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Sep 16, 2021
Supriya Sivabalan

Malaysian Food Through the Decades


Ideal mornings include the tantalizing fragrance of Kopi-O or Teh Tarik that perfectly accompanies your little packet of Nasi Lemak, wrapped neatly in old newspaper with a single piece of freshly cut banana leaf that exudes the aroma of the pandan coconut rice as you unwrap it.

If you were asked to name 3 things you love about Malaysia, the “food” answer will inevitably surface. From late night mamak runs, street food to hawker culture, Malaysian cuisine has uniquely evolved throughout the years with heavy influence from its historical past.

A Quick Sejarah Lesson: Malaysia’s Past and How it Impacted Local Flavours

The Malaysia we know and love today did not exist until 1963, however the complexity of flavours in the country’s cuisine can claim traceable roots back to the early 15th century when Melaka was a popular harbour.

The Melaka River - once a popular place for world trade, now a gorgeous tourist attraction (Source: Tumblr)

At this point, local cooking championed the arrival of new ingredients from abroad, especially spices like cardamom, cloves and pepper. This could be why so many Malaysians have a great spice tolerance!

Spices that were akin to gold, once upon a time (Source: Jiawan Spice)

Moving on  to the mid-15th century, when Europeans started to venture into Southeast Asian territory, they brought along many new food items including peanut, pineapple, and tomatoes.

The diverse culinary culture today was achieved in the 19th century, when the British brought in Indians and Chinese to work in Malaysia and Singapore, thus also amalgamating authentic Indian and Chinese flavours into Malaysian food, making it the unique national treasure that it is today (Abdul Raji et al., 2017).

So, When did Nasi Lemak, Roti Canai, etc. Become A Part of Malaysian Identity? Let’s find out!

1. The Legend of Nasi Lemak 
Glorious colours of the Nasi Lemak (Source: Wordpress)

This dish needs no introduction, and there are two theories behind it’s existence. 

Theory 1: A young girl by the name of Seri accidentally spilled coconut milk into a boiling pot of rice while she was taking care of the household as her widowed mom was at work. When her mom came home, she asked the daughter about the fragrant smell that took over their home. In response, the daughter replied “Nasi le, mak!” (Au, 2021) 

Theory 2: With the vast growing agriculture sector, the farmers need to be kept fueled and full. Thus, lo and behold the nasi lemak. A meal complete with all components from the food pyramid, the warm coconut rice and its complementary elements certainly ensure a healthy and healthy breakfast for these assiduous labourers (Ahmad, 2014). 

As of today, the origins of Nasi Lemak remain unconfirmed with the earliest records of the dish dating back to 1909. Which theory would you lean towards?

2. Rise of the Roti Canai 
Fluffy Roti Canai, ready to soak up all the gravy goodness (Source: Kuali)

There are many disputes behind the origin of this gorgeous flaky, crispy, fluffy roti, but one thing’s for sure - it’s a divine dish that has always been a breakfast staple in Malaysia. The word canai is debatably either from the Indian city of Chennai or refers to the malay word for the action performed in fluffing up the roti on a hot grill.

Now let’s rewind back to the early 1900s, during the British colonisation of the peninsula where roti canai was first made popular. Due to the increasing influx of Indian labourers imported by the British, Indian influence began to seep into local culture as Indian street vendors peddled the street with food from home, Roti Canai or paratha as what it is called back in India, being one of the more popular options (Yip, 2020).

It can be deduced that the simplicity of the roti canai with ingredients including flour, salt and ghee is what allowed it’s seamless integration into Malaya. With skilled techniques by talented roti makers, everyone eventually fell in love with it. 

By the 1920s, you could order Roti Canai from mamak stalls (Yip, 2020), and this culture holds until today! Nothing beats a freshly made buttery Roti Canai served with a side of dhal/curry.

3. Roadside Ramly Burger
Indulgence in a picture. (Source: Pinterest)

Ooey-gooey cheesy, saucy goodness with the chargrilled umami of meat and well-seasoned eggs meshed together in between two buttery buns - this burger is definitely a classic supper go-to for Malaysians alike. The ‘Ramly’ Burger is a more modern Malaysian food icon, coming to light in 1984.

Founded by Ramly bin Mokni, isn’t it crazy to think that there was once a time where these burgers ceased to exist to the Malaysian palate? Ramly’s journey to success was no easy feat as he started off his business with a mere capital of RM 2,000 upon a loan rejection from Majlis Amanah Rakyat (MARA). According to Ramly, he felt that “perhaps Malays [and Malaysians] were not interested in burgers yet [back then].” There was also controversy around the halal status of all burger meats, thus making it even harder for Ramly to penetrate the market (Lee, 2019).

Initially,  Ramly produced 200 halal-certified burger patties a day manually by hand and knives with his wife at home. (RYZ, 2021) Unfortunately, the product was not very well-received. Ramly’s persistence shone through as he continuously looked to expand his business and tweaked his recipe to suit the intense flavour profiles that Malaysians enjoy.

As of today, the company makes around 1,000,000 patties a day - where 30% of them are exported to neighbouring countries (Lee, 2019). These burgers are still being sold in humble burger carts all across the nation, and is garnering serious international attention with lots of viral food videos featuring and recreating it.

Iconic Ramly roadside stalls (Source: Johor Kaki)

The next time you sit down on a plastic chair under neon lights at the roadside, biting into your delectable Ramly burger as sauce drips down your face and hands, you’ll know it was made with the heart and soul of a dedicated Malaysian entrepreneur who never gave up. 

A Growing Local Food Scene

From being a main spot for maritime trade of spices to building an outstanding repertoire in the food scene, the evolution of Malaysian cuisine is extremely impressive. It continues to grow today as we observe the wildest fusion of food, from Nasi Lemak burgers to onde-onde bubble tea. There’s an exciting future for food here, that’s for sure!



Abdul Raji, M.N., Karim, S.A., Che Ishak, F.A., Arshad, M.M. (2017). Past and present practices of the Malay food heritage and culture in Malaysia. Journal of Ethnic Foods, Volume 4, Issue 4,

Au, R. (2021, August 18). Nasi Lemak: An Origin Story. BURO.

Ahmad, A. (2014, November 18). Nasi lemak - once a farmer’s meal, now Malaysia’s favourite. The Star.

Yip, L. (2020, March 3). What is roti canai, and why can’t people in Southeast Asia get enough of it? South China Morning Post.

Lee, F. (2021, May 10). How Ramly Burger Grew Into An Empire That Now Benefits Almost 30k Micro-Entrepreneurs. Vulcan Post.

The Story of Ramly Burger Company Founder and Owner. (2021, July 25). RYZ.