One of the hallmarks of our travels is eating where the locals eat. I find that it can be one of the easiest and quickest ways to connect with the local culture and get a deeper understanding of it. So much can be learned from a people group by what they put on their plates.
So when we were in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for a short stopover on the way to Malta, we were eagerly anticipating sampling the local cuisine. It has been over a year since we were in Asia as a family and mouth-watering dishes from Malaysia had been sorely missed. But with only 2 days in KL, we needed local help to find the right spots and Food Tour Malaysia came to the rescue.
They run food tours for small groups during the day and evenings. We opted for the 4hr daytime tour since that would suit our young kids better.
We made our way to the meeting point at Taman Paramount LRT station (via train) which only cost MYR4.50 (US$1.50) for 2 adults (kids under 6 are free) from our hotel in the city centre. Our guide, Farah, met us in her car and we were quickly on our way.
The small group format worked really well as it felt much more like hanging out with a local friend. Farah was super friendly and unquestionably an expert on the KL food scene.
Our first stop was an Indian restaurant. The local term used for these food stall collectives is a “coffee shop” as that was how they originated. As soon as we walked in the intoxicating aroma enveloped me like a warm welcoming hug. Flavours filtered through my nostrils. If I closed my eyes, I could have believed I died and ascended to an Indian heaven. Taking a seat, Farah brought out several curry dishes and roti bread for us to try, sharing the secrets about how the locals eat the dishes the right way (I won’t spill the beans here, you’ll have to find out for yourself!).
The roti bread was so warm, fresh and buttery, it melted in our mouths. Farah also shared a bit about the history of the restaurant, which helped us to better understand the local food dynamic.
The cooks prepared the food in the open kitchen so we could see the master craftsmen at work. The speed and agility of their well-honed techniques made the preparation look almost effortless.
A super-sized sweet tissue roti was served up which made for a visually spectacular finish to our meal. As we devoured it bite-by-bite, sweet local tea was provided. Mia and Caius gave the tissue roti a big thumbs up!
Afterwards we were given behind-the-scenes access to the back kitchen to watch how the sweet tea was frothed using traditional techniques.
Getting back in the car, Farah took us to our next stop, a quick sampling of a Chinese version of a traditional Malay dessert. This was a sweet gelatinous rice slab coated with fresh kaya (coconut jam).
I also tried another colourful dessert made with bean paste and rice flour.
Next on the schedule, we drove to a group of Chinese food stalls. Even though the weather was warm and humid, the semi-enclosed area was cooled by large, rotating fans, which make the meal more enjoyable.
This kind of eatery originated as open-air food carts, which lined the streets, attracting customers to sit around and enjoy the local cuisine. However local councils wanted to keep the streets clear as traffic congestion increased. So they regulated the food carts and moved them into these “coffee shops”. The current format really works better for diners as the eating area is under cover (very helpful in the tropical climate) and several food specialties are located next to each other so everyone at your table can choose the food they like. So they operate in a similar way to typical Western food courts.
At this eatery we tried a handful of Chinese dishes ranging from tofu to prawn noodle soup to chilli chicken with flat noodles. I’m a bit more adventurous than Erin but I was really impressed how she took to some of the new flavours that I thought she might shy away from. What a gal!
Afterwards we sampled some local fresh fruit – watermelon, rockmelon (cantaloupe) and pineapple. Mine was drizzled with sour plum powder and salt for a tangy twist on the refreshing dessert.
By this point our bellies were swelling, so Farah drove us to a local old-fashioned series of outdoor food carts which lined a small street. These ones had special permission to operate. We sampled several sweet Malay desserts…
And also Indian snacks…
And just like our kids’ favourite book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, we had definitely eaten a bit too much. Our eyes were very much bigger than our stomachs, but it was so easy to give into the irresistibly flavourful food.
Farah had one more stop planned for traditional Malay grilled fish, but we simply could not fit in another bite. So with our sincere thanks, she drove us back to our starting point – the train station.
I deliberately ate a very small breakfast that morning, but it was clear to me by the end of the tour that I had underestimated the amount of space needed for all the delicious Malay, Indian and Chinese cuisine we tried. It was a delightful tour and I highly recommend it next time you’re visiting Kuala Lumpur – just remember to bring an EXTRA big appetite.