The Essential Gluten Free Guide to Malaysia

I spent several months in Malaysia in total, returning time and time again. I hopped to and from Kuala Lumpur from surrounding countries, recovered from an injury on the Perhentian Islands, lost my battle with spice over a bowl of Nyonya laksa in Melaka, and stuffed my face with Indian food in the corners of Bukit Bintang. From the flavorful nasi lemak breakfasts to the grilled seafood on the Perhentians, Malaysia was a delicious joy once I figured out what was safe to eat, and what was not as a celiac.

My gluten free guide to Malaysia below, including those lists of safe and unsafe foods. As with the other guides, this one includes shops with products for celiacs, as well as restaurants and cafes to try on your travels.

I started these guides because in 2008 onward there really wasn’t much online for celiacs who didn’t want to let their disease stop them from seeing the world. I added the gluten free translation cards to do so safely. While there are some places that are harder than others, the overall message remains: with care, research, and help communicating, the world is open for all of us.

-Jodi

gluten free guide kuala lumpur (KL)

Petronas Towers at night, in Kuala Lumpur

GLUTEN FREE MALAYSIA: CONTENTS

Gluten free Restaurant Card in Bahasa Malaysia
Eating Gluten Free in Malaysia: Dishes and Snacks
Gluten Free Restaurants and Shops in Malaysia
What Isn’t Gluten Free in Malaysia?
Books and Further Reading about Malaysia

A Tailored Gluten-Free Restaurant Card for Malaysia

If you are looking for gluten free translation card, you can head to my landing page for celiac translation cards, for Mexico, Japan, France, and much more.

Detailed Gluten Free Restaurant Card for Malaysia

Each of the cards in the guide has been created with celiac-specific research, mention of cross contamination, and double checked translation from locals who speak the language.

Note: The card is available for purchase via trustworthy 3rd party site that uses https, so you know your information is safe. I am not gathering emails or information for anyone who buys the card.

Why is this card different?

I have used several different translation cards on my travels, and still got sick. I may be more sensitive than some celiacs, but even a small amount of contaminated oil for frying, or wheat-thickened sauce in the food, is enough to make me ill for days. Let alone the joint pain later that week! This card is different because it not only uses local food names for what to eat or avoid, but makes clear mention of the cross contamination concerns.

gluten free Malaysia Bahasa card
A big thanks to Angela and Slinky for the translations, as well as two incredible celiac advocates and hungry Malaysian friends, for reviewing this card and taking it out onto the streets!

Eating Gluten Free in Malaysia: Dishes and Snacks

The following dishes are commonly wheat-free in Malaysia. This is not an exhaustive list, but I wanted to be sure some of the more common dishes were represented so you could recognize them on the menu.

As with any destination, at home or abroad, it’s important to confirm on a case-by-case basis that no flour, bread, or Maggi/Knorr condiments were used in the dishes.

In addition, I’ve had great success eating Indian food in the country. While these kitchens are not free of cross-contamination, items like dosa masala (fermented lentil pancake with potatoes and spices), and banana leaf style curry places can be a go-to in a pinch. For a history and list of MANY dosa options in Malaysia, please see here – most are great for celiacs except atta dosa, which is made with wheat. I rarely saw atta dosa on Malay menus, but it’s worth mentioning of course.

I tend to stick to South Indian spots if I can find them. As noted in my gluten free guide to North India, it’s important to ask if they use hing to flavour the curries/dal, as often hing is cut with wheat. 

Dishes that are likely to be safe for celiacs in Malaysia, with some additional communication and confirmation of cross contamination:

Sambal paste is a spicy condiment made from various chillies mixed with vinegar, shrimp paste, fish sauce, garlic, sugar, lime and various other spices. Sambal is frequently served atop or alongside many Malaysian dishes.

Nasi is Malay for cooked rice and is the base of many dishes, including nasi goreng, a generic word for fried rice. Nasi goreng can be made gluten free, but ONLY if made without soy sauce.

Nasi Kandar is mildly flavoured rice from the Penang area served alongside a variety of curries.

