I am in the middle of a teeming crowd in Petaling Street, in the heart of Kuala Lumpur’s historic Chinatown. The air is humid, my senses assailed by a dozen smells, from pungent durian fruit to the irresistible aroma of long yok – honey-glazed minced pork, slowly grilling on a fiery brazier. Some people are here for the fake Vuitton handbags and pirated DVDs but most are drawn by the unparalleled food. Outsiders are increasingly appreciating what city residents have long known: that Kuala Lumpur can justly claim to be southeast Asia’s capital of street food, offering a huge range of cuisine deriving from Malaysia’s ethnic mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian.
Growing numbers of tour operators and hotels are offering street food tours of the city but my guide is Chris Bauer, chef of Cantaloupe, KL’s latest hot gourmet destination, on the 23rd floor of the Norman Foster-designed Troika tower. His recipes combine flavours and ingredients from Europe, the Pacific Rim and Malaysia, and between services at Cantaloupe, he is going to show me his highlights of the street food scene.
We kick off at Kim Lian Kee, on the corner of Jalan Petaling (Petaling Street) and Jalan Hang Lekir, where chairs and rickety tables are set out on the pavement every evening at 6pm. Beside them is an open kitchen where the chef uses charcoal burners to cook the dish for which the stall is famous: Hokkien black mee, which are chewy yellow noodles smothered in thick black soy sauce, tossed in a red-hot wok with liver, prawns, squid and the magic ingredient, deep-fried pork scratchings. “There is no point even thinking about the hygiene,” says Bauer, “just concentrate on how delicious the noodles are – customers will still be lining up at 4am.”
Ong Kim Lian started cooking the noodles in 1927, and they have become so popular that his family now run several restaurants in the city, including one on the first floor of an air-conditioned building across the street. Purists, though, prefer to eat “Mr Ong’s noodles” at the stall, amid the throng of passers-by – “they just taste better here,” says Bauer.
We move on to the adjacent Jalan Sultan, a street with scores of stalls, and try herbal jelly, whose unique flavour Bauer describes as “very bitter, awful the first spoonful but an acquired taste; the next thing you know you’re craving it.”
Street food is a 24-hour business in KL, and next morning the chef drags me back to Chinatown at 7am for his favourite breakfast dish, sambal dry noodles at Nam Chew. “This is a typical kedai kopi, what Malaysians call a coffee shop, specialising in one or two dishes,” he explains, arguing they are just as much a part of the street food scene as the stalls. The delicate egg noodles are handmade, topped off with lean char siu barbecued pork, crispy kailan leaves and a sambal chilli sauce. It is cool enough to walk around at this time, perfect for me to explore: just across the road is Masjid Jamek, one of Malaysia’s oldest and most beautiful mosques, on the bank of the Klang River.
The following day Bauer decides it is time for a “banana leaf brunch”, which means escaping the traffic jams that strangle the city centre and taking a 10-minute monorail trip to the Brickfields neighbourhood, otherwise known as Little India. The main drag, Jalan Tun Sambatahan, looks more Mumbai than KL, with garish Bollywood posters, blaring Tamil pop music and flower sellers stringing jasmine blooms.
Sri Paandi’s tables are lined up on the pavement, and the moment we sit down the waiter lays down the banana leaves which are to be our plates. A mountain of rice is heaped in the middle, spoonfuls of yoghurt, pickles and dal are ladled on, and then we’re off to choose from the dozens of spicy curries on display: bitter gourd, spinach, lady’s finger, chickpea masala, turmeric potatoes, deep-fried Chettinad chicken, fish curry. Guests here eat with their fingers, and it’s a wonderfully messy, fun, experience. Etiquette demands that at the end you fold your leaf ready for the waiter to clear away.
Brickfields is also close to some of KL’s key attractions, from the Islamic Arts Museum, a bright white building with a world-class collection of calligraphy scrolls, textiles and jewel-encrusted swords, to the Bird Park, where peacocks, hornbills, parrots and flamingos fly freely in a 20-acre aviary.
Our final stop is Kampung Baru, an enclave in the heart of the city established more than a century ago to preserve the traditional Malay way of life. We take a lazy stroll past brightly painted wooden houses, their gardens filled with mango, fragrant frangipani and coconut trees. It seems like a typical slice of Malay rural life surrounded by a ring of skyscrapers.
The chef leads me to his favourite spot, Norizan Gerak 21, a chaotic food court with scores of stalls vying for custom. We head for the nasi campur, a traditional Malay buffet covering a table that stretches some 20 metres. Highlights include daging sambal, a fierce curry of slow-cooked beef, anchovies and sambal, jackfruit masak lemak, a light yellow vegetarian curry, babat kerabu, crunchy ox tripe in a piquant coconut sauce, and ikan bakar, stingray steamed in banana leaf. A feast for four people costs £7.
Visiting Kampung Baru is like stepping into Malaysia’s past, but Bauer has to get back to modern KL for evening service at Cantaloupe. One stop on the metro brings us out at KLCC – Kuala Lumpur City Centre – and a very different world of icy air conditioning, shopping malls and well-dressed crowds. At Cantaloupe itself there are bare concrete walls, black glass tables and stunning views of sparkling skyscrapers.
But even 23 floors up, the influence of KL’s melting pot of cuisines can still be felt. Bauer’s signature dish is foie gras sate – grilled cubes of foie gras, peanut sauce, cinnamon incense, pandan rice crispies, candied cucumber and sweet sour red onions. It might even give Mr Ong a run for his money.
Kim Lian Kee, corner of Jalan Petaling and Jalan Hang Lekir; Koong Wah Tong Herbal Jelly, 23 Jalan Petaling; Nam Chew Coffee Shop, 54 Jalan Tun Perak; Sri Paandi, 254 Jalan Tun Sambatahan, Brickfields; Restoran Norizan Gerak 21, 1 Jalan Raja Muda Musa, Kampung Baru. Cantaloupe, Level 23A, Tower B, The Troika (www.troikaskydining.com).
John Brunton was a guest of Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur (www.shangrila.com)