Hari Diwali. Courtesy, Flushing Town Hall
Almost as diverse as New York City itself, Malaysia is represented by a multitude of ethnicities and customs—the country is home to over a hundred different languages, and its history is rooted in dozens of Indigenous tribes. With influences from large Chinese and Indian immigration waves during the country’s British colonization, Malaysian culture today is one that is incredibly rich and uniquely layered.
This might be why—despite being home to the largest Malaysian population in America—New York City has no distinct “Little Malaysia.” But that doesn’t mean you can’t find a sampling of its Southeast Asian flavors and flair among the streets of the City—so long as you know where to look.
Read on for some of the best spots to check out.
Founded by Penang native, chef and restaurateur Kyo Pang, this cozy Lower East Side café is inspired by a traditional kopitiam, or Malaysian coffee shop. Of the many bites and beverages on offer is hand-pulled coffee, which differs from your usual cup of joe in a few ways: for starters, it’s less acidic thanks to a roasting process that involves a bit of fat—like butter—and, sometimes, sugar. Secondly, it’s made with condensed milk to give it a light sweetness. Finally, the coffee is “pulled,” or repeatedly poured between two large cups. This helps blend the brew and cool it down to a drinkable temperature and creates a perfectly foamy top. Enjoy a cup with an order of thick-cut kaya toast, which is served with a fragrant coconut jam.
A popular spicy noodle soup in many Southeast Asian countries, laksa is known for its hearty and flavorful broth. Travel across Malaysia and you’ll find it prepared up to a dozen different ways, but the primary distinction is with or without coconut milk. At this Elmhurst eatery, you can sample excellent versions of both. Try the creamier Singapore kari laksa, served with noodles, shrimp and fish cakes, or, if you prefer to pucker, opt for the assam laksa, which packs a sour, fishier and more fiery punch.
If you’re looking to take home a taste of Malaysia, this Kips Bay grocer is a great spot for pantry staples. Founded in 1944, Kalustyan provides a wide selection of ingredients from over 80 countries. Among the colorful aisles you’ll find many Southeast Asian essentials like various chilis, shrimp pastes, tamarind and galangal (similar to ginger but zestier). Also available are several sambals (chili pastes) and spice mixes for classic dishes like nasi goreng, a flavorful fried rice.
Courtesy, Flushing Town Hall
Largely observed in India, this joyous occasion is also a public holiday in surrounding countries like Malaysia. While the primary religions in the country are Muslim and Buddhist, Malaysia is home to over 2 million Hindus, who know the holiday as Hari Diwali. Traditions vary slightly across celebrants’ countries, but they are all centered around gathering with loved ones and honoring the triumph of light over darkness. At this annual Flushing fete, which usually takes place in late October or early November, festivities include music, dance and rangoli design. These intricate patterns, made with colorful powder, often grace entryways to welcome the goddess of prosperity.
If you’re used to jerky having a dry texture and smoky flavor, you’re in for a tasty surprise at this quaint Chinatown spot. Said to have come into Malaysia with Chinese immigrants, this take on jerky, or bak kwa, is known to be a bit sweeter and more tender. Despite its name, the shop also serves chicken and pork jerky, all made fresh daily (and available spicy if you please).
You may have heard the sweet treat called several names, including ice kacang [pronounced ka-chung] or ais kacang. But the easiest to remember—and the one you’ll find on the menu at this Sunset Park destination—is ABC. This stands for air batu campur, or “crushed ice mix,” and is a popular street food in Malaysia. On a base of shaved ice are layers of toppings like red bean, sweet corn, condensed milk and grass jelly (a common ingredient in East Asian and Southeast Asian desserts). The result: a burst of flavor and textures in every bite.
Hidden on the border of Chinatown and Little Italy is some of the most authentic Malaysian food in the City. And when it comes to classic cuisine, nasi lemak and beef rendang are not to be missed. Considered the country’s national dish, nasi lemak consists of aromatic rice cooked in coconut milk and a savory array of sides like sambal (chili paste), crispy anchovies and cucumber slices. At Nyonya, it also comes with a serving of beef rendang. This rich and tender meat stew, which originated from the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, Indonesia, is loved for its complex flavor profile. Your taste buds will tingle with hints of lemongrass, star anise, kaffir lime, turmeric, cinnamon and chili.