Exploring Kuala Lumpur... One restaurant at a time
“Total Recall.” If that is the case, I plan to get off the fence and firmly plant myself in the “Don’t touch it!” camp at my next dinner party.
Kuala Lumpur is a city of four cultures: Chinese, Malay, Indian and capitalist. Capitalism is the dominant culture, but it’s possible to find vestiges of the other three. The best way to do that is through the city’s restaurants.
My wife and I spent two weeks in the city over winter break. We chose KL for a few reasons: 1. It’s hot. 2. It’s cheap and easy to get there (AirAsia flies direct for around 380,000 won round-trip). 3. Said restaurants.
Our first day in KL, we set out for lunch at Betel Leaf, a highly regarded Indian restaurant in Little India. Walking there, we spotted a Coffee Bean and stopped in for morning coffee. It was the day after Christmas, 32 degrees Celsius. “Let it Snow” was blasting inside. When we found the Coffee Bean we thought we were fortunate to find a place to get coffee; we didn’t know yet that they’re everywhere, along with Starbucks and lots of other chains. In malls. So many malls. The girl working in the shop brought my black coffee in a tall glass goblet fit for a sultan.
We continued walking toward the restaurant. The sidewalks were mostly empty. Again, we were new to the city and had not yet learned that most people can be found in malls.
We arrived in Little India and found our way to Betel Leaf, an unassuming second-floor restaurant on the decaying Leboh Ampang Street. The neighborhood has an Indian vibe, but it’s not as distinct as other cities’ Little Indias.
Indians have been immigrating to Malaysia since the late 1700s. They came to work in the British colonies of Penang, Melaka and Singapore, and today they make up the third-largest ethnic group, behind the Chinese and Malays. They’re pretty well integrated. There are a few stores in the neighborhood selling Indian movies and music and “puja oil” for rituals, but other than that it could be any other neighborhood.
Betel Leaf is a little more upscale than the average restaurant in KL. It’s indoor and air-conditioned, with shiny paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses on the walls. It was busy both times we ate there. Many of Malaysia’s ethnic Indians came originally from Tamil Nadu, and Betel Leaf specializes in food from that state. They tout locally grown rabbit and mutton on their menu; I’ve never had rabbit curry and wanted to try it, but we opted for more familiar choices, “mutton chukka” and a chicken curry.
The mutton came “dry,” which means without a lot of sauce. The dish consisted of chunks of boneless mutton covered in spices. The presence of whole, pungent spices in your curry is one of the nicest things about eating in the tropics. The mutton was flavored with visible chunks of cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, garlic and delicate strings of curry leaves. It had a nice heat, which was alleviated by glasses of thick, white lassi. The chicken curry came with a thin “gravy,” nicer for moistening the white rice that came with the meal. We ordered naan as well. It was thicker and chewier than what I’m used to, but just as good as any I’ve ever had. A case of Indian sweets - gulab jamun, jalebi and others - sat near the front of the restaurant, a sign that they really were all about the Indian food.
That fact is worth mentioning because a lot of the restaurants in the city serve food that is a mix of styles. A good example is Pelita Nasi Kandar, a vast open-air restaurant downtown, just down the street from the Petronas Towers. When we arrived, there was a line of a dozen or so people waiting to get a plate of “nasi” (Malaysian for rice - the word precedes many dishes here) and a few of the many sauces, curries and sides on offer. Eating there reminded me of eating at the Piccadilly Cafeteria when I was a boy - you could choose a meat, two sides and a bread, pretty much the same deal as at Pelita Nasi Kandar. Standing in line I noticed that the people before me were ordering their rice with “mixed sauce.” The server would take his ladle and dip out a little sauce from five or six of the different curries, splashing each dip onto the mound of white rice on the plate. Needless to say, we also ordered mixed sauce, along with “honey chicken,” mutton curry, cabbage and the most unique dish we had all trip: a large, curried fish head.
