Travel Tips For Eating Economy Rice in Malaysia

For travelers to Asia, you will find most Asians eat economy rice or noodles instead of bread – a staple food.

Chap Fan or Economy Rice, found in, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, refers not to a specific dish in Asian’s pantheon of cuisine but a type of buffet-style dining at a food stall.

Here are some travel tips for eating a cheap meal If you are strapped for cash, as this is a good way to try the cuisine of the country you’re visiting.

The category of cuisine is commonly found in food courts, hawker centers, or even street food stalls.

Eat More Greens and Protein with Economy Rice

In Asia, rice is a staple for lunch or dinner and sometimes breakfast.

According to the Economist, around 90% of the world’s rice consumption is in Asia—60% of it in China, India, and Indonesia alone.

Asian Economy Rice Consumption and Cheap Hot Meals

Economy Rice is a source of a cheap hot balanced meal.

The stalls are popular for office workers and families to eat out on a budget when they don’t cook their meals at home.

These stalls cook the grains in huge rice cookers and keep warm in Plastic Thermal Insulated Buckets. 

In Coffee Shop and Kopitiam, economy rice stall provides a better and more nutritious serve of greens and proteins than from eating a noodle dish.

These rice stalls typically have a variety of dishes that ranges from 10 – 30 metal troughs of cooked food on display.

There are meats, stir fry vegetables, eggs, tofu, and sometimes hot clear soups.

The cooked dishes are in many styles which include salads, raw vegetable dips, deep-frying, braising, steaming, stir-fries, and curries.

For a cheaper and better option of foods and eating out, a meal with several dishes and a soup cost a fraction of what you would pay in a restaurant for family-style dining.

In this Hawker Centre buffet-style setting, you can find several types of cuisine depending on the ethnicity of the people.

The Concept of Eat In or Takeaway Economy Rice Boxes

Malaysian lunchtime Economy Rice boxes are the affordable quick lunch takeaways that serve home-style comfort food, cooked fresh, daily.

The concept is simple.

You choose a rice base then pick a main dish and add in your choice of dishes as extras.

Popular mains are the meat options of Chicken, Fish, and Pork (Chinese Stalls).

A quick grab at lunchtime will set you back below RM10 if you don’t take a Fish as a main.

Economy Rice has a wide variety of hearty combination of a flavorsome balanced meal that is convenient, quick, highly nutritious, and affordable.

Malaysian love the taste of these homey dishes that their mothers prepare at home that they don’t have to cook themselves.

Most working Malaysians only shop for groceries and ingredients to cook during the weekends.

Chinese Economy Rice – Chap Fan

Most Chinese stalls cook their vegetables by stir-frying with Light Soy Sauce or Oyster Sauce.

Pork based dishes abound.

The usual dishes include Roasted Pork, Chinese Sausages, Lor Bak, Tau Ewe Bak (Soy Sauce Braised Pork), Chicken Curry, and Assam Fish Curry.

Some huge stalls have a mind-boggling array of dishes that goes up from 60 to 80 types!

Malay Economy Rice – Nasi Campur 

Nasi Campur is a plate of white rice topped with a stunning variety of fried meats, different curries, Kerabu (raw salads), curried or fried vegetables as side dishes, and spicy red sambal.

Indian Set Lunches – Banana Leaf Rice 

A mountain of white rice served on top of a banana leaf with condiments and curries is the best way to eat Indian curries.

Given a choice, I would eat on a banana leaf – a tradition that dates back centuries.

Banana leaves are thick, waterproof, and packed with plant-based compounds called polyphenols (natural antioxidants)

Warm food served on the plantains stimulates the polyphenols which get absorbed in the food.

Nasi Kandar Meal (Indian Muslim Rice Set)

Nasi Kandar is a popular Malaysian dish, originates from Penang popularized by Tamil Muslim traders from India.

The rice dish is far from being economical as the choice of meats include Chicken, Beef, Mutton, Squids, Crabs, Tiger Prawns, and Fish Roe all cooked in a delicious curry.

Nasi Lemak (Rice Cooked In Coconut Milk)

Economy style Nasi Lemak is served with a buffet spread of mouthwatering dishes.

You can get hot from the frying wok piece of juicy Tumeric Marinated Fried Chicken, Sambal Ikan Bilis (Anchovy) Hard Boiled Egg, Sweet Tomato Sambal Sauce, and Cucumber slices.

Go Vegan

In Malaysia, where some of the population are vegetarians, you can find Economy Rice Stalls that sell strictly vegetarian dishes. Some are cooked without Garlic and Onions.

The meal sets are mostly dhal based with legumes, beans, vegetable stews, tofu.

Some vegetarian “meats” are based made from wheat gluten, rice, mushrooms, legumes, tempeh, yam flour, or pressed-tofu.

These items are flavored to make the finished product taste like chicken, beef, lamb, ham, sausage, and even seafood.

If you have a wheat intolerance, the best is to order green leafy vegetables that you can see instead of any meats.

You can have a healthy vegan meal that is not only nutritious but feels light in your tummy.

Keeping the Dishes Hot

Customers are served a plate of white rice from a huge insulated rice container.

They go on to select a combination of the dishes of their choice by piling it on top of the rice.

Better quality economy rice stalls invest in electric food warmers to ensure that the food is served hot.

In some Food Courts, you will find the food on open stainless steel troughs kept warm in a hot water bath with an electric heater below.

Other smaller businesses don’t bother with these gadgets as they are very popular.

The dishes are sold almost immediately when taken out of the kitchen.

So, there is no time for the food to even cool down.

Packing Economy Rice Box Home

Apart from the other Asian staple of Chicken Rice, and Banana Leaf Rice – It is common for Asian families to cater to the cooked dishes and have them delivered to their homes.

These are placed in a stainless steel tiffin carrier.

You may find a tiffin carrier hanging on the metal grille doors of apartments just before mealtimes.

When the caterer delivers the tiffin lunch, he will take replace the empty tiffin carrier with the one laden with hot food.

Travel Tips For Eating Economy Rice in Malaysia

Eating at an Economy Rice stall is a great experience in Asia.

You will get to sample the tasty local and traditional food at a fraction of the price of eating in an air-conditioned restaurant.

  • Do check the hygiene of the stall before you decide to order.
  • Ask before ladling the dishes on your plate of rice.
  • You cannot put the dishes back if you’re unsure.
  • Some dishes may contain chopped nuts. If you have a nut allergy it’s good to stay away from salads that may contain these.
  • Some dishes may contain minced meat like pork or even dried shrimps.

Roadside stalls star rice dish is the Malaysian Nasi Lemak – some are simple pyramid parcels of delicious “fatty rice”. Other stalls are laid out like an Economy Rice set up.

Heat Warning!

Some salads may be very spicy. Look out for the addition of raw red and green Bird’s-eye chilies which are very hot.

Money-Saving Tips for Economy Rice Meals

Most Economy Rice stall charge by the ladle of dishes.

So even if you take half a ladle full you may be charged the full price.

If you’re eating with a friend, take about 3 dishes each and share.

You get to sample 6 dishes this way.

Doris Lim is a Malaysian Travel and Food Blogger, content writer, travel writer, female solo travel blogger, and journalist based in Penang.

Her stories are published in print & digital media and in-flight and travel magazines.