26 November 2012

Sudah Makan?: A Food Tour Through Kuala Lumpur

A perfect spoonful of prawn noodles
A few weeks ago I had 24 hours in Kuala Lumpur, and by god, I was going to eat. I've flown into the Low Cost Terminal (LCCT) in KL five times and spent the night at the Tune hotel by the airport three times, but I had never actually taken the one hour journey into the city. Until now. When booking my trip to Kathmandu I discovered that it was significantly cheaper to connect through Singapore and KL (God Bless Air Asia!) and so I decided to spend some time in each and finally get to see - and eat - what the capital of Malaysia has to offer. 

After some googling and tripadvisor-ing, I booked a tasting tour with Food Tour Malaysia and literally rushed from the airport to Taman Paramount LRT station to meet my guide Farrah and the other guests, who turned out to be three jovial Aussie kids.

Now, the first thing you need to know about Malaysia is that the country is made up of three main ethnic groups: Malay, Chinese and Indian. Malays are the indigenous local people who have inhabited this land for millennia, and they make up about 55% of the population. Next up are the ethnically Chinese folks who arrived in three main waves of immigration, dating from the 15th century until the 1990s. They make up about 25% of the population, but to refer to them as"Chinese" is misleadingly simple - there are Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese, Teo Chew, Min Bei and Mandarin populations, each with attendant food cultures that are as unique to them as the different European countries are from each other. Finally, about 8% of the population is ethnically Indian (mainly Tamil),  brought here by their colonial masters at the end of the 19th century when "Malaya" was the largest rubber producer in the world and one of the jewels in the British Empire's crown. 

Whether you're Malay, Chinese or Indian, food is serious business in this country. In fact, instead of saying, "hey, how are you?" people instead greet one another with the phrase, "Sudah makan?" which literally means, "Have you eaten yet?"  

Stop 1 - An Indian Muslim Mamak
A majority of the ethnically Indian population of Malaysia hearkens from the South and from Sri Lanka, and therefore it is much more likely to see idlis, vadai and dosas than it is to see a properly cooked aloo gobi. Our first stop was at that most beloved Malaysian institutions – a Tamil Muslim Mamak. This is a place where you can kick back, watch some footie and order from either a steam tray of prepared curries or a fresh roti or dosa, made to order.

My favourite breakfast on the planet.
Farrah started us with a roti and it was fresh, hot and buttery. We dipped it in a little bit of lentils and a fish curry, and she explained that Malaysians like their roti liberally doused with curry – this translated to soaked, much more than I would normally use – and it was delicious. 

Hello giant Indian nalesniki. I love you.
 Next up was a dosa – this one a little different than what I am used to, made with rice flour (instead of lentil flour) and laced with egg yolks and dipped in a rich coconut chutney. Divine. 

Farrah then brought over a plate of and rice that looked like a dog's breakfast. See?

This reminds me of what I do with Christmas dinner - I make a holiday stew on my plate.
 Despite its messy appearance, this slurpy mix of squid curry, beef curry and mutton curry slopped on top of rice and cabbage salad was freaking delicious. As she mixed it all together into a big slurry, Farrah reiterated that Malaysians like A LOT of sauce on their rice and roti. I'm sold. I'm still dreaming about that chicken leg. 

I'm the best helper!
Last but not least, I got to help make dessert! This is an extra thin roti called "Tissue Roti" and it is served almost like a huge cookie on the table, covered with lashings of butter and crunchy carmelized sugar. We ate this accompanied by strong pulled chai. Dreamy, like a Christmas cookie.

Stop 2 - Chinese Hawker Centre

You're cute, and you have delicious lime drinks. Wanna date?
Hawker centres are uniquely Malaysian/Singapore institutions, similar to a food court but all of the food is actually amazing. This part of the world takes their food mighty seriously, and they demand delicious, fresh meals and snacks for cheap prices - and hawker centres make this possible. It's not uncommon to see people dressed to the nines dining on one dollar popiah (kind of like a spring roll) while seated on plastic chairs. The stalls usually specialize in one dish, and if they do not do it well - like, really really well -  they soon go out of business. This competition to survive creates a food culture that makes my heart flutter. Jesus, have I been reading Ayn Rand?

