When it comes to eating out, no city in Asia can compare to Kuala Lumpur for the variety of cuisine on offer, the quality of the products and the affordable prices. Malaysian food reflects the ethnic mix of the local population, spanning traditional Malay cooking, a dozen different Chinese regional cuisines, and Indian dishes that range from spicy south Indian vegetarian curries to rich Sikh dishes from the Punjab. Malaysians are serious foodies – just check out local blogs like feedmelah.com, friedchillies.com, awhiffoflemongrass.com and babeinthecitykl.blogspot.com – and although Malays don’t eat pork, Indians refuse beef and some Chinese are strict vegetarians, food seems to unite people here. It is almost impossible to not eat well in KL, but here are 10 of the best places to track down.
1. Nasi Kandar Pelita
Ever since the Twin Towers opened in 1998 (at the time as the world’s tallest building), they have become the unofficial town centre – the Golden Triangle – surrounded by luxury hotels, gourmet restaurants and top-end shopping malls. But there are still some great, cheap places to eat around here, too. Nasi Kandar Pelita is one of the success stories of the Malaysian food industry, a one-shop family-business that now has over 50 outlets. Nasi Kandar is Indian Muslim cooking, where a large serving of rice is accompanied by dozens of different fiery curries. A hearty lunch here will cost £3. But follow directions down a nearby backstreet for the Zon Hotel and there is an even better discovery, the outdoor Zon Food Court, which isn’t in any guide book. This is traditional Malay cooking at its best – “nasi campur”, a choice of dishes laid out as a buffet that is utterly irresistible. Begin with a handful of raw vegetables to dip in homemade sambal sauce, don’t miss the tangy beef rendang, curried cuttlefish, grilled and fried fish, and strange vegetables like bitter gourd and pucuk paku, a fern leaf that comes straight from the Malaysian jungle.
• 149 Jalan Ampang, +60 (0)3 2162 5532, pelita.com.my
2. Hakka Restaurant
Hakka cuisine from south-east China may not be as famous as Sichuan, Cantonese or Beijing food, but it is a firm favourite with Malaysians for its simple rustic dishes, strong on flavour rather than sauces and chilli. Nowhere is Hakka food better presented than at this vast open-air restaurant (which can serve a staggering 1,000 diners a night) in the sghadow of the Twin Towers. The restaurant has been open for 54 years and offers an extensive menu, including sizzling tofu with fermented beans, “kangkong belacan” (morning glory greens sautéed in spicy shrimp paste), delicate potato leaves in oyster sauce, herbal chicken slow-cooked in a clay pot, and the amazing “double cooked” pork knuckle. Dishes start at around £2 each.
• 90 Jalan Raja Chulan, +60 (0)3 2143 1907
3. Precious Old China
Some of the most interesting dishes you will find in Malaysia come from Nyonya cuisine, an original form of fusion that dates back centuries to the cosmopolitan ports of Malacca and Penang where intermarriage between Chinese and Malays created a unique way of cooking. Nyonya food takes a great deal of preparation, so this is not something you find being hawked at street stalls. Book a table at Precious, a sumptuous restaurant on the first floor of KL’s landmark Central Market building. In an ornate dining room filled with Oriental antiques, sample complex dishes like sour “asam laksa” soup, “otak-otak” (fish cake, chilli and galangal steamed in banana leaf), “acar awak” (pickled vegetables smothered in crushed peanuts), and “udang lemak” (prawns cooked in a delicious rich coconut sauc). The place is not as expensive as it looks, and dinner should not be more than £10.
• 1st Floor, Central Market, 10 Jalan Hang Kasturi, +60 (0)3 2273 7372, oldchina.com.my
4. Coliseum Cafe
The Coliseum is no gourmet heaven, but every visitor to KL should come here for a meal or at least a drink at the bar, because walking through its saloon swing doors is like taking a step straight into a scene from a Somerset Maugham story. If this were Singapore, the old place would have been demolished years ago, but KL somehow preserves these quirky anomalies. Shuffling between the restaurant tables is a wizened Chinese waiter, dressed in what, many years ago, must have been an impeccably starched white uniform. This is Captain Ho, 89 years old and still serving Mrs Beeton favourites like Ox Tail or Mulligatawny soup, Welsh Rarebit, and the Coliseum special, Sizzling Steak, which sizzles so much on the hot plate that diners are obliged to endure a ritual of hiding behind a large white bib. Around £10 a head and well worth it.
• 98-100 Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, +60 (0)3 2692 6270
5. Saravanaa Bhavan
Take a quick cab ride out of the city centre to Bangsar, a formerly sleepy suburb that has been transformed over the past decade into a lively nightspot, with scores of bars, restaurants and clubs tightly grouped around a few streets. While hip locales like the Vineria (G-133, Bangsar Shopping Centre, 285 Jalan Maarof), La Bodega (16 Jalan Telawi 2, Bangsar) and Alexis Bistro (29 Jalan Telawi 3, Bangsar) offer everything from pasta and pizza to tapas and coq au vin, Bangsar has a great selection of Indian restaurants, too, many specialising in very hot south Indian vegetarian food, often traditionally served on a banana leaf and eaten with your fingers. Saravanaa looks rather smart, with white-jacketed waiters piling curry after curry around a mound of rice placed in the middle of the freshly-washed leaf. They will provide fork and spoon if you ask, but it really tastes better without. And don’t eat too fast, as the waiters never stop coming round replenishing the curries. Be sure to order “the tarik”, milky tea that is theatrically poured from great heights to “air” it. The banana leaf meal costs £1.50
• 52 Jalan Maarof, Bangsar, +60 (0)3 2287 1208
6. Restoran Han Kee Bak Kut Teh
Jalan Sultan is at the heart of KL’s bustling Chinatown, just at the bottom of the chaotic Petaling street market. This is street food paradise with both pavements packed with hawkers cooking over blazing woks, cauldrons bubbling away, and hungry diners sitting on metal stools ordering different dishes from each stall. Although you can eat at lunchtime, things begin to get serious when the sun goes down and the place is packed till the early morning. Each stall has its own speciality – delicate “popiah” spring rolls, claypot chicken with sticky rice, barbecued honey-glazed pork, sweet and sour “rojak” vegetables, tender Hainanese chicken rice, wonton noodle soup. Han Kee is almost a proper restaurant and has a bigger menu than most, but people come here especially for the “bak kut teh”, an amazing herbal broth served with small plates of pork ribs and intestines, crispy tofu, and a pot of scalding-hot tea, all for £2
• 42 Jalan Sultan
7. Soo Kee’s Son Restaurant
Locals still refer to Medan Imbi by its English name, Imbi Square, and this is another favourite night-time rendezvous for Malaysian foodies. One family has long dominated the Imbi food stalls, Soo Kee, who opened up back in the 1950s and whose 13 children have all gone on to be cooks and restaurant owners. The father’s original stall is now run by a daughter, but the best food is served across the road by his son, Stanley, who slaves away for 10 hours a day.
The cuisine here is all about noodles, and there are three key dishes to try. A plate of “sang har mee”, giant freshwater prawns on a bed of crispy mee noodles is not cheap for KL standards at about £5, but is well worth the expense. Cantonese-style “yee mee” comes in a much creamier, eggy sauce, with a mix of spinach, squid and pork liver, while Hokkien black mee is made with a fat yellow noodle, wok-fried in squid ink with crunch pork crackling, prawns and pork, and must be eaten with two accompaniements – vinegary pickled green chilly and tons of finely chopped raw garlic.
• 29B Medan Imbi, +60 (0)3 2142 7752
8. Taman Paramount night market
Although KL-ites appear addicted to mall shopping, there is still a lot of nostalgia for the traditional “pasar malam” night market. Shopping and eating always go together here, and after families have got the week’s groceries, it is time to choose a hawker stall for the evening’s dinner. Every neighbourhood has a night market at least once a week, and a big favourite is to head out on a Sunday evening to Taman Paramount in the suburb of Petaling Jaya. In between the fresh fish, vegetables and exotic fruits, it is worth tracking down the famous Fatman Steamboat, a van converted into diner with 50 or 60 tasty tidbits, priced at 10-20p each, that you quickly plunge into boiling water then dip in lethal chilli sauce.
• Jalan 20/14, Paramount Gardens, Petaling Jaya
9. W.A.W. Restaurant
Jalan Alor is at the heart of KL’s backbacking budget hotels quarter, but the food stalls were thriving here long before the tourists arrived. Again, choice is limited during the day, and all the best hawkers start preparing their food from late afternoon and are open from 6pm until 4am. This is one of the best places in town to splash out on seafood, as even a plate of chilli crabs or huge succulent prawns steamed in Chinese wine won’t set you back more than £3-£4. At the beginning of the street, stop off for satay or a portion of durian fruit, but save your appetite for W.A.W. right at the end – definitely the most popular restaurant with locals. They are famous for crispy chicken wings, “ikan bakar”, stingray grilled in banana leaf, chilli “lala” clams, and fish such as pomfret steamed with ginger or grouper cooked Teochew-style with smokey pork and tart preserved plums.
• 1-9 Jalan Alor, +60 (0)3 2144 2463
10. Pavilion Food Court
Although there is none of the buzz that comes with getting outside in the sweltering 30°C tropical heat and discovering genuine street food at a hawker stall, there are dozens of futuristic shopping malls in KL with vast food courts where you can choose from 40-50 different restaurants. Here you eat in air-conditioned comfort and enjoy the same street favourites like “char kuey teow” fried noodles, “curry laksa” soup, “roti canai” Indian bread dunked in a spicy fish curry, delicate dim sum and eveyone’s breakfast favourite, “nasi lemak” rice, steamed in coconut milk with crispy “ikan bilis” anchovies, curried egg, cucumber and peanuts.
The newest, biggest, glitziest mall to open is The Pavilion, with its high-end boutiques such as Hermes and Rolex. But console yourself: a plate of Penang fried prawn noodles only costs £1.50 at Thye Hong counter in the basement food court. Other food courts worth checking are Suria KLCC, by the Twin Towers, and the top floor of Sungei Wang, the River of Money mall.
• 168 Jalan Bukit Bintang, pavilion-kl.com
• All photographs by John Brunton
First published online on Tuesday 05 October 2010 by John Brunton.