Brought to the ‘Klang Valley’ in the mid 19th century to work in the tin mines, this post could start with stories of gangsters and tales of clan wars between the Hakka-dominated Hai San and the Hokkien-dominated Ghee Hin ‘secret societies’.
Then again, perhaps I should go back much earlier by talking about the role the Malay Peninsula and the Straights of Malacca played in the spice trade?
Wherever I eventually choose to start, my intention for this post is to begin with some sort of short history and definition of ‘Malaysian cuisine’.
Having spent just six days in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, eating as much local fayre as my belly would allow it is clear that this is not as simple as it may sound.
An obvious reflection of its population, the street food of KL is predominantly a vibrant mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian (although, influences from across South East Asia and beyond with Sumatran, Javanese, Japanese, Thai and Arabian are all in the pot.)
Like much of the food across the region, many of the dishes I experienced during my visit were made with a generous use of spices and ingredients such as coconut milk, lemon grass, kaffir lime, tamarind, ginger and galangal.
A nation where up to six meals a day is not uncommon (breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon noodles, dinner and a late night hawker snack), I did my upmost to discover the best the city has to offer.
The result? I ate dish after dish of fabulous noodles, rice (nasi), satay, vegetables, seafood and meats (especially fatty pork, chicken and beef) with banana leaves and sambals of chillies and shrimp paste (belacan) all featuring heavily.
When asking for recommendations, one place whose name cropped up time and again was the Lot 10 Hutong. With its central location adjacent to the Bukit Bintang Monorail Station, it’s easy to see why this place is popular (especially, it seemed, with Americans).
The Lot 10 PR sings of how the ‘Gourmet Heritage Village’ is a collection of ‘hand picked’ eateries from the ‘best of the best’ street stalls, each with their own signature dishes that have been in the families for at least two generations.
Convenience and air conditioning aside, whilst it was interesting to walk though, I did not feel the dining experience to be as authentically good as what is available in other parts of city with a little more effort. Based on the dishes I ate, the food too is by no means the best.
Hokkien Mee @ Kim Lian Kee (Lot 10, Bukit Bintang)
With its rhythmic clattering of the woks being tossed and scraped, Kim Lian Kee, which dates back four generations to 1927, had the longest queue in Lot 10.
Their signature Hokkien Mee dish, made from ‘bamboo cane pressed’ yellow ‘mee’ (Chinese noodles) is Fujian in origin. Tossed with pork, slices, prawns, rubbery squid and Chinese leaf, the noodles are coated in a thick fragrant sauce made with spices, belacan (shrimp paste) glossy and oily from dark soy and pork lard.
I ate half of the noodles as they were served and the other half mixed with plenty of sambal and fresh chillies but neither way made the dish too exciting for me. Perhaps the original at Jalan Pelating where they cook the food ‘wok hei’ (using charcoal) would be a better option?
Fried Oyster Omelet @ Kong Tai (Lot 10, Bukit Bintang)
A little younger than Kim Lian Kee, but serving another dish of Fujian origin, Kong Tai dates back to just 1970. Their Oyster Omelette cooked in lard and made with tiny oysters, potato starch and topped with Chinese parsley (aka coriander) was a huge disappointment mainly because of the sweet chilli sauce.
Roti Babi @ Yut Kee Kopitiam (Dang Wangi)
A Hainanese coffee shop or ‘Kopitiam’, Yut Kee opened in 1928 and was one of my favourite places to visit in KL. The staff and locals were super friendly and they served good rich dark Kopi (coffee) with condensed milk and excellent Marble Cake.
Yut Kee is just around the corner from Dang Wangi station (easily accessed via the excellent KL train network) or a short walk from the ‘Golden Triangle’, KL Tower Park and Bukit Nanas Nature Reserve (home to pythons, monitor lizards and monkeys – sadly closed for cable car renovations during my visit).
Their signature Roti Babi (pork bread) is a ‘hard to come by’ Peranakan / Nyonya dish made from minced pork, onions and crabmeat sandwiched inside a pocket of fried ‘eggy bread’, served with Worcestershire Sauce!
(I planned to return to sample more of the menu (especially the Beef Rendang and Kaya Toast) but it’s closed on Mondays; our last day.)
Chilli Pan Mee @ Restoran Kin Kin (Chow Kit)
One place I’d definitely return to in KL is Restoran Kin Kin in Chow Kit.
Pan Mee is traditionally a Hokkien-style egg noodle soup (although the Kin Kin version comes ‘dry’). Served in their signature red bowls, which contain blanched noodles, minced pork, crispy ‘ikan bilis’ (dried anchovies) and topped with a perfectly poached, poached egg, the heat can then be adjusted to taste with their rudely hot fried chilli paste – evil but wonderful stuff! I loved this dish!
To cool the lips after the chilli, each pan mee is served alongside a clear broth laden with Katuk (or Sweetleaf Bush, known locally as ‘sayur manis’).
Whilst in this part of town, be sure to check out the nearby Chow Kit ‘Wet Market’ (Bazaar Baru Chow Kit). This ‘Pasar pagi’ (morning market) sells a breathtaking array of fresh fruits, vegetables as well as live and dead animals (particularly, it seemed, their heads and feet) - a wonderful atmosphere and a glimpse Kuala Lumpian life not seen in the main tourist areas.
Nasi Lemak @ Mak Wanjor (Kampung Baru)
Considered Malaysia’s ‘national dish’, Nasi Lemak is traditionally a breakfast dish. In translation ‘fatty rice’ may not sound all that appetising but it refers to the rich, creamy coconut milk that is steamed with Pandanus / Screwpine leaves.
