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Malaysia: Southeast Asia's Next Great Foodie Destination

Malaysian food mixes in so many cultures—Arabic, Chinese, Thai, Indian, and more—that you could never appreciate them all in one sitting. So bring your appetite.

British, Dutch, Portuguese, Thai, Indian, Javanese, Arabic, Chinese, Sumatran. Is it any wonder that Malaysian chefs produce some of the most hard-to-resist meals on the planet? Just look at all the cultures thrown into their proverbial pot. Within the country, the culinary landscape changes dramatically from one region to the next, which is why any traveler worth her salted duck egg won't want to stop at just one. To take in the full scope of Malaysian flavors, it's essential to explore (at least) these three top towns.

1. KUALA LUMPUR

THE COSMOPOLITAN CAPITAL

"We are a country of eaters—food is everything," says 36-year-old Kuala Lumpur resident Sherena Razaly, as she sips spiced tea at the Vishal Curry House in Brickfields, an Indian neighborhood near the capital's main train station. She should know: Razaly runs one of the city's most popular Malay restaurants, Enak KL. On her days off, Razaly rotates among her favorite local lunch spots to join the folks on the customer side of the counter. At Vishal, her companions include office workers in collared shirts and bindi-dotted women in saris, and they fill nearly every seat around the restaurant's long, shared tables (181 Jalan Bukit Bintang, enakkl.com, beef rendang $9).

They've come here for banana leaf, an assortment of curries, stewed and pickled vegetables, and rice eaten (without utensils) off a ridged banana leaf the size of a skateboard. Some dishes, such as chicken biryani (a drumstick and a hard-boiled egg hidden beneath a pile of rice that's infused with cinnamon, cloves, and saffron), arrive in a silver bowl—diners just dump the contents onto a leaf and dig in. For those still perfecting their technique, a server stands by with a broom.

 

2. MALACCA

THE COLONIAL TIME CAPSULE

Compared with fast-paced Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, a three-hour bus ride south, might as well be cast in resin. Malaysia's oldest city was once the region's top commercial maritime post, which explains the ruined 500-year-old Portuguese fort and 18th-century Dutch Protestant church. The town's true legacy, though, is not its supply of postcard-ready relics, but its recipes. This is where Malaysia's fusion cuisine all began.

One of Malacca's most popular and eclectic attractions is the half-mile-long Jonker Street, a row of antiques and souvenir shops that transforms into the city's main night market on weekends. Jonker 88, a kitschy café decorated with tattered Chinese lanterns and framed photos of Bruce Lee, caters to the daytime crowd. It's most famous for its cendol, an unbelievable Southeast Asian twist on a snow cone: Vendors fill a bowl with short, fat, pea-flour noodles and kidney beans, followed by a mound of shaved ice and a ladle full of gula Malacca, the town's namesake dark, smoky, palm-sugar syrup. The sweet snack will sustain you through a long stroll along the neighborhood's dreamy, lamp-lit canals (88 Jalan Hang Jebat, jonker88.com, cendol $1.25).

 

3. PENANG

HAWKER-FOOD CENTRAL

If KL is all urban rush and Malacca is frozen-in-time ambience, Penang is understated and slightly frayed. The capital, George Town, is a jumble of quiet streets lined by crumbling, pastel-hued houses with distinctive arched doorways. (UNESCO granted George Town and Malacca World Heritage status in 2008 for their architecture.) You could spend days wandering George Town's narrow alleys and incense-filled temples or months eating your way through the city's hawker centers—casual, open-air complexes filled with vendors of cheap, local meals starting at about $1 per dish.

There are dozens of these places spread around town, so finding an expert guide—of either the human or digital variety—is a must. Each center has its own operating hours and signature dishes, but they all share a common protocol: Customers place orders at individual stalls, wait for the food to be brought to their tables, and pay when it arrives. A new, free Penang Street Food app (for iPad and iPhone) launched by the local tourism board describes 12 essential dishes and narrows down the best vendors to a mere 38. For more targeted advice, Rasa Malaysia, a company run by Bee Yin Low, the author of a top Malaysian food blog, can set travelers up with private tours ( penangculinarytour.com, half-day culinary tour $66; full-day $115). Rasa Malaysia's guides often begin outings with a spin through the bustling morning Chowrasta Market, a fixture since 1890. Its paths take in glistening piles of fish, towers of tomatoes and red chiles, trays of colorful kuih (sweet rice cakes), and suspended cuts of grilled meat. Vendors are happy to chat up curious travelers—and to hand out samples of pork jerky or five-spice pork rolls (Penang Rd., pork jerky $10.50 per pound).