One Perfect Day (of Eating) in Kuala Lumpur
Seven great spots to hit for fuss-free Malaysian food in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, from sunrise into the wee hours.
( for LUCKY peach )
Any Malaysian will tell you that eating is more than the satiation of hunger; it’s communion. We think nothing of spending a whole day eating, drifting from place to place. For us, the best grub doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with the best ambience, and “It tastes like my grandmother’s cooking” is one of the highest forms of praise.
Ask any Malaysian what they consider essential Malaysian staples, aside from nasi lemak and roti canai, and they’ll all have a different answer. Ask any Malaysian which restaurant serves their favourite dish, and they’ll also have a different answer. This was a nation of foodies before it was the Instagram thing to do, and our preferences are personal—based on the manifest goodness of the cooking, but also on nostalgia and convenience. Some Malaysians will consider it a crime to leave out banana leaf rice, curry laksa or beef noodle soup, but that’s a reflection of the dizzying variety of Malaysian food, thanks to centuries of trade, immigration and colonisation.
Here are seven spots for local food you should check out in Kuala Lumpur’s city centre, if your appetite holds out. This is going to be an intense initiation.
NASI LEMAK WANJO
For breakfast, Malaysia’s “national dish” in traditional Malay style.
Location: 8 Jalan Raja Muda Musa, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
What to order: Nasi lemak with chicken curry or beef rendang.
Malaysians think nothing of plunging right in and having rice or noodles for breakfast, and nasi lemak is one of the most popular options. It’s white rice steamed in coconut milk, served with a sprinkle of crispy anchovies and fresh cucumbers, a hardboiled or fried egg, and a dollop of tangy sambal paste made of fried chillies and belacan, a shrimp paste often used in Malaysian cooking.
Wanjo is located in Kampung Baru, the last traditional Malay village in Kuala Lumpur still sporting intricately motifed timber houses you don’t see much of anymore. Nasi lemak is a Malay dish that originated in kampungs, and it’s now found everywhere in Malaysia, with minor variations depending on a cook’s cultural and regional background. A Malay family establishment that has been in operation since 1963, Wanjo serves up rice that is creamier and more fragrant and sambal that is sweeter than I’m used to at Chinese establishments—neither one necessarily better than the other, just different. You can also add on extras like chicken curry, beef rendang, cockles, squid, or fried cow lung, but since the sambal is already on the sweet side for me, I tend to stay clear of the ayam masak merah, which is chicken cooked in a spicy-sweet tomato sauce.
Wanjo opens at 6:30 a.m. and breaks when the food runs out (best to make it there before 9 a.m.), before reopening for business in the evenings—though nasi lemak is traditionally eaten for breakfast. If you don’t make it to Wanjo in time, stroll around the village for other food options. There’s also Nasi Lemak Antarabangsa and Nasi Lemak C.T. Garden.
The modern reincarnation of the famous old kopitiam (coffee shop) still serving up a taste of British Malaya.
Location: Jalan Kamunting (off Jalan Dang Wangi), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
What to order: Set of kaya toast, half-boiled eggs, and kopi. For something more hefty, try the chicken chop, roast pork or roti babi.
There’s a small breed of historic Chinese coffee shops—called kopitiam—left in Kuala Lumpur, and Yut Kee is one of the last few ones that still insist on grilling bread over a charcoal fire, the way it’s done since 1928.
The faded old-world charm of its original establishment is mostly lost now, but you’ll still dine on the iconic round marble tables and chairs under rotating fans hung from high ceilings, so that every sound—the people’s chatter, the scrape of chairs dragged along the tiled floor, the tinkling of spoons against similarly iconic coffee cups—echoes and crescendoes when the lunchtime crowd packs in. Back in the day, people would drop in on kopitiams to catch up on the local news and gossip, and you can still see shades of this at Yut Kee in how warmly its older generation of patrons greets each other. Just say hello to Jack, the seventy-year-old boss, and he’ll make introductions for you too.
Like other Hainanese immigrants from China, Jack’s father migrated in the early twentieth century to what was then the British colony of Malaya. By the time the Hainanese arrived, other Chinese dialect groups already occupied the tin mining and rubber tapping industries, so most Hainanese men ended up as cooks in colonial British households and establishments. They had the necessary skills because Hainanese men traditionally stayed at home to cook while the women worked in the fields; and later, they turned to opening their own kopitiams, serving up what came to be defined as Hainanese food—with English influences.
