Thursday, 7 January 2021

What are the most iconic smells of Malaysia?

Known for its rich and flavourful cuisine, coastal landscapes, secluded islands, Unesco World Heritage sites like Kinabalu Park and iconic landmarks such as the Petronas Twin Towers, Malaysia is a fascinating country that offers diverse experiences for every type of traveller.

Although Malaysia’s borders remain close, we can still indulge in all that it has to offer by immersing ourselves in its aromatic scents. Below you’ll find a sample of smells that will transport you back to the bustling country. We also recommend some places to visit for your future travels.

Nasi lemak malaysia
Nasi Lemak dish. Photo credit:

1. Nasi Lemak

Nasi Lemak is considered by many to be Malaysia’s national dish. Once served for breakfast but now eaten any time of the day, it consists of fragrant rice cooked in creamy coconut milk and pandan leaf, and then traditionally served with anchovies, cucumbers, peanuts and egg with a side of sambal, a spicy chili paste. Digging into a plate of aromatic authentic nasi lemak will undoubtedly take you back to Malaysia. These days, the popular dish comes with fried chicken, fried fish and otah. For intriguing spins on the dish, try the nasi lemak sushi from Ruyi and Lyn or the Nasi Lemak Kukus Goreng from chef Fauzey Nasi Lemak Goreng if you are in Malaysia. Otherwise, over in Singapore, popular nasi lemak stalls frequented by locals include Mizzy Corner Nasi Lemak at Changi Village; Boon Lay Power Nasi Lemak; and Selera Rasa Nasi Lemak at Adam Road Food Centre. Over on Ann Siang Hill, The Coconut Club offers a slightly more upscale version of the traditional dish.

D24 durians Malaysia
D24 durians from Malaysia. Photo credit:

2. Durian

Not everyone loves the King of Fruits. Its pungent smell has reminded some of smelly socks, rotten food and even bad breath and its flesh has been described as a cross between crème brûlée and blue cheese. But the thorny fruit is adored by those in Southeast Asian countries, particularly Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, and is even gaining traction in countries such as China. The highly coveted Musang King variety is grown almost entirely in Malaysia, and a 2018 article in The Guardian says the export of these durians to China – which has seen skyrocketing demand – could potentially make Malaysia millions. Other popular varieties include D24 and XO. If you are in Singapore, popular places to get your durian fix are Combat Durian, 99 Old Trees, Ah Seng Durian and Sindy Durian. There are also some unconventional durian desserts – think durian eclairs or tiramisu – that can be sampled on the Little Red Dot.

orchids Malaysia
Orchids at Kuala Lumpur. Photo credit:

3. Orchid

Malaysia is home to over 3,000 species of orchids, with more than 1,000 found in Peninsular Malaysia. Given that orchids are a symbol of understated beauty, grace and strength, the delicate plant is a popular choice of gift among Malaysians. The wide range of smells include everything from sweet jasmine to spicy vanilla, with a few known for giving off unpleasant aromas. Popular varieties include the White Red Lips Phalaenopsis and the Purple Dendrobium orchid. In Malaysia, you can buy them from florists such as Sanyi Orchid, Giftr and Flower Chimp from Malaysia, or if you’re in Singapore, Toh GardenWoon Leng Nursery and Far East Flora are your best bet.

Stir-fried kangkung with belacan
Stir fried kangkung with belacan. Photo credit:

4. Belacan

A condiment made with fresh red chilies, lime juice, salt and sugar, the sambal belacan is the building block of Malaysian cooking. At the heart of this popular spicy paste is the belacan, a paste made of finely crushed shrimp or krill mixed with salt that’s fermented for weeks, resulting in a pungent aroma. Sambal belacan adds a zesty kick to many Malaysian dishes and is indispensable in dishes such as sambal nasi goreng (fried rice), kangkung belacan (spicy water spinach) and ikan pari bakar (grilled sambal stingray in banana leaf). You can easily find shrimp paste in Asian supermarkets and grocery stores in a jar or as a rectangular slab.

Penang street food
Penang is known for its delicious, traditional street food. Photo credit:

5. Street food

There’s nothing quite like the smoky, charred aromas of street food in Malaysia. This is especially evident in Penang’s Georgetown, where its streets are paved with countless stalls harking wok-fried dishes, fresh fruits, curry noodles, desserts, rojak and skewered grilled meats – a cacophony of sights, sounds and smells. Not sure where to start? Take tips from Penang residents on the best bites. From sate and chendol to mee goreng, char koay teow and assam laksa, a whiff of these delicacies will bring back memories of your past Malaysian adventures. While not quite the same, you can reminisce by heading to Malaysian Food Street at Resorts World Sentosa or Malaysia Boleh! and sister brand Malaysia Chiak! which has outlets in various malls.

Bandung malaysia
Bandung. Photo credit:

6. Bandung

This sweet rose syrup milk drink is well loved by Malaysians, especially among the Malay community. Comprising evaporated milk or condensed milk flavoured with rose cordial that gives it a bright pink hue, the drink has a saccharine, floral scent. It’s also very refreshing, which is why the beverage is often served with ice at Iftar during the Ramadan month or at wedding receptions. Thanks to its popularity, quirky renditions have appeared, with additions such as grass jelly, sparkling water, ice cream soda, and even Milo powder.  You can order bandung from coffee shops in both Singapore and Malaysia.

teh tarik malaysia
Teh Tarik. Photo credit:

7. Teh Tarik

Translated as “pulled tea”, the roasted, earthy fragrance of this beverage will take you straight to a mamak eatery (a no-frills, open-air stall) in Malaysia, where one typically enjoys it with some roti canai (flat bread). The drink is prepared by transferring the sweetened concoction between two tin mugs until a velvety, creamy consistency develops and foam is produced at the top. Popular variants include teh halia (teh tarik with ginger) and teh tarik madu (with honey).

Please check the establishments’ respective websites for opening hours as well as booking and seating requirements before visiting, and remember to adhere to safe-distancing measures while out and about. Do also check train and bus schedules ahead of time.

The information is accurate as of press time. For updated information, please refer to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website.

To learn more about Singapore Airlines flights, visit

SEE ALSO: What are the most iconic smells of Indonesia?

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