Malaysia is a melting pot of cultures, so it is no surprise that we have countless dishes and snacks that are unique to our country.
Food enthusiast Junaid Ibrahim, 25, has travelled around Malaysia in pursuit of new adventures and experiences, which include trying some of these special dishes.
“Malaysia has a wide range of gastronomic offerings all over the country as a result of the blend of cultures we have. Being a food tourist helps me get a sense of a place, as well as discover its heritage, ” Junaid said.
Here are some of the food items that are either unique to a state, district or even kampung, that you may or may not have heard of. Once we can travel safely again, perhaps we can go on our own food journey, in search of these gems.
These tarts used to be known as ngau si dui, or “a pile of cow dung” in Cantonese, so named because of their shape. Today, these treats have been “unofficially” renamed UFO tarts, and you can find them in Sandakan, Sabah.
Locals say that the tarts have been around since 1955; they were accidentally created by a Hainanese baker named Fu Ah On. As the story goes, Fu was making some regular tarts one day but had overbaked a few of them.
Though the tarts were burnt, they actually tasted better so he decided to sell them in his shop. To his surprise, the tarts were well received by his customers, who asked him to make more.
UFO tarts have a thin cake base and a sweet custard topping, as well as meringue. It is best eaten chilled, with a cup of black Tenom coffee.
Tiyula itum or black soup is a traditional meal of the Sulu people from Mindanao, the Philippines, but these days, it is a common dish among the Suluk, Bugis, Bajau and Orang Sungai communities in Sabah.
It is usually served with rice or piutu, which itself is a unique food item. Piutu is a staple food made from boiled cassava, that is mashed and formed into a tube-like shape.
The meat-based (chicken or beef) black soup gets its dark colour from burnt coconut flesh that is combined with plenty of spices and herbs as flavouring. It is eaten on special occasions like weddings, birthdays and even Hari Raya, where you can pair it with ketupat or lemang.
Etok or etak is a type of freshwater clam. In Kelantan, you can find etok salai, or grilled clams, served with rice or eaten on its own as a snack.
The clams are marinated with lemongrass, ginger, garlic and some spices, and then grilled on charcoal fire.
They are usually sold at small shops or roadside stalls so do look out for them the next time you travel to Kelantan – when the interstate travel ban is lifted, of course.
Bunga Pudak is a traditional Malay cake that’s popular in Kedah, especially in the northern areas like Jitra and Alor Setar. The cake comes in many beautiful colours and is made from glutinous flour and grated coconut.
This kuih is not easily found these days as it is usually only eaten on special occasions. However, you can find plenty of recipe blogs and vlogs that show you how to make these treats.
Tumpik is a Melanau specialty in Sarawak and is made from sago flour and coconut flakes. They may be described as traditional pancakes, though they come in many shapes and even flavours.
The “original” tumpik, though, is normally eaten with gula apong or palm sugar syrup. You can also find savoury ones, where they are thicker and filled with prawns.
“Tahi itik” is translated as duck droppings but this kuih is nothing like the name suggests!
Kuih tahi itik is a traditional snack found in Kelantan and Terengganu and is commonly served together with buah tanjung (a yellow, teardrop-shaped kuih) and jalamas (a stringy kuih).
This is because kuih tahi itik is made with lots of egg whites, while buah tanjung and jalamas use egg yolks. Duck eggs are preferred for these snacks as that’s how they were traditionally made (you can make them with chicken eggs too).
The name of the kuih comes not only from the use of duck eggs in the recipe but also because they are white in colour, and shaped like eggs. A single clove is pressed in the middle of each kuih for presentation and flavour.
No bees were harmed in the making of this dish...
Bubur anak lebah or “bee larvae porridge” looks similar to the green cendol lumps, and is usually served during special occasions celebrated by the Rawa people in Perak.
It is a sweet pandan-based dessert.
Described as a special pudding for the Pahang royal family, Puding Raja can also be found in Kelantan and Terengganu.
This dessert is made up of pisang lemak manis (a type of local banana), evaporated milk, prunes, candied cherries and cashew nuts, and then topped with yellow jalamas. It is very colourful, and a lot easier to find these days than some of the other dishes featured here.
This traditional snack looks like a snail shell and is famous in Johor, especially in the northern parts of the state. Mee siput can be eaten with many things including sambal, chilli sauce, anchovies and curry.
For the more adventurous folks, try pairing it with something sweet like a chocolate spread or kaya!
Some people also call this snack, “roti jala kering”.
Halwa Maskat is a special dish found in Penang, though it actually originated from Turkey. Some say it is a cross between a Turkish delight and nougat, and it is yellow and orange in colour.
The halwa maskat is made from wheat flour, sugar, ghee and cashew nuts, cooked over a small fire for at least eight hours. This is quite similar to how you would make dodol.
Emping is a traditional snack commonly found in the northern region of Malaysia especially in Perlis and Kedah, and it is made from rice.
These rice flakes are eaten for breakfast and served with grated coconuts, sugar and salt.
The process of making emping beras, usually available during padi harvesting season, is tedious, but the result is worth all the work.
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