Cover Some of the many dishes Malaysia is known for (Photo: iStock)

From nasi kandar to char kuay teow, these dishes have a special place in the hearts of these culinary masters

Malaysia is a nation of food lovers. Food brings us together; meal times are so valued in our culture that asking if someone has eaten ("Sudah makan?") is a common greeting. In the spirit of Malaysia Day, we ask seven Malaysian chefs which dish reminds them of home. The only catch is that they can't name nasi lemak, perhaps the nation's most iconic dish. Their answers are delightful and surprising.

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1. Chef Aidan Low of Akar Dining

Bak kut teh always reminds me of home, especially when I’m overseas. It brings back a whole lot of memories, eating it on late nights out with my friends and family. My favourite thing about bak kut teh is the broth. If it has just enough coriander, it's just magic. A good bowl always has well-balanced flavours. I’m not a big fan of the dry variety—it’s just too overwhelming for me. The soupy version has a lot more depth, and I always have it with a lot of garlic.

CHEF’S RECOMMENDATION

My go-to place for bak kut teh is Hing Kee in Kepong.

See also: Malaysia Day 2021: 5 Cookbooks That Celebrate Malaysian Cuisine

2. Chef Lee Zhe Xi of Eat and Cook

My choice is nasi kandar with teh o limau ais (iced lemon tea). My ideal nasi kandar is a plate full of flavourful rice with different proteins like fried chicken, seafood or fish, paired with curry sambal squid and pickled vegetables. Nasi kandar has so many flavours and textures, and it reminds me of Malaysia, which is built from different cultures. 

CHEF’S RECOMMENDATION

I like Pelita. Some of their dishes, like the sweet sauce chicken with squid sambal, bring back childhood memories. My first choice, though, is Nasi Kandar Krishnan in my hometown of Teluk Intan. Its chicken is fried on the spot, the curry is always rich and creamy, and the raw chilli sambal with fresh cucumber is simply the best.

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3. Chef Isadora Chai of Bistro à Table

Laksa. Every state has its own version but shares the humble daun kesum or laksa leaf as the common denominator. Laksa transcends race, and I have always been an advocate for considering it our national dish. My favourite is Sarawak laksa because it is rich and complex, especially with added black pepper. My second favourite is Penang assam laksa when I want to watch the calories. I love adding more prawn paste to the soup.

CHEF’S RECOMMENDATION

I make my own Sarawak laksa. I use pure lobster broth, Bintulu belacan, and, of course, added luxurious lobster because I’m spoilt like that (laughs).

Read more: 8 Luxurious Lobster Dishes In The Klang Valley

4. Chef Dave of PB Kitchen

Mee goreng mamak, for sure. It was one of my mum’s favourite foods. When I was young, I would accompany my mother when she went to Segamat from our village, Jementah, in Johor every month to do her banking. Without fail, on our way home, we would drop by a mamak restaurant for some authentic mee mamak.

So when I become vegan, the first dish I really wanted to ‘veganise’ was mee goreng mamak. I made a video of it which many people loved, and it helped my channel go viral early this year.

CHEF’S RECOMMENDATION

I don't really go out to have any, but I hear Bangkok Lane Mee Goreng in Penang is good, and they have a vegetarian version too. I will check it out one day.

See also: Chef Dave Puts A Vegan Spin On Popular Malaysian Dishes

5. Chef Mandy Goh of Kayuputi

The dish I will always recommend and crave for when I’m not in Malaysia is Penang char kuay teow. I like the classic style, with its combination of shrimp, chilli paste, chives, and preserved radish, but my favourite is Duck Egg Char Kuey Teow from Bukit Mertajam. Cooked with charcoal, with smoky, umami-flavoured noodles richly coated in soy sauce, with plenty of crunchy pork lard and a creamy duck egg sunny side up… amazing!

This dish is a big part of my childhood memories, as my grandparents always made me char kuay teow when I was young. I grew with them and the rest of the family in a big house in Perai. Recently, I started having more appreciation for home-style cooking after my dad’s passing a few weeks ago.

CHEF’S RECOMMENDATION

I like going to Mei Le Hwa in Penang.

Read more: Tasting The Best of Penang's Food Culture Through Its Growing Fine Dining Scene

6. Chef Nidzam Ismail, Strato

I would choose rendang because to me, it has a very unique flavour as a result of a diverse mix of local ingredients. It is also one of the most-loved traditional dishes in Malaysia. Most states will serve it during Hari Raya celebrations and their flavours will be different from one another. My favourite is beef rendang, which tastes great with nasi impit (compressed rice cakes) and kuah kacang (peanut sauce). It's the best combination for me.

CHEF’S RECOMMENDATION

It’s very hard to get authentic rendang nowadays. If I really wanted to eat it, I would go back to my hometown in Kota Tinggi, Johor, and have my mom’s cooking. Or I would make it myself.

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7. Chef Chai Chun Boon, formerly of Copper Restaurant

For me, if there is a dish that represents Malaysia even more than nasi lemak, it would be laksa. Every state has their own unique version of it, so it really reflects the diversity of Malaysians. My favourite kind is Sarawak laksa of course, because I’m Sarawakian! The balance of heat and the marriage of spices in the laksa broth is super comforting and never disappoints. That dish is our breakfast, lunch, tea—we never get tired of it.

In the old days, cooks would make laksa paste in their houses. Now it’s done in small factories. I think only a few spice houses produce it and sell it commercially in Sarawak now. The skill and knowledge which requires a balance of so many spice varieties is truly worth a standing ovation.

CHEF’S RECOMMENDATION:

I’m biased because all my favourite places are in Kuching. I like Goodtaste Café Hao Ku Fu and Choon Hui Café, the latter was famously visited by the late Anthony Bourdain.

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