Nasi lemak is often eaten as breakfast, but this coconut milk and pandan flavoured rice dish is tasty any time of day. Usually served with sambal paste, cucumber, pickled vegetables, boiled egg, peanuts, fried fish, chicken or beef…or some variation of the above. This variable meal is considered a Malaysian national dish.

Nasi lemak is a pandan flavoured coconut rice dish with fried peanuts, fried anchovies /sprats , chilli paste with shrimp paste(belacan)/anchovies/sprats, morning glory vegetable and hardboiled egg.

Another popular break is nasi dagang. In place of pandan leaves, the creamy coconut rice dish is flavoured with lemongrass and fenugreek seeds, and served with fish curry. Toppings include cucumber pickles, hardboiled egg, shaved coconut and fried shallots.

Nasi ayam is otherwise known as Hainanese chicken rice. This dish is made by poaching an entire chicken, then using some of the resulting fat and stock, combined with pandan leaves, ginger and garlic, to cook the accompanying rice. Often served with condiments containing soy sauce, so avoid adding these to the dish. Also exercise caution with chicken that looks as though it’s been marinated or glazed.

Most Malaysian curries are customarily be gluten free, but best to ensure no soy sauce was used as flavouring or seasoning.

Laksa is a delicious spicy soup that comes in two general varieties. Each type boasts regional varieties, but can essentially be broken down into this: curry laksa, also called nyonya laksa, is a rich coconut milk based soup that can include a variety of meat and seafood ingredients, while asam laksa is made with fish and a sour tamarind base. Many laksas are served with celiac friendly rice noodles, but beware any soups with mee (wheat noodle) in the name, especially around Penang, where wheat based varieties are more common.

gluten free malaysia guide

Spiciest soup of my life up till that point, in Melaka

Rendang is often referred to a curry, but many argue that title isn’t quite right. This labor-intensive beef stew is rich, creamy, and coconutty, but doesn’t contain as much liquid as typical curry would. Initially an Indonesian dish for special occasions, rendang has become a well-loved dish across Malaysia, especially within Malay communities. NOTE: some rendang recipes do use kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) but it was not the norm in my travels, and both Malay translators confirmed the recipe in Malaysia does not contain soy. As always, it is important to ask.

Otak Otak are spicy fish cakes wrapped in banana leaves. This popular dish is most often made with mackerel in Malaysia, and cooked with coconut milk, shrimp paste, rice or tapioca flour, egg and spices. Usually gluten free, but always good to check no wheat flour is used.

Ikan bakar, or banana leaf stingray, is a Malay dish of barbecued fish or stingray topped with sambal paste.

South Indian foods are plentiful in Malaysia and offer many safe options for celiacs, including appam, which is a “pancake” made of fermented rice and coconut milk. Rather than as flat disks, appam are served in a bowl shape, with crispy exterior edges and softer, thick middle. Some varieties are made with an egg broken into the bottom as it cooks.

Dosas or tosai are another crepe-like pancake with South Indian origins, this time made from a fermented batter of rice and black gram (lentil flour). As long as the filling it is stuffed with is gluten free, this is a safe and tasty dish!

Kuih is a general name for bite sized desserts or snacks. This bright treats derive their texture from sago, mung bean or glutinous rice flour, and their flavor from grated coconut, coconut cream, palm sugar and pandan leaves. Wheat flour is not as commonly used for kuih, but best to make sure every time.

Cendol is a sweet dessert made from little worm-like pieces of rice flour jelly floating in coconut milk, pandan leaves, and palm sugar syrup. Common additions include jackfruit or durian.

kuala lumpur gluten free

Desserts of coconut milk, agar, and cendol abound.

malaysia celiac guide

You can’t leave Malaysia without trying some fresh durian! Just don’t bring it home. Or on a bus. Or a train.

 

Lemang is a glutinous rice made with coconut milk and cooked in hollow bamboo stalks lined with banana leaves, often eaten with dry curry.

Satay refers to skewers of marinated chicken or beef served with a sauce of ground peanuts and water. Unlike other parts of Asia, Malay satay is usually gluten free!

