Little Black Book

Eat Your Way Through Kuala Lumpur: An Ambitious One-Day Food Tour

by Allison DiLiegro
The best of Kuala Lumpur. All photos by Allison Diliegro.

Allison DiLiegro is living every traveler's dream by spending the next few months traveling around Southeast Asia. While on a layover in Kuala Lumpur, she was charmed and delighted by the city's iconic dishes. Plan your own KL food tour with these tips.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Surrounded by cities that have instant allure, like Bangkok, Singapore, and Saigon, Kuala Lumpur does not often top a Southeast Asia wish list. However, as the major hub of low-cost carrier AirAsia, KL can be the most affordable gateway to the region. I recently visited en route to Borneo and came back charmed and armed with a list of must-see sites that make the city undeniably destination-worthy. And they are as follows: food, food, food, and more delicious and exciting food.

While KL doesn't have the ultramodern flash of Singapore, it is a 21st-century metropolis with efficient public transportation, gleaming shopping malls, and Uber. But what makes the city so captivating is the number of cultures that happily make a home here, bringing along their clothes, languages, and of course, food. Chinese prospectors, British colonists, and Indian migrants have all contributed their culinary treasures to the communal table, with the food-obsessed ethnic Malays seated at its head. As in Singapore, you are never far from a hawker center and here, if you can believe it, your meal will be even cheaper.

This food tour, designed for the hungry and ambitious, is a one-day quest to taste the city's iconic dishes in the neighborhoods that they represent, whenever possible. As such, it is also a city tour because I think there's no better way to get to know a city than by eating your way through it.

So now, we feast.

Step 1: Set Out for Breakfast

You will be spoiled for choice at every meal, but breakfast puts up a particularly Olympic list of contenders. Jockeying for your attention will be sweet and eggy kaya toast (a remnant from the British colonial days), nasi lemak (Malaysia's national dish), and dim sum and congee (from China, of course).

Start off with my favorite breakfast in the city: roti canai at Mansion Tea Stall, a fast-paced and popular local spot. Hailing from India, roti is a thin, flakey, buttery pancake that you peel into pieces and dip into a lentil dhal or chicken curry. If you want something a little more hearty, order the "roti special." It's a hopelessly unphotogenic plate of sliced roti topped with dhal, fish curry, spicy sambal, and two half-boiled eggs. Then, I'm sorry to say, you mix it all together. It's messy and yolky and spicy and basically the Indian version of huevos rancheros.

To go along with your roti, order a cup of teh tarik. Not just a breakfast drink, KLites can be found drinking teh tarik at all hours of day and night. "Pulled tea," as it translates, is made from black tea and milk (either condensed, evaporated, or both) that is "pulled" back and forth between two cups to make it frothy. It's best you get acquainted.

What to order: roti special and teh tarik
Where: 2, ground floor, Selangor Mansion
LRT stop: Masjid Jamek

Chow down at Vishilatchi Food and Catering.

Step 2: Wander Through Masjid India

Take a right to head towards Jalan Masjid India, a shop-lined stretch named for the neighborhood's mosque. Browse the vibrant textile and jewelry shops to the sound of Bollywood music blasting from tinny speakers. If you can, come back on a Saturday evening for the excellent night market.

Where: Jalan Masjid India
LRT stop: Masjid Jamek

Step 3: Try Malaysia's National Dish

Now that you've walked up a bit of an appetite, it's time to take on Malaysia's beloved national dish, nasi lemak. As with New Yorkers and our pizza, loyalties run deep. So without handing out any superlatives that may get me in trouble, R.A. Nasi Lemak is an excellent place to try the dish. Translated as "fatty rice," nasi lemak in its simplest form is rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf (which is like a sweet, herby vanilla) and topped with spicy sambal chili sauce, fried anchovies, and a hard-boiled egg. At R.A. there is a self-service buffet of curries, chicken rendang, vegetables, and fried eggs. Go crazy; it's all delicious.

What to order: nasi lemak
Where: 15 Jalan Raja Abdullah
LRT stop: Dang Wangi

Step 4: Take a Kopi Break

For a well-earned coffee break, walk around the corner to Yut Kee, one of the most charming Chinese kopitiams, or coffee shops, in the city. No longer in its original location thanks to a heaping rent hike, Yut Kee has been in operation for nearly 90 years. Today you're here for a slice of marble cake and a strong cup of kopi (come back for lunch if you can). It's the perfect pick-me-up, and the owner is always happy to chat if the place isn't too slammed (which it often is, especially on weekends).

What to order: kopi and a slice of marble cake
Where: Jalan Kamunting (off Jalan Dang Wangi)
LRT stop: Dang Wangi

See the sