Today’s guest post comes from my good friend, travel writer and journalist, Leyla Giray Alyanak, over at Women on the Road.
KL: World-Class Foodie Town
The name Kuala Lumpur may mean ‘muddy river confluence’ in Malay, but when it comes to food, the message from Malaysia’s capital is crystal clear: it’s all good, and KL is a world-class foodie city.
You may know the delights of Malaysian food – the near-transparent kway teow noodles, the crispy murtabak pancakes, the crunchy-spicy rojak salad…
And yes, all this is mouth-watering, but too much of a good thing means that once in a while, I like to stray. This story isn’t about Malaysian cuisine at all – anything but. Because KL’s brand of cuisine encompasses the world.
A diversity of cultures
Kuala Lumpur, possibly Southeast Asia’s most diverse city, is also in many ways its food capital, partly because Malaysian food is exquisite but also because KL plays host to so many diverse food cultures.
The city and its food reflect the waves of Chinese, British, and Indian immigration, but also of Malays, of indigenous groups from Borneo, and of the tastes imported by modern visitors.
There’s little you won’t find here.
Kuala Lumpur has a multitude of neighborhoods, some populated mostly by a single ethnic group, others cosmopolitan and varied.
And people who live in them, whether Chinese, Malay, Muslim or European, converge to eat within that most globalized of inventions: the shopping mall.
KL’s Feeding Frenzy
Much of everyday life – and much of the eating in KL – takes place around shopping malls of all sizes and types, from the gloriously luxurious to the cheap and crowded suburban centers, little more than markets with a concrete roof.
In Suria KLCC, the city’s most palatial mall, the wealthy hobnob with one another, nipping in and out of designer outlets that occupy major acreage in this sophisticated venue.
All that shopping is tiring and shoppers must eat. Like the stores, there are designer restaurants for the sophisticated eater. At the Chakri Palace, a comfortable dining room where the miangkham is every bit as good as over the border in Thailand, each ingredient is finely chopped and arranged, each bite a delicious combination of tart, sweet, crunchy and smooth.
Many of these high-end restaurants cater to wealthy Malaysians and to KL’s huge expat community, in search of comfort and familiarity when hunger and homesickness collide.
Suria, like many malls, isn’t just for the affluent: it has food courts for every purse because staff and tourists, too, must eat; some courts serve exciting foreign foods, others, noodles and rice, a nice touch which makes the exclusive… less exclusive.
Some malls, like the Pavillion, cordon off their food sections by country to cater to a single cuisine. Like Japan.
Malls are convenient, clean, air-conditioned and often – if you avoid the top end eateries – relatively inexpensive but the real eating often takes place in traditional outdoor food courts, many of which have been pushed indoors into these same malls.
Some of the best food is found in open-air food courts and street stalls, under the stifling heat, which for some reason enhances the taste of food.
KL’s Chinatown excels in street food, typically served in the covered lanes that radiate from Petaling Street, Chinatown’s heart. Its tight rows of sun-starved alleys buzz with clanking woks, and flies. Live hens cluck beneath huge tables on which they are killed and plucked. A few meters away a chef turns them into Hokkien stirfry, good enough to help you forget the source of that chicken.
The way food is prepared in this warren probably hasn’t changed in the century since the Chinese first arrived in Malaysia.
Too exotic? Need a break from Asian foods? Sometimes I yearn for something more familiar. More European. Like pizza.
With the voluptuousness of KL’s remarkable food choices still in mind, I don’t know what I expected. Certainly not this.
Admittedly I had to work hard to find a bad foreign meal in KL, but eventually I succeeded, the exception rather than the rule.
The diversity of foods in Kuala Lumpur is equalled only by the diversity of the people who live here – and there’s something for everyone from nearly every cuisine under the sun. Even dreadful pizza.
Written by Leyla Giray Alyanak, a journalist and ex-foreign correspondent who runs Women on the Road, a website for women who travel solo.