The Best Food In The World Is In Malaysia

Batu Caves Monkey
Monkey at Batu Caves outside of KL

As a foreign service kid growing up, I lived in Zambia, Taiwan, Malaysia, Japan, and The Philippines. Then I worked in international equities for 13 years and traveled to over 60 countries. As a lover of food, I think the best food in the world is in Malaysia.

After 24 years, I finally returned to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a place I called home between 1988 – 1991 as a middle school student at The International School of Kuala Lumpur (ISKL). I'd been wanting to go back for the longest time, but I never made the effort because it takes 20+ hours to get to from San Francisco.

When an ISKL classmate told me he was going to marry a mutual friend, I knew it was now or never! I decided to make it an extended four week trip by first stopping in Seoul for five days, then Kuala Lumpur for the wedding, then Pulau Redang for an island honeymoon getaway with the newlyweds, then Angkor Wat to see the ancient temples, and finally Taipei.

If you've never been to Malaysia, you've got to go. The food is amazing, the people are friendly, and the attractions are wonderful. This post focuses on the food.

Eat, Drink, & Eat Some More Of The Best Food

Without a doubt Malaysia has one of the top cuisines in the world due to incredible taste and extremely good value. I can say with confidence the best food of the world is in Malaysia.

This is a personal finance site after all! No other country blends spices so well as to create heavenly dishes such as roti canai, nasi lemak, chicken fish(!), chicken satay, mee goreng, and kangkung belachan. When you blend together Malay, Chinese, and Indian cuisine, gastro perfection is inevitable!

What I didn't expect on my trip back was how good the Japanese food is in Malaysia, especially at a place called Manmaru, located at the Atria Mall in Petaling Jaya. 

I've eaten at plenty of 5-star Japanese restaurants like Nobu in New York City and dined at many restaurants in Tokyo and Kobe, Japan (grew up there for two years).

The meals I had at Manmaru in KL were just as good if not better and for a whole lot less. A meal that would cost $60 in Japan or NYC costs just $20 or less at Manmaru.

I attended the restaurant's opening week because the co-owner, Audrey Teh, also happened to be a middle school friend and our host while we were visiting! I was in heaven because I could stuff my face, support a friend, and learn about the restaurant business.

Manmaru Robatayaki & Bar

Manmaru Japanese Food Petaling Jaya
Childhood friends Audrey (owner), and Adlin

Audrey told me all about the challenges faced to open Manmaru and the several other restaurants she owns around Kuala Lumpur with her partner.

The amount of capital commitment needed to build a restaurant is impressive because until the doors actually open, you just never know whether customers will come.

Can you imagine spending $200,000 – $500,000 to buy and build your restaurant and nobody shows up opening week? Luckily, the place was jam packed!

I was super impressed by how Audrey built a loyal staff, sourced her food, created her menu, and focused on returns. Unlike private tech companies in the SF Bay Area where profitability doesn't seem necessary to survive thanks to hoards of funding, the restaurant business is all about the payback period and the bottom line.

Increasing turnover, having the highest utilization rates possible, and keep costs under control are all musts for a business. But what I didn't realize was how much went into the testing and creating of the menu.

Delicacies Bursting With Flavor

Each item on the menu was sampled over and over again until it won a taste test among the various judges. You know how sometimes you eat something at a restaurant and you wonder, WTH was the chef thinking putting this on the menu? 

There's none of that at Manmaru as everything tasted great. Because there was a party of around 20 people, we literally tried 40 things on the menu!

In addition to sushi, Manmaru has delicacies like miso glazed black cod, chawanmushi (a savory egg custard dish served in small bowls or tea cups), shabushabu (thinly sliced beef and vegetables you dip into a delicious broth), kaiseki (a procession of small courses beautifully arranged in little dishes), barbecued freshly caught abalone, and sautéed squid with lemon and fresh shiso (dainty edible leaves with the most unique taste).

If you want to go fancy fancy, you can try Chef Danny's omakese (chef's selection) for rm180 ($45) for five courses, or rm270 ($67) for eight courses. Omakese at Masa in NYC costs $500/person! Good value is a big reason why Malaysia ranks up there for me in terms of top food as you'll see in more examples below.

Here are some of my favorite dishes from Manmaru's menu:

Manmaru Kuala Lumpur

For all you frugal foodies out there, one thing to note is to not be fooled by restaurants charging exorbitant prices for sushi and sashimi. 

The premium you're paying is for the restaurant's rent, marketing, and branding, and not the quality of the fish. It's what the chef does with the fish that differentiates the restaurant. Therefore, ordering just sashimi or nigiri sushi for a huge premium is a waste of money!

