Renowned food writer and expert on Malaysian culture and cuisine Robyn Eckhardt gives us her tips on what to try and where to go for the best of Kuala Lumpur’s celebrated food scene.
Why Malaysian cuisine
‘Its population, which comprises three major ethnicities – Malay, Chinese, and Indian – and a whole host of other, smaller groups of descendents of the migrants that have landed on its shores over hundreds of years. All have contributed to the cuisine, and it’s difficult to imagine another country in the world blessed with so much variety. In terms of flavours and ingredients Malaysian food really does offer something to please every single visitor.’
Food of the nation
‘This is a topic of great debate among Malaysians and I’ll probably make enemies with my choice, but I’d have to vote for nasi lemak, a dish of many elements: coconut rice, sliced cucumber, half a hard-boiled egg, sambal belacan [chilli sauce made with shrimp paste] and ikan bilis [dried small anchovies] fried with peanuts. It’s most often eaten for breakfast or as a late supper, sometimes with beef rendang, prawn curry or chicken curry on the side. I love the version at Village Park for its especially fiery, very shrimpy and slightly sweet sambal.’
Village Park, 5 Jalan SS 21/37, Damansara Utama, 47400 Petaling Jaya, Kuala Lumpur.
Three to try
Pan Meen: ‘Pan meen is a noodle lover’s dream, and difficult to find outside of Kuala Lumpur. It’s technically a noodle soup but I prefer the dry version, which pairs dark soy-sauced wide, chewy wheat noodles with ground pork and crispy ikan bilis, with a lively green chilli-kalamansi-cilantro sambal, which I usually order two dishes of, and dump over noodles. I go to a hawker stall in Section 17 for my fix.’
Sup Kambing: ‘In the evenings a vendor in the hip-ish suburb of Bangsar dishes up a rich, warm spice-fragrant sup kambing [mutton soup] with riblets or, if you prefer, offal. It’s served with white bread to sop up the soup. His version is extra thick. For me it’s comfort food.’
Laksa Lemak: ‘Laksa lemak, or curry laksa, is a little bit sweeter in Kuala Lumpur than versions in Penang or Singapore. On Lorong Madras, a small lane that runs through the morning market in Chinatown, are two vendors dishing up this rich but delicious noodle soup packed with fish balls, okra, batons of eggplant, prawns and tofu puffs [squares of deep-fried tofu] that become little sponges once they hit the curry broth. If you’re standing facing the two stalls, I prefer the one on the left.’
‘KL-ites love their cars and the city was not planned with pedestrians in mind, so I’d recommend visitors devote three or four hours to Imbi Market, one of the last real wet markets right downtown that’s attached to a fabulous hawker center with more chow options than one could ever cover in a single morning. Wonton mee, you char koay [fried crullers], Malaysian-style iced coffee with condensed milk, popiah [fresh spring rolls], char koay teow [stir-fried rice noodles with prawns, cockles and bean sprouts], kuih [glutinous rice sweets] – it’s all there. The market is especially lively, with a few extra vendors on Saturday and Sundays, although it’s closed on Mondays.’
Imbi Market (Pasar Baru Bukit Bintang), Jalan Melati.
Image by David Hagerman.
Blow-out dining experience
‘The street and classic resto Chinese food is so good in KL that I almost never eat upscale. But I have had a few amazing meals at Sage, with a menu designed by a French-influenced Japanese chef. For me the atmosphere is just right – attentive but not obsequious service, décor that’s spare and clean but not sterile and tables set a distance apart from each other. I have fond memories of wagyu encased in pastry and anything with foie gras.’
Sage Restaurant & Wine Bar, Lingkaran Syed Putra, Mid Valley City, 58000, Kuala Lumpur, Wilayah Persekutuan.
Authentically local dining experience
‘Any hawker stall. KL-ites love restaurant dining and are very much about dining trends, but in the end 95 percent would never give up their street food.’
A Sunday hangout
‘It’s always packed but Yut Kee, a classic Hainanese kopitiam [coffee shop] dating back to the 1920s has a great, friendly feel about it. Now run by the son and grandson of its original owner, Yut Kee dishes up Malaysian comfort foods like chicken chops – the British influence showing through there – roti babi [shredded pork-stuffed deep-fried bread], which as evil as it sounds is certainly worth the calories, beef noodle soup and toast with kaya, a housemade coconut milk-and-egg jam, to have with one of the city’s best Malaysian iced coffees.’
Yut Kee will close on August 11, but will reopen on August 25.
Where you’d take a friend
‘I have long loved Sek Yuen, a Chinese-Malaysian establishment that opened in the early fifties. So much that’s old or historical in Kuala Lumpur has disappeared but Sek Yuen lives on, with a kitchen fired entirely by wood and many staff from its early days. There’s no menu, and many wait staff don’t speak great English, so you have to go in ready to wing it – prompt them by naming an ingredient, like prawns, chicken, pork or vegetables, and you’ll be answered with suggestions. The roast duck, cooked over charcoal, is among KL’s best. The sweet and sour fish will forever change your, probably negative, thoughts about the dish, and the stir-fried baby gai lan is perfect.’
Image by David Hagerman.
Latest food trend
‘Coffee, western-style rather than Malaysian style. That’s the case in other parts of Malaysia as well. Australia is closer than Italy, so that seems to be the style – like the long flat white – most emulated.’
‘The award for the best view has to go to the pool bar at the Traders Hotel, at night. You’re face-to-face with the glittering Petronas towers, which look almost close enough to touch.’
SkyBar, Traders Hotel by Shangri-La, Kuala Lumpur City Centre, 50088, Kuala Lumpur.
Based in Asia for over 17 years and now living in Malaysia, food and travel writer Robyn Eckhardt is an undisputed expert of the region’s diverse cuisine. Robyn is the former food editor of Time Out Kuala Lumpur and now writes for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Saveur and Travel & Leisure Southeast Asia, among other publications. She is also the author of the food and drink chapters in a number of Lonely Planet Southeast Asia country and city guides. Robyn works alongside her husband, food and travel photographer David Hagerman, to produce the food blog EatingAsia, named the best culinary blog in Saveur magazine’s 2014 food blog awards. Robyn also leads private street food walks of Georgetown, Penang.