Why Malaysian Food is So Popular is Wellington, New Zealand

One of the first things you notice in Wellington is all the Malaysian restaurants in the city. Most are run by Malay ex-pats and their story is fascinating.

Photo: Brent Petersen

Chinese Malaysians

Most of the immigrants from Malaysia to New Zealand are ethnic Chinese, not Malay.

Chinese people have been emigrating to Malaysia for at least 800 years. But, the Chinese exodus from their homeland accelerated in the mid-1800s when villagers tried to escape crushing poverty in rural China.

Many landed in British controlled Malaysia. The Brits were mining tin there and jobs were plentiful.

1969 Riot

By the time Malaysia gained independence from Britain in 1957, a large portion of the economy was controlled by ethnic Chinese who had grown rich during British rule. Resentment grew among poorer, rural Malaysians and after an especially divisive election, a race riot exploded on May 13, 1969.

Although exact figures are disputed, hundreds were likely killed in the riots, most of them Chinese. Hundreds of Chinese homes were burned and thousands were displaced.

The Malay majority government blamed the ethnic Chinese, saying their ties to China was an attempt to bring communism to Malaysia. Chinese-Malaysians said their rights as a minority group were being trampled.

After the election and 1969 riot, ethnic Malaysians were given preferential political treatment over Chinese Malaysians. This was especially true when it came to education. Chinese Malaysians found it more difficult to get into university in their home country.

Making New Zealand Home

As a result, many young people opted to study abroad. One of those places they chose was New Zealand. After graduation, lots of Chinese-Malaysians opted to stay in New Zealand, making it their new home.

Today, Malaysians, mostly of Chinese descent, continue to come to New Zealand. And, those that have come in the past have created a small but vibrant community.

Many Malay have opened restaurants in New Zealand, especially in the capital city of Wellington. These places are usually small mom and pop joints serving traditional dishes. But, a few fine dining restaurants in Welly have started adding Malaysian dishes to their menus.

Laksa at Aunty Mena’s in Wellington (photo: Brent Petersen)

Here’s a few of the best.

Little Penang

Tee Phee and Keith Cheah are the husband and wife team behind Little Penang. It’s Wellington’s original Malaysian restaurant and lots of people still consider it the best.

They specialize in Nyonya cuisine from the Malaysian city of Penang. It combines Malaysian, Chinese, and Indonesian influences and Chef Tee is a master of Nyonya.

Many of Chef Tee’s recipes are secret. Especially her spice blends. She imports ingredients from Malaysia and mixes them herself.

Be sure to order one of the noodle dishes at Little Penang. They are served warm on a banana leaf which releases wonderful aromas.

Rasa

In addition to Chinese-Malaysians, there is also an Indian-Malaysian ethnic group in New Zealand.

Indians also came to Malaysia during the British occupation in search of work. Today, they are the third largest ethnic group in Malaysia after the Malay and Chinese.

Indians in New Zealand came from Malaysia, but also in large numbers from Fiji and India itself.

Rasa has created a menu that celebrates Indian, Malaysian, and Indian-Malaysian culture.

Their dosa (fermented rice and lentil pancakes filled with meat or vegetables) is crispy perfection. And, their rice is served in a little cone-shaped tower. Simultaneously cute and delicate.

KK Malaysian

Ask anyone from Wellington their favorite Malaysian restaurant and they just might say KK Malaysian. The restaurant imports their spices and their coconut milk from Malaysia. That makes their all-day simmering Laksa (a spicy curry-coconut milk soup) extraordinary.

Aunty Mena’s Vegetarian Cafe

I’ve saved the best for last.

Photo: Brent Petersen

Aunty Mena’s is my favorite Malaysian restaurant in Wellington, vegetarian or otherwise. Walking in, it doesn’t look like much. Bare bones or spartan would be a good description.

But, that’s the charm of Aunty Mena’s Do yourself a favor and sit in the back at one of the communal tables. Strike up a conversation with your neighbor (Kiwis are incredibly friendly). Ask them what they’re having. And then order the Laksa. It’s out of this world.

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