One can easily eat their way through multiple continents of cuisine in just the span of a day in Kuala Lumpur. And a wonderful place to start any food adventure in KL is at a hawker stall (the Southeast Asian equivalent of a food court) or outdoor market: these are the gathering places of locals and tourists alike, so they’re excellent places for solo travelers to meander and look at the abundance of colorful food. Whatever you choose will likely to be flavor-packed, but here’s one crucial thing to remember: if you’re not accustomed to eating spicy food, make sure to pace yourself! Between the spicy peanut sauce served with the satay chicken and the hot chilies stir-fried in an authentic dish of Chinese noodles, you’ll be sure to find an abundance heat in Kuala Lumpur’s cuisine.
Here are several specific foods to try while eating your way around the vibrant city:
Sure, you could start your morning with a typical Western breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast, but why not fill up on something local instead? If you can hold off for a few hours, sit down around 10:30 or 11 a.m. for a brunch of traditional Malay nasi lemak instead, which is rice steamed in coconut and served with fried chicken (or, in some versions, fish curry), hard-boiled eggs and pickled veggies. The dish is also often finished off with a dab of sambal chili sauce—a spicy addition to many foods in Kuala Lumpur that will be sure to both clear your sinuses and wake you up.
Banana Leaf Meals
For a mid-afternoon appetite killer, consider a set meal of South Indian dishes served atop a banana leaf. Each meal set is served with rice, crispy papadam and a choice of curries.
While a great number of restaurants and food stalls serve only vegetarian cuisine upon each banana leaf, you can always choose to add fish, chicken or beef dishes, although, why bother? From the lentils to the potatoes, chickpeas and chutneys, each dish has an abundance of depth and flavor. To add to the fun, you won’t find silverware here: southern Indian lunches such as these are traditionally eaten with your hands.
Meat on a stick over a BBQ is a late night, post-drinking staple around the world. Yet, the satay served at food stalls dotting the streets of Kuala Lumpur will be seared into your memory due to their smoky, rich flavor. They’re so good and protein-packed that they might even lessen tomorrow’s hangover! Satay, which is characterized by its yellow color derived from the generous sprinkling of turmeric powder, is served with either spicy peanut sauce or gravy. Some food carts will also load up an order of satay with layers of onions, cucumbers and rice cakes, which is satisfying and filling enough to be able to finally call it a night.
This Chinese cuisine-inspired stir-fried noodle dish is steeped in an aromatic stock that—similar to the broth used in Japanese ramen—boils and simmers for hours, letting the rich flavor of pork bones and shrimp come through.
The dish is comprised of plump shrimp, strips of pork belly, cabbage and egg, all of which is heightened with the addition of sambal chili sauce and the tartness of lime juice. These noodles, found in hawker stalls throughout the city, are a delicious choice for a meal at any time of day.
Char siew, which is often translated as “to burn with a fork,” is another popular food with locals and tourists alike. Reminiscent of Chinese BBQ, this seasoned boneless pork is cut into long, fatty strips, and then skewered on metal forks before being placed over a fire. The meat is generally seasoned with a mixture of five-spice powder, fermented tofu, dark soy sauce and a bit of honey or hoisin sauce for sweetness. The dissolving sugar and spices cause the meat to simmer into a dark, shiny red color, but it’s the texture that’s impressive: it’s so succulent and tender on the inside that, combined with the crunchy caramelization on the outside, you may find yourself ordering this dish again and again and again…
Cool off from all those hot chiles, rich curries and spicy stir-fried noodles. with ice cendol—a sweet treat reminiscent of those served out of street carts in Indonesia. Made of palm sugar, syrup, magical swirls of green jelly, coconut milk and shaved ice, the cendol is rich and creamy, and even derives texture from surprisingly sweet red beans that are sometimes sprinkled on top. And like all of the foods you’ll enjoy in Kuala Lumpur, there is an aromatic and unique flavor present—likely, in this case, derived from the syrup. This isn’t just a regular cup of something cold and sweet to help cool you down; it’s special enough that you’ll ponder the flavor of every spoonful.
Paige Towers is a writer living in Milwaukee with her husband and a pack of rescue dogs. Her writing has appeared in The Harvard Review, The Baltimore Review, McSweeney’s, Midwestern Gothic, Prime Number, and many other publications. You can read more of her work on www.paigetowers.com.