When it comes to eating in Kuala Lumpur, you could have a different dish every day of your life —street food here is not a trend, but a way of life. In KL, locals are known to eat up to six meals a day and street food stands are hotbeds of innovation.
Go for the basics, such as nasa lemak (coconut milk and panda leaf rice) and assam laksa (fish soup), or shift up the spice with Penang curries, shrimp dumplings, mee goreng (spicy fried noodles), tofu rojak (fried tofu in peanut sauce), hole-in-the-wall hot pot, black bean soup, duck-fried rice, corn bean stew... the wealth of options turn a simple grab-and-go decision into a major headache.
Diversity is the name of the game here, and when considering Malaysia's surrounding influences — from Singapore and Thailand to India, Myanmar, China and Indonesia — there’s a compelling argument to be made that KL is the street food capital of the planet. Here’s our guide to the most memorable and delicious street food in Kuala Lumpur. How to pick which stalls to try? Normally, there’s muted chaos around the most popular street food stands.
The Rolls-Royce of KL street food — marinated in lemongrass and spice — is served up on a charred-black bamboo stick, but don’t let that first impression put you off. To start, you’ll be offered a choice of lean beef, lamb, pork or chicken skewer dipped in an sticky peanut glaze that drips onto charcoal fire, sending a sweet smoke tingling up your nostrils. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a napkin and paper ketchup cup for extra sauce.
The good news is the skewers are only around 25p a pop, with hundreds of food stalls and chain restaurants serving up these shockingly-good roadside snacks. You can’t go wrong at Jalan Alor, a night market that wriggles with life between Raja Chulan and Imbi monorail stations in the city’s Golden Triangle. For life-defining bbq chicken nearby, locals swear by Wong Ah Wah Chicken Wings.
In most countries, shopping mall restaurants are to be avoided, but in Kuala Lumpur the humble food court is at the forefront of the modern Malay tradition. They run the gamut from Bukit Bintang’s no-frills Sungei Wang Plaza Food Court — with grubby plastic chairs but goal-orientated grub options — to the upscale Food Republic, a memorable transplant from Singapore.
Pick of the bunch, however, is Lot 10 Hutong, a nostalgic hall of fame in Jalan Bukit Bintang populated by outposts of Malaysia’s most enduring hawker stands. This is street food as interpreted by the minds of those who understand it best. For Indochinese hakka noodles — stir-fried with minced beef — head to Soong Kee Beef Noodle, which started life on Petaling Street in post-WW2 KL. For wantan mee — wonton dumplings in sweet-sour broth — swing by Ho Weng Kee, started in the 1930s by a Chinese immigrant from Guangdong. Or, for char kway teow — flat rice noodles with prawns and beansprouts elevated to national treasure status — join the queue at Penang Famous Fried Koay Teow. Regardless of what you choose, put your trust in these one-dish temples of taste.
Of all the influences on KL’s streets and food courts, the most obvious is Chinese. So many of the country’s flavours have been absorbed by the Malays, from dim sum and shumai, fluffy Cantonese buns filled with bbq pork, to syrupy Hokkien mee noodles, originally a staple from Fujian province. Even the insanely-popular kopitiam, Malay coffee houses that trade in teeth-grindingly sweet brews, come from China.
There’s plenty of Chinese-inspired dishes to get you salivating, but one place to make a beeline for is Chinatown’s Petaling Street, a hangar-sized market lined with old cafes and souvenir stalls. You’ll soon understand why people are queueing for the smoky, dark soy Hokkien mee at Kim Lian Kee Restaurant. In business since 1927, locals call it ground zero for noodle lovers. Handily, there’s another branch at Lot 10 Hutong.
As long as there have been curries, Malays have wolfed them down on Madras Lane. On this hot and humid hawker street, which runs arrow-straight through Chinatown, you are in the midst of KL’s ethnic Malay-Indian-Chinese crossover. Korma pots boil over, almost spilling onto the ground, spoons click-clack off bowls of pungent yong tau foo (tofu soup) and workaday butchers make quick work of carcasses at the wet market.
Despite the potentially off-putting distractions, eat here: it is built for beginners. The go-to dish is curry laksa, a store cupboard noodle soup broth made with ginger, lemongrass, galangal, shrimp paste and a whoosh of red chili spice that hits every sweet spot. There may be a few scraps of chicken or vermicelli noodles. There may be pig skin or fried tofu puffs, too. No matter: it’s as heavenly as KL street food gets and with three stalls to choose from, you’ll surely find one that works for you.
The ritual is almost predictable. You step up to the fruit stall and order a durian from the counter. The gloved server grins slowly and bags up the fruit with a wry comment. Then comes the smell — pungent, unforgettable, almost violent — and weird looks from passersby follow. Time passes and you try a small piece at first. Is it rotten onions? Or even over-ripe socks? Eventually you have to pick your side — do you love or loathe the world’s most controversial fruit?
The durian — banned in many of KL’s public spaces because of its overpowering smell — is nothing if not distinctive. The country has a thorny love affair with the fruit and it’s ubiquitous, appearing in juices, deserts, cocktails and ice cream. If you’re brave enough, SS2 Durian House Stall in Petaling Street Market offers a great introduction to its mind-shifting flavour, while connoisseurs opt for Soon Huat Durian Market, a series of tents near Cempaka underground station.
The ritual can also be spotted at Durian BB, located near KLCC in the shadow of the prongs of the Petronas Twin Towers, and Durian King TTDI, where it’s served over iced cendol, electric-green rice flour jelly with coconut milk and sugar syrup. Unsurprisingly, that’s an acquired taste, too. But with so much choice on offer in KL, who said you’d love everything?
Top image: Malaysian home cooked dishes sold at street market stall © Lano Lan/Shutterstock