The Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur is a bustling city, a melting pot where cultures and cuisines converge in happy coexistence
Every account I’d read about Kuala Lumpur encouraged visits to the Petronas Twin Towers; those erupting paired skyscrapers that shoot skywards into a dusty haze. Here I’d find the tourist cluster and gurning Brits with their iPhones, and anyway, I was here for cultural immersion, and the best way to achieve this was to eat. And so, I went about my two days in “KL”, as it’s affectionately known by locals, with a nomadic intrigue and a ravenous appetite, keen to explore the city at ground level in the restaurants, kitchens and street stalls of this fast-paced and chaotic capital.
As the cultural, financial and economic centre of Malaysia, KL is a sultry place with a vibrant mix of cultures. In recent weeks, it’s been a turbulent time for politics too with the euphoria over the change of government and the reappointment of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, whose political comeback, at age 92, led opposition parties to their first election victory in six decades.
I found the Indian, Arab and Chinese communities here particularly appealing given the time I’ve spent within the mostly Buddhist Bangkok. The city screams capital status, choked with people; a teeming, steaming great masterpiece of humanity. I discovered the colourfully adorned mosques and temples were some of the city’s most striking additions, adding layers of religious architecture and mixed cultures to a true melting pot of a metropolis.
Like Bangkok, I see the incense-wreathed temples and multicoloured ribbons wrapped around trees; and traffic is equally as frustrating with impatient drivers and all-too-frequent traffic jams. Much like life in “The Big Mango”, this is a city with a reverence for ancient cultures, not only demonstrated in the many religious temples but found within local art and cuisine too, all the while, driving to be plugged into the contemporary world.
Staying at the five-star St. Regis Kuala Lumpur, it began with a tray of sweet-meringue macaroons on arrival. Hardly Malay, but consumed all the same. From there, I roamed the neon-lit stretch of Jalan Alor street, devouring several buttered prawns on skewers and vast amounts of hokkien mee (lard-fried noodles), steering clear of noodles with frogs’ legs. By happy accident, I discovered Wong Ah Wah on Wai Sek Kai (“Gluttons Road”), where they serve what is firmly believed to be the best barbecue chicken wings in Malaysia. I’ll be the judge of that. Heavy with meat and with a tang of smokiness, they were indeed right up there with the very best.
That same evening I took a taxi to KDU University College and to Dewakan, a restaurant located within the Shah Alam City campus and one with an increasing reputation for contemporary, well-researched, thoroughly-considered, modern Malaysian cuisine. It was opened in March 2015 by Darren Teoh, a local chef with experience in both national and international kitchens; from Breizh and Le Bouchon, which were among Kuala Lumpur’s top French restaurants, to Les Amis and Au Jardin in Singapore.
The menu at Dewakan is a geographical journey through the biodiverse layers of Malaysian habitats, with ingredients from the seas, farms, mountains, and jungles of this wide-ranging country. For me, it’s a catalogue of new and interesting ingredients, a foreign inventory of tendons, giblets, curries and snapper.
“This is modern Malaysian cuisine,” Chef Teoh tell me, “but then what does that mean? I grew up eating many different cuisines, and this is a country built upon many different influences. I try to work with history and traditions, presenting plates in a modern way.”
The use of local produce—Bidor duck breast, Bario rice porridge and grilled lowland vegetables—is applied in a celebration of Malay culture and heritage, plated with a knowing nod to the molecular styles and techniques of contemporary fine dining.
“The whole restaurant began with a simple idea,” Chef Teoh goes on to say. “The premise was to use local ingredients, but then, just stopping with ingredients revealed a missing piece in our vocabulary. We needed to apply local technique, as well. A lot of chefs here were trained in the European style, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but you sometimes need to step back and look at how best to use native ingredients to their full potential.”
Speaking to Chef Teoh, I learn that there’s a new appreciation for modern-Malay cuisine. So many young chefs have pursued their ambition and gone out into the world, but are now returning home with international experience and applying it to their culture while sourcing native ingredients.
“The previous government suppressed the livelihoods of many people,” says Chef Teoh, “especially those Malaysians in the countryside and forests. The government robbed them of their ancestral lands, forcing them to live in poverty with little access to schools. We can’t talk about sourcing these products from such places for a fancy restaurant, without talking about these people. Dewakan is a celebration of the people and everything that’s great about our land.”
Back at the St. Regis, I had cocktails in the wood and leather-clad Astor Bar, with its brass-trimmed panelled entrance and hammered-brass door knobs—a place you could very quickly lose an entire evening in—and drank with some ease, I’m not embarrassed to admit, the hotel’s signature Bloody Mary. I hit my pillow content that evening, with a swollen, aching belly and the taste of spiced tomato juice still on my lips.
The following morning I walked to Masjid Jamek Mosque, at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak River. It’s a mesmerizing attraction for a visitor, full of magnificent splendour, and a place of great importance in the daily lives of Muslins. Built in 1909, it was designed by the British architect Arthur Benison Hubback and paid for by Sultan Alauddin Sulaiman Shah, the Malays and fractions of the British government. It sits on the site of an old Malay burial place and remains one of the most important mosques in the city, officially declared as the National Mosque in 1965.
Across the river from the Jamek mosque, I met up with Chef Teoh again and together we walked the busy streets where vendors were grilling satay skewers and deep-frying yams. Down a labyrinth of village-like lanes, we arrived on Lebuh Ampang Road with its cluster of native Indian restaurants and silk saree shops, eventually deciding on Restoran Kader for lunch.
Inside the restaurant, the setup is stark and simplistic. There are battered tables and stalled seating; and men cooking food in their pyjamas. If you want to learn about the plastic reduction in restaurants, then Restoran Kader could teach you a thing or two. For starters, there are no starters, people just order and food arrives; dolloped in great, gloopy masses onto banana leaves. There’s mutton masala, lamb varuval, palak paneer, and mountains of rice, all for around MYR50 (B400). There are no plates or cutlery; everything is eaten using fingers and hands. Anything left—looking around, no one is leaving food—is rolled up in the leaf and cast off. No hassle. No washing up.
On the other end of the dining and financial scale is Taka by Sushi Saito, the only other outpost of Tokyo’s acclaimed three-Michelin-starred restaurant Sushi Saito, and Malaysia’s first restaurant opened by a three-Michelin starred chef. Hailed as “the best sushi restaurant in the world” by Joel Robuchon, it’s a place of austere luxury, and therefore, I approached with a nervous anticipation.
My high expectations were met when Chef Masashi Kubota—who trained under Chef Takashi Saito and was personally selected by Saito to front the Malaysian outpost—offered me a plump morsel of otoro (fatty tuna) on rice, handed across a 300-year old Hinoki wood counter; followed by shinko (baby sardine); hamaguri (Japanese clam); bafun uni gunkan (seaweed-wrapped uni); and grilled nodogruo (rockfish). The bill though was eye-popping, like bum-clenchingly so; high in the hundreds of dollars bracket. But, if you’re prepared to remortgage the house, hawk your mother’s jewellery, and sell one of your children into slavery, then you too could reserve a seat at the counter.
On my final morning, I lay in. Perhaps not the most time-effective activity given my limited time in Kuala Lumpur, but on a St. Regis Tempur Sealy mattress I’m not shifting for anything less than the burning down of the property. And anyway, there’s a butler service included with my Deluxe Room, so coffee, fresh orange juice and toast are brought directly to me, like some self-indulgent, cotton-robbed tyrant barking orders.
Sunday Brunch was at the hotel’s Brasserie restaurant, under the design and execution of Chef de Cuisine, Alain Rion. It was, and I say this wholeheartedly, the most brilliant brunch I have ever eaten. There was live jazz with a hip dude playing Duke Ellington on a saxophone; and mussels, oysters, razor clams, crab legs, and lobster claws piled on troughs of ice. There’s a beef cheek stew and creamy burrata; homemade pasta and smoked salmon; imported cheeses and fluffy marshmallows. And a decadent, luscious foie gras crème brûlée. When I’m on my deathbed, it’ll be this I’m thinking about; not that I never went to Timbuktu or didn’t have enough sex, but that I didn’t consume enough foie gras crème brûlée. The champagne is free-flow, and espressos are thick, potent and perfect for mid-morning hangovers.
Chef Rion informs me that the Brasserie restaurant has ambitions of being voted ‘The Best Sunday Brunch in Kuala Lumpur’ by local guides, including Time Out. I can’t see why they wouldn’t achieve this, as a veteran hotel-hopper who’s dipped a finger into many a brunch and buffet spread, this was all superb.
Food plays a vital role in this city. People seem to plan their days around meals and who they’re meeting where. It’s a fusion of influences and a delicious advert for the multiculturalism of KL, lending very much to my overall happiness while visiting and experiencing a breadth of styles from street food staples to modern-Malay, three-star sushi and a buffet spread of first-rate international fare. Having a local guide like Chef Teoh helps, but then the chicken at Wong Ah Wah was an accidental solo discovery.
There are finds around every corner and just like the mosques and temples, you can trace the history and influences on Kuala Lumpur through its food, as well as architecture. With a newly installed government, things are shifting again for this highly developing city. Next time though, I should probably visit the Petronas Twin Towers for that famous photograph. Perhaps I’ll even try the noodles with frogs’ legs, too?
Note: David stayed at the St. Regis Kuala Lumpur as a guest of the hotel. www.stregiskualalumpur.com
Return flights with Air Asia from Bangkok’s Don Mueang International Airport to Kuala Lumpur International Airport are available from around B1,499, depending on the season and availability. www.airasia.com
By David J. Constable