FEATURE

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.

By Robyn Eckhardt, Tuesday, Nov 18, 2008, 11:00 PM

Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Centre (David Hagerman)

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.

Eat

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 laksathick, 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.

Another feel-good spot we frequent is Ikan Bakar Asli Pak Din. We're not sure if it's the turmeric-marinated, crisp-charred whole red snapper or the friendliness of Pak Din and his staff at this Malay restaurant in the Lake Gardens, but eating here just makes us happy. It's the same at Yut Kee, a kopitiam (coffee shop) run by gregarious second-generation owner Jack Lee and his son, Mervyn. Do yourself a favor and try the coffee and the grilled toast covered with kaya, a house-made coconut-and-egg spread.

While Sek Yuen started off as a '50s-era Chinese wedding-banquet spot, locals now come for Cantonese-Malaysian favorites like fragrant five-spice pork belly with taro and chicken stir-fried with black beans and bitter gourd. The kitchen, which is still fueled entirely by wood, turns out a sublime sweet-and-sour fish, consisting of crispy battered boneless fish chunks cloaked in a light sauce that's the perfect balance of sweet and tart.

While there's plenty to see and eat in the city center, it's also worth the 20-minute cab ride to explore Petaling Jaya's Section 17. We like to arrive mid-morning for the market and then lunch on the hawker food sold in three coffee shops facing the stalls. Head to Weng Kee for sticky, smoky char siew (barbecued pork) and ginger-spiked duck-liver sausage, venture over to Restoran Hong Seng for coconut-curry noodles, and stop in at Kedai Kopi Wah Cheong for pan meen (wheat noodles) with soy, chopped pork, and those ikan bilis anchovies.

As much as we love Malaysian food, we crave a change at times, so we're thankful for Chiaroscuro Trattoria Pizzeria's wood-oven-baked pies and the desserts at Bisou Bake Shop. If you order one thing, make it the banana-chocolate-caramel delight known as banoffee pie.

Shop

In hot, often wet KL, malls beat out street-side stores as the shopping venues of choice. In the past few years, Malaysia's economic growth has fueled a hunger for luxury goods, international designers, and brand-name chain stores. Every month seems to bring a new shopping mall, each bigger and glitzier than the last. But for us, Sungei Wang Plaza is better than any of the fancy newcomers. This stalwart of the Golden Triangle (the city's commercial district) may be low on glamour, but it's a favorite trawling ground for KL's hip younger set. A couple of hours of hunting can yield souvenirs you're unlikely to find elsewhere: clothing and accessories by on-the-verge local designers, limited-edition T-shirts, and quirky Malaysian kitsch.

For many years, Suria Kuala Lumpur City Center (Suria KLCC to abbreviation-mad Malaysians), an upscale shopping center adjacent to the Petronas Twin Towers, was the grande dame of KL's malls. It may be 10 years old, but it still holds its own thanks to a collection of stores selling unique items. The Malaysian outpost of Australian brand Crumpler sells its own brightly colored nylon camera bags, backpacks, and laptop cases that are incredibly sturdy, and washable, too—just the thing when you've dropped your purse in outdoor-market muck (it happens!). Pucuk Rebung is one of the few stores in KL to display genuine antiques and upscale Malaysian crafts, such as textiles from the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. Not everything is for sale—the store is also technically a gallery—but it's worth a browse. We can spend hours in the aisles of the Japanese chain Kinokuniya, a huge book and stationery emporium with its own coffee shop. This is where to find the city's best range of Malaysian cookbooks in English.

KL's Chinatown is a great place to shop as well as eat. The stalls lining covered, pedestrian-only Petaling Street attract bargain hunters looking for knockoff Rolex watches and Louis Vuitton bags. A wider range of souvenirs can be found inside the nearby Central Market (also referred to as Pasar Seni), which houses crafts shops, restaurants and cafés, and a couple of food courts. The best store of the bunch is Asli Craft, which sells items that can only be found in Malaysia, like tudung saji, colorful handwoven cone-shaped food covers. We find that they look as good on the wall as they do on a table. Peter Hoe Evolution, a sliver of a store opposite Central Market, sells modern batik-print fabric in the form of kimonos, bags, and household items such as napkins, runners, tablecloths, and bedcovers. The large sarongs, or pareus, which come in striking color combos like turquoise and citron, make excellent gifts, and are cheap enough to buy in bulk. Evolution's sister store, Peter Hoe Beyond, just up the street, stocks more housewares and has its own café.

Tea lovers shouldn't leave Chinatown without stopping at Purple Cane Tea Art Centre, which carries accessories for making and drinking tea, as well as an impressive selection of compressed green teas. Each round tea cake, wrapped in paper and stored in a cloth bag, is marked with the factory of its origin and year of production; the older the tea, the more delicate its flavor. The cakes start at $19 for 500 grams, and the staff regularly holds free taste tests in the back of the store.

