Kuala Lumpur, or “K.L” as the Malaysians refer to their capital city, is a melting pot of different cultures. Malay, chinese, indian, westerners and whatnot. As a street foodie it is nowadays somewhat difficult to come by authentic malaysian street food in central K.L. The big western brands, McDonald’s, Starbucks, KFC and others, are making ground here too, even though Malaysian cuisine are among the best in the world.
This is not an issue for the well prepared street foodie. You have scrolled through the local food blogs, and you have browsed through various malaysian food forums, and you have definitely read the food section in the local papers, to see which street food vendor won the price for best satay, or whatever it might be you are pursuing.
By the way, the people’s award for best satay 2014 went to Sate Kajang Hj Samuri.
For the unadventurous spirit, the mega malls usually have some sort of food court. These are westernized in the way that they have fancy chairs and tables, air conditioning and in most cases a young person, with limited cooking skills behind the stove. They are ok if you just want to fill your stomach, and nothing more than that.
Then we have the purpose built food courts, with hand picked street food vendors from all over Malaysia, like the one under Lot 10, or Food Republic by the Pavillion mall. These are usually good, but on the pricey side, due to being located in high rent buildings.
The eateries at the Suria KLCC, Signatures Food Court and Rasa Food Arena, are also pricey due to location. These are also the eateries for many of the local office workers. Signatures and Food Republic are leaning more toward world food, with teppanyaki, waffles and hamburgers.
Rasa have a vendor that makes an excellent fish ball noodle soup.
Jalan Alor, a street name being whispered through the backpacker community, a faint rumour about good food, and all of a sudden you have a street full of food vendors and sweaty, tanned white people, carrying a backpack larger than a VW bus. Now we are starting to get into the magical wok hei area. I’ll explain about wok hei later on. Jalan Alor is probably just as westerners imagine Asia to be like. A busy street full of colourful lamps, smoke and steam rising from all the different cooking going on, people chatting and the constant persuasions to come to just their excellent restaurant.
I can see why some find it interesting, but it just does not do it for me. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the food, but there is also nothing that is super exceptional. I like to browse in my own pace, to see if I find something of interest, but it is difficult here, with all the vendors trying to get my attention. It is too touristy. Jalan Alor represents Malaysia just as much as Kurfürstendamm represents Germany or La Rambla for Spain.
If you want to hit the jackpot in a food hunt in KL, look in low key areas. Look for cheap plastic chairs and tables, old style ceiling fans and old people working the kitchen. Keep an eye on the walls for framed newspaper articles. If the restaurant some point in time have gotten an award, you will see it on the wall, next to the newspaper article mentioning the event. Look for luxury cars parked next to the restaurant. If the local high rollers, who can afford to dine in style of guide Michelin, are eating here, you know it’s good. Look for an old worn down wok. This is the main ingredient in malaysian street food, this is where wok hei comes to play. Wok hei, a chinese expression, roughly translates to “breath of the wok”. The physics behind it is that the surface of an iron wok, under large magnification, is course, porous, sponge like and full of micro pockets, that can trap essence of oils and spices. The duration of use helps to saturate these essences and it is not uncommon that a popular eatery have a wok that has been in constant use for two or three generations. The second part in the wok hei process is the super hot wok and the stirring. You throw in the ingredients in a hot wok and stir constantly. The hot wok chars the ingredients, adding a smokey and caramelized flavour while also making them stick to the surface. This binds the oils and spices infused into the wok to the ingredients being woked, and as you stir, these get pulled out from the wok. These are the ingredients that makes the difference between a good nasi goreng and a delicious nasi goreng!
In our hunt for some good food courts, we read about a food court that was supposed to be at the top floor of one of the older malls of Jalan Bukit Bintang, Sungei Wang Plaza. It was a bit hard to find due to different conventions in floor labeling, almost no signs, and elevators not going to all levels. We found it after two attempts, and yes, it was worth it! Malay, chinese and indian food stalls, all crammed around a court, full of colourful plastic chairs. No air con, just some really, really old fans, hanging down from the corrugated sheet metal roof.
The bihun goreng was just right, that evening.
During the hunt for Sungei Wang Food Court, we found a small restaurant named Nasi Ayam Chee Meng, that has been in business since 1965. It was really good. Specialised in rice with chicken, and also having lots of other kinds of hawker food.
This was just our little journey through the foods of Kuala Lumpur. There is much more to explore! We were here almost a week and only around Jalan Bukit Bintang and the city center.