Small, steaming stalls surround a central area of Formica tables and plastic chairs, quickly filling up as evening approaches with groups of friends and families. Buckets of ice with bottles of beer are ordered and brought to the tables from the drinks stalls by waitresses, then dishes are selected and paid for from your vendor of choice and your table number given. Simple, no-fuss, fast, delicious, sociable and great value… welcome to hawker food eating in Malaysia.
Hawker centres in Malaysia are essentially permanent collections of street-food stalls, normally in an open-air complex, with communal tables. A wonderful diversity of nationalities, culture and religions in Malaysia has resulted in a fusion cuisine which boasts some of the world’s best street food.
Extensive menus seem to defy the limited space and basic set-up of each makeshift food outlet, staff whirl round in a cramped space; barbequing meat, draining steaming noodles, tossing unidentified morsels in sizzling woks and stirring huge vats of bubbling soup. Bowls of raw ingredients are lined up and meticulously displayed on the stall fronts; cubed tofu, black mushrooms, sliced raw vegetables, squid rings, dumplings, prawns, shellfish, gelatinous noodles and chopped crab sticks.
Our big, empty table at the CF night food court in George Town, Penang Island, was soon filled with a laughing group of local friends, who quickly included us in their beer-top-ups as bottles of cold Tiger flowed continuously. Chatting to them, they said they came to the food court every week, preferring the laid-back atmosphere and bustle to more formal restaurants. The beers washed down plates of Char Kuey Teow; greasy, thin stir-fried noodles topped with egg, prawns, spring onions and beansprouts and wrestled with chopsticks. Three young cabaret singers belted out pop covers from a round, glittery central stage, pausing every time the electricity cut out then starting each tinny, rhythmical ballad from the start once the power surged back.
On another evening in George Town at the Red Garden night food court we tried Penang’s signature dish of Assam Laksa, a pleasantly pungent, fish-based soup with sour Tamarind and noodles, chilli, cucumber, lemongrass and prawn paste.
In Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, we sampled Nasi Kandar, an Indian-influenced rice dish topped with different meat, seafood, vegetables, with a speciality being fish head curry. An array of oily, spectacularly spicy, chilli-infused dishes are laid out to choose from, then added to light, fragrant rice.
For breakfast, find a small space on a street bench for Roti Canai, delicious fresh, puffed flatbread served with a dish of spicy lentil Dhal and a mug of sweet, milky chai.
In the Bukit Bintang area of Kuala Lumpur the street of Jalan Alor heaves on both sides with bustling restaurants, stalls and pop-up eateries. Crowds of locals and tourists perch on plastic stools around pavement tables. Sticky jack fruit is sliced into finger-licking pieces, tiny stalls crammed with piles of Kuih Kosui banana-leaf wrapped sweet coconut dough parcels and no-nonsense menus of dim sum and fried fishcakes line the walkways.
From our shared table at Wong Ah Wah eatery we people-watched and picked at Batu Maung Satay, a selection of different grilled meats on thin bamboo sticks dripping with a rich, thick peanut sauce. Not just a means of satisfying your hunger, Hawker centres are an entire experience of food and friends as you rub shoulders with fellow diners and enjoy a whole menu of weird and wonderful new snacks and dishes.