Kuala Lumpur is just a fun town to eat in. The long simmering blend of Malay, Indian, Chinese, British, and other random cuisines has produced a modern food scene that can keep you entertained for weeks. As long as you don't need a lot of fresh vegetables.
KL is huge and our time on the ground short, so instead of making a futile effort to unlock the deepest secrets of the food matrix, we happily skipped along the top, picking out highlights and sampling classics in an attempt to get a good first introduction.
As street food junkies, the eating lanes were naturally high on our list. Jalan Alor came up time and again, and even though it is firmly cemented on the tourist trail we felt it was worth a try.
Jalan Alor features mainly Chinese iterations of Malaysian food. After a couple reconnaissance passes of all the vendors we pulled up chairs at Restoran Meng Kee Grill Fish, the most promising looking of the contenders. The menu is huge and we vastly overordered but these are a few standouts from the meal.
This was hands down the best stingray I've ever had. The lightly spiced and expertly grilled meat tasted like a halibut and a crab had thrown caution (and the laws of nature) to the wind and made sweet, sweet love to produce one gloriously edible offspring.
The chili and shallot dipping sauces made for a nice accompaniment, adding a little spice to balance the natural sweetness of the fish.
At first, I refused to order these butter prawns as I've had several truly awful renditions in the States and think of the dish as a sort of calorie dense novelty food. That being said, these kicked ass.
What made the dish here was the addition of a generous amount of curry leaves. The pungent indian twist brightened up the flavor and gave the rich prawns something to play off of other than "fried" and "butter".
I'm still not sure how I felt about this deceptively named "grilled beancurd". First, the dish is in no way grilled. The tofu is dried and fried, leaving a very light and very crisp tofu shell. Then it's stuffed with noodles and various vegetables tossed in a thick sweet peanut sauce. It certainly wasn't bad, but you didn't need to eat a lot of it.
Another ubiquitous street food (unavoidable in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia) is satay. Some of the best we encountered on our swing through these regions was in KL.
We stumbled into Sate Kajang one rainy evening after trying to find several other restaurants that were either closed or mysteriously absent from where our map swore they were. (Not that this happened ALL THE TIME, leading to despondence, bickering, tears, and the occasional wife-launched physical assault.)
Luckily, we lucked out. (Can I even say that?) S. Kajang dished up some appealing skewers- the very popular chicken and beef were fine, but I loved the mutton and rabbit, both proving to be more moist and tender than the standards.
The requisite peanut sauce came with a spicy chili oil and sides of pressed rice cake, cucumber, and red onion; great for cutting through the smoky grilled meats and flavor intense dips.
On the noodle front, we hit up a little one-dish place called Super Kitchen Chilli Pan Mee. They have a couple other locations, but we tried the original branch on Jalan Dewan Sultan Sulaiman 1.
I like chili pan mee because of the do-it-yourself nature of the dish. The thin wheat noodles come topped with tiny fried fish, ground pork, fried shallot, scallion, spicy chili paste, and a poached egg. You get to mix it all together in whatever proportions you deem appropriate.
What I didn't know is that the dish almost always served with a side of soup (incidentally, the same soup they use to poach the eggs.) With a mild fish flavor, the broth is chock full of an herb called cekur manis that I had never heard of. Similar to a slightly funky, sweet baby spinach, Malaysians use it kind of like the Japanese use wakame. It's a common herb to pair with anchovy flavored soups and stews.
Veering away from street food, we went looking for a place stamped with the culinary imprint of the old Empire.
Yut Kee came through in spades, redolent not only with Brit inspired classics, but also with some serious old-school charm.
We originally found the place while looking for a good kaya (a caramelized coconut, egg-based jam). Yut Kee's version was worth the trip and made an excellent accompaniment to the rather disturbing looking but totally addictive half-boiled eggs. (Think soft boiled but even softer, with the whites somehow getting entirely cooked through with none of that weird snotty texture.)
Fortunately for us, our friendly waiter convinced us to get the chicken chop, a breaded chicken cutlet with anglo roots so evident that it literally came with peas and carrots and a side of worcestershire sauce.
Little known to us at the time, it looks like Yut Kee may be closing. Check out Robyn Eckhart's much more in-depth view of the place and keep your fingers crossed that Kuala Lumpur can hold on to irreplaceable restaurants like this.
Next up, market spelunking!