Kuala Lumpur – Malaysia
On the road with Patrick Stuart
– Our resident food and wine writer Patrick Stuart is currently on a whistlestop business trip around Asia taking in six countries in less than three weeks. Patrick’s usual recipe of the week is being replaced by posts on the food and cooking of these exotic lands –
I’ve spent a lot of time in Malaysia over the last couple of years on regular business trips, but it’s a country I have grown to love after more than 15 years as a regular holiday destination. And perhaps what I love most of all about Malaysia is the diversity and quality of the food, especially at street stalls or, as they are locally known, “Hawker stalls”.
When I arrived here in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday evening after an overnight flight via the Middle East, jet lag had yet to set in but hunger had, so I ventured out to one of my regular haunts in this city.
Abdul’s is one of literally thousands of humble cafés-come-snack-bars-come-restaurants that spill out onto the streets and are full of locals from early morning until late at night. This one is particularly popular with taxi drivers and it’s a halal muslim place that is sort of Indian but not really.
There are three food stations fronting onto the street; one grilling tasty saté skewers of tender chicken and beef, another roasting chicken thighs, legs and naan breads in a makeshift tandoor oven, and another serving a selection of southern Indian and Malaysian curries.
Dinner here has never cost me more than the equivalent of €4 but that’s because I’m greedy – 10 Ringgit (€2.50) will buy a thali plate with a couple of dollops of curry, a naan bread, some rice and a quarter tandoori chicken that would be sufficient for most people.
There’s no alcohol of course but as is usually the case, an enterprising Chinaman has set up a convenience store right next door with a fridge full of chilled Tiger beer.
During my last visit, I was guided by a friend to one of the few remaining authentic banana leaf restaurants in town. Here, outside of the centre, the food was even cheaper and the fish head curry was a revelation.
Indian food is just as Malaysian as Chinese or, for that matter, ethnic Malaysian. Breakfast in any half decent hotel will include freshly-made dim sum dumplings and congee (rice gruel soup) for the Chinese guests, a few Indian curries and, most importantly, Malaysia’s national dish – Nasi Lemak, meaning coconut rice.
Nasi Lemak is usually served with beef or chicken rendang curry, a rich and spicy coconut-based concoction flavoured with lemon grass, star anise, fresh chilli and other spices. Served with the traditional condiments of onion sambal, a wedge of lime, deep fried anchovies and half a hard-boiled egg, this is Malaysia’s most popular breakfast food, and certainly mine for the next few days.
With a population made up of a mix of ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians, who all consider themselves Malaysians, it’s no surprise that the cuisine of this country is so diverse.
The Indian food I have eaten here is the best I have eaten anywhere in the world, and the Chinese comes close to the best I have eaten in Hong Kong or elsewhere. Then, of course, there is the Malaysian food itself.
If you go to Malaysia, forget about the diet, head for the streets and join the locals for some of the best Asian food on the planet.
Paradoxically however, most of the locals I have befriended would much rather eat out at one of the city’s many excellent western restaurants, a bit like we Brits going out for an Indian, I suppose. So if entertaining or being entertained, more often than not I find myself eating Italian!