Malaysia, having been a British colony, is a rather English-friendly destination. English has become the language of communication for the variety of ethnic groups that call Malaysia home. But there is one place where English has not made much of an appearance: on restaurant menus.
Now, you can definitely find restaurants more geared towards tourists with some English on the menu, but the best places we ate in Malaysia, both times we visited, were little local joints whose menus were exclusively Malay.
Luckily enough for you, we are here to help! Deciphering a Malaysian menu is easy once you know a few key Malay words.
The Sections of a Malaysian Menu
Most small neighborhood restaurants have their menu on the wall rather than on paper, so check the walls for a list of foods. If you don't see anything, ask for a menu (and if no one knows English use the international symbol for menu – opening and closing your hands like a book).
A Malaysian menu is typically divided up into sections of similar foods. That means in any one section, the dishes will usually have the same base (like rice or noodles) and differ in sauces or toppings or cooking style.
A lot of places will have a mee section and a nasi section. Mee means noodles. Nasi means rice. The word goreng means fried, so mee goreng is fried noodles and nasi goreng is fried rice.
If you're in an Indian place, there is likely a roti canai section. Roti canai is the most delicious thing ever (flatbread fried in ghee with toppings, served with curry), but it is usually only available early in the morning and late at night.
Seafood is common, and the word ikan is going to point you to that section of the menu (ikan means fish).
Looking for soup? You can find it under “sup.” The Malay language has appropriated plenty of English words, but spells them in what I find to be a pleasingly phonetic manner.
Words for Meat
Want to know what kind of meat you're getting? Here's a list:
- Ayam = Chicken
- Lembu = Beef
- Ikan = Fish
- Itik = Duck
- Kambing = Mutton
- Ketam = Crab
- Arnab = Rabbit. Not that I have ever seen this available, but I saw it on a Malay food word list and thought you might like to know.
Words for Other Ingredients
Other words you might want to know include:
- Acar = Pickles, or it can refer to something being pickled (ie, acar ikan = pickled fish).
- Bawang = Onion
- Bayam = Spinach
- Beehoon or Meehoon = vermicelli noodles
- Belacan = Shrimp paste
- Campur = Mixed. Nasi campur, or mixed rice, is a popular dish where you get rice and several side dishes off a buffet-style setup.
- Cempadak = Jackfruit
- Durian Belanda = Soursop. Not actually durian-related!
- Gula = Sugar. So if you see “Gula [something],” it's probably dessert.
- Kacang = Bean
- Limau = Citrus fruit
- Pisang = Banana
- Sambal = Chili Paste
- Telur = Egg
- Ubi = Potato
Special Roti Variety Words
We like to order all the roti, so here are some other kinds to enjoy:
- Murtabak – This is similar to a roti canai and often found in the same section. It is roti with a meat or vegetable filling. Comes in chicken and vegetable varieties, typically.
- Roti tisu = Very thin roti often sold in a giant cone shape. Usually sweet.
- Roti boom = Smaller and thicker roti.
- Roti planta = Stuffed with margarine and sugar.
- Roti Hawaii = Like a murtabak with mayonnaise on top. A specialty of SS2 Murni Restaurant in Petaling Jaya.
- Roti John = Basically an omelette sandwich on a baguette.
The Drinks Section
We had expected the drinks (minuman) section to be very easy, but it can be a bit tricky due to the first pesky word here:
- Air = water. I know, it's pretty confusing.
- Ais = ice. At least that one makes sense. You can add this word to the name of a hot drink to make it iced.
- Susu = milk
- Teh Tarik = “Pulled tea.” A mixture of tea and sweetened condensed milk, “pulled” (sometimes theatrically) between two containers. It's usually foamy on top and very delicious! Not unlike Thai tea.
There are of course other things on the menu in Malaysia, but these are the most common that we found. So now you can go forth and order away! Because it'll be delicious.
Got any other words to add to the list?