A number of sources suggested that the best Nasi Lemak was to be had in the Malay enclave of Kampung Baru (an area in the city centre where village elders have resisted big money offers from developers in order to preserve their ‘village lifestyle’).
Without a particular place to eat in mind, my process of selection was a simple one: walk up and down the main stretch of Jalan Raja Muda Musa and identify the place that looked the busiest – it would either be the best, or the cheapest… hopefully both. The result of my highly scientific selection method: Nasi Lemak Mak Wanjor (further research tells me that the neighbouring Antarabangsa also comes highly recommended).
As well as the fragrant steamed rice, sweet ikan bilis, peanuts, sliced cucumber, hard boiled eggs and a spicy sambal they also offered accompaniments of fried chicken, rendang, cow lungs (paru) and kerang (that’s ‘cockles’ – not a heavy metal magazine) but, taking my lead from the two ladies queuing in front of me, I went for the sambal sotong (squid sambal).
Ikan Bakar @ Kedai Kat Jat (aka Gerai No. 3, Bukit Petaling)
My visit to Kedai Kat Jat (aka Gerai No. 3) was what I’d class as a mini adventure. Having taken the train to KL central and made the short walk to the start of the KL Monorail, I disembarked one stop later at Tun Sambanthan. My rather basic map suggested I cross the Klang River at the nearby footbridge.
Having done this, there was only one place I could possibly walk – up a set of steps leading into a wooded area. At the top of the steps, the path continued. I was soon out of earshot of any traffic and saw no other people. Walking on, past a derelict building, I continued a couple of hundred yards. Feeling as though I was no lost I considered turning back when I saw some signs of civilisation ahead. Result – I had located the small collection of food stalls, home of the celebrated Kedai Kat Jat (known as Gerai No. 3).
Kedai Kat Jat sells Ikan Bakar - an Indonesian/Malay speciality that translates as ‘burnt fish’. I selected the stingray (pari) and squid (sotong), which had been marinated with sambal belacan, turmeric, galangal and other such goodness before being wrapped in banana leaves and charred.
The seafood was served with parcels of sweet rice and a dipping sauce made with dark soy, garlic, calamansi lime and birds eye chillies. A delicious meal – well worth the trek!
Roasted Duck @ Restoran Sek Yuen (Pudu)
Restoran Sek Yuen in Pudu is a cavernous dining room served by a wood fired kitchen. Not even half full, despite being mid afternoon there were still over 100 people happily eating (mostly in large groups) and I was the only non-Asian (a much more authentic experience than the American filled Lot 10). I asked for the menu.
“No menu – but we got meat, chicken and fish.”
“I’ll have fish, please.”
“You want duck?”
“Ok, I’ll have the duck. Thank you.”
After a short wait, a delicious half ‘Pei pa’ duck arrived on a silver platter with cucumber and tomato (having already eaten that day I declined the rice). Accompanying the duck was delicious sour plum sauce, a sweet orange sauce and some chillies.
Nyonya Laksa & Beef Rendang @ Old China Café (near Petaling St, Chinatown)
One of the most charming places we visited was the Old China Café. A museum piece, the café and much of the décor (including the feng shui mirrors) dates from the 1930s – unlike most of the places featured on this blog, on my visit, it was not full of locals and seemed to be more of interest for tourists.
Still, the food was excellent. I ordered the Nyonya Laksa – noodles cooked in a spicy coconut gravy with prawns, tofu and boiled eggs. A great example – served piping hot.
Claiming that they do not used the word lightly, Time Out KL had called their Beef Rendang ‘outstanding’ and I’d agree – definitely one of the best I’ve eaten. We had Lemon Chicken too – which was good but not a patch on the rendang.
Ayam Ponteh (dengan belacan) @ Limablas (Bukit Bintang)
For Nyonya cuisine in a more ‘modern’ setting, in a central location, I recommend the newly opened Limablas (established Jan, 2013). Unlike the charming old places listed the décor at Limablas is contrived… but delightfully so.
The Ayam Ponteh (chicken and potato stew) was a homely dish and came with a mild sambal with lime.
My side of Nyonya Terung Sambal (aubergine) was a beautiful, tasty dish. The staff were friendly and the simple menu of Nyonya favourites appealed.
Banana Leaf Rice @ Ravi’s (Solaris Mont Kiara)
Up to now the places listed on this post have featured mainly Malay or Chinese dishes but some 10% of KLs population has Indian ethnicity so it would be wrong not to include at least one decent banana leaf place.
I visted Ravi’s at Solaris Mont Kiara (near to Publicka) but they do have other branches. As well as a dry piece of chicken and fish (which I could have done without) I ordered the ‘set meal’.
The excellent value banana leaf set included rice, a vegetable curry, two vegetables accompaniments, fried bitter gourd, fried salted dried chillies, cucumber and popadoms. The salted chillies were delicious things. It also came with an excellent soup of tamarind and tomato known as ‘rasam’.
Some recommended places that I didn’t get around to visiting included: Restoran Seng Lee for their pork noodles; Restoran Fatty Crab for their sweet and sour crab and Wong Ah Waw for their BBQ pork noodles & Hokkien Mee.
I owe a debt of thanks to various people on Twitter and to the following blogs and sources for pointing me in the right direction: Baby Sumo’s ‘Eat Your Heart Out’ (here), Eat Drink KL (here), Time Out KL (here) Babe in the City – KL (here) and Bangsar Babe (here).
If you know of any other places worth checking out please add them to the comments section below.Tweet