Kuala LumpurWords Kate Guest
Photography Matt Munro
Kuala Lumpur is one of those places that flies under the radar of most Europeans, possibly because the Far East has so many other big-hitting cities. Singapore is the shopping stopover, Bangkok the gateway to Thai beaches, but Kuala Lumpur? Sure, we know the Petronas Towers – those beautifully stretched jelly moulds Catherine Zeta-Jones shimmies between in Entrapment. And it’s the capital of Malaysia, the country that gave us laksa, but beyond that it all gets a bit hazy.
Is it north or south of the Equator? Was it a British colony or not? Something about orangutans?
It’s strange because Kuala Lumpur, KL to the locals, has exactly what many Brits want from a long-haul holiday – a mix of east and west, known and unknown, not to mention year-round sunshine, cheap, delicious food, and shopping that holds its own among the world’s best. The rest of the world must know this already, though, because KL is the 10th most visited city, outperforming even New York and Sydney.
Like any city built in the tropics, KL is a showdown between nature and humans. For six months of the year, thunder and lightning crack the sky and the monsoon rains fall, sweeping away streets, drowning cars, and giving the jungle renewed energy to continue its creep. A stroll through the Perdana Botanical Gardens gives you an idea of the natural lushness. Stop by the Islamic Arts Museum, and walk through the world’s largest aviary at the KL Bird Park, then, when the heat gets to much, retreat to one of the many shopping malls, such as Suria KLCC or Pavilion – they’re as cold as fridges.
You won’t need two weeks in KL, but a few nights book-ending a beach holiday in Langkawi, or a river safari in Borneo (to spot those orangutans), will be an eye-opening, belly-filling joy. And with Malaysia Airlines now flying direct from London daily, you can be there in just 12 hours.
The first thing you need to know is that KL-ites are food obsessed. It’s something of a cliché to say it, but it really is remarkable to witness. Everyone has an opinion on who does the best nasi lemak (rice, chicken, cucumber, nuts, fried anchovies and chilli paste), or teh tarik (tea that’s sweetened with condensed milk and poured back and forth until it’s frothy). Food bloggers get stopped in the street, and new openings are discussed with the interest given to an FA Cup final.
Any number of dishes could be thought of as the nation’s favourite, from simple chicken and rice, to beef rendang, laksa, or roti canai, the papery folded bread and curry dish that’s eaten 24/7. Malaysian society has three main strands – Malay, Chinese and Indian – as well as a colonial legacy and growing expat population, so the food is hugely diverse. Banana leaf, claypot, steamboat, barbecue and stir-fry are just a few cooking styles to try.
To start getting an idea of just how food-crazy the locals are, and why, head to Imbi Market in central KL for breakfast. Walk through the covered produce section, past the mounds of rambutan and jackfruit, away from the squawking caged chickens, and join the crowds hovering by the hawker stalls at the back. Then decide how far you want to go on the ‘how different is it from what I’m used to?’ scale.
At about a one, you could try yu tiao – long, churro-like strips of dough that are fried until golden and crisp on the outside, yet pillowy soft inside. They’re usually sliced and served in congee, the Chinese-style rice porridge, but are even better eaten as is, just as soon as they’re cool enough to handle.
Popiahs from the Sisters Crispy Popiah stall are more adventurous. These soft crepes are spread with stewed jicama (a root vegetable similar to turnip), crunchy bean shoots, dried shallots, peanuts, crushed biscuits and a spicy sauce, then rolled up and sliced.
Then at about an eight on the scale are chee cheong fun, rice noodles, and yong tau fu, bean curd or vegetables stuffed with fish paste. It’s these that draw the biggest queues.
Once you have your plates, nab a table under the umbrellas and wave down one of the spindly drinks waiters. Most are 60 if they’re a day, yet they dart between the crammed tables like mosquitoes on a pond, all the while shouting rapid-fire orders back to their stalls. If you’re a seasoned coffee drinker, try a viscous Hainanese coffee from Ah Weng Koh. The coffee beans are roasted with sugar and butter or margarine, creating a dusky drink not for the fainthearted, but rather addictive once you’ve survived the first sip. The hawker stands at Imbi are mostly Chinese focused. To experience Malay-style hawker food, head to Kampung Baru. This is an old village in the centre of KL – the Petronas Towers loom over its colourful timber houses – that’s hanging on to its land by a thread. Go on a Saturday night to experience pasar malam, or night market.For Indian food, it has to be a banana leaf curry, especially one from a mamak. These basic restaurants run by Indian Malaysian Muslims are open around the clock. For around £2 you’ll get a banana leaf covered in rice, a choice of curries, and sides and sauces, such as okra, spinach and lentils and raita.
KL-ites have a resolute fondness for this traditional food, but there’s also a growing appetite for Western fare, albeit with some rather idiosyncratic twists (if Nonna ever saw ‘aglio olio spaghetti’ with mushrooms, who knows what she’d do). For a taste of east-meets-west food that works, try Yut Kee, Kuala Lumpur’s best-loved kopitiam, or coffee shop, where the menu skips from Hainan, Malaysia and England. “It’s a fusion of confusion!” says the ever-smiling Jack Lee, whose father opened Yut Kee in 1928. His portrait still hangs on the wall, presiding over customers sharing the marble-topped tables with strangers, because that’s the only way they can be squeezed in.
Here you can try chicken or beef ‘chop’, or English-style toast grilled and served with butter and kaya (a sweet coconut curd). But on the weekend, there’s no walking past the incredible roast pork, crackling and gravy. It’s all great, but really Yut Kee is about the cosy welcome from Jack and his son Mervyn, who runs the front of house.
When the pace slows for a brief moment, Mervyn is eager to dash out to a new Portuguese pork place that’s just opened. “Pork is hard to get in Malaysia, so when a new place opens, everyone wants to go there,” says Jack.
It’s true Malaysian restaurants are largely pork-free, yet you can eat some of the best pork of your life in KL. At European restaurant El Cedro in bustling Bukit Bintang, Iberian suckling pigs are brought to the table and sliced with a dinner plate, they’re that succulent, and at Chinese-centric markets, such as Taman Megah’s Sunday night one, you can enjoy juicy slices of roast pork with crackling for about £3.
The huge variety and standard of food on offer here must make opening a new food business a daunting prospect, which is why many start out as vans or hawker stalls. But when three 20-something engineering and business studies graduates who had never worked in a kitchen before wanted to open a burger joint they took a different approach. They Googled it. Chin Ren Yi, Cheah Chang Ming and Teoh Wee Kiat spent months researching buns and burgers online, then got to work in the kitchen, exhaustively testing every conceivable combination to create their idea of the perfect burger. The result is an Australian beef brisket or chuck steak burger with caramelised onions, sharp cheddar, and a soft, black charcoal bun – charcoal purely because they thought it would help them stand out from the crowd. They recruited staff from among their Ultimate Frisbee teammates, found an empty shop in the suburbs where rent is reasonable and parking plenty, then got all over Twitter and Facebook. It’s worked. In the three months they’ve been open they’ve sold out every night, and when the door opens at 5pm, a stream of customers pours in.
My Burger Lab’s success shows KL-ites will drive for good food – but if they can’t drive, the food is driven to them. Every lunchtime, white vans appear on suburban streets around the city to feed hungry office workers. Up go the backs and sides, and out come vats of icy soya milk, buffets of precooked curries and rice, called nasi campur, and even little steamboats, to dip skewers of seafood, fish balls and tofu into. Don’t be afraid of eating at these vans, or at any market or hawker centre with queues and crowds – this is where you will find some of the best cooking KL has to offer. It’s the food that will put Kuala Lumpur firmly on your radar.