Gluten Free Restaurants, Hotels, and Stores in Malaysia 

Gluten Free Groceries and Shops in Malaysia

Cold Storage is essentially the Malaysian Whole Foods, carrying a variety of gluten free products as well as fresh produce and more. With 15 locations across Malaysia including in Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Petaling Jaya and Johor Bahru, this is a good place to start for gluten free in Malaysia.

Marks & Spencers’ gluten free / “Made Without” line from the UK is available in their M&S Malaysia locations, including naan, rolls, sweets, and pasta.

Jaya Grocery carries a variety of imported gluten free products, available across their numerous store locations or online for home delivery.

Sam’s Groceria stocks a few ranges of gluten free items and has multiple locations in Kuala Lumpur and Penang.

Harvess International describes itself as an “online shopping mall for healthy living” in Malaysia. Shopping options include a range of gluten free, organic, and vegetarian products, as well as more natural soaps and body products. The selection of certified gluten free items is fairly large, include a wide range of Bob’s Red Mill, Schär, and Bio XXI items.

Matahari Organic offers organic fruit, vegetables, and gluten free flours in its Petaling Jaya shop.

An online organic supermarket, Radiant Whole Food is another good option for those hanging out in Malaysia for longer stretches of time.

Isetan is a Japanese retailer whose food market carries some gluten free options imported from Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.

Petaling Street market, and others like it are a great option for finding delightful fruit, nuts and other basics.

gluten free soup malaysia

Air tebu (sugarcane water), and other sweetened waters and teas.

Gluten Free Kuala Lumpur

Freaking Wholesome offers gluten free and raw cakes, bars and goodies available for pre-order.

Coffee shop Urbean (we see what they did there!) not only has great beans but also a menu that notes gluten free and vegan dishes. As always, chat with the restaurant about contamination, but we’ve found them to be very accommodating for celiacs with quinoa salads, veggie burgers, and more.

Coffee shop RBG @ The Bean Hive in Kuala Lumpur offers “scrumptious gluten-free, organic, vegan, vegetarian food that is gluten-free and organic,” which covers quite a few bases. Their menu also denotes garlic and onion free, carb free, and vegan dishes. The name stands for Rather Good Beans, which is it also offers in spades with quite a long list of coffees to start the day.

Paleolicious is a 100% gluten free (and, as the name suggests, paleo) restaurant and the owners note that they are very strict with ingredient selection, and their food is “plant-based food, high quality meat, seafood, eggs, fresh fruit, nuts, and seeds.”

For a large Indian menu, including many different dosa and idly to choose from  Saravanaa restaurant in Brickfields area of Kuala Lumpur (Google Maps here). Many menu items are naturally gluten free, and there are other cuisines on offer. For a more narrow menu, with rice and lentil based idly and dosa, see the Idly Only Cafe in Bangsar Baru. In addition FLOUR in Bukit Damansara offers North Indian takes with many naturally gluten free ingredients and dishes. Carrie from For Gluten’s Sake had the Mutton Briyani, and raved about it.

Vegetarian The Good Co in Kuala Lumpur is not 100% gluten free, but does offer takes on nasi lemak with millet, as well as healthy salad bowls that are made naturally safe ingredients. The menu is all fresh, organic, and preservative-free. Note that their kitchen does include bread products, so explain to the wait staff that you need the bowl prepared in a separate surface.

For more expensive fare, the Shangri-La’s Lemon Garden Café has a fully gluten free menu for local and international dishes, served in its elegant hotel.

If you’re craving a Western-style brunch, the Raisin’ the Roof in Kuala Lumpur is for you. This café caters to different dietary requirements and has gluten free menu items clearly marked.

Lushbowl is a build your own salad and noodle bowl concept spot in KL’s Plaza Damas Hartamas, which allows for easy customization and safe eating. They’ve got plenty of gluten free (rice) pasta, quinoa, and organic ingredients.

