Text and photos by Aydan Stuart
Vibrant, bustling and far too hot, Malaysia's most populous city is growing at a rapid pace. With its sky scraping towers, luxurious leanings and fast-paced business sector, Kuala Lumpur can be an overwhelming place to visit, and many may argue that its old charms have been all but lost. Yet behind every supermall, you'll find serpentine alleys and lively courtyards packed with street vendors – primarily Malay, Chinese and Indian – selling truly fantastic fare of all kinds. Meanwhile, a number of excellent fine dining options have sprung up to meet the demand of an increasingly international community, and many are worth the splurge.
So, strap on a good pair of shoes, leave your preconceptions at the door and set out on a food adventure of epic proportions. Here are a few suggestions to get you started at any price range.
Banana Leaf Rice
The smell of Indian spice, the sound of sizzling meat. This gloriously traditional south Indian meal of rice and curry is served on a banana leaf with a wide range of curries, pickles, pastes, and poppadums. Eaten by hand, these curries are the purest essence of south Indian meets Malaysian cuisine and are famous worldwide. Kuala Lumpur is a goldmine for this stuff, with world-renowned restaurants offering free flow food for a bargain seven ringgit.
Must Try: Devi's Corner, 69 Jalan Telawi 2, Bangsar
A strange looking "traditional" Malaysian dish, the Ramly burger is a favourite of local Malay and drunken revellers alike. Its branding is comparable to the Champ noodle carts of Thailand, where the name of the brand has morphed into the name of the food itself.
Much more than your average American cheeseburger, the Ramly burger features a beef or chicken patty (often doubled up) smothered in onions, cabbage and egg and drenched in mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce and the Asian favourite, Maggi sauce. All of this is wrapped up tight in a thin egg pocket, and fried to perfection to keep the fillings in. Well, until you take a good bite.
Must Try: You'll find Ramly carts on almost every major street corner, usually near pubs.
Mamak is Malaysian slang for a cheap, unpretentious place to eat, found on the side of a road or in small markets. Coined by Tamil Muslims, the majority of mamak is of a Malay Muslim style. Think rich beef curries, crunchy fried fish and succulent vegetable dishes served over rice. The influences are certainly Indian but to a KL local, each stall is distinctly different.
There are three regional varieties of mamak available here, including complex dishes of noodles, veggies and chicken (Malay), rich beef curries and heavily spiced vegetables (Indian), and a plethora of noodles (Chinese _ but avoid Chinatown if you want genuine dishes).
Must Try: Check out Kuala Lumpur's famous Masjid India neighbourhood, located in the city centre just a ten minute walk north of Central Market. Here you'll find a bustling market serving up an amazing variety of mamak along with a band playing live Malay and western music in the courtyard.
Dining in the Dark
Imagine eating in pitch darkness. This unique concept, growing globally, has now come to KL, and is sure to provide an unforgettable dining experience. Dining in the Dark was created as a way to give those with sight a true taste of what life is like for the blind. All waiters, otherwise known as "darkness experts," are legally blind, and serve dishes from a secret menu that leaves diners literally and figuratively in the dark.
You can only guess what you're eating as you consume it, which makes for a fun game at the end of the meal when the full menu is finally revealed. Luckily, everything is delicious, and the menu changes every month, with new and exciting dishes so you can go again and again and never get bored. Best of all, the friendly and knowledgeable waitstaff are eager to share their experiences to create a truly unique culinary adventure.
Famous among the business class, and for good reason, this Japanese eatery provides some seriously tasty fine dining, and is unsurprisingly located in the heart of the business district. With so many fresh imports in KL, where better to eat Japanese? If you go for an evening meal, expect a hefty bill, but if you can make it for lunch, set menus range from a more reasonable 35 to 70 ringgit.
Get your umami on with the sashimi and tofu topped with caviar compote to start, followed by mushroom and eel hot plate with rice, apple salad, tempura fish and prawns with miso soup. Finish up with a scoop of green tea ice cream. A must for anyone in KL willing to escape the city centre in the name of good food; perfect for special occasions.