A version of this article appeared in the National Geographic book Destinations of a Lifetime.
Start in Singapore and journey up penninsular Malaysia, from the country's hot, flat south to its hilly, jungly north, and you'll see the influences that Chinese, Indian, and Arab traders have had on the region's cuisines during the last two thousand years.
In Malacca, an ancient spice-trading port on the country's west coast, try dishes that combine Chinese and Indian ingredients with Malay cooking sensibilities, such as popiah, jicama-stuffed Chinese spring rolls drizzled with a typically Malay-style peanut sauce.
Then travel by bus to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's largest city. The culinary identity of its three million residents is shaped by the three ethnic groups that call it home: the Malays, the Chinese, and the Indians. Stroll through Chinatown and enjoy excellent Hokkien and Hainanese fare. Take a trip to Kampung Baru, one of the city's Malay enclaves, and sample nasi lemak, Malay-style coconut rice, fragrant with ginger. Visit Brickfield's district for an authentic taste of South India. Or savor the elements of all three in such uniquely Kuala Lumpur dishes as kare laksa, one of Southeast Asia's—if not the world's—most delicious noodle dishes. (Here are the top things to do in Kuala Lumpur.)
End your travels in George Town, a city on the small Malaysian island of Penang. Street foods reach their South Asian apogee here: it seems as if every square inch of public real estate has been taken over by vendors (or hawkers, as they're called locally) offering their tempting fare.
Highlights not to miss
- In Singapore, seek out ketam lada hitam (black pepper crab), a street-hawker specialty flavored with ginger, fresh tumeric, and black peppercorns.
- Nibble on a satay stick when it's warm and infused with the primal aroma of the fire it was cooked over. The origins of the dish are thought to be the kebabs that Arab spice merchants introduced to Java, Indonesia, in the 8th century. The Javanese embraced the Arab kebabs, developing marinades with their favorite aromatics, including cilantro, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, garlic, and shallots.
- Malaysia is a snacker's paradise and street food has been raised to an art form. Visit a hawker center, where as many as 300 merchants offer their specialties from tiny stalls under constantly whirring ceiling fans.
When to go
The weather is warm all year. There are two rainy seasons—in April-May and October-November—but rainstorms do not usually last long.
A month is ideal, but the trip could be done in two weeks.
You can make the entire journey by train, or mix train and bus. If you are traveling by train, change at Tampin for Malacca. You can catch the ferry to Penang at Butterworth.
Food is usually eaten with the fingers of your right hand, without the help of utensils. Pick up the food in smallish, bite-sized clumps employing only your fingertips, as though gently squeezing a large strawberry. Use your thumb to slide the food away from your fingertips and into your mouth. The exception is noodle dishes, which are consumed with chopsticks by nearly everyone.