An Intro To Malaysian Food

Map of Malaysia

Now that I've highlighted Manmaru in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, let's talk about why you also must experience Malaysian cuisine. 

Malaysian food is generally divided into Malay, Chinese and Indian styles.

Many dishes are rice based, served with meat and savory spices and sauces. Vegetable dishes aren't too common, although kangkung belachan (water spinach serviced with dried shrimp, chili paste, shallots and garlic) is one of my favorites and pretty easy to find.

Some of the classic Malaysian dishes include nasi lemak (moist coconut rice served with dried fish, shrimp, peanuts, and spices), beef rendang (stewed beef with lemon grass, ginger, chilis, coconut milk and spices), roti canai (a paper thin, crispy flatbread served with dhal), and chicken satay (seasoned grilled chicken served on small skewers with peanut sauce).

If you live in New York City, I highly recommend Nyonya on Grant Street in Little Italy. I first went there in 1999 when I lived in Manhattan and I look forward to going back every time I go back. The crab with black sauce there is the best!

If you live in SF, unfortunately, my favorite Malaysian restaurant closed down! Lime Tree is pretty good with authentic dishes. In addition, there's still Penang Garden in Chinatown, which is OK.

Where To Eat In Malaysia

If you get the chance to visit Malaysia, here are some of my recommendations for where to eat. If you are comfortable venturing into the street markets and mamak stalls (side street eateries typically open 24-hours serving Indian Malay “fast food”), you can eat very well for just a couple dollars or less.

Jalan Alor

This is one of KL's culinary gems and not to miss if you want to experience KL hawker stalls (Chinese influenced Malaysian street vendors) at their best.

This street comes alive at night, bustling with people, tables and food as far as you can see. The incredible selections of fruit, drinks, skewers, and savory dishes are any food lover’s paradise.

I tried chicken fish here for the first time and wow the name doesn't do it any justice. The sweet chili sauce it came with was surreal. Even despite the crowds, your food will be piping hot and brought to your table in a flash. Our whole meal for two was about $15.

Jalan Alor
Jalan Alor night food in KL


Forget about Starbucks. Try a kopitiam when you're in Malaysia for a local coffee shop experience. My friends and I stopped at one on our road trip back from Pulau Redang.

The hot coffee was unlike any I'd had before and almost tasted like chocolate. They also served the most delicious toast made (75 cents) with condensed milk that paired perfectly with an iced coffee (50 cents).

We ate some nasi lemak (85 cents) to hold us over until dinner and then hit the road.

Kopitiam food!

Mamak Stalls Have Some Of The Best Food In The World For Very Cheap

Want a midnight snack or a quick bite to eat after a night of partying or jetlag? Head to a mamak stall (Indian Muslim food) for a fast meal. Order a fresh green apple juice (50 cents) while you're at it.

The freshly squeezed juices in Malaysia are super refreshing and help beat the heat since most stalls don't have AC. I'd try Nasi Kandar, a rice dish accompanied with fried chicken, fired prawns, fried squid, all mixed together with curry sauces.

Roti Telur is a version of roti canai with egg. If you like hot tea, try Teh Tarik, where the vendor pours the tea back and forth between two vessels to give it a thick frothy top. You'll be happily stuffed for under $3!

mamak stalls
Mamak stall food

Is your stomach growling yet? Mine sure is! Malaysia really has some of the best food in the world and I hope to get back to KL again soon.

Malaysia Is Wonderful

Pulau Redang, Taaras Resort & Spa
Taaras Resort at Pulau Redang

Malaysian and Japanese food are my two favorite cuisines in the world. Between the two, the best food in the world is in Malaysia.

I could eat Malaysian food every day for the rest of my life and be happy. With the US dollar buying ~4 ringgit, I also felt rich for the first time in my life too!

If you're looking for a place to retire abroad, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia might just be the place as well. The country has a great foreign retirement program called, Malaysia My Second Home you can check out if interested. Some of the benefits include a 10-year visa, and housing assistance. KL is definitely on my retirement hit list, as is Playa Del Carmen, Mexico.

I could go on and on about my time in Malaysia, including five days on the island of Pulau Redang where we scuba dived in warm turquoise water every day. But I'll save the other sites and sounds of Malaysia for some other time!

Related: When Is The Best Time To Travel Abroad With Kids

Wealth Building Recommendation

In order to optimize your finances, you’ve first got to track your finances. I recommend signing up for Personal Capital’s free financial tools so you can track your net worth, analyze your investment portfolios for excessive fees, and run your financials through their fantastic Retirement Planning Calculator.

Those who are on top of their finances build much greater wealth longer term than those who don’t. I’ve used Personal Capital since 2012. It’s the best free financial app out there to manage your money.

Planning for retirement when paying for private grade school
Are you on the right retirement path? There is no rewind button.

