Departing from my group of fellow travellers after two weeks in Thailand and Laos was a little sad. You have your favourites and inside jokes and finally feel comfortable with a group of strangers. Landing at Kuala Lumpur International airport however, quickly reminded me why I decided to go travelling on my own in the first place- some mental space in a land far far away. I am getting further on the map. Woohoo.
The food. I came here for the food. Hearing my gut in both the hypothetically sense, as well as the gluttonous but with only 2.5 days to see 10 things that were listed from Wikitravel, inflight magazines (Malaysian Airlines magazine and Threesixty on Air Asia are GREAT reads) friends and my bank manager- seriously- it felt like I had no time at all.
The first thing I booked a few days earlier, was a food tour. Food Tour Malaysia is one of the most popular food tours according to Tripadvisor. Takes the spontianity out of it, but I didn’t have enough time to dither and frankly the reviews were exactly what I was looking for. Massive apologies for the poor photo quality, they don’t do the delicious subjects justice.
The tour began at 7pm at Taman Paramount station, a little out of the main city centre. From my very disappointingly basic hotel in Brickfields, it was really straight forward to get to via metro. My guide for the evening Charlie, had warned me previously on email that he would be late due to ‘wild traffic’ at that time of the day, and rightly so he arrived at 7.15pm. Turning up in the brightest yellow shirt and beard that looked about 10 days old, he was definately not who I was expecting to lead the tour. My opinion changed pretty quick.
By the end of the evening We had worked through about 7 courses, ranging between typical Malay, Chinese and finally Indian. Starting in an alfresco food court a further 10 mins drive outside the city, we sat down to 2 packages wrapped in banana leaf. The first looked like smoked pate, fiery red in colour, warming in taste. Just to mess with us so we couldn’t guess what we were eating, our guide told us it was a mixture of ridiculous things. But it turned out to be the humble mackeral blended with delicious spices, ginger and fresh herbs. Eaten as an appetiser, it was so tasty and not fishy in the way mackeral can be. The second packet was the famous nasi lemak, the perfect meal of coconut rice, a sticky tangy sambar or sauce, with a boiled egg and dried anchovies. Traditionally eaten for breakfast to help keep labour workers fuller for longer, this morish snack can now be found at pretty much anytime of the day. Tables beside us were easily putting away 4-6 packets each of the stuff. It was totally different to anything I’ve had before and the mix of flavours meant I needed a mouthful more to decipher more about what I was eating. The final thing we ate at the first stop was thick puffed up squares of crispy tofu that was drenched in a sticky tamarind sauce. The idea was to eat the entire piece in one go. Not my most ladylike of moments, but it really is the only way you can eat it. Crispy and flaky, it was similar to puff pasty. Nothing like the tofu you get in your regular stir fry.
Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country, all 9 kings that live in the various states are by tradition Muslim. However, Christians, Hindus, Buddists and others live side by side. Interracial marriage over the generations has meant that the community is even more diverse, as new cultures combine to create new ones. This is clearly reflected in the food. A stirfry in KL’s Chinatown will be unlike any stirfry you may find in China or Thailand. Communities brought with them their tastes, flavours and tehniques that have developed over the years, becoming totally unique to Malaysia. We still had more to see on the tour.
Our next stop was a typical urban night market. A feast for all senses. There were fruit stalls, barbeques, hot soups, blended juices, baked cakes, Malay sweets made from rice flour, and some of the biggest steamed buns I have seen. The stall owned by a Chinese vendor was stocked with giant steaming vats that the buns were cooking in. As he lifted various lids, we got a peek of the variety in colour shape and size, some where bigger than my head and couldn’t possibly be eaten by one person. Charlie ordered pork steamed buns, accompanied with a sweet chilli dip and fragrant and saucy chicken rice. Too hot to handle, we careful peeled back the rice paper on the bottom of the buns and begin tearing the hot cloud like bun to revel a tasty pork filling. Deceptively light in taste, we were quickly getting full. Charlie warned us not to eat everything, as there was more food to come. It was worrying to think I wouldn’t have room for more. Everything tasted amazing and I wanted to try everything in sight.
Walking further down the market, we stopped at a barbeque stall for lamb and chicken satay. The meat was hot and tender, charred slightly from what looked like the oldest grill in Malaysia- totally burnt in some places and a run with actual smoking coal. Of course that’s why the meat was so tender. But the satay to go with it was a great surprise. Unlike satay I’ve eaten in the UK, this sauce was savoury and made with freshly crushed peanuts, so delicious. Not that I could finish it. Yep, there was still more food to come!
The great thing about markets is that you get to taste such a variety of food without having to venture too far. The most difficult thing is choosing where to start and not physically being able to catch up with the delights your nose and eyes have already feasted on. We passed a pancake maker on the way out. The batter was super thick and he put on much more batter than I’ve seen used for crepes. As the base cooked he topped the batter with a very genourous coat of roasted and crushed peanuts with sugar. Finally topped with another pancake, we were handed a slice of this mega sandwich. Straight off the smoking pan into our hands it was too hot to eat, so the first mouthful was mostly puffs for air. Then came the taste of soft pancake with crunchy peanuts. It was like a stripped down peanut butter sandwich, gourmet style. So yummy and not too sweet, which made it so morish.
Walking away from our pancake vendor, Charlie asked if we wanted to try carrot cake. What idiot says no to a question like that. Of course we then headed to the direction of a man standing in front of a huge wok. The flame was only on the top covering about a fifth of the wok’s surface. He only brought the food over to the flame side upon order. This is how so many street vendors operate across Asia, meaning you are eating super fresh and wait until it’s finally prepared, rather than it being handed over having been cooked earlier in the day, or worse still reheated. The quickest way to get sick! Charlie handed us a paper plate a pair of chopsticks and what looked like a regular stirfry. What happened to the cake Charlie we asked through mouthfuls. This he said, was a combination of radish and carrot cooked for 4-6 hours making it super tender and flavoursome. Spices are then added that are finally stirfried along with pieces of tofu. It was mild in flavour and tasted nothing like carrot cake that we know so well, but really interesting to try out anyway!
We ended the tour with what I can only describe as a South Indian feast. Charlie drove us out back through the centre of the city, past all the landmarks and parked up in a dark car park. To the left was a makeshift car wash, to the right we could see a restaurant that had almost every table filled. Run by a South Indian Tamil (most Indians in KL and Malaysia are Tamil speaking) who started his restaurant years ago consisting of no more than about 7 tables. Popularity grew and Charlie was one of the many youths to order food and eat under the petrol station across the road as there weren’t enough tables at the restaurant. Today, the extended seating area sits on the same spot the petrol station once stood. I ordered a ginger tea, which was hot, sweet and deliciously spicy arriving in a huge glass. Then came the food. A fresh dosa that was about 20inches long on two plates. Our mouths fell open and stayed open as the delicious accompaniments followed. A green lentil curry, tomato soup or sambar, coconut and tomato chutney and chicken curry. The dosa made with rice flour is a crispy pancake that you dip into the different flavours. Of course we were way too full to eat it all, but it’s just rude not to try a bit of everything. Next came upma. Made from the same rice flour as the dosa but soft and smooth rather than crispy and smooth. As instructed by Charlie, I poured over all the coconut milk that was sitting in a bowl beside it. Made with the centre to be thicker than the outside, we scooped up slithers of the White pancake that was silky smooth and really tasty. As if that wasn’t enough, Charlie ordered us a buttery paratha and hot puffed up puri that you push down with your hands to release the hot air within and tear up to finish off the sauces with the dosa.