Good Eats in Kuala Lumpur: A 24 Hour Guide

Kuala Lumpur is a foodie’s paradise.

Much like the average Taco Bell, restaurants in Malaysia tend to be very cheap, be open very late, and a select few can even be found adjacent to a 7-Eleven. However, unlike the Taco Bell, there is little to no regret nor shame to be had afterwards, and these venues are normally visited whilst completely sober.

In contrast to the more monochromatic Asian cities that I’m used to, such as Seoul, where a single culture and thus a single food dominates, there are many different kinds of food to be found in Kuala Lumpur. As mentioned in my previous post, the city is comprised primarily of three different peoples: Chinese, Indian, and the native Malay. This happy trio of distinctly different cuisines – along with a wealth of hybrid or ‘third party’ cuisines – can be found everywhere in this sizzling city. From the plastic, mismatched chairs of outdoor eateries to restaurants set with white linen tables and silverware actually worth slipping into your purse, Kuala Lumpar has a wealth of choices for all of your eating needs.

Much like at my diabetic granny’s house, there are four main meals in Malaysia: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and supper. Fortunately, I had a Malaysian friend of mine, Pei, to show me the ropes. For those you sans a Malaysian, I present this brief guide to help you plan your waist-expanding foodie tour.

Breakfast:

Start your day off basic at a kopitiam, or coffee shop. There are plenty of open-air ones to choose from, offering all sorts of delicious delicacies. I went to Win Heng Seng  (永兴城茶餐室), which offers a variety of tasty, cheap eats for both breakfast and lunch crowds.

Pei told me she prefers to start the day off on a sweet note, so we got tiny, creamy egg tarts in a crust that was both flaky and salty, just like your unmarried aunt.

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After we had whetted our appetites, it was time to get down to real business.

Pei ordered kopi-o: strong, black Malaysian coffee with lots of sugar that don’t need no man. A popular pairing with coffee throughout Malaysia (and southeast Asia in general) is toast with kaya, (pictured top left) a curd made with coconut milk, eggs, and sugar. To accompany this were flaky, sweet-and-savory meat pies called siew pao (pictured on plate), filled with what I am assured was pork even though I have seen Sweeny Todd twice now and like to think I know better.

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Just in case this wasn’t a carby enough start to the day, Pei ordered pyramid-shaped mounds of glutinous brown rice, wrapped lovingly as an only child in flat, green leaves –  ba zhang (pictured top right). Small pieces of salted egg yolk and meat could be found distributed throughout the dumpling, which is, honestly, a solid way to improve most foods.

 

Lunch:

If you’re not too full from breakfast (or if you’re not a quitter), head over to Old China Cafe on Petaling Street for lunch two hours after you finish your breakfast. This is long enough that you’ve had time to digest some, but short enough that the stomach hasn’t shrunk too much yet.

Fun fact: The saloon style doors are typical of traditional Chinese architecture. And there I was, thinking that they were designed by cowboys for facilitating grand entrances.

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Here, you can sample plenty of Chinese food (with a bit of Malaysian flair) that doesn’t come from a cardboard box.

The interior of the restaurant is definitely a throwback to older times. The chairs and wall paneling are both a dark, chocolate colored wood. Aged photographs and traditional calligraphy crowd the walls with no particular order. The overall effect is somewhere between an antique store and the beginning of a scary movie, though both have the same moral – don’t touch anything.

However, the food managed to distract from these dark thoughts

Traditional Chinese dining is what we call “family style” in the West. (Or, individual serving size. I’m not here to judge.) Several different courses are ordered and shared between the persons at your table, although each individual might receive their own rice. Pei – culturally Chinese herself – picked out a variety of dishes for us to sample.

Hot plate tofu with carrots, peas, and corn in a gelatinous sauce (bottom right) and sweet-and-sour chicken with pineapple, onion, and cucumber (top left) will start you off well. Pei opted for plain white rice for herself, while I ordered a blue-toned coconut rice, because not nearly enough foods in this world are blue.

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If you need more vegetables in your life or your bowels, consider ordering the spicy, stir-fried kangkong belacan, a vegetable vaguely resembling stalky spinach in both flavor and visuals with sweet purple onions and red chili peppers hot enough to take you on the other side.

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If none of these lighter dishes suit your fancy, there are plenty of pork or beef options to choose from, and even some options without vegetables. Though, if you eat the chilis, I would recommend something green to help you along.

 

Dinner:

A trip to Kuala Lumpur couldn’t be complete without the famous nasi lemak – different individual ingredients assembled aesthetically  around a fragrant coconut rice. It’s perfect not only for eating, but hovering over awkwardly with a camera for an Instagram-worthy shot while you get low-key judged by surrounding tables.

Five of the six ingredients seen on my plate were elements of the traditional style of nasi lemak: boiled egg; spicy, dark-red sambal sauce; salty, crunchy dried anchovies; roasted peanuts; and fresh green cucumber slices that you can save and use for facials later on. I opted for a piece of curried chicken for a more substantial meal. (As, y’know, I hadn’t eaten enough earlier.)

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Supper:

Supper is a beautiful time to reflect on what you have yet to eat that day, and remedy it immediately. I found myself surprisingly low on my fish intake, so I headed to an outdoor food market, deep off the beaten tourist track where few willingly choose to roam at night, with another college friend of mine, Jane, who lost both parents outside an opera years ago and now spends her days hanging around caves.

We finished our day feasting on cuttlefish cooked with more kangkung, topped with fresh lime juice, minced peanuts, and a sweet-ish brown sauce. Behind Jane’s rants about justice, I could hear the sizzle of things being cooked over open fires, the call of orders to chefs, the scratching of plates across counters that means another order is ready for a hungry patron.

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And I felt perfectly at home.

 

 

Of course, Kuala Lumpur has a myriad of other delicacies to offer its hungry visitors. This is only a short review of possibly samplings to be had in this illustrious city.

And unlike the Taco Bell, you can’t go too wrong.

Eat well, my friends.

Kuala Lumpur: An Introduction

The hot, nearly equatorial sun radiates down perpetually on the occupants of Kuala Lumpur, who are cooled by bursts of icy air conditioning as they walk briskly down the wide streets. Women in low-cut tank tops and daisy dukes scurry past women wearing niquabs, who text busily on their phones. Hawkers cry out to the people passing their food stalls in English – Cantonese – Malay in a single breath. A gilded mosque sits across from an Indian temple, adjacent to a church, while the native jungle fights in vain to take back the soaring skyscrapers. Faces of every color can be seen in this mad crush, from the pale businesswoman who clacks away importantly at her computer, to the coffee-skinned man who owns the restaurant she is working at.

Three main cultures are at odds here: Chinese, Indian, and the native Malays. These groups give Kuala Lumpur its vibrancy, its chaos that somehow comes together into a single, cohesive city that charms its occupants and visitors alike.

Naturally, the food helps. Dishes from the aforementioned groups can be found everywhere from fine-dining restaurants to hawker stands, and the native Malaysians can be seen eating at all hours of the day. Four distinct meals exist here: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and an extra, fourth, late night meal simply called “supper.” Eateries open to the elements are popular in this year-round tropical paradise, and sharing tables with strangers in a crowded restaurant is all too common.

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Breakfast on the street: strong, sweet coffee with a flaky pastry filled with savory pork and salted egg yolk.

 

Kuala Lumpur is a vibrant city whose mayhem makes sense, where opposites come together in harmony and people of all cultures work together to fuel their city. There’s no shortage of things to do, from luxury shopping to visiting any one of the temples or mosques the city has to offer. The people are welcoming to visitors, though they seem to know that it would take years for a foreigner to truly delve into the inner workings of their complex culture.

While walking with a Malaysian friend of mine through Central Market, and I stopped to look at a pair of minuscule shoes, mouth agape. I asked if they were for bound feet. She confirmed, and told me her own great-grandmother’s feet had been bound in her native China. But, she added, they began to grow again once she came to Malaysia.

 

Leather Bag Making in Seoul

One bitterly cold mid-January afternoon, my friend Kimmy and I decided to head over to Sinsa-dong, an artsy, hipsterish sub-district of Gangnam, to try our hands at making our own, personalized leather bags.

The shop we chose was called Classico, run by a Mr. Dong Hyeon Kim.  In addition to letting patrons make (or rather, assist in making) their own bags, they also take custom orders and make some items to sell in department stores.

The interior of the shop smelled strongly of pungent leather glue. The walls were a no-nonsense, bare cement that offered a sharp contrast against the brightly colored paints, tools, and materials found within.

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The first step in the process of making our bags was deciding on a design. The shop offered several different varieties, ranging from tiny folding wallets to purses you could carry a small mammal in. We both chose a simple, fold-over clutch, just large enough to fit our phones and wallets in for a night out on the town.

The second step was picking out a leather we liked. There were dozens of different varieties and textures to choose from. I went for a smooth, buttery black and Kimmy chose a textured purple.

We sketched out the rough shapes of our bags on paper with the help of a ruler and Kimmy’s engineering degree, then cut the design from the leather with what looked like a good knife for stabbing a guy. The same was done for the creamy, off-white leather used for the inside lining of our bags. A lot of cutting, gluing, and even some minimal stitching was done during this stage to help smooth out the edges of our bags-to-be.

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After much weeping and gnashing of teeth, largely over frustrations due to me smearing glue in places I shouldn’t, Mr. Kim gave us the choice to stamp our bags with our names. Unfortunately, we both misunderstood exactly how he would put the names on our bags, and spent twenty minutes or so trying to create personalized signatures. I wanted “가을” — the Korean translation of my name — to be printed on my bag in an artsy, stylized font. We soon found out that only Latin letters were offered.

A very shiny machine did the job of stamping our bag-shaped pieces of leather with our names in a rather pragmatic font.

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Once our bags could remind of us of our own names, we chose zippers out of a big plastic bag Mr. Kim had stashed away in one of his many cupboards.  Kimmy went for silver, to go with her purple leather, and I picked out a polished gold. The aforementioned zippers – along with small golden hoops which would serve as bases for the chains our bags would hang on – were first glued, then sewn to the bags.

Our projects had stopped resembling cow skins and started to look like real, grown-up lady bags. We roughly glued the inside lining of our bags to their outside shells. All that remained was to sew the entire thing together. The bag was turned inside-out prior to sewing so all the stitching would be hidden inside.

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Essentially, all that was left to do after the sewing was to turn the bag right-side out and attach our chains.

In total, the experience took about five hours or so. While smiling with dead eyes, Mr. Kim told us that it normally only takes about three hours. I expect time was added on for my glue inexpertise and the fact that Kimmy had to translate most of the technical instructions into English for me.

The entire cost of the experience was 140,000₩, or about $120 USD. Given the quality of the leather, the craftsmanship of the bag, and the fact that we took five hours’ of some poor man’s time, I would definitely say it was worth it.

 

You can find Classico at on the second floor at 525-16, Sinsa, Gangnam, Seoul (Korean address:  강남구 신사동 525-16 201호). Their phone number is 02-540-2316 (possibly Korean only, but you can try your luck. Mr. Kim studied leatherwork in Florence, so I’m betting his English is actually pretty proficient.)

EDIT: The Classico website linked above is down for the moment.