Every night as the sun sets over the Malay Peninsula, the country’s markets begin to fill with people who roam from stall to stall—eating, laughing, talking, buying. Markets occupy prominent spots in just about every neighborhood: Some take over warrens of streets; some occupy the top floors of parking structures; some lie under collections of tents. Many markets offer clothing and luggage in addition to food; others feature a truly unmissable breed of variety show, with American pop songs and Malaysian anthems, suave emcees and glittering lights.
Visiting the night markets is key to sampling the best of Malaysia’s food, a cuisine built upon an amalgamation of flavors from India, China and Southeast Asia. Here’s what to look for and how to navigate your options, whether you’re on Jalan Alor in Kuala Lumpur, at the Chowrasta Market in Penang, at the Kota Kinabalu night market in Borneo or somewhere else entirely.
First, know that there are two primary nighttime market experiences in Malaysia: the pasar malam (literally: "night market") and the hawker center, which may also be open during the day but is busiest at night. Both have a place in the Malaysian eating schedule, which features two nighttime meals: dinner, eaten between 6 and 8 p.m., and supper, which is a late-night meal, often eaten family style.
The pasar malam sells food meant to be eaten between the two meals. You’ll find vendors hawking apparel and other odds and ends, along with dry ingredients and prepared food. Night market food vendors specialize in snacks, good for munching while wandering through other stalls. This is a good place to find satay, or bite-size pieces of grilled marinated chicken, beef or duck, as well as popiah, a dish similar to fried spring rolls, stuffed with jicama and nuts. Also keep an eye out for panfried radish cakes, which are cut into crisp-edged squares; apam balik, a peanut pancake; and cups of corn served with pats of butter.
More food-centric than the night markets are the hawker centers, which come to life during actual mealtimes and feature an array of food stalls, carts and restaurants. There’s often a central sitting area where friends and family members convene after gathering whatever they plan on eating; platters of noodles, meant to be shared, are particularly popular during late-night supper.
If you’re roaming around a hawker center, be sure to try hokkien mee, made with egg noodles that are stir-fried in soy sauce with shrimp and squid, then served with spicy sambal; and wantan mee, consisting of egg noodles topped with sweet-smoky barbecue pork, pickled chiles and boiled dumplings. Some hawker center restaurants also serve chile crab: Pick your shellfish by weight or price, and watch as the vendor turns it into a platter of roughly chopped crab in an extra-fiery chile sauce, garlic and butter, or black bean sauce. Dig in with your fingers—no crab crackers here!—and don’t miss the supplemental mantou, or fried buns, which you can drag through the sauce after you’ve polished off the meat. Wash it all down with a beer; you should see servers peddling ice buckets of them. If you don’t, just ask a vendor—in some markets, alcohol is hidden.
When in doubt at any of these markets, follow the crowds, sample liberally and don’t worry about messing up: Good versions of all of these treats—and other regional specialties—exist everywhere, so there’s no need to bend over backward searching for the “best.” Besides, the real secret to mastering Malaysian night markets is leaving yourself open to unplanned discoveries.
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