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Food in Malaysia: The Good, the bad and the still alive

By Brandon Tucker, Managing Editor

Headed to Malaysia for a golf vacation? Forget the stereotypes, the dining is varied, abundant and delicious, from five-star resort dining to tasty finds in the open markets.

Hotel Nikko's Teppanyaki Room
You won't have to ask how fresh the lobster is at Hotel Nikko's teppanyaki room.
Hotel Nikko's Teppanyaki RoomKuala Lumpur's Seri Melayu Dinner Theater

It was Thanksgiving day, and like any able-bodied American, I was inhaling a plate full of turkey and stuffing. But as I binged, I couldn't help but already feel a little nervous about what I'd be putting in my stomach just two days later in Malaysia.

Over the last couple months, I'd heard both horrible experiences and triumphant praise of the cuisine in Malaysia - and in Asia in general. "Kung Pao Chicken" isn't going to be offered at every meal ...

I had even considered bringing along an emergency stash of Power Bars, just in case I couldn't stomach the country's culinary tastes.

But I didn't want to be a wimp, either. So, I left the emergency rations behind, and I'm happy to report I returned a week later pleasantly surprised (and a couple pounds lighter). There was some bad, some good and some seriously delicious stuff that a week later still makes my mouth water thinking about it.

First, the bad: We were treated to a lot of buffets over there at all three main meals. At breakfast, there was a lot of food that didn't look like breakfast food, like entire fish (skin and heads still on them), noodles and spicy meats like goat mutton.

I happily passed on those kinds of dishes and instead opted for the on-guard chef at both the A'Famosa Resort in Melaka and the Concorde Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, who made egg and omelet orders on the spot, and you could always find a hot plate of potato wedges, too.

Some meals were walk-through, while other restaurants would bring several dishes to the center of your table, and you'd pass them around yourselves. Then a waiter would come around and plump a pile of rice on your plate. Usually the dishes were a rather standard sampling of meats (each in a different sauce). Some of the meats would be spicy, which the Indonesians in my group would especially gobble up.

And if you're going to go the spicy route, be sure to ask for a glass of "bandang," which is coconut milk mixed with sugar and a rose cordial, giving it a pink look (picture a 10 oz. glass of Pepto-Bismol). While it's often served as a dessert, it does wonders soothing a spicy mouth during a hot main course.

Speaking of drinks, the country's lush, equatorial climate means you're going to have some delicious fruits and juices over there like guava and mango. It feels like a crime drinking Coke when that stuff is available.

While the buffets could be hit-and-miss, the best buffet of the trip was at Seri Melayu, a dinner theatre in Kuala Lumpur that featured Malay, Chinese and Indian influences at both the buffet lines and the music and dances on stage.

But of the entire trip, the most pleasant surprise and my No. 1 rule to anyone going to Malaysia is to be sure to eat at least one meal at the open markets.

We stopped by one in particular, about a mile outside the A'Famosa Resort, where the smells are hypnotizing, and the food is dirt cheap and piping hot off the grill. I first fell in love with a fried banana, then with a seriously delicious and ideal street food, "murtabak," which is a Muslim dish that's served a lot of different ways throughout Asia. It's a pancake-like dish that you can wrap egg or meats inside of, and right off the grill, it's as good as it gets.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Malaysia, especially Kuala Lumpur, has fine Asian dining that's going to be a five-star experience no matter where in the world you come from.

On one of my last nights, a couple Aussies I was tagging along and I with went for teppanyaki at Hotel Nikko in downtown Kuala Lumpur. We decided to go all out and get the special: lobster, scallops, salmon and, finally, a beef filet.

Now, I've heard they bring out meals with animals that are still alive in Asia, and thankfully we never bit the heads off live shrimp. But when the chef brought out three live lobsters on a plate and tossed them onto the steaming hot grill, I admit I was cringing. I could have sworn one was staring at me as he sizzled.

But that guilt lasted about two minutes, because soon enough, the little guys had been cut up and served, and they were exquisite. And there was no doubt how fresh they were.

Golf club cuisine

Golf clubs in Malaysia generally cater to the upper class and corporate set, so the food at these clubs is going to be pretty good, though each does dining a little differently. Just don't expect a beverage cart. Stock up on the way out.

A'Famosa does a buffet through lunch, while Orna Golf and Country Club's main dining venue is a large Chinese restaurant that greets golfers overlooking the club, complete with your standard offerings like sweet-and-sour chicken.

But the best golf club food was at Saujana Golf and Country Club, which is a former host to the Malaysian Open, and it's two courses are both considered among the city's best.

The best thing about the menu here is the variety, from hot dogs and club sandwiches just like back in the West, to your Malay and Asian fusion dishes. It's a beautiful outdoor patio overlooking the course, too, making it a mandatory 19th hole after golf.

To be honest, after a few days in Malaysia, that Thanksgiving feast was a distant memory. Then again, I haven't had any Asian take-out since I've returned.

Brandon TuckerBrandon Tucker, Managing Editor

Brandon Tucker is the Managing Editor for Golf Advisor. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and over 500 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker and on Instagram at BrandonTuckerGC.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Food in Malaysia

    Wendy (UK) wrote on: Dec 16, 2008

    Thanks for the column, Brandon. I'm always curious to know about the culinary experiences as well as the golf, culture and people on your travels. Hopefully you do encourage others to try out these rather more exotic countries.
    I would probably have passed on the fish and goat mutton buffet for breakfast, (OK for lunch/dinner, and happy with entire fish as opposed to the fish heads only I was offered at one meal).
    The fine dining seems to be of the very highest standards in the Middle & Far East in my experience, but I was delighted that you tried the roadside "cuisine". Many people avoid it in case of lack of hygiene, but some of these dishes "are to die for" in a completely different sense. I make murtabak at home - I can get the filling right, but never the crepe/pancake texture - think their griddles reache higher temperatures.
    Where to next, I wonder?
    Regards, Wendy