Malaysia: Southeast Asia's Next Great Foodie Destination
Malaysian food mixes in so many cultures—Arabic, Chinese, Thai, Indian, and more—that you could never appreciate them all in one sitting. So bring your appetite.
British, Dutch, Portuguese, Thai, Indian, Javanese, Arabic, Chinese, Sumatran. Is it any wonder that Malaysian chefs produce some of the most hard-to-resist meals on the planet? Just look at all the cultures thrown into their proverbial pot. Within the country, the culinary landscape changes dramatically from one region to the next, which is why any traveler worth her salted duck egg won't want to stop at just one. To take in the full scope of Malaysian flavors, it's essential to explore (at least) these three top towns.
1 KUALA LUMPUR
THE COSMOPOLITAN CAPITAL
"We are a country of eaters—food is everything," says 36-year-old Kuala Lumpur resident Sherena Razaly, as she sips spiced tea at the Vishal Curry House in Brickfields, an Indian neighborhood near the capital's main train station (19 Jalan Travers, 011-60/3-2274-6819, chicken biryani $3). She should know: Razaly runs one of the city's most popular Malay restaurants, Enak KL. On her days off, Razaly rotates among her favorite local lunch spots to join the folks on the customer side of the counter. At Vishal, her companions include office workers in collared shirts and bindi-dotted women in saris, and they fill nearly every seat around the restaurant's long, shared tables (181 Jalan Bukit Bintang, enakkl.com, beef rendang $9).
They've come here for banana leaf, an assortment of curries, stewed and pickled vegetables, and rice eaten (without utensils) off a ridged banana leaf the size of a skateboard. Some dishes, such as chicken biryani (a drumstick and a hard-boiled egg hidden beneath a pile of rice that's infused with cinnamon, cloves, and saffron), arrive in a silver bowl—diners just dump the contents onto a leaf and dig in. For those still perfecting their technique, a server stands by with a broom.
Like much of Malaysia's best food, banana leaf is tied to the past: It arrived with South Indian immigrants who came to work on 19th- century British rubber plantations. Today, the descendants of those families make up about a tenth of the country; Malaysians of Chinese descent (or Straits Chinese) account for close to a quarter. Ethnic Malays such as Razaly, most of whom are Muslim, make up about half of the population. Each group has its own time-tested culinary traditions and brings its own recipes to the national table.
The ethnic Malay approach to cooking blends Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, and Arabic elements, and is the backbone of the menu at Razaly's restaurant, a 15-minute taxi ride away from the train station. KL, as the city is commonly called, is known as much for its die-hard retail hounds as for its passionate foodies. Enak straddles both worlds. The restaurant is set inside the upscale Starhill Gallery shopping center, but it provides a homegrown contrast to its slick neighbors, Vuitton and Valentino. The dining room is decorated with floral batik wall hangings, and the menu showcases recipes, such as the beef rendang and botok-botok (mackerel steamed in papaya, laksa, and other leaves), that have been passed down in the family for generations. Razaly's mother even makes periodic visits to inspect the chefs' work.
Such family-operated passion projects help anchor the city in both past and present. Take Yut Kee: One of KL's last kopitiam, or coffeehouses, it was established in 1928 by a Hainanese immigrant who still watches over the place, albeit from a faded portrait. Tucked away in a row of well-aged shop houses, Yut Kee now shares the neighborhood with skyscrapers but retains its traditional feel, thanks to the efforts of third-generation owner Mervyn Lee. At lunchtime, the place throbs. Crowds jam the sidewalk, and waiters swirl among the marble-topped tables, delivering deep-fried Hainanese pork chops and plates of Yut Kee's specialty roti babi, a thick, pan-fried pocket of bread stuffed with braised pork, crabmeat, Chinese sausage, water chestnuts, and onions. "It's our secret family recipe," Lee says. "We're the only ones in KL who make it." Another not-so-secret component of Malaysian cuisine is Worcestershire sauce, a leftover from the British colonial era. Embraced by local chefs and used liberally as a condiment for all kinds of dishes, it imparts an Asia-meets-Europe flavor unlike anything else on earth (35 Jalan Dang Wangi, 011-60/3-2698-8108, roti babi $2.75).
A 10-minute walk from Starhill, the 18-room Anggun Boutique Hotel provides guests with a glimpse into a bygone lifestyle. The hotel is housed in a pair of adjoined residences that served as a family retreat for a clan of early 20th-century Chinese immigrants, and it still has a few period details, such as lanterns from the 1920s and a check-in desk built from salvaged hardwood railway sleepers (7-9 Tengkat Tong Shin, anggunkl.com, doubles from $92).