Penang with Kids: Nasi Melayu – Malaysian Soul Food

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It’s been a busy week here at Epic Education headquarters: our time in Penang is soon coming to a close. With it comes the planning for our return visits to Japan and the United States, as well as decisions about where we go afterwards.

I’ve started to reflect on what I’ll take away from our year based in Penang with kids — what I’ll miss, what I won’t. One of the first things that came to my mind, of course, was food.

I love the hawker-stall culture here in Penang, Malaysia. However, after eating its delights multiple times a week for 12 months, I am ready to try something new.

That said, there is one Malaysian style of eating in Penang that the kids and I are not tired of, and will surely crave once we’re gone: Nasi Melayu.

Translated from Bahasa, “Nasi Melayu” simply means “Malaysian Rice,” but it is so, so much more. Usually found in roadside shacks, Nasi Melayu is served cafeteria-style.

You are handed a plate with a heaping mound of rice (we usually ask them to serve us only half the usual amount). Then you are presented with a myriad of metal trays brimming with spicy, savory dishes cooked over portable gas stoves on the ground or pavement nearby.

Our regular spot is a Lidiana, a collection of well-worn tables and plastic stools about a 5-minute walk from our apartment. We eat here at least twice a week.

This is not fine dining. No, this is supper casual, self-serve cuisine that the Malays — like many cultures in the East — eat with their fingers (right hands only please).

Usual dishes include a variety of fried protiens — chicken, seafood and several kinds of fish — as well as low-boil curries and five-alarm chili-based dishes.

No pork, of course — this is Muslim cooking, after all. In stead, you will find beef rendang, whole fish stuffed with chiles and ginger.  Can’t forget ayam belecan — a fried chicken recipe that rivals every variety I grew up eating in the American South.

In fact, I see several comparisons between Nasi Melayu and the Southern soul food of my youth: fried chicken and fish, plenty of slow-cooked veggies and a predilection for firey-red pepper sauces. Several of the greens I eat each time have become my collard greens replacement.

We’ll eat Nasi Melayu anywhere, but Lidiana has become a family favorite not only because of its proximity to home, but because of the huge variety of vegetable dishes on offer there.

Along with at least three stewed or stir-fried greens, there are beans, gourds and root vegetables like pumpkin and daikon (Japanese radish) as well as a variety of salads made from papaya, banana flower and lemongrass.

Fresh herbs are presented raw as an accompaniment to the meats, and the curries run from mild yellow varieties (the Thai border is a few hours away) to nuclear-level tongue-melters in the squid, eggplant and tempe dishes.

If you have spice-averse family members like me (I love the heat, while they fear it), then it can be tricky finding which foods to try, as chiles are cooked into a majority of the dishes on offer, but our kids have found enough that they love here that they now call it “comfort food” with no sense of irony.

Aside from the belacan chicken, one of their favorite poultry dishes is the marmite chicken seen above. Yes, you heard right — a popular dish here is chicken stewed in sugar, mild spices and Marmite — not a flavor many Americans are accustomed to, but we love it.

Unfortunately, it is impossible for us to eat this without looking like a toddler caught with an open can of chocolate frosting.

This is the matriarch of the establishment (see above). She runs the show. Everyone must pass by her so she can examine their plates and — by math known only to her — determine how much they owe. Hundreds of people an hour at peak time, I’m guessing.

It’s always packed at lunchtime, and so they’re constantly re-filling the trays with freshly cooked vegetables and fried goodies. Now when her staff sees us coming, they tell our kids how soon the next batch of friend chicken will come out, always letting them choose their drumsticks first…spoiled…

You can construct a different meal every day of the week and not have the same thing twice. Look at the plate above and let me run down a few of my favorite foods one-by-one, starting at the top and working clockwise:

  • Fresh herbs (mint, basil, etc)
  • Spicy bean sprout salad with lemongrass
  • Stewed okra (called “ladyfingers” here)
  • Cucumber salad with pineapple and red onion
  • Deep-fried pomfret fish (very popular in Penang). So crispy you can eat most of the bones whole
  • Stewed water spinach and mustard greens with garlic
  • French beans in non-spicy yellow curry sauce
  • and lastly, glistening on top of the mound of rice are a few hefty wedges of curried pineapple

Another thing we like about Lidiana is how it exemplifies food as a great equalizer. There is a significant wealth gap in Penang, and yet the clientele at Lidiana spans both sides of that disparity.

The food is shockingly cheap — our family of four gorges ourselves for about USD $10 (with drinks) — and it’s so good that the place is invariably full mid day. At the communal seating, fishermen and road workers bump elbows with real estate agents, policemen, Imams from the nearby mosque and men sporting crisp Calloway Golf shirts.

Have you found a “regular” place for lunch/dinner during our travels? Or do you have a regular lunch spot near you home/office? What’s it like?


  1. It’s looks tasty!

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