My Kuala Lumpur Is Better Than Yours
Moving to the capital of Malaysia inspired writer Robyn Eckhardt to launch EatingAsia, a blog that explores Kuala Lumpur through its food. For a city filled with people who live to eat, we just couldn't ask for better guides than Robyn and her photographer husband.
Though we've lived in Asia off and on for the past 12 years, the first time my husband, David Hagerman, and I ventured to Kuala Lumpur was in 2003. It was the food that drew us here: We were so impressed by a Malaysian restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, where David was working as a regional manager at a U.S. trading company, that we hopped a plane to Kuala Lumpur to taste more. We roamed all over the city, devouring everything in our path. Kuala Lumpur's food scene was astounding, but we were even more impressed by locals' eagerness to share their enthusiasm for dishes such as laksa, or rice noodles in coconut-curry soup and fish broth, with strangers. Never had an unfamiliar place made us feel so welcome and so immediately at home. As our weekend trip wound down, we said to each other, "Hey, we could live here." And, two years later, when David's job transferred him to Kuala Lumpur, we did. Together, with me as writer and David as photographer, we launched a blog about our obsession with Asian cuisine. The name, EatingAsia (eatingasia.typepad.com), describes the approach we take to living and traveling in the region: cultural immersion through food.
Kuala Lumpur has a vibrant mix of Malay, Chinese, and Indian ethnicities; a dynamic interplay of religions, including Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism; and a universal appreciation for the good life. Even though this city of 1.8 million is the largest in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur—referred to as KL by locals, or KL-ites—still retains a certain small-town sensibility within its ethnic neighborhoods. Its Chinatown, Malay kampongs, and Little India neighborhoods are packed with restaurants and stalls serving specialties unique to each culture, as well as dishes that combine the influences of all three into a uniquely Malaysian fusion. In other words, Kuala Lumpur is an easy place to love.
You'll never go hungry in KL: For starters, restaurants are open from early morning right through to the wee hours. The city's claim to fame is the cheap and tasty specialties of hawkers, men and women who work from stalls grouped at roadsides or in open-air food courts. Since ordering is simply a matter of pointing at what you want, hawkers offer an ideal opportunity for one-stop grazing.
Most Malaysians eat noodle dishes at least once a day. When it comes to outright popularity, though, there are two contenders for the unofficial national dish: char koay teow, Chinese-style stir-fried rice noodles with bean sprouts, prawns, dark soy sauce, and egg; and nasi lemak, coconut-scented rice served with fried peanuts, ikan bilis (dried anchovies), a hard-boiled egg, and ground chili paste known as sambal.
Though Malaysian cuisine may have a reputation for being spicy, few things are prohibitively fiery—as long as you watch out for sambal. It's not easy for us to narrow our list of culinary favorites: Forty-two months into our stay, we're still coming across worthy additions.
Imbi Market, also known as Pasar Imbi, is both a market and a food court serving everything from noodles to nasi lemak to desserts made with coconut milk and palm sugar. The best approach is to cruise the stalls, order whatever tempts you, and find an empty spot at any table. Once seated, you'll be asked for your drink order; iced coffee, or kopi peng, is a good bet. The market makes for a fun early morning activity; stalls open at 7 a.m., and most shut down by noon.
If we're out for breakfast (but not at Imbi), you can find us eating roti canai, or grilled flatbread, served with curry-and-lentil daal, at a no-name roti canai stall between wholesale textile stores—just look for the tables set up out front—on Lorong TAR, a lane opposite Jamek Mosque. Since the spot is located in one of KL's Little Indias, and Lorong TAR is parallel to a street lined with DVD and CD stores, we sometimes eat our roti canais to the tunes of the Bollywood Top 40.
Another favorite is assam laksa—thick, round rice noodles in a chili-and- tamarind fish soup that's topped with cucumber, pineapple, and mint. We like the version sold by the very last assam laksa stall on Madras Lane in Petaling Street Bazaar in Chinatown—be sure to ask for sambal and half a kalamansi citrus fruit on the side.
Our first meal as official KL residents was pork noodles, and we often return to Peter's Pork Noodles in the Indian neighborhood of Brickfields to order it again. We recommend a "dry" version with egg, particularly if it's a hot day. (Most Chinese soup noodles can be ordered with the broth served on the side.) What you'll get is a plate of al dente pasta tossed in dark soy sauce and topped with chopped pork, alongside a separate bowl of broth with sliced pork, poached egg, and a few stems of mustard-green-like choy sum. Move the egg from the bowl to your plate of noodles, mix, and eat, and then alternate with slurps of broth.