The best time to go to Yut Kee is for breakfast or lunch. One of my favourite all-day Malaysian breakfasts is kaya toast with half-boiled eggs. At Yut Kee, the white bread is lightly toasted over a charcoal fire, which gives it a fluffy texture that can’t be replicated by electric toasters or ovens, and served with butter and kaya—a jam of coconut milk and egg—on the side, which you can slather on to your own liking. Yut Kee’s kaya is homemade, with a granular texture I prefer to the too-smooth ones you get from supermarkets. The half-boiled eggs fall readily out of their shells when you crack them, and you break the yokes, sprinkle on some pepper and soya sauce, and slurp it all up. This wouldn’t be complete without kopi (black coffee with condensed milk), or a variation of it, for which this guide will come in handy. Yut Kee is also famous for its kaya swiss roll.
If you’re looking for something more filling, crowd favourites include the chicken chop that’s doused in gravy, the roast pork with skin perfected to a crisp, and the roti babi—a pocket of fried bread stuffed with pork and served with Worcestershire sauce. Yut Kee also serves Malaysian staples like Hainanese chicken rice and hokkien mee, but what distinguishes it from other local eateries are its English-inspired dishes.
RESTORAN KIN KIN
The birthplace of chilli pan mee.
Location: 40 Jalan Dewan Sultan Sulaiman 1, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
What to order: Chilli pan mee
Located on an unprepossessing street in Kuala Lumpur lined with tyre shops and bakeries and small Chinese businesses, Kin Kin is synonymous with chilli pan mee—claims, in fact, to have created it when it opened shop in 1985. The family has since opened other branches, but it’s here that the flour noodles are made every day and dispatched.
Chilli pan mee is one of my favourite Malaysian dishes. It’s springy noodles topped with caramelised minced pork, crispy anchovies and a poached egg with slightly runny insides. What makes the dish, however, is the homemade chilli flakes, which you help yourself to from the table jars. Start with a spoonful and add more if you can take the heat (I tend to like a good two dollops of it), then poke the egg and let the yoke run and mix them all together. By default, chilli pan mee also comes with a small bowl of soup boiled with anchovies, with bits of egg and sweet leaves in it. You can also add on other ingredients, like pork balls. Or you can have the soup version of the noodles instead, though the chilli pan mee is Kin Kin’s claim to fame.
Opposite the same road is Super Kitchen, another chilli pan mee establishment. It serves up much of the same, but personally, I think Kin Kin’s broth has a bit more flavour. Come for breakfast or lunch.
KAFE HAPPY MEAL
A pit stop for durian cream puffs.
Location: 143 Jalan Tun H.S. Lee, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
What to order: Durian cream puffs
For some, durian—widely maligned (unfairly, if I may say so) as the world’s smelliest fruit—might be more palatable in the form of recognisable desserts. This small bakery in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown also sells durian butter cake and durian tarts, but the durian cream puffs are really what you’re here for. There’s no seating available so you’ll have to take them away with you. The puffs are sold four to a box, and if you don’t finish them right away, they should last a day or two in the fridge. If you like durian (or perhaps even if you don’t), this is addictive stuff.
WONG AH WAH (W.A.W)
The locals’ favourite at the Jalan Alor night food market.
Location: Jalan Alor, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
What to order: Barbecue chicken wings, salted egg squid, roast pork noodles, fried oyster egg, grilled stingray.
The chaotic mess of Jalan Alor was once known as a red-light district, but it’s now lined with restaurants and stalls selling an assortment of food and snacks—pork jerky, satay, durian, frog-leg porridge, etc. The street comes to life after dark, and more so in the wee hours on the weekends when clubbers stream out of the the bars and pubs along Cangkat Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur’s backpacker party scene nearby.
At first glance, Jalan Alor may seem like a tourist trap, with touts outside restaurants hustling for customers, but the unscientific consensus among friends—well, my friends anyway—seems to be that they would bring a friend visiting from overseas here, and they would make a beeline for Wong Ah Wah (W.A.W.), located on one end of Jalan Alor.