The dishes we had at Pelita Nasi Kandar were pure comfort food: savory, saucy, spicy and rich. The honey chicken was sticky and sweet and, thanks to some marinating in thick soy sauce, almost black. Slow cooking had left the skin of the chicken chewy and sweet. The mutton curry was pretty standard fare - delicious, but nothing unique. The fish head curry was like nothing I’ve ever seen. The head came from a red snapper. We only got the head, but there was plenty of flaky white meat on it. It was presented with fresh red and green chili pepper, red onion and stewed okra piled on top. The lips of the fish were parted, showing jagged needle teeth. Around the fish was a thick, spicy red gravy.
Pelita Nasi Kandar is one of the few traditional restaurants around the Petronas Towers, those twin symbols of KL. There are many more international places and chain restaurants. The base of the towers is actually a huge mall called Suria KLCC that has a Chili’s. We didn’t try it.
Many of KL’s Malay restaurants have been influenced by Chinese and Indian food. It’s hard to find strictly Malay dishes, but the downtown area of Bukit Bintang is a good place to look. There’s a side street called Jalan Alor that specializes in selling grilled, fried and steamed seafood and durian, that most famous of Southeast Asian fruits. The “chicken fish” (whatever that is) is supposed to be good there, but we opted for steamed stingray, along with few sides - a soft noodle dish, some fried pork and greens. The stingray’s flesh was white and stringy, and there was surprisingly a lot of it. It was nice and simple, tasty, slightly ammoniac. But after all the bold flavors at the Indian restaurants we had eaten at, a little underwhelming.
The durian for sale in carts on the sidewalk was more interesting. The fruit has a bad reputation. OK, it has a strong smell. A pungent smell. The smell of something - aged. I’ll admit that. But is it really that bad a smell? We bought some pieces already removed from their spiky yellow shell.
The meat of the fruit is layered over large pits like those of an avocado. It’s soft and creamy and mildly sweet, wholly worth trying, although your fingers will smell like it for the rest of the day.
Toward the end of our trip we decided to explore Chinatown, a crowded section of the city intercrossed by many small alleys filled with stalls and restaurants. KL’s Chinatown is also not as distinct as in other major cities. The city was founded by Chinese tin miners in the 1800s, after all; the whole city is Chinatown. But this is the part of town where you can try pure Chinese food, unadulterated by exotic tropical spices. Oh, and this is where you can come to find the best pork in the city. Malaysia is a majority-Muslim country, and you won’t find pork in most restaurants in KL. Want a pizza with pineapple and ham? How about chicken ham? You’d be hard pressed to find it here, but in Chinatown the pig is hanging in the windows in all its fatty glory.
We had lunch one day at Nam Heong, a restaurant that specializes in the Hainanese dish of Wenchang chicken. In Malaysia, they just call it “chicken rice.” The long restaurant was full of ethnic Chinese. The food at Nam Heong was as subtle in its flavors as the Indian food we tried was bold. Instead of overloading everything with sauce and spices, the food here focused more on quiet flavors and textures. We ordered a mixed plate of chicken and barbecue pork, a soft tofu side dish, and some braised lettuce.
The chicken came out in little slices. No browning on the outside, no visible spices. It had been simmered at very low temperatures in a Chinese “master stock.” The result was soft, savory, moist pieces of meat. The accompanying rice had been boiled in chicken stock. The barbecued pork had plenty of color, all dark and caramelized on the outside with tender meat inside. The soft tofu came in a salty broth, topped with crispy browned onions. The braised lettuce came in the same broth. It was a meal full of nuanced flavors and textures - the moistness of the chicken, the saltiness of the lettuce, the silkiness of the tofu, the chewiness of the pork.
We spent two weeks exploring the cuisines of the city. As we waited at the airport for our flight back to Seoul, I decided to have one last taste of Malaysia’s most dominant culture - a coffee and McMuffin from the airport’s insanely crowded McDonald’s.