I suppose it’s possible that most Malaysians actually just grab a quick bowl of cereal, or a piece of toast, before heading out for the day. But I’d much prefer to think that the people I saw on the street or in simple coffee shops, filling up on an astonishing variety of rice, noodles, flat breads and more, are indeed the majority.
To start, a beverage. While it’s possible to get almost any fruit freshly-squeezed from dedicated street-side vendors, coffee and tea tend to be the more common accompaniments. The former can be iced or hot, and is usually topped off with sweetened condensed milk. The latter can be made with lemon and sugar syrup, particularly good iced, or turned into a frothy, latte-like beverage—teh tarik—by adding the condensed milk, then pouring the mixture between two glasses.
As for the main dish, the best food purveyors are highly specialised, often focusing on a single dish or—at most—a certain ethnic subset of dishes. It will therefore be necessary to choose at least a first course. On the more culturally mixed western coast, a masala dosa, served up in a Tamil-owned cafe, is a good starting point. These are invariably made to order on a flat grill, stuffed with mustard seed, chilli and onion-laced crushed potatoes and served with tomato, coriander and coconut relishes. The only decisions to be made are whether to spoon a thick, dhal-like sauce over the top and if the standard pancake, already quite thin and crispy, should be swapped out for one which is even lacier around the edges. If you like what you’ve been given, fold down the banana leaf cum serving plate towards you before leaving.
Next, some rice, perhaps the iconic Malaysian breakfast dish of nasi lemak. You may have a choice between fried chicken (ayam goreng) and chicken in red sauce (masak merah); the latter gives more sauce to mix with the coconut rice, anchovies and peanuts. And while boiled (and usually slightly over-boiled) eggs are the norm, any place with a fried egg option is likely to be making up a good plate of nasi lemak. Another option, harder to find but well worth seeking out, is the Indian Muslim nasi kandar, a mini-buffet of meat curries and vegetables, served with plain rice. Think it’s too heavy to be eating at this hour? Consider again. It won’t get cooler until well into the evening, and many of the best nasi kandar stalls will run out by mid-morning.
To finish, a roti canai. Find a vendor with a busy griddle, and watch the flatbreads being made in front of you. For sauce, the thin lentil curry tends to get my nod over the chicken gravy, but look at what the locals are eating and choose accordingly. Wait until it’s cool enough to not burn your (right) hand, but no longer. Like the pancakes you might make at home, these don’t improve over time.
A few venues to try, should you find yourself in George Town (the capital of Penang state), courtesy of the always-reliable Robyn Eckhardt.
Great dosai at 22 King Street, Little India
The brothers serving up the nasi kandar at the front of this Chinese-owned coffee shop on the corner of Jalan Transfer and Jalan Argyll are carrying on the business started by their grandfather, an immigrant from southern India. The okra and beef are both superb, and the coffee, served up by unusually crotchety older man, is very good here too.
In London, Bonda Cafe, a halal joint near Paddington kept to high standards and low prices by being in the basement of a Malaysian student residence, opens at 8:30 on weekends to serve up nasi lemak and roti canai.