From a humble stall hawking barbecue chicken wings, Wong Ah Wah has grown into a fully fledged restaurant with a seemingly endless menu. Here’s what my friends and I normally order: the chicken wings. The salted-egg squid—or salted-egg anything really: prawns, crabs, etc—there’s no describing the sinful pleasure of this. The roast pork noodles, stir-fried with soya sauce. The grilled stingray, which when done really well falls off the bone when you scrape at it, served with a lime-y chilli sauce. And the fried oyster egg. There’s no way to avoid overloading on cholesterol here, but the experience is entirely worth it.
A speakeasy-style bar that feels like stepping into a Wong Kar Wai film.
Location: 150 Jalan Petaling, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
What to order: Salty Chinaman, Lychee No. 3, Assamboi Margarita. Or just trust the bartender.
PS150 is one of Kuala Lumpur’s new crop of speakeasy-style cocktail bars. It’s located in a historical pre-war building in Chinatown which was once a brothel, and the entrance looks like an antique-toys storefront, so that if you didn’t already know about PS150 you would walk right past it.
Once you’re inside, you’ll move through a space with private booths reminiscent of the opium dens you see in movies and a larger open-air courtyard decked out in warm wood and leather and distressed brick and concrete, before entering the electric heart of PS150, where the bar is. The whole place evokes the mood and vibes of some kind of Shanghai noir, tastefully lit by red lanterns and neon lights.
PS150’s specialty is original cocktails infused with Southeast Asian flavours. Regional ingredients and liqueurs such as rice wine, pandan rum, chili padi, gula melaka and calamansi are used in the concoctions. You can order from the menu—the refreshing Salty Chinaman mixed with vodka, preserved orange, bitters, lime and lemonade; the Lychee No. 3 with London dry gin, lychee, ginger flower and lime; or the Assamboi (sour plum) Margarita—or you can let the bartender do the work for you by indicating your base preferences and enjoy the surprise.
If you’re coming here on a Friday or Saturday night, make a reservation. This place fills up quickly.
For supper, the crispiest roti canai you’ll find in Kuala Lumpur.
Location: 1 Jalan Semarak, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
What to order: Roti kosong or Roti Valentine.
If you’re going to meet a Malaysian after dinner and you’re not going to go to a bar, they’ll probably say, “Eh, let’s go mamak.” It’s a word that’s noun, verb and adjective all rolled into one—referring to Malaysia’s Indian Muslims, who opened mamak stalls and restaurants to serve halal comfort food around the clock, which gave rise to mamak as a culture. Thanks to mamak, Kuala Lumpur is truly a city that never sleeps, and good food and good conversation go hand in hand as a way to wind down at the end of a night.
Mamak eateries usually deal in Indian flatbreads such as roti canai, thosai, naan and chapati, the usual mee goreng (fried noodles) or Maggi mee goreng, and a variety of thick broths like sup kambing (goat soup). The signature staple, however, is roti canai. It’s believed that it got its name from Chennai, the city formerly known as Madras in southern India, from where most Indians in Malaysia originate. At its most basic, roti canai is served plain (kosong), and the best kind has an airy texture, which is achieved by kneading and stretching and twirling it around before frying it on a flatgrill. Then there are variations on this, such as roti bawang (with onions), roti pisang (with bananas), roti telur (with egg) and roti planta (with margarine).
The choice of which mamak outlet to go to is usually based on convenience—most neighbourhoods have a handful of their own, and in general you can’t go too far wrong. But there’s one place in the city centre which has been talked about for its crisp, minimally greasy roti canai, and that’s Valentine Roti, which has been in business for about two decades. Valentine claims to serve the best roti canai in town, and though such hyperbole usually disappoints, it’s hard not to agree with it on some level, though the ambience won’t inspire you to linger.
Order the roti kosong and emphasise that you’d like it crispy (garing), and it’ll come to you in a papery, flaky construction with just the right bit of ropey-ness, along with a side of sambal paste, dhal and curry. Their signature Roti Valentine is also pretty tasty: stuffed with sardines, vegetables and onions, without turning limp or soggy. For something sweet, try the roti tissue (a paper-thin crisp caramelised with sugar and condensed milk) or roti kaya (lathered with a jam of coconut milk and egg). For a famous local drink, order teh tarik (pulled tea), its name derived from the process of pouring the tea back and forth from one container to another to give it its frothy texture.
Note: This piece was commissioned and accepted and paid for by Lucky Peach, but, unfortunately, was not published in time before they shut down.