Brunch fave Ra.Ft is an Italian style café in Kuala Lumpur with a satisfying menu and gluten free bread available for those who need it – all of the sandwiches can be prepared with gluten-free bread, and they have a GF brownie on offer for dessert. For something with more of an Asian twist, they do a take on Vietnamese pho using Kway Teow noodles (rice noodles) in lieu of the Vietnamese banh pho. Soup was gluten free, but again always best to ask if any soy sauce or bouillon cubes were added prior to ordering.

Simple Life serves delicious vegetarian food that eschews the gluten-filled mock meat in favor of high quality vegetable-based ingredients. Many dishes reflect the naturally gluten free elements of Malaysian cuisine and staff is willing to help cater to celiac needs.

Fittie Sense in Bangsar Baru has an almost totally GF menu with Middle Eastern/North African inspired dishes, bowls, and gluten free desserts made with coconut and almond flour. There IS a pita option for the meat dishes, and a pasta dish – and both are clearly marked on the menu. Otherwise the restaurant is an easy fix for those hungry and seeking something a little different in Malaysia. Try the Moroccan stew with millet-quinoa pilaf. Delicious.

For a really unique dining experience in Kuala Lumpur, there’s Dining in the Dark, which is exactly as it sounds. Diners eat a series of “surprise” courses in a pitch black room, savoring the heightened sensations that accompany a loss of vision. Owners can accommodate gluten free needs if informed upon booking.

Skillet 163 can accommodate gluten free meals that are safe for celiacs, and readers say that this is one of their favourite spots in Kuala Lumpur for GF dining. The chef noted that part of his apprenticeship in London included learning how to safely cater to different dietary restrictions, so this is a spot I’ve recommended often.

Gluten Free Penang

China Housein Penang’s Georgetown is a compound boasting multiple restaurants and cafes, various retail shops, art spaces, and a central cake table of 30 varieties of cake… many of which are gluten free! The cafes and restaurants cater to Westerners, and have a stronger understanding of many dietary restrictions.

My Armenian Café in Penang offers up good coffee alongside restriction-friendly foods.

Sri Ananda in Penang is a banana leaf restaurant serving South Indian food. While the restaurant is not gluten free, the cuisine from South India is naturally rice and lentil based, with many dishes to choose from. Recommend the masala dosa for a filling and delicious meal.

Gluten Free Langkawi

Italian restaurant The Red Tomato may not be traditional Malay food, but it’s a great option if you can’t find something else to eat, with a menu spanning many Italian and Western dishes, and gluten free bread, pizza, pasta and tarte flambée available for celiacs. Aware of the disease, but best to confirm that pizza is cooked on a separate pan/surface, as always.

For eggs/brunch foot, The Fat Cupid is knowledgeable about celiac disease and can prepare omelettes and salad bowls without any gluten. Again, it’s always worth explaining cross contamination, or showing them your Malay celiac translation card.

Gluten Free Hotels in Malaysia

A reader reports that the Double Treetop by Hilton in Penang had a chef who was more than happy to ensure all meals for her family were celiac-safe, and she raved about eating at the hotel.

Carrie from For Gluten’s Sake stayed at Lanson Place Bukit Ceylon – her review here.

What ISN’T Gluten Free in Malayisa?

Soy sauce (kichap) and oyster sauce (sos tiram) both contain wheat.

Chinese-influenced Malaysian cuisine is the most likely to be unsafe for celiac eaters, due to the prevalence of soy and oyster sauces.

Char kway teow is a Chinese-style rice noodle stir-fry dish that derives its flavour from both light and dark soy sauce.

Kam Heong is a commonly found style of Chinese-influenced stir-fry in Malaysia. Flavoured with chillies, dried shrimp, curry leaves and powders, this dish is commonly made with seafood such as crabs, prawns and squid. It may be possible to find kam heong dishes that are gluten free, but many versions of the seasoning include oyster sauce, rendering it unsafe.

Any dish containing the word mee is not gluten free. That goes for the Chinese-influenced mee goreng (mi goreng), a spicy fried wheat noodle dish that is fairly ubiquitous across Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, as well as many others. The full name – mee hoon kueh – refers to noodles made of wheat flour, egg, water, and salt. As the ingredients suggest: hard no for us.

