For Malaysia’s 31 million inhabitants, there are two pastimes that have been transformed into competitive sports: shopping and eating. Malaysia’s morning markets, the pasar pagi, are the venue to enter as a spectator—or as a participant—in this ritual. In the country’s capital of Kuala Lumpur, the markets overflow with stalls of oily, crispy, and deep-fried proteins, fats, and fruits swarmed by morning commuters starting their day.
Although Kuala Lumpur was founded by Chinese tin miners in the 1800s, its culinary heritage draws influences from Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine, reflecting the city’s heterogeneous demography. A typical Malaysian breakfast can range from dim sum served in steamer baskets to a roti canai from a traditional mamak, or South Indian food establishment.
However, the most ubiquitous breakfast item is the national dish, nasi lemak (“fatty rice”). This coconut milk-smothered rice is combined with a healthy serving of tamarind juice, fried anchovies, peanuts, and a hard-boiled egg. It’s often served atop a banana leaf with white rice in the center. Nasi lemak packs a protein punch in the morning hours, and leaves most of the city in a stupor.
One of the best places to experience Malaysian breakfast food is the Imbi Market, which recently moved to a wet market in ICC Pudu, a venue arrayed with more than 250 sellers hawking all manners of Malaysian food. A wet market is another way to refer to a market that sells fresh food from individual vendors; they are full of leafy produce, seafood, and made-to-order breakfast items.
Most of the city's markets open at 6:30 a.m., and by the time breakfast-seekers stroll into a morning wet market, they inevitably have to hustle and clamber to get their preferred cuisine before it sells out. Malaysia’s kaya toast is one such treasure: thickly-sliced bread topped with a sweet coconut jam (kaya), butter, sugar and coconut milk. The toast is best paired with pandan, a bright green, vanilla-like spread that is widely consumed by Malay Chinese, the progenitors of this breakfast staple.
Every pasar pagi in bustling Kuala Lumpur will have a steaming cup of malted Horlicks, a barley-based liquid concoction with a vitalizing jolt of sugar. The malted milk drink is sipped warm and, even in the year-round heat of Kuala Lumpur, it energizes breakfast-hunters for a day of shopping and eating.
In the breakfast markets, the long queues are a solid indicator of the quality of food sold. I personally prefer waiting longer at the more popular stalls, given the high probability of dreams fulfilled. But it can be a serious time investment: entire families will often stake out prime real estate on a line. After receiving their food, families will rush to a table, loudly appraising the caliber of cooking and cost of dining. For those traveling without family, fear not: eating with strangers is considered normal in the breakfast markets, and no one says anything when you join their table. Breakfast is, after all, a team activity.
For lighter fare at the breakfast markets, there’s crispy popiah, a wafer-thin spring roll bursting with bean sauce and jicama (yam beans). Every ethnic group in Malaysia seems to have their own preparation style for a spring roll, but I suspect the versatility of the item makes it a uniquely Malaysian offering. Malaysian Chinese sometimes stuff it with pork, but it’s also possible to get egg spring rolls, as well as spring rolls packed with shredded yam bean, shrimp, bean sprouts, carrots, and cucumbers—all dipped in spicy chili sauce. Popiah are often freshly-made in front of the buyer.
Some of the most interesting flavors, however, come when eating mamak-style, referring to the country’s casual and cheap South Indian eateries, where the crowd-pleaser is roti canai. The flatbread’s dough is made from ghee (clarified butter), water, flour, and condensed milk, and puffed up over a warm griddle. Malaysian Indians largely hail from the southern Indian city of Chennai, and prefer to dip the crispy breakfast bread into a spicy bowl of coconut curry-flavored potatoes, but it’s also possible to eat it sweetened these days: Nutella and sugar iterations are growing in popularity, as are peanut butter, jam, or condensed milk.
As for drinks, skip the kedai kopi (coffeehouse) and get Hainan tea at a breakfast market. Frothy, thick, and foamy, Hainan tea is a smooth and sweet blend of tea, milk, and coffee, and a popular liquid accompaniment to half-boiled breakfast eggs and toast. Add a buttery, flaky egg tart, or a piece of kaya toast, and the breakfast set is complete.