Kuala Lumpur is a foodie’s paradise.
Much like the average Taco Bell, restaurants in Malaysia tend to be very cheap, be open very late, and a select few can even be found adjacent to a 7-Eleven. However, unlike the Taco Bell, there is little to no regret nor shame to be had afterwards, and these venues are normally visited whilst completely sober.
In contrast to the more monochromatic Asian cities that I’m used to, such as Seoul, where a single culture and thus a single food dominates, there are many different kinds of food to be found in Kuala Lumpur. As mentioned in my previous post, the city is comprised primarily of three different peoples: Chinese, Indian, and the native Malay. This happy trio of distinctly different cuisines – along with a wealth of hybrid or ‘third party’ cuisines – can be found everywhere in this sizzling city. From the plastic, mismatched chairs of outdoor eateries to restaurants set with white linen tables and silverware actually worth slipping into your purse, Kuala Lumpar has a wealth of choices for all of your eating needs.
Much like at my diabetic granny’s house, there are four main meals in Malaysia: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and supper. Fortunately, I had a Malaysian friend of mine, Pei, to show me the ropes. For those you sans a Malaysian, I present this brief guide to help you plan your waist-expanding foodie tour.
Start your day off basic at a kopitiam, or coffee shop. There are plenty of open-air ones to choose from, offering all sorts of delicious delicacies. I went to Win Heng Seng (永兴城茶餐室), which offers a variety of tasty, cheap eats for both breakfast and lunch crowds.
Pei told me she prefers to start the day off on a sweet note, so we got tiny, creamy egg tarts in a crust that was both flaky and salty, just like your unmarried aunt.
After we had whetted our appetites, it was time to get down to real business.
Pei ordered kopi-o: strong, black Malaysian coffee with lots of sugar that don’t need no man. A popular pairing with coffee throughout Malaysia (and southeast Asia in general) is toast with kaya, (pictured top left) a curd made with coconut milk, eggs, and sugar. To accompany this were flaky, sweet-and-savory meat pies called siew pao (pictured on plate), filled with what I am assured was pork even though I have seen Sweeny Todd twice now and like to think I know better.
Just in case this wasn’t a carby enough start to the day, Pei ordered pyramid-shaped mounds of glutinous brown rice, wrapped lovingly as an only child in flat, green leaves – ba zhang (pictured top right). Small pieces of salted egg yolk and meat could be found distributed throughout the dumpling, which is, honestly, a solid way to improve most foods.
If you’re not too full from breakfast (or if you’re not a quitter), head over to Old China Cafe on Petaling Street for lunch two hours after you finish your breakfast. This is long enough that you’ve had time to digest some, but short enough that the stomach hasn’t shrunk too much yet.
Fun fact: The saloon style doors are typical of traditional Chinese architecture. And there I was, thinking that they were designed by cowboys for facilitating grand entrances.
Here, you can sample plenty of Chinese food (with a bit of Malaysian flair) that doesn’t come from a cardboard box.
The interior of the restaurant is definitely a throwback to older times. The chairs and wall paneling are both a dark, chocolate colored wood. Aged photographs and traditional calligraphy crowd the walls with no particular order. The overall effect is somewhere between an antique store and the beginning of a scary movie, though both have the same moral – don’t touch anything.
However, the food managed to distract from these dark thoughts
Traditional Chinese dining is what we call “family style” in the West. (Or, individual serving size. I’m not here to judge.) Several different courses are ordered and shared between the persons at your table, although each individual might receive their own rice. Pei – culturally Chinese herself – picked out a variety of dishes for us to sample.
Hot plate tofu with carrots, peas, and corn in a gelatinous sauce (bottom right) and sweet-and-sour chicken with pineapple, onion, and cucumber (top left) will start you off well. Pei opted for plain white rice for herself, while I ordered a blue-toned coconut rice, because not nearly enough foods in this world are blue.
If you need more vegetables in your life or your bowels, consider ordering the spicy, stir-fried kangkong belacan, a vegetable vaguely resembling stalky spinach in both flavor and visuals with sweet purple onions and red chili peppers hot enough to take you on the other side.
If none of these lighter dishes suit your fancy, there are plenty of pork or beef options to choose from, and even some options without vegetables. Though, if you eat the chilis, I would recommend something green to help you along.
A trip to Kuala Lumpur couldn’t be complete without the famous nasi lemak – different individual ingredients assembled aesthetically around a fragrant coconut rice. It’s perfect not only for eating, but hovering over awkwardly with a camera for an Instagram-worthy shot while you get low-key judged by surrounding tables.
Five of the six ingredients seen on my plate were elements of the traditional style of nasi lemak: boiled egg; spicy, dark-red sambal sauce; salty, crunchy dried anchovies; roasted peanuts; and fresh green cucumber slices that you can save and use for facials later on. I opted for a piece of curried chicken for a more substantial meal. (As, y’know, I hadn’t eaten enough earlier.)
Supper is a beautiful time to reflect on what you have yet to eat that day, and remedy it immediately. I found myself surprisingly low on my fish intake, so I headed to an outdoor food market, deep off the beaten tourist track where few willingly choose to roam at night, with another college friend of mine, Jane, who lost both parents outside an opera years ago and now spends her days hanging around caves.
We finished our day feasting on cuttlefish cooked with more kangkung, topped with fresh lime juice, minced peanuts, and a sweet-ish brown sauce. Behind Jane’s rants about justice, I could hear the sizzle of things being cooked over open fires, the call of orders to chefs, the scratching of plates across counters that means another order is ready for a hungry patron.
And I felt perfectly at home.
Of course, Kuala Lumpur has a myriad of other delicacies to offer its hungry visitors. This is only a short review of possibly samplings to be had in this illustrious city.
And unlike the Taco Bell, you can’t go too wrong.
Eat well, my friends.