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Kuala Lumpur, or How To Gain 4 Pounds in Less Than 4 Days (long)

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Kuala Lumpur, or How To Gain 4 Pounds in Less Than 4 Days (long)

foodfirst | Sep 4, 2003 12:40 AM

Those who've read my posts on food in Bangkok will know that I have described the Thai capital as Asia's best chow city, and Thais as Asia's most obsessed chowhounds.
I stand corrected. KL gives Bangkok, and Malaysians give Thais, a run for their money (just don't make me choose). Heading into town from the airport, our driver from the airport announced out of the blue that "We Malaysians love food. We think about it all the time. It is our hobby, really, to find the very best food." What KL lacks in density (food vendors don't carpet nearly every sidewalk there, as they do in Bangkok) it makes up for in variety. Hawker food is fantastic but it's not the only great food in KL. We could only begin to scratch the surface in three and a half days. The following spots are a combo of recs. from an Asian Wall Street Journal "Eats" section article (2002) and from resident KLers, and some places we stumbled across. To get the most out of KL explore the suburbs .... cab drivers are amazingly willing to work with vague addresses such as "under the overpass at the entrance to the zoo...."

Songkhla hawker, Jalan Sultan Sulaiman in front of the post office, Chow Kit, nights till late

We dropped our bags at the hotel and headed for this hawker stall described in the AWSJ article. This dark street in a slightly seedy section of KL is lined with BBQ seafood places and a few other stalls, none of which were full. But every table around this hawker stall was taken. Songkhla is a town in southern Thailand and the purveyors at this stall are from Malaysia's northernmost states. The Thai influence shows up in dishes like somtam made with green mango --lots of minute dried shrimp and chili, plenty of limey kick. Nasi kerabu (blue rice mixed with lemongrass, chilies, grated coconut, and other things, topped with fresh bean sprouts) was fresh-tasting and went well with the meaty tuna curry (redolent of spices suggesting Indian, rather than Thai, influences). A hefty chicken breast bathed in what looked, under the dim lights, to be a dark red curry turned out to be covered with a deliciously sweet, sticky, black-soy and ginger (and perhaps honey?) glaze. I have no idea what the rolled rice noodle sheets cut with scissors into a shallow bowl and then topped with a yellow-greenish coconut-milk-based sauce and topped with bean sprouts and coriander leaves is called, but we ended up ordering a second. The beef soup on other tables looked delicious but was sold out. An array of sweets separates the rice-and-dishes table from the shellfish table. We arrived a bit too late, I think, bec. many items were selling out .... best to go by 9 or so.

Fong Lye, 94 Jalan Imbi -- lunch and dinner
Though repelled by the unmistakable paint smell in the dining room (just redecorated) we stuck it out, and I'm glad. This was lunch so we had to moderate ... deep-fried tofu cubes tossed with fresh sprouts in a sweet-hot chili sauce (brought to the table with our menus, but not complimentary), pressed dried dofu strips stir-fried with pork and mushrooms (the only handwritten, Chinese-only item on the menu, in the tofu section: rousi gandou), and mixed veg with fresh lily bud, all prepared with a light hand, minimal oil, and none hiding under a cloak of "sauce". The veg especially was exemplary --- flavors of asparagus, leek, long bean, and oddly crisp-starchy lily bud distinct rather than muddled, and topped with a shower of almond slices. Sweet potato congee was good, though Shanghai-style (I prefer thicker Cantonese-style). We had planned to retrace our steps after lunch, to a shop on the same side of the street offering rice noodles drenched in chili sauce and fresh veg, but the "small" plates at Fong Lye did us in. There were also some promising-looking food stalls just where Jalan Imbi starts, daytime.

Fujian noodle stand, next to WowWow Rock Club, Jalan Balai Polis, Chinatown, night only
There are plenty of versions just a couple blocks away on Chinatown's main hawker strip just off of Jalan Petaling, but the chairs around this group of tables were never empty from 9p, when we arrived, until 2am when we vacated our outdoor table at the WowWow next door. Passing by on our way to the Old China Cafe, on the same street, for Nonya food, we were drawn in by the sweet smoke rising from the single wok. Mandarin comes in handy here but the female half of the couple manning this cart is happy to work with you via the point-and-choose method. We had a plate of thick, chewy, round egg noodles stir-fried in black soy (Fujian noodles), a dish of thinner noodles with bean sprouts and scallion in a deeply smoky sauce, and a vegetable --- shredded cabbage and a few other greens studded with many many chunks of garlic as big as the tip of my little finger, the cabbage cooked to a perfect crisp-tender (this was a special request -- "qingcai"). Other tables were enjoying a reddish noodle and a noodle doused in Thai laad naa-style "gravy". Apple blender juice from the adjacent fruit stand rounded out the meal.

Xin restaurant, Concorde Hotel
Delectable dim sum. Just don't go without a reservation on a wknd day, as we did (stupid, stupid). Carrot cake fried with bean sprouts and scallion is extremely rich, but not oil-soaked, with a fine bit of wok char, and now I finally understand the appeal of this dish. Everything we had was delicious, char siew bao that were all about the smokey BBQ pork instead of all about the sauce as inferior versions are, prawn soup dumplings -- wrappers still toothsome, prawn still retaining a bit of "crispy" bite, chicken rice cooked in bamboo, pork cheong fun (scallops sold out, unfortunately) very different from the rice noodle sheets I've had in Hong Kong dim sum houses --- thicker, chewier noodle folded around pork, floating in sweet soy, and embellished with a small mound of pork, dried shrimp, and chili, minced and fried. Yum. By the time we were seated it was 2pm and things were winding down, some items sold out, etc. Next time we'll shoot for noon and make a reservation.

