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How To Eat Malay Style

Lucy McGuire travels to Kuala Lumpur to do as the locals do

Written by . Published on December 28th 2011.


How To Eat Malay Style

A DODDERY woman leaned over the table with a pot in her hand to pour me a cup of Chinese tea. She smiled at me with her toothy grin, amused. She and my Chinese-Malaysian friend exchanged some brash discourse and he informed me that she was laughing at the way I held my chopsticks – awkward and uncomfortable, like a child learning to hold a pencil.

I was a long way from the clean and comforting surroundings of Yo! Sushi of my north London high street. There, I could almost get away with looking like a chopstick pro. Here, as we walked upstairs to a starkly undecorated room of big yellow clothed tables, there was no hiding that I was the only tourist in the room.

I was in Hong Ngek Restaurant in the old area of Kuala Lumpur, on the high street known as Jalan Tun H.S Lee. I’d asked my friend to take me to his favourite place for Chinese Malay cuisine in my quest for an authentic foody experience.

As we left McDonald’s and other franchise food chains of the main street behind us, we went deeper into Chinatown. Passing narrow street alleyways crammed with sizzling pop-up food stands and dodging the midday traffic fumes, we found the grubby front of Hong Ngek. I was a long way from the clean and comforting surroundings of Yo! Sushi of my north London high street. There, I could almost get away with looking like a chopstick pro. Here, as we walked upstairs to a starkly undecorated room of big yellow clothed tables, there was no hiding that I was the only tourist in the room.

Chestnuts roasted in coffee beansChestnuts roasted in coffee beans

While the Malaysian food scene is an eclectic mix from the Malay, Indian, Eurasian, Nyonya, Chinese and the indigenous people of Borneo, I wanted to see how the Chinese community in KL spent their lunch breaks. There was no menu as such. There’s no need for one when the customers have been coming here for years. Further research told me Hong Ngek is a Hokkien family business that has been running on the edge of KL’s Chinatown for more than 70 years. No wonder it has become my friend’s regular hangout spot.

The wrinkly waitress came over with a notepad and pen and while I quietly perfected my chopstick technique my friend ordered: pork soup; ‘Yao Mak’ – wok fried vegetables in garlic; tofu and salt fish balls in a gravy soup and Ku Lou Yoke (a kind of BBQ pork). 

As she placed the picnic-like plastic bowls and plates on the table we were also presented with small bowls of chopped green chilli in a soy sauce for dipping – a reminder that we were eating Malay-Chinese – this condiment wouldn’t be seen in cooking from the mainland.

Chinese/Malay pork soup with dates, lotus root and black fungusChinese/Malay pork soup with dates, lotus root and black fungus

The soup, I was told, warms the stomach and prepares it for digestion. The basic mixture of dates, pork, lotus root (tricky with chopsticks) and black fungus contrasted with the saltiness of the gravy. The wok-fried vegetables in garlic were more-ish, the tofu and salt fish balls predictably salty and the Ku Lou Yoke so addictive I could have filled myself all afternoon with the sweet and sticky sauce between my teeth.

The shouty diners and unsophisticated surroundings were far from the trendy setting of Suka – a Malaysian restaurant I discovered before my trip in Fitzrovia’s Sanderson Hotel. But the same principles were there. Malaysian food whatever it is fused with is sweet, salty and spicy and uses the freshest vegetables, nuts and spices. Like many Malay and Chinese restaurants, the attractive pop-up menu created by Northern Malay chef Ahmad Shirali Shuib in London’s Suka goes on the philosophy of sharing.

In Suka I sampled a range of dishes including the chicken satay skewers, Rendang Daging (beef braised in coconut milk, turmeric, lemongrass and galangal) and Claypot Ayam – a pot of chicken, rice, Chinese sausage and shitake mushrooms.

With each dish priced between £8 and £15 (before side orders and drinks) you’re not going to get a full meal in Suka for less than twenty Ringgits (£4). But that’s just London. And with trickling water features, lush green plants and top-notch waiter service, you get a feel of luxury and the Tropics at the same time.

As we plodded through the streets of KL’s Chinatown I read the list of culinary musts that my friend had written on the back of the restaurant receipt. Among them were Chinese pancakes, Malaysian dried beef/pork jerky, beef noodles and Chinese tea. If my appetite had been limitless I could have picked up one on every street corner. I decided to sample the hot chestnuts roasted in coffee beans, which was quite a different experience to the wintry day on London’s Southbank with which I normally associate this treat. But it was enjoyable all the same.

