kuala lumpur

What better place to begin a two-month culinary romp through Southeast Asia than Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia? Famous for its multicultural vibe and world-class street food, the country had been on our must-visit list for some time. And we have friends there! So, three boxes ticked, Tom and I hopped a flight to Kuala Lumpur (KL) and spent three glorious weeks sampling new-to-us flavors in four Malaysian destinations, beginning with the capital.

“Malaysia: Truly Asia”

So goes the Malaysia Tourism slogan, and so it was for us when we began tasting Kuala Lumpur as our introduction to this vibrant country. From dim sum to banana leaf curry, we celebrated the immigrants who helped build this corner of former European empire. In between, at breakfast, snack stands, and a few dinners, we learned about Malay specialties that define the culture here.

Dim sum delights

Take a couple of food-loving expats, plonk them down in Kuala Lumpur for a few months, and stand back! Thanks to our Porto friends Glenn and Jeff, currently based in Malaysia, we learned the ins and outs of KL’s mega-malls, satay hangouts and where to go for the best dim sum we’ve had in a very long time.

Dim Sum
Our dim sum spectacular: bun with salted egg custard, barbecue pork buns, beef balls, beef noodles, hot and sour soup, Schezuan shrimp dumpling, shrimp shumai. To finish, Pastel de Nata!

Bak kut teh

Banker-turned-chef Zoe Rai took us in hand for two kinds of the Bak kut teh, a Port Klang workers’ dish that comes in several variants: we tried one that was soupy and herb-filled and another made with dark soy sauce. Both were good with onion rice, but the ‘dry’ version was reminiscent of barbecue and got my vote on this attribute alone. Chef Zoe also took us to a neighborhood market away from tourist zones, where the only thing that prevented our sampling everything in sight was the fact that we had just stuffed ourselves on Bak kut teh.

Bak kut teh
Bak kut teh (pork bone tea) with onion rice.
kuala lumpur
Dessert time with Chef Zoe: Mango Loh and yam cake. Yum!

Chinese curry magic

Another day, Zoe drove us out of town to Bentong, along a highway that took us into the clouds, literally, before we arrived in the village, surrounded by durian forests. Bentong is known for its high-quality ginger, so we feasted on tilapia with ginger, as well as a magnificent wild boar curry and sauteed watercress.

kuala lumpur
Worth a journey: Tilapia, steamed with minced ginger and thin soy sauce; sizzling wild boar, caramelized in sesame oil and thick soy sauce; and watercress sautéed with lots of garlic.

Banana leaf curry and dosas

Tom and I love the food of South India, and were thrilled to find that one of Malaysia’s defining meals, banana leaf curry, landed on Malay shores virtually unchanged, brought here by workers from the Subcontinent. Indian food, and in particular, the foods of Tamil Nadu and Kerala feature at restaurants in Brickfields, aka Little India. Indian taste treats are so prevalent around KL, that we were surprised to learn that, despite a centuries-long cultural presence in the Malay Peninsula, Indians make up just seven percent of Malaysia’a population. And a happy surprise it was! Among other things in our brief stay, we had many chances to compare various types of savory rice-and-lentil dosas—with masala or chicken fillings, and the ‘crispy paper’ version, with chutneys.

banana leaf set
In Bangsar, a banana leaf set: chicken kurmay, rice, fresh cucumber, pumpkin curry, batter-fried red squash, dal, pappadum and kokum pickle.

A side trip to the Middle East

While in KL, an unexpected culinary adventure came our way, thanks to the intrepid food explorations of Glenn and Jeff and the post-colonial influences of countries such as Yemen. At Hadramawt, we had our first-ever taste of Yemeni food: a mezze platter of hummus and eggplant, tabouli, chargrilled chicken, and sizzling lamb stew. A highlight was an enormous round of flatbread, fresh out of a tandoor.

kuala lumpur
A Yemeni feast at Hadramawt features meats grilled over charcoal, mezze and house-made flatbread.

Satay heaven

Malaysia and Singapore have a bit of a tussle over who gave the world satay. Whoever gets the credit, there is plenty of excellent satay to be had around Malaysia, starting with KL. There, a long and comfortable ride out the Monorail lands hungry diners at an extraordinary satay destination: two floors of grilled heaven on a stick.

Satay
Satay—beef, chicken or lamb in its Malay halal incarnation—is a mainstay of street markets and restaurants across the country.

Malaysia’s national dish

Nasi lemak is offered at street stalls, in fine hotels, and on restaurant menus. The packet of coconut rice comes with a dollop of sambal, pickled cucumber, boiled egg, peanuts and a scattering of tiny fried anchovies. In a banana leaf or a paper packet, it works as commuter food, a breakfast staple, and an afternoon snack. Oh, did I mention that Nasi lemak can be addictive?

kuala lumpur
Nasi lemak: a banana-leaf or paper triangle filled with coconut rice, sambal, peanuts, pickled cucumber, and anchovies.

A celebration of neighborhoods

Kuala Lumpur’s many neighborhoods sit cheek by jowl across the confluence of the Gombak and Klang Rivers. And everything—glitzy malls, office complexes, and traditional markets—is connected by public transportation and the drivers of Uber and Grab. We sampled a few hipster neighborhoods such as Bangsar, but many more await a return visit.

Thanks to the generosity and company of friends, we had a food- and fun-filled week in KL, before heading north to sample the famous street food of Penang. Stay tuned for more from up-country, and in the meantime, have a look at this excellent KL overview.

 

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