Unsafe for celiacs in Malaysia: mee noodles

An example of wheat noodle soup with “mee” noodles.

Curry mee is a Malaysian curry that reflects deep Chinese and Indian influences. Very similar to curry laksa, but served with mee, yellow wheat based noodles.

Roti canai is a good example of the Indian influence on Malaysian cuisine. This wheat flour based flatbread often accompanies dals and curry dishes and is definitely not gluten free. In India, the most similar approximation is chapati. Roti canai is but one option for roti in Malaysia – roti telur (roti with egg), and many others are popular. “Roti isn’t so much a food in Malaysia, but a way of life,” says Neal O’Grady in his survey of Malay rotis here. Unfortunately, we won’t get to test them out unless it’s a special GF version.

Naan bread, pictured below in the “nope not safe for celiacs” category, is sadly also off limits as it is elsewhere. Like roti, it is a wheat-based bread but this one is baked and not fried. Note that a non-fermented dosa called atta dosa is also made with wheat.

Indian food in Malaysia

Satay meats While, as noted above, Malay satay is safe for celiacs – the meat is sometimes marinated in soy sauce, making it not safe at all. If you are grabbing a satay dish, be sure to ask about marination of meat.

Mamak rojak is an Indian-influenced mixture of fried dough, hardboiled eggs, potatoes, shrimp fritters, cuttlefish, cucumber and bean sprouts and curd.

Rojak penang is a tart fruit salad often made with raw mangoes, green apples, guava and honey. Many variations of fruit rojak exist, some using cucumber and pineapple, some with deep fried tofu, others using fried squid or dough. Though gluten free varieties may be found, this is a dish to approach with caution.

Ikan goreng means fried fish in Malay, and that’s exactly what this dish is. The type of seafood varies, as does the use of batter or sweet soy sauce as a marinade, but unless you can verify that it is completely gluten free, this is not a dish for celiacs. 

Ayam goreng is fried chicken that beens battered or crumbed before being fried.

Further Reading About Malaysia

Further Reading About Malaysia

 For those of you looking to visit Malaysia, there are some wonderful books to help inform your visit. For guidebooks, the most recent is The Rough Guide to Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei (published in June 2018). For those heading to Malaysia later in the year, this Lonely Planet Guide to Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei is available for pre-order and will be released August 1, 2019.

My suggestions for more historical background:

Urban Odysseys: KL Stories, edited by Janet Tay and Eric Forbes, is a mixed bag of short stories set against the backdrop of Kuala Lumpur that capture the city’s multifaceted, multicultural flavour. (DEFINITELY opt for the Kindle book, a reasonable $7.99, versus the Paperback, which is currently priced at $800 !!!)

The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither by Isabella L. Bird is a stiff-upper-lip account of the doughty Victorian-era traveller wending her way through the Malaysian jungles of Selangor and Perka, and crossing the Bukit Genting pass on the back of an elephant. First published more than 125 years ago, this early piece of travel writing has lost none of its charm or intrigue.

The Long Day Wanes by Anthony Burgess is a three-part novel taking a humorous and satirical look at the waning days of colonialism in post-war Malaya in the 1950’s. This enjoyable novel is full of lush descriptions that drop the reader right into time and place.

 My suggestions for Malaysian food books:

The title of The Food of Malaysia: 62 Easy-to-Follow and Delicious Recipes from the Crossroads of Asia pretty much says it all. This is an excellent introduction to the widespread influences on Malaysian cuisine and all its many flavours.

Malaysia: Recipes from a Family Kitchen draws on inspiration from author Ping Coombes’ mother’s kitchen, as well as from the market stalls of her hometown, Ipoh, Malaysia. Interspersed with childhood stories are home-cook friendly recipes with not too many exotic ingredients.

Tok Tok Mee: A Portrait of Penang Street Food is an engaging look at the flavours, techniques and characters that make Penang’s street food culture so engaging and vibrant. Gerald Tan’s childhood memories of life on the Island bring an endearing intimacy to the book and lovely sense of place.

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Happy and safe eating!

-Jodi