Pork bits are the best bits.
First up - pork and yam flavoured with 5 spice and then rolled in crispy beancurd skin and deep fried. Sorry, what? I couldn't hear you because I was cramming all of this in my face. While laughing. And crying with joy.
I will eat ALL the things.
The infamous Char Kway Teo! I tried to eat this for supper in Singapore a few nights ago, but the hawker centre we ate at was more well known for its wonton noodles, stir-fried frogs and satay. So I ate those things instead, which is a totally Singaporean way to behave. Sigh. I think I am meant to be from this part of the world.  

Char Kway Teo is one of the most beloved hawker stall dishes, a combination of soft flat rice noodles, chinese sausage, prawns and bean sprouts - kind of like pad thai, but much more flavourful. This was the Aussies' favourite dish of the day. My favourite of the day was the spicy, savoury, fishy bowl of broth and noodles featured at the top of this page - prawn noodles.

Dish sponge? Rice pudding?
Another dessert! And doesn't it look terrible? One of the girls looked at it and asked, "Is that a sponge?" Turns out it is delicious. It's a patty of sweet sticky rice covered in a layer of coconut jam, and tastes like the most wonderful bowl of rice pudding ever. I want this with tea every morning.

Stop 3 - Mini Stop at a Food Truck 
This was really one of the strangest food experiences of my life.
Seems safe.
 In this converted truck, this woman makes popular local snacks that are usually only available at special holidays. Farrah explained how this really jazzes people who live nearby, so I imagine it to be like being able to get Christmas goodies in July.

A Malaysian Double Down.

The treat consists of a slab of a brown sugar and coconut caramel sandwiched between a piece of yam and a piece of sweet potato, battered and deep fried. I'm not going to say I loved it, but somehow the mix of hot caramel, mash-y potatoes and grease was not at all bad. It was actually kind of good. I would eat this again, and I feel weird about that.

Stop 4 - Malay Warung
While not the most flattering, this photo illustrates my horror at the prospect of more food.
By the end of the Chinese Hawker stop, the four of us guests were already painfully stuffed - like, I felt like I was about to cry. I have no idea how I kept going - I felt like a circus act.
Don't make the mistake of calling Malay food "Malaysian food." Farrah quickly corrected me and said, "Indian, Chinese, Malay - this is all Malaysian food!" Touche, Farrah. Touche.
I'm a little catfish.
 I have quite a bit of experience with Malay food, as I spent 2 weeks in Malaysian Borneo and 6 weeks in Indonesia a few years back, and my biggest impression at the time was how.... lukewarm everything always was. Farrah confirmed that yes, Malay food is meant to be served at room temperature. Everything. Even fish. And yet it never makes me sick. In fact, this catfish was one of my favourite dishes of the day, despite my near-hallucinatory state of fullness.
 A final desert! A green spongy crepe (it reminded me of sweet injera bread) stuffed with carmelized sugar and shredded coconut. This was ridiculously good. Seriously, Malaysians have the right idea when it comes to desserts. Except maybe the mashed potato caramel combo....

A city is best experienced through its food, and I feel like I got to know the hell out of KL in just four hours. So go. Eat. "Sudah Makan?"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Violet and THANKS for your excellent post about the Malaysia Food Tour. We are two other jovial Aussies (or more accurately, one Aussie of Scots heritage and one of West Indian/British heritage - nevertheless, we love our food!). We had a two-day stopover in KL en route to Oz from England back in May this year and undoubtedly the highlight of our stay was the Food Tour. Yours visited different locations, but your vivid descriptions brought back wonderful memories of every delectable morsel and every delightful moment spent with our host. Glad to have discovered your blog! Thanks again and happy adventuring.