Updated for 2022 and beyond. Malaysian food is still the best food in the world! Unfortunately, Manmaru closed down. If you want to support your friends, please order the most expensive dishes on the menu, pay full price, and write a positive review. Asking for free food or discounts is the wrong way to go.

30 thoughts on “The Best Food In The World Is In Malaysia”

  1. Hi there!

    I am ashamed of myself cause I’ve been here living in malaysia from the day i was born but never been to those places mentioned in your post. Some of the places re those I never heard of before. You make me want to go there and taste all the food myself. Thanks for the great writing though!

  2. This site was linked to a personal relationships article attached to an article about acting dumb to get ahead. Where is the related article? This article is about food. Did I miss something? Many thanks for your writing and info. I have already learned a lot!

  3. I picked Japanese and French. Seems like a lot of people like Japanese food in your audience. Surprising as I feel many people just don’t like fish…

  4. You can just find a huge variety of Asian food tasting all different. Just the Chinese food can take you years to just for trying. A well-educated Chinese frequently travelling domestically knows probably no more than 50% of Chinese food. Each province or even city has their own food, all prepared and tasting completely different. Forget about those you have tried in the US or EU unless those authentic ones in major big cities like San Francois, LA, NY, etc… The rich Asian food culture plays a key role of everyone’s daily life… From top restaurants to street food, people meet there for all kinds of purpose. One interesting observation: most of my Western friends show outdoor/fun activities on their Facebook while food is a major part of what my Asian friends show. Anyway, try the authentic Asian food if you have a chance of travelling.

  5. Street food is the best. I’ve never been to Malaysia yet, but it’s definitely on the bucket list. The closet I’ve been is to Hong Kong and Macau. I could spend days roaming the streets for good eats.

    Your nasi lemak and chocolatey coffee look and sound amazing… yum!

  6. Sam, this post is nostalgic for me as I was born and raised in KL but have now found a life in SF for the past 13 years. There is certainly a lot of good food in M’sia. We have at least 5 meals a day when we are home! I don’t disagree with you about M’sia being a suitable place for retirement. Last I checked, the exchange rate was USD$1 = RM 4.297, the medical facilities are great, it has beautiful topography (beaches, mountains, city) and the warm climate is just right for old bones. The only drawback is that home prices are not as affordable as we’d like it to be. I’m not planning on giving up my Malaysian citizenship just yet so my husband and I can have that option of retiring there without going through the MMSH program.

    Btw, we have sampled almost all of the Malaysian restaurants around the Bay and our favorite is Layang-Layang in San Jose. You should try it and we can compare notes!

    1. Thanks for the tip on Layang-Layang! I’ll check it out if I’m ever down there. There’s another place called something Spoon in the valley which is pretty good. I’m at a loss for finding any good Malaysian restaurant in SF :(

      Although property prices have risen in KL, it’s still pretty darn cheap compared to the SF Bay Area no? $350,000 gets you a nice place!

  7. I love Indian Muslim food. It’s mostly Kerala food which has a lot of meat due to the Muslim influence there. I like Malay food as well but it’s almost like a poor man’s Indian Muslim food, so for second choice I’ll go with Italian. Minus the cheese though.
    Malaysia is beautiful, definitely retirement paradise. I still can’t bring myself to go to Mexico with all the cartels.

    1. Can you give an example of specific Indian Muslim food dishes?

      If Malaysia is the “poor man’s IM food,” then I feel wonderfully blessed because Malaysia food is incredible!

      1. I should have said Malay food is a simpler version of Indian Muslim (Kerala) food, in that both use lots of coconut, chilli and turmeric. However, Indian food also has a few more spices which dilutes some of the sweetness of the coconut, but adds the caramelization of those spices. I would call Malay curries as spicy and sweet eg beef rendang.

  8. The food looks great! I haven’t been to Malaysia, but the missus had. We’ll definitely stop there on our RTW trip. :)

  9. The people are friendly? I would have to disagree. Several times while we were in line to buy tickets for the metro a local would push his way in front of us when the person in front of us got their tickets and left. That is beyond rude. Do they not understand how lines work? And I don’t know if it’s because I’m white and my wife is from Spain, but we constantly got dirty looks everywhere we went. She was specifically dressed modestly since Malaysia is a Muslim country. Jeans, long sleeves, etc. Did you ever go through KL Central station? We met some locals elsewhere that were connected through my friend and the US Embassy and they were wonderful. But man, that train station was a terrible experience.

    The food was incredible though. We ate so much food on Jalon Alor that I thought we were going to pop! We’d go back, but with the understanding that we will be treated like crap on the metro and at the stations.