Bangsar, a part of town known for its large expatriate population and weekend nightlife, has more recently become home to a clutch of innovative clothing and design shops. While some locals love Kitsch, a boutique in the Bangsar Village II mall, for its selection of girly-girl accessories and dresses, we go for its T-shirts with quirky logos by American outfit Junk Food. The whitewashed café Marmalade, next door, is convenient for a quick caffeine fix. Just over the walkway connecting Bangsar Village II with its predecessor, Bangsar Village I, sits Whimsical Articles, a store devoted to brightly designed note cards, papers, and books. Many of the shop's bags, T-shirts, and miscellaneous items, such as a collection of plush creatures called Dooodolls, are made by Malaysian designers.

You can bring home some of Malaysia's literature at Silverfish Books, which has an unrivaled selection of contemporary fiction and nonfiction by the nation's best writers translated into English.

Play

When KL-ites aren't eating, they're shopping. But the city also has an evolving art scene, modern and colonial architecture, and a lush park in the city center. If that's not enough to keep you busy, there are plenty of day trips worth taking to nearby fishing villages or an elephant sanctuary. A word of warning: The country has two seasons—hot and wet, and hot and wetter. If you're planning outdoor activities, it's smart to build room into your schedule to work around any of the inevitable short but intense bursts of rain.

Not a week goes by that we don't hit Pudu Market, one of KL's biggest and oldest food emporiums. The point isn't so much to shop as it is to wander through a traditional wet market—named for the water that vendors use to wash their stalls and products—and explore the range of ingredients that go into the diverse local cuisines. To enter the market, you'll have to work your way through a jumble of outdoor stalls displaying everything from Chinese medicinal plants and Malaysian vegetables to crackly skinned roast pork and flopping fish. Two tips: Go early, and wear waterproof shoes.

Skipping the Petronas Twin Towers is like blowing off Seattle's Space Needle. Malaysia's twin office towers, once the world's tallest buildings, have been a source of pride since the 1999 opening celebrations buoyed the nation when it was reeling from the Asian financial crisis. Architect Cesar Pelli based the circumference of the towers on the Islamic eight-pointed star and drew on traditional Malaysian weaving patterns for interior wall-panel designs. The structures are especially striking at twilight, when their scalloped edges glow against a darkening sky. The Petronas Towers look spectacular from the outside, but the views from within the Menara Kuala Lumpur telecommunications tower are better. The Menara KL looks like an alien mother ship perched on a toothpick, but once you're on the observation deck, you've got 360-degree views. And ponder this: Much of what you'll see didn't exist 20 years ago.

KL's rapid growth has come at the cost of many of its colonial-era buildings, but one survivor worth visiting is Carcosa Seri Negara, a swanky Lake Gardens hotel built in 1904 as the home for the British high commissioner of the Malay States. We like to bring visitors here for high tea and a little nostalgia.

The National Art Gallery has a comprehensive collection of pieces by Malaysian artists and crafts­people. Start off in the ground floor gallery, with its intricate wood carvings from Sarawak and Sabah, and make your way up through displays of Malaysian works organized by decade. KL's alternative art scene, however, revolves around Annexe Gallery, located behind Central Market. The Annexe hosts experimental-dance and music performances, poetry readings, and screenings, as well as exhibits by up-and-coming and established artists. The vibe is friendly, and employees are happy to tell visitors what's going on around town.

Also worth a couple of hours is the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, which houses models of the world's mosques and a gorgeous collection of fabrics, carpets, and clothing from Asia and the Middle East, beneath a striking blue-tiled dome. The museum is in the Lake Gardens, a vast public park crisscrossed by walking paths and studded with botanical attractions, including an orchid garden and a butterfly park. Our favorite, by far, is the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park, where almost 200 local and foreign species cavort under a huge net canopy.

As much as we love KL, we sometimes crave a change of scenery. Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Centre, about two hours from the city, is where you can feed, pet, and ride elephants, many of which are orphaned. On weekends, locals head to Pulau Ketam, an island that's home to two sleepy fishing villages. We take the KTM train from Sentral KL to Port Klang and then catch an 8:45 a.m. ferry. Once on the island, we pick up rental bikes at the jetty and go on a leisurely tour of Taoist and Buddhist temples, stopping to snack on noodles and dumpling dishes that villagers sell out of their homes.

Nightlife in KL runs the gamut from the grungy (expat-oriented Irish pubs) to the flashy (lychee-tini lounges). 7atenine, a downtown bar and restaurant, somehow manages to be stylish and unpretentious at the same time. But the best place to start (or end) a night is at the open-air lounge Luna Bar. With a crazy cocktail in your hand and fantastic views of the city's neon spread, you can't help but feel you've stumbled onto Southeast Asia's best-kept secret.

INSIDER'S KUALA LUMPUR