teow are fresh ingredients, her sauce recipe and pork lard. “You buy fresh pork back fat and make your own. That’s the tedious part, but it coats the whole dish and makes it so delicious.”

5. Kuih Keria

These deep-fried sweet potato doughnuts covered in sugar are a common afternoon snack in Malaysia and can be found piled high at street stalls and night markets. Inspired by the snack, Chan has created a recipe where she transforms the doughnuts into churros, which are sprinkled with Sichuan peppercorn sugar.

Sweet potato churros (Keria churros)

Kuih keria are a classic Malaysian sweet potato doughnut served as a popular street snack. Diana Chan has turned them into a churro version, sprinkled with floral Sichuan sugar.

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Catch Diana Chan and friends cooking and eating their way across Asia in Australia in the brand-new series, Asia Uplated with Diana Chan on SBS On Demand. Follow the five to try series here.

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