Southeast Asian countries are synonymous with all things dodgy: corruption, the sex trade and rip-off schemes. Ever bought a Rollex?
If you want a SE Asian adventure and want to avoid Ping-Pong shows, try the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur (KL). Due to its limited size, navigating KL on the train system and Monorail is a breeze. Personally though, I prefer to raise a humidity-drenched-sweat traversing the city on foot (ironically, my furrowed, moist brow must make me look like a SE Asian sex-pest).
SE Asian countries seem to show their emerging political and ﬁnancial inﬂuence through mammoth shopping centres and KL is no different – it’s a shoppers dream. KL also provides culture and history – visit Batu Caves, it’s magniﬁcent and Petronas Twin Towers too. But for me, the allure of KL is its hawker food, a fusion of cultures: Malay, Indian and Chinese.
KL seems to wake from a haze-stricken afternoon slumber for its night food markets. The centrally located Jalan Alor Seafood Market dishes up vibrancy with ﬂavour: string lights above sway from street signs as diners feast on whole ﬁsh served spicy, sour or sweet. So too with prawns, squid, crab and lobster.
Ice-cold beer is available, in a Muslim majority country, but instead drown the heat of the food and day away with a fresh succulent coconut, hacked right in front of you. It’s touristy so expect to pay a tad more but comparatively, you’ll eat like a king for not much. One tip though, watch-out for cars, bikes and aimless
tourists unable to walk in straight lines.
Within 30 minutes on foot you can hit Chinatown. More than a food market, it has everything: magnets, DVDs, “Ray Bon”, sunnies and WWE T-shirts, even the occasional gun. Chinese “gems” can be eaten here but satay is the weapon of mass consumption. It’s in abundance, choose a vendor and order sticks of it: contrary to its colour its gold. Malaysian satay is different to Thai and Indonesian: it’s spicy with more crunch and better.
Outside city limits is where locals go to feast. A Malaysian friend took me to a local food market somewhere near Taman Jaya train station – and that’s the only direction I can give. I don’t know where I was. The teeming rain of wet-season pounded hard but we found a table with somewhat cover. We sampled everything as vendors competed for my attention as I wasn’t local and covered in dollar signs, apparently.
Banana leaves containing Nasi Lemak (both hot and cold) were the Pisa Resistance on every table. Nasi Lemak is meat, with rice, a boiled egg, pickled cucumber, roasted peanuts and fried anchovies, and chilli. We ate that with teh tarik a condensed-milk-sweetened tea poured from a great height, which increases its frothiness. Both are great.
The beef rendang, which simply fell apart, was dense and packed bags of ﬂavour. Roti canai (bread with curry dipping sauces) was next to try
– it makes hummus and pita bread look second rate.
Interestingly, Malaysia has a roti making competition and ranking system. Locals queue for hours to taste the competitions best’s offerings.
You’ll need to walk that down and 500 meters from KL Sentral (main train station) is the Indian turf of Brickﬁelds. It’s typically Bollywood: bright buildings and colourful saris everywhere. Blaring music from an Indian singer (not Brett Lee) and DVDs from a Bollywood star (not Brett Lee) are ﬂogged to passers-by. It has noise, atmosphere and people. To quote an Indian friend “KL has the best Indian food I’ve tried, including in India”; that speaks volumes.
Restoran Nasi Kandar Al-Baik (88 Jalan Tun Sambanthan) has become a regular of mine. They have a variety of freshly made naan breads (plain, garlic,
cheese, herbs and/or spices). Grab one and dunk it in the chicken tikka. Suck down a lychee lassi to end your meal and your guts will thank you, as it adjusts for space.
Despite the humidity KL’s food is refreshing. Delicious meals are eaten often by hand, on plastic chairs, by the side of the road.
There’s no hobnobbing with the Instagramers in a no-reservation, concept-driven eatery. Pretence doesn’t exist in Malaysian cuisine; a shame Australia can’t say the same.
This article first appeared in the Australia Times Travel magazine.