Portugese BBQ Seafood stall at the intersection of Jalan Hang Lekir and Jalan Sultan, Chinatown.
J Hang Lekir, just off J Petaling, is the main hawker food drag in Chinatown and as you approach J Sultan there are a couple of restaurants with cloth-draped tables outside, chairs occupied by tourists drinking beer, and reps flagging you down with too-thick menus promising mediocre "Chinese" food. Keep walking and head straight for the BBQ ahead. We had to wait for a table, and then we had to wait a while for our food, but the seafood slathered with sambal (and extra chilies, if you ask), encased in foil, and cooked on the grill is ample justification. Stingray was tasty, and probably would have been better if we hadn't gotten a bony tail piece --- the strong flavor stood up well to the sambal, which might have overwhelmed any of the other fish. Mixed seafood --- tender squid rings, lots of clams, and a few big prawns was fantastic. Veg can be ordered from a stand on the other side of the claypot man.
Our biggest regret of this trip was not pushing the edge of our bloated stomachs' envelope and ordering a claypot to go with our fish. 3 university students at the table next to us visibly swooned as the cover was lifted from their Chinese sausage, chicken, and rice pot. As we waited for our seafood I enviously watched them scrape away and carefully portion out glistening sausage pieces and soy-soaked crispy rice from the sides and bottom of the pot. Nearly every table had one of these pots. It smelled incredible and I'm convinced that the sweating man doing a veritable ballet over his steaming claypots is a master. Next trip.

Hoong Hoong/Foong Foong, Ampang New Village
We headed out of central KL for yung taufu, a Hakka dish that was new to me. Several open-air restaurants stand in a row and Hoong Hoong was packed on a holiday afternoon. The family with which we shared our table told us that though they live on the opposite side of KL they journey to this place once every wknd. First find a table by hovering over anyone who looks like they may be close to finishing. Then go up to one of the microphone-toting men at the counter and order by the piece. Mix up a little soy-chili sauce concoction in your little plastic dish (which you've washed out in the small pan of boiling water placed in front of you) and dip: steamed tofu, smooth and creamy but firm enough to hold its shape; deep-fried tofu; tofu skin, wrapped around a filling that includes ground fish and then deep-fried; stuffed and steamed and/or sauteed eggplant slices, 4-inch long okra and red chilies; fish balls. Before the yung taufu arrives every table appears to feast on a big bowl of soup dumplings or wonton (minimum order 5 per bowl). Noisy, crowded, and hot (look for a fan to sit under) but friendly and delicious and well worth the trip.

Sahara Tent Restaurant in front of the Fortuna Hotel
Having planned poorly we found every Nonya restaurant we wanted to eat at closed on Monday, our last night. So we ended up here. High points were a very fine smokey baba ganouj, perfectly grilled fish smeared with tomato paste, and a huge bowl of tart, spicy pickles (cauliflower, carrots, cuke, and chilies). OK bread, very blah fattoush and foul. The guy manning the grill obviously knows what he's doing so I'd go back and explore the lamb section, but we left wishing we'd returned to Chinatown for claypot chicken.

Last morning, only two hours left and still much territory we hadn't covered. We started at nasi lemak at Nasi Lemak Wang Dangi (J. Wang Dangi near the bridge --- KL'ers seem to know this place). The coconut-scented (not coconut milk-sodden) rice is scooped out of a big wooden barrel behind the glass case. Peanuts fried with tiny fish, a fried egg, and sweet-hot sambal are musts with the rice, then if you're very hungry choose from a variety of curries (the rendang falls apart at the prod of a fork) and stir-fried kang kong. Milk tea, something like a Thai tea latte, sweet and strong, goes well with the nasi. I'd like to explore the noodle section of this place's menu. Nasi lemak in the morning only, till 10 or so.

Jai Hind, No 11-13 Jalan Melayu near Masjid Jamek light rail station (J Melayu is a curving side street).
They were turning out some nice-looking chapati and idli on the griddle but we'd just eaten nasi lemak so stuck to the sweets in the glass case. Standouts were the browned sugar-soaked cake balls, the orange carrot "cake", and the milk cake, the latter a sort of cross between thawed kulfi and cheesecake, slightly loose in texture, nutty, delicious. So good we had to get a selection to go.

unnamed roti shop on Jalan Masjid India, next to the the trading company with the yellow sign.
Full of nasi lemak and Indian sweets and pressed for time by now, we nonetheless felt we could not pass by this chaotic, packed-out shop with the man in front making fresh roti. Roti canai, hot off the griddle, best roti I've ever had, bar none. Plenty of other roti to sample at this place (and many of the customers were having soft-boiled eggs), had we had the time to do so.

Still yet to sample --- a proper meal of Nonya cuisine, Chinese-style seafood, southern and northern Indian food, more nasi and fried noodles .... I have alot to learn about food in Malaysia and KL, with its wealth of food choices, could easily inspire a week or more of nonstop exploration.

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