Singapore restaurants are always among the world's best, so why aren't Malaysia's?

The requirements for eateries to make it into prestigious listicles are often not just about the food.

A composite picture of Nasi Lemak and the Michelin Man mascot, illustrating food available in Malaysia's restaurants and eateries.
There are far more eateries and restaurants in Singapore that have been recognised as the world's best, even though Malaysia has arguably the same taste in food. Does it go beyond just the food? (Photo: Getty Images)

By Min Hani

OVER the years, Chai Shin Yih has visited over 20 countries on a quest for one thing — food, glorious food.

A self-declared connoisseur of good restaurants, the Malaysian food blogger says she has frequently discovered gems to share with her followers. And to her, Malaysian cuisine has always stood out from the competition.

"I can confidently say that Malaysia's culinary landscape offers a distinctive and mouthwatering experience. The wide range of flavours found in the country's cuisine never fails to delight and impress," she said.

Chai is, of course, not alone in her views. Celebrity chef Anis Nabilah also believes that Malaysian cuisine is second to none in the Southeast Asian region.

"When it comes to food, I feel like we have a lot more options (compared with some other countries in the region). We have 13 states and three federal territories. So, every part of the country has different types of food to showcase," she said.

These rave reviews, aside, however, recent events suggest a very different scenario; one where Malaysian restaurants appear to be lagging behind some of their regional counterparts.

Indeed, in lists of the best restaurants, it is usually Singaporean establishments that get ranked among the world's best.

Not straightforward

Announced in June, the World's 50 Best Restaurants 2023 list, for instance, included one Singaporean restaurant — Odette — in the Top 50 alongside four more establishments in the supplementary 51-100 index.

Thai eateries, incidentally, also made the cut, with two ranked among the elite 50 and four more listed between 51-100.

But while the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023 extended list included Malaysian establishments like Dewakan (No. 74), Eat and Cook (No. 79) and Nadodi (No. 94), and despite the fact that several other establishments were also recently recognised for their excellence, none made it to the world list.

"Malaysia has a lot to offer, especially if we're given enough exposure," said Chef Anis. "I think DC Restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, for one, should be on the list of best restaurants. We have good Japanese restaurants as well."

Nevertheless, the requirements for eateries to make it onto prestigious listicles, she notes, are often not straightforward. As such, it is not a given that just because Malaysia has good food and great restaurants, its dining establishments will be recognised.

"It is tough to be featured on the international stage since you have to have 'pairings' and whatnot and showcase some uniqueness. But we can learn and improve.

"Singaporean restaurants, of course, are way ahead of us, by about 10 years. They've been in the game for much longer and their government is very involved in marketing Singaporean food," she said.

Dedication to the cause

Malaysia's southern neighbour has become renowned as a culinary hotspot in recent years, even drawing acclaimed chefs in the process. The island republic has also made substantial investments in promoting its food scene and solidifying its status as a global gastronomic destination.

And it is this dedication, food blogger Chai believes, that has boosted Singapore's status on the international stage.

Like Chef Anis, however, she noted that recognition of a country's best dining spots is anything but straightforward.

"The selection process for these lists is complex and competitive, and it is possible that Malaysian restaurants may not have received adequate attention or nominations.

Nevertheless, Malaysia continues to be a haven for extraordinary dining establishments that capture the hearts of both locals and visitors," Chai said.

Of living standards, mentality and stamps of approval

But recognition of Malaysia's best should begin at home, Chef Anis notes. Unfortunately, a number of factors appear to be standing in the way of that, with cost of living being the biggest of these.

Fine dining, she says, is not cheap. And visiting one of Malaysia's top restaurants for a full-course meal can easily set an individual back about RM1,000. Hence the reason many Malaysians stay away.

"In Singapore, one can have that experience for between S$200 and S$300, which is still affordable for Singaporeans. But it costs a lot of money for us."

And then, of course, there is the issue of mentality and acceptance.

"There are those who seek stamps of approval. For example, some feel it elevates their status when they visit Gordon Ramsay's restaurant rather than a local establishment run by a very talented chef.

"You also have Malaysians who don't believe in spending a lot of money on authentic local food," Chef Anis said.

Time to step up

All that aside, however, it is not too late for Malaysia to tap into culinary tourism and showcase the diverse flavours of the country’s cuisine, the celebrity chef says.

"I think our tourism ministry has a different focus (than Singapore's). What I'm seeing is more of a focus on medical tourism. Also, we tend to believe that our food is amazing and speaks for itself. So that's probably why we're not getting the boost."

Chef Anis notes, however, that the ministry has been promoting smaller cafes and restaurants locally, and this should be applauded. But what is also needed is for Malaysia's big, fine dining establishments to be showcased.

"Singapore is similar to us in many ways when it comes to food, but they believe in pushing the food scene. So, maybe it's time for us to do the same and include our food in all our campaigns."

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