    We loved Bangkok so much we’ve been back twice, and the same goes for Singapore and Hong Kong. We tried to do a trip to Singapore, Bali, and Hong Kong for Xmas but waiting till the last minute for award flights meant we missed out. We’ll try again for spring break. Maybe we’ll get lucky and tack on Seoul, Japan, or China this time too.

    1. Interesting feedback! I remember getting cut in line at McDonald’s when I was a kid back in 1990 and being pissed. Didn’t realize the queuing system still needs work.

      I didn’t have any rude experiences this time. Perhaps it was because I was with my friends the entire trip, so they had cars, and we stayed at their house and two hotels.

      Glad you liked Jalan Alor! Eat and sweat it out!

      1. I think if we took taxis or had a driver that we would have had a totally different experience. But, we like to live like a local (or at least closer to it) than insulate ourselves from the local culture. Riding the metros were the only uncomfortable times, everything else was great. It was a bit of a culture shock being our first Muslin country, but nothing we couldn’t get used to traveling all over the place.

        What was crazy was that we were wandering around Jalan Alor and my friend that met us from Oman ran into an old work buddy when he was stationed in Baghdad. That guy was able to get us a private tour of the Petronas Towers which was wonderful. And it was my birthday to boot. What are the odds?!

        We took the night train from KL to SIN and that was a disaster. We booked the 1st class sleeper private room, but it shared a wall with the buffet closet. So everything in there (dishes, utensils) was slamming against our wall so I did not sleep a minute that night. Luckily our hotel gave us a room and I slept for a few hours before exploring Singapore. Oh, and we happened to arrive in SIN the morning of their independence day. Talk about more luck! Just talking about all of this makes me want to go back to SE Asia.

        1. Sounds like a mix of good luck and bad luck adventuring! That is the life of the traveler.

          It’s definitely fun to live like the locals. And locals have a wide, wide range of how they live.

          I was fortunate to stay at Audrey, the co-owner of Manmaru’s house, and it was awesome.

          Oh, I do remember the taxi driver trying to rip us off on the way back to our hotel. We just got out and walked, and reminded ourselves that we were only bickering over a couple US bucks!

          1. Oh cool, that’s definitely an experience.

            We took a taxi to Jalan Alor, and for the majority of the ride the driver didn’t speak. We thought he didn’t speak English. Then when someone mentioned the Petronas Towers was the tallest twin tower he spoke up and disagreed. And he spoke very good English, better than half the people here. We were so surprised, and from then on I never assumed anything overseas because you just never know.

            We’ve had taxi scams almost everywhere we’ve been, so we do Uber wherever possible.

  10. I didnt see Italian but that would be a top choice for me. I love Malaysian and Indonesian food but I am always wary in those respective countries because of past food poisoning. Singapore has an excellent health inspection rating system and potable water. I love the underground food courts and restaurants near orchard road.

    1. It’s funny because I’ve eaten a lot in Malaysia and my only food poisoning experience has been here in Northern California at a Thai restaurant.

  11. I’m so jealous. My boyfriend and I went to Singapore a couple of years ago, and the hawker stall food was the best! We ate so cheaply there because most of our meals were at the hawker stalls, and they would just whip up the best fish and noodle dishes for less than $2 a man. The super cheap exotic fruit spoiled us, too. We could get dragonfruit smoothies for a couple bucks on average, which is incredible given that dragonfruit at home costs about $6 per fruit.

    Playa del Carmen is pretty neat, but we got tired of it after about 4 days. The beaches were better in Cancun, I thought. And Pulau looks incredible! I want to go there someday, for sure.

    1. Singaporean food is amazing. What’s also amazing is the that SGD and MR was at parity long time ago. Now Singapore is just out of control expensive!

      The best value in terms of food, and maybe still property (for foreigners), is in Malaysia.

  12. Going to KL for New Years!! Can’t wait to check out the sites and food. I will only be able to explore the city for 2 full days. Any recommendations on the best places to visit for a budget traveler?

    1. Awesome! I’d check out Batu Caves (monkey in the pic) for an afternoon. It’s just a 30-45 minute drive outside KL. Visit my friends at Manmaru in PJ. Check out the outside of the new palace. Go to the Petronas Towers for a 360 degree view of the city. And EAT, EAT, EAT!

      Please go eat at Jalan Alor every night along with the mamak stalls!

  13. I’ve never been to Malaysia. After looking at the food pictures that you just posted, I’m ready to go. My key criteria for how successful a trip has been is always memorable food. It’s an expression of the people and the local culture.

  14. Loved the pics….the food looks delicious! I love anything with seafood and rice. Sushi is one of my favorite and I am taking my daughter tonight because there is a speciall for locals during the winter months.

    I don’t think I have ever had Malaysian food….will have to try it when I get a chance.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *