Food from Sabah, Malaysia: Lost in culinary translation!

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ January 20th, 2011. Updated on May 30th, 2012. Published in: Travel blog » Food around the world » Sabahan food.
Prawns and Green beans from Sabah, Malaysia

Sabah, Malaysia has a huge and culturally diverse list of dishes on offer!

Food from Malaysia is easier to eat, than get the name of!

Everyone who has traveled to a foreign restaurant that serves an English menu will invariably notice spelling mistakes. Well …  possibly not in the above $3 per meal category.

It would seem the same is true in for Chinese, Indian, and Malaysian restaurants writing in their own language too!

Hence as I sit there scribbling down the name of a dish I just photographed, and ate, it’s not always what it really was!

Indeed, the menu numbering is sometimes a little off too. I always ask to confirm. But as many might recognise from your own travels:

“Sometimes what you ask for, is not always what you get”

In a country as culturally diverse as Malaysia, there could well be several names for the same dish

Likewise even when you do annoy the person serving you by pointing  to a menu, and nodding your head or shaking it; they will always confirm with a nod.

The wonders of lost in translation on the road of culinary delights.

The second solution is to sit down with a girl at reception camera in hand, and go back over everything again. Surely she will know what something is called?

Nope, 90% of the people I ask shake their heads. It’s … well … Noodles?

A mix of linguistic difficulties and translation

Indeed, many locals, at the level I travel, eat a much more bland diet. Sticking to their favorites.

Mango Shake from Sabah, Malaysia

Thick Mango Shake from Sabah, Malaysia ... I need one with all this research!

Spellings change too as in genuine acts of help people struggle to translate a Chinese dish to Malay, and then to English. The result is often not what we are looking at.

So yes, food from Malaysia is proving to be a harder task to name, than it is to eat! Which I may add, is no problem at all. Malaysia has, by quite a long stretch, the best tasting dishes I’ve had as a whole on this journey.

Yes, Pakistan has the best roast leg of mutton in the world, yes the Philippines is better than Germany when it comes to chocolate cake. But, I’ve not come across a single big wow factor dish like I have in Malaysia.

“So yes, naming aside. As a nation, Malaysia simply has some of the best tasting food in the world”

I’ve made a huge effort to get this all right, but …

Please excuse my naming mistakes. If I am wrong, then please feel free to correct me in the comments! And, I will make the appropriate changes.

Meanwhile join me as I harass waiters and people at reception desks in discovering the real food you will encounter, and be eating, in your travels across Malaysia!

This is an additional post highlighting food from Sabah, Malaysia

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21 Great responses to Food from Sabah, Malaysia: Lost in culinary translation!

  1. Malaysia has the best food of any country I’ve been to. Better than Thailand (more variety).

    I was already hungry, but that first pic has me itching for some of that NOW. Can you ship?

    • Ha ha. If I ship the food I think it might not reach you quite as good as when it’s served. But, yes I totally agree the variety of food here is outstanding. Lot’s of Chinese influence. I look forward to mainland and some more Indian food too!

  2. Anna's World says:

    I really never thought about all those different menus! I hope you dont get something too strange in your soup :)

  3. Haha, good call on ordering. Even if I can speak the language, I ALWAYS point to the menu too. This has become so much of a habit that I do it everywhere.

    Just wait until some Malaysian expat reads this. They will tell you what’s up. People tend not to give a shit about their food until they leave their country of origin, then they get all sensitive about it and butt hurt if you say you don’t like it haha.

    Whenever I write about not liking a food, I get a slew of angry comments from expats from the country that the food is from, but I can tell anyone in the street how much I hate some type of food and all they can do is shrug their shoulders without a care haha.

    • So far I am not complaining about the food. Maybe if I can dig up something not so good I will. Nothing really extreme so far. Some tourist were talking about maggot eating on a “tour” then did in the “jungle”. I imagine the guides are growing these maggots in their backyard and are having a good laugh. The expats don’t seem so obvious here. Mainly settled and not the party type.

      I have to join a few forums at some stage. But at the moment getting to grips with public transport. VERY, disappointed with the backpacker type crowd here. Mainly sitting around all morning, and then at night beer drinking. Waiting for a “tour” the next day.

      Likewise trying to get info is hard. “I would like to get a train”.

      Receptionist: “take a tour it’s easier”.

      Let’s see.

  4. I guess “expat” isn’t the proper word. “Emigrant” is what I mean. Funny how if an American or European moves to Malaysia they are called an expat but if a Malaysian moves to the USA they are referred to as an emigrant or immigrant or “part of the diaspora.”

  5. ian Martin says:

    Food is very nice in Borneo, but best in the world , hmm ??? Maybe you are still adjusting to the shock of leaving 3rd world Philippines. I always like the theatricals of the Malaysian coffee and tea “Tarik” style, pouring from a great height 1 glass to another , in order to mix the condensed milk.
    In KK i liked to go to small restaurants by the beach (there is great hawker centre on beach quite near the airport, no tourists ), so cheap and very delicious.
    The muslim rotis are good for a change, especially banana ones !
    Greetings from flooded out Palawan, 2 days of constant HEAVY rain, maybe there too , it’s not so far distance wise

    • You are right about culture shock. But, not really at Malaysia. More at the “tourist industry”. Everything is package this package that. For me I am looking for local transport to explore a bit better.

      Having said that, I’ve not been to the beach yet! Thanks for the tips though. I’ll bare that in mind when I do go. And yes, the Rotis are fantastic. So are Murtabak, great snack food.

      It’s that annoying showery rain. Sometimes cloudy sometimes not. I remember the rain in Palawan. No longer am I in a beach cottage watching the drips flow down! I think the Philippines is experiencing a cold weather front at the moment?

  6. LeslieTravel says:

    I’m not surprised the food is excellent in Malaysia. They have so many fabulous food bloggers– they must be doing something right :)

  7. Ciki says:

    LOL! really? i always thought it was super easy! Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be sprouting Malay.. like a local! Easy as ABC, as nasi lemak, as asam laksa as roti canai! :P

  8. Natalie says:

    That first picture looks great. I am at the stage where my taste buds are bored and ready to try something new. Unfortunately no chance of getting any Malaysian food here. Idea for business!!

    • I often think of people opening restaurants that serve food from other countries. Ingredients are often a big problem, then the style of cooking. I think once you’ve got those things covered then you could do very well. If the food is good of course!

  9. Ivy says:

    Waw, with all the delicious food you must have gain some weight or not? :)

  10. Malaysia is a foodies paradise … I’m headed to KK tomorrow, can’t wait to suck back a shake like the one you have and sample the fusion fare whilst listening to the predictable rumble and flash of monsoonal thunder and lightning!

  11. I love Malaysian food, I’m off on my travels there in February too, can’t wait to get stuck in to some tasty dishes!

    Just like Dustin – my mouth is watering already from that photo, the mango shake would go down a treat right now too!