Historical Journey Of Indian Food In Malaysia And Singapore
Image Credit: Nasi Lemak | Image Credit: Pexels.com

By the 15th century, the sultanate in Malacca (southwestern Malaysia) had grown to become an important and powerful center for trade in the region. It sat astride the all-important sea route for spice trade to-and-from the East Indies, and a small number of Indian muslim traders migrated to the sultanate. Later, during British rule, many Indian laborers from the southern parts of India came over to the region to work on plantations. Where Indians go, they take their food along with them, adapting to local cultures and ingredients. The same was true for the region that would become Malaysia and Singapore. 

Malay Indian cuisine is a mix of native food, some Chinese influences, elements of Chettinad cuisine from the Tamil lands, and Indian muslim style (called Mamak in this region) foods and preparation. They might sound incongruous, but Malaysians have combined them to form a unique blend that is delicious and rewarding to the modern-day foodie. Given Malaysia’s long history with spices, it’s no surprise that Malay cuisine uses a range of spices and herbs including curry leaves and lemon grass. This style of cooking also uses generous amounts of coconut milk to add a tinge of sweetness to the food.

Mee Goreng

Mee Goreng are fried noodles. While MeeGoreng and Indian food do overlap in certain ways, there are significant differences between the two styles. Mee Goreng is normally made in the tradition of Chinese cuisine. In the 1970s, restaurant owners in Singapore developed a unique variation of MeeGoreng that included vegetables, coriander, and used seafood as the primary form of meat. It is often stir-fried in tomato ketchup or tomato sauce, giving us the famous taste that is now known across the world. Some smaller outlets now even serve a Maggi Mee Goreng that is made with Maggi noodles. In Singapore, a version of Mee Goreng is associated with Indian muslim cuisine due to the use of lamb and mutton.


Mee Goreng is also popular in Sri Lanka, quickly becoming a part of fast food available in urban areas.

Nasi Lemak

The national dish of Malaysia. Well, almost. This name might seem familiar because Nasi Lemak is slowly gaining popularity in some Indian cities as well. It’s a delicious meal made with simple ingredients: the traditional Malaysian version consists of rice cooked in coconut milk and a type of plantain leaf. You also get boiled eggs and peanuts in the original dish. Newer versions, found aplenty in the many Nasi Lemak stalls across cities, substitute the egg with different types of meat. Some Malay-Indian versions serve chicken, fish, or lamb.

Whether it's a simple supper with friends, or a lavish wedding feast, Malaysians are accustomed to offering delicious food to their guests. They prepare tea, coffee, and small snacks for any visitors, and Malaysian hospitality makes sure the guests sample every dish and sip every beverage. In addition, people in Malaysia will often host guests during important holidays.

Fish head Curry

Fish head curry is one of the most popular dishes in Malaysia and Singapore. It is served in hawker centers, restaurants and other food establishments. Its recipe is also popular in Kerala. Fish head curry was reportedly invented when a chef from Kerala, M.J. Gomez, took the idea of a fish head casserole from Chinese food and cooked the fish in curry. These days, one serving of fish head curry can cost 10-20 Singaporean dollars, not quite the cheap street food it once was. But you’d be missing out if you went to Singapore and did not try out fish head curry. 

Sate/ Satay

This is the Malaysian version of the Indonesian satay, was developed from the Indian kebab, which is itself influenced by Middle Eastern cuisine. Sate is a common item in street food menus and most sates in Malaysia are usually made from beef or chicken. Sate Kajang is the most popular version in the country due to the bigger portions of meat mixed with a sweet peanut sauce and chili paste. The regions of Penang and Malacca also have their own versions of sate, with ingredients from Chinese cuisine that give them a distinct taste all their own. 

In Singapore, satays have been popular as street food since the 1940s, and now have their own satay hotspot. While most Malaysian sates use sweet soy sauce, most of the satays in Singapore use peanut sauce. 

Sambal chili paste

Sambal chili paste has an old history in the region and is a core ingredient in many Asian cuisines. Somewhat similar to the chili pastes we find in India, Sambal is typically made from shrimp paste, fresh chilies, lime juice, sugar, salt and other spices, and used as an all-purpose condiment. Aubiquitous presence in homes across Malaysia, it complements dishes like Nasi Lemak and Fried Rice extremely well, adding heat and layers of delicious flavor to sauces and marinades.

Several other Indian foods have made their mark in Malaysia and Singapore, like Roti Canai, Roti Prata, Bak Kut The. 

Roti Canai is based on an Indian dish. The dough for the flatbread - roti - is usually prepared one day prior. The dough is then left to rest overnight, where it slowly ferments, develops flavor, relaxes gluten, and increases in stretchability. This resting time is necessary for the thin layers that make up a roti canai.

Roti Prata is another Indian-inspired flatbread served with curry. The dish is served on a banana leaf-lined wooden platter with curry leaves and spices. Roti Prata can be found at stalls throughout Malaysia and Singapore. One can find stalls selling Roti Canai and Beef Curry on Transfer Road in Penang. In Singapore, you can find Indian cookers making Roti Prata at night in the district Geylang. Depending on the sauces used, you can choose from savory, sweet, or vegan versions.

You can also try the MalaysianPork Vindaloo, a Malaysian adaptation of the Goan curry that is made with pork and coconut milk. There’s also the popular Thosai, the Malaysian-Indian version of the dosa but largelyof theTamilian variety. It is served on a metal dining plate covered in a banana leaf. Where there’s a dosa/thosai, there’s bound to be sambar. Malaysia’s sambar and chicken curry are close to the Indian imports, with little variance from the original preparations.