Outside of Chinatown the pop-up street food temptations turned to deep-fried yams, bananas, sweet potato balls and variations of krupuk (deep fried fish crackers). Around lunchtime cafés and fast-food eateries were also packed with locals tucking into buffet-style Malaysian curries, washed down with ‘Teh tarik’ – their traditional drink of tea and condensed milk. The Malaysians certainly like their food; I would have carried on grazing if I hadn’t been dining at the city’s most famous lookout point that evening.

Mamak Gee Goreng %28fried noodles with prawns and squid%29Mamak Gee Goreng (fried noodles with prawns and squid)

After a car drive through KL’s Ampang region to the city’s famous lookout point, we dined on the candle-lit balcony of Haven where we gazed out at the sparkling city. I was mesmerised by the view of the Petronis and KL Towers, which dwarfed the surrounding skyscrapers, as I tucked into my Mamak Mee Goreng (fried noodles with squid and prawns served on a banana leaf). And as I sipped from my coconut water served straight from the shell, it felt like an al-fresco eating experience that would be hard to beat.

After a full day of grazing I couldn’t quite handle the traditional ‘Nasi Lemak’ for breakfast the next morning. I was pretty much the only guest in the hotel who didn’t – Malays eat this combination of coconut rice wrapped in banana leaf with boiled eggs, ikan bilis (dried anchovies), toasted nuts, fresh cucumber and home-made thick chilli sauce literally any time of the day.

While I’m saving my next meal of Nasi Lemak until I land in Heathrow and explore the many Malay restaurants that London has to offer, I’m going to rilek (relax) and wonder about KL’s shopping malls for a larger pair of jeans. That, and perhaps practice my chopstick technique for my next visit. I haven’t finished with KL’s food scene just yet.

 

 

A hand-full of London’s top eateries for Malaysian cuisine

Suka
50 Berners Street
W1T 3NG
Malaysian street food pop up menu in the luxury surroundings of the Sanderson Hotel

Awana
85 Sloane Avenue

SW3 3DX
Fine dining Malay restaurant in the heart of Chelsea with selection of assorted skewers and roti (south Asian bread) 

Champor-Champor

62-64 Weston Street
SE1 3QJ 
Romantic Thai-Malay food by London Bridge

Ekachai

City
9 -10 Arcade
EC3

Wandsworth

Unit 205, Upper Concourse, Southside Shopping Centre
SW18 4TE
Eat in or take away – for a more relaxed Asian dining experience 

Melati

21 Great Windmill Street
W1D 7LB
For tastes of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia

 

A must if you’re in Manchester

Ning

92 – 94 Oldham Street, Northern Quarter
M4 1LJ
Co-owner and executive chef Norman Musa serves up authentic Malaysian cuisine and even runs his own cookery classes

 

Click on the gallery to see dishes from Suka's Street Food pop-up menu.

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Deanna ThomasJanuary 7th 2012.

Malaysian food is the cheapest and most delicious in the world. Any student of modern French cuisine should spend a mandatory fortnight in Malaysia. Learning these ingredients, tastes and techniques can only positively enrich their cooking abilities. Also, it's bloody great going somewhere, other than a hall of residence, where it's acceptable to eat curry for breakfast.

MarfinJanuary 7th 2012.

If you are in Manchester want to have the real and authentic taste of Malaysian food such as the Mamak Mee Goreng as picture, go to Lotus Restaurant, 289 Palatine Rd Northenden. They serve the best Malaysian food in Manchester. Do check-out they occasionally do banana leaf meals - a must if you love malaysian curry.

pollolocoJanuary 9th 2012.

Went to Lotus just before Christmas on a Tuesday evening. We were the only diners in there over a 2 hour period. Needless to say, the food was poor bordering on inedible.....don't think this place will survive long. They offer a choice of South Indian and Malaysian...identity crisis??

Lucy McGuireJanuary 14th 2012.

I think many restaurants do feel they have to do Malaysian food mixed with Thai/South Asian cuisine but it is nice to see the restaurants which serve purely Malay dishes... There should be more in London and Manchester in my opinion!

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