Walking around the bustling night markets of Jalan Alor, the smells of curry and Asian flavours fill the balmy air.
The streets are lined with food stalls and the sky is littered with red glowing lanterns.
Common staples like coconuts and sugar cane water are spruiked by street vendors while others usher you over to taste some of Kuala Lumpur’s local delicacies such as frogs legs or Duran fruit.
It could be overwhelming if you don’t know how to handle hawkers, but one thing I have learned about the Malaysians is that they’re generally very kind and gentle people and will respect your wishes if you say you’re simply looking.
Walking around with us was Poh Ling Yeow, former Masterchef and host of Poh’s Kitchen. Having spent her childhood in Malaysia before emigrating to Australia when she was nine, Poh said while she has many favourite Malaysian dishes it’s hard for her to choose her favourite restaurant because she has only been back to the country three times since she left.
“I love it but I’m usually quite bad getting around because I usually don’t know where everything is,” she said. “I’m back like a tourist almost every time.”
Having sampled – or should I say splurged – on a smorgasbord of local Malaysian street foods and menu staples, here are some of the best recommended to me by Malaysian locals and Poh.
Not only is this a traditional Malaysian dish but it is also the newest item on the menu of Malaysia Airlines business class menu.
Poh says the word Nonya describes the fusion of Chinese and Malay culture in Malaysia.
A staple on any Malay menu, Nyonya chicken curry is also special to Poh and her family.
'It’s a special occasion dish… in that it appears at every celebration, every birthday, every time we get together - it is the definitive dish,' Poh said.
'It has a very much loved place in our family. So much so that at Christmas it sits next to the ham. It’s just a dish that we can’t live without.'
Translated a pork spare ribs, this dish is native to Klang, west of Kuala Lumpur. The traditional version of this meal is served as a herbal pork rib stew, originally made for the port workers as a medicinal dish to rejuvenate them after a long day's work. Now Bak Kut Teh is also served in other variations – my favourite being the dry style, which is cooked in a dark sticky sauce.
This is Poh’s favourite Malaysia dish, which she describes as her 'death row dish.' Made from a fish based stock which is quite dark and sour, Poh says 'You’d probably think it’s more on the Thai side of things and it’s made with a lot of tamarind.' Add the fish, shallots, a clear mung bean noodle, fresh mint, pineapple and black shrimp molasses, this broth is deliciously zingy. 'It’s one of those dishes that really polarises people, because it’s quite a strong flavour,' she says. 'It’s really lively on the palate… you either hate it or love it.'
What we would probably call pippies in Australia, these little gems are tasty! Despite looking like a miniature oyster, the texture is meatier and more palatable. Drowned in a sweet, slightly spiced sauce - which seems to be a common seafood flavour combination in KL – this dish makes a beautiful little starter.
Almost too beautiful to eat! With the red skin of the fish contrasted against the green of the shallots, and then drizzled with an aromatic sauce that makes you salivate, this whole red snapper is served flat and on the bone. The flesh of the fish is delicate and flavoursome, and gently flakes off the bone. Finished with a light, fragrant soy sauce and fried, crunchy ginger, garlic and shallots it is a dream combination.
This rice dish is made up of little bits of all the best parts of Malaysian food. Central to the dish is coconut rice, to which Acar, a little peanut pickle, peanuts, fried whitebait, boiled eggs, fresh cucumber and sambal is added. Poh says, 'A sambal is key to the dish because you mix it through the rice and that’s what gives it the flavour and seasoning. While everywhere does it a little differently, it can be found in restaurants and by the road side.'
Served sectioned so you can eat it with your hands, this creamy, salty crab is the ultimate crab dish for seafood lovers. The flesh falls from the shell with ease so you can sop up the saucy goodness.
Similar to a Mahi Mahi, this white fresh delicate fish is cut into fillets and fried of in a lightly spiced, thin batter. Dressed with a sweet soy and chopped shallots, I went back for a second helping of this one.
This colourful, funny shaped dessert is one of the foods Poh says she misses the most when she is in Australia. 'You have to go to the old aunties… because they often make the best Kuih,' she said, 'But you have to order it from them because its very time consuming.' These little treats come wrapped in different shaped banana leaves that indicate which flavour the Kuih is. The flavour trilogy these desserts are typically made in is coconut, palm sugar and pandan, and it’s texture is quite a chewy and bouncy sensation. But Kuih isn’t limited just to sweets. Savoury variations can have a pounded shrimp combined with a popular Malaysian base spice mix called Rempah.
Despite looking like tobacco, this fairy floss looking meat is popular dish among Malay school children. In fact, Poh also recalls having it in her lunch box. 'We use to take it to school. We used to put it in on our sandwiches. You butter the bread and then you put on the floss,' she said. To make the pork floss, the meat is brazed until it is falling apart and then dry toasted with star anise and five spice until it completely dries up and looks like floss.
Of all the classic dishes you can try while in Malaysia, this should be at the top of your list. You may have thought that you have had satay before but nothing compares to this. Another of Malaysia Airlines signature dishes, the skewered meat - originally chicken but now also cooked with lamb - is marinaded in a mix of herbs and spices for 24 hours before being roasted on mangrove charcoal. This process give the meat a tasty smokey flavour and sets the Malaysia satay apart from the rest. The sauce is then made from crushed fresh peanuts, oils and spice to make the perfect satay consistency.
Similar to what you could imagine a salt and peppered Malaysian prawns would be, these prawns are dusted in a spice mix and fried in the shell with chilli, garlic and butter. These morish flavour make it hard to stop eating, but for 25.00 RM ($AU8.65) a plate you it would be a crime to not order a second serving!
*The writer was a guest of Malaysia Airlines.
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