Satay, as you like it
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.
Assam Laksa, Malaysia’s classic fish soup © grass-lifeisgood/Shutterstock
Trust in the food court
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.
Char Kway Teow, one of KL’s most popular dishes © Ariyani Tedjo/Shutterstock
Give thanks to China
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.
Chinese-style Dim Sum is popular in Kuala Lumpur © TY Lim/Shutterstock
And to India…
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.
Curry laksa, the one dish you have to try in KL © Mohd Syis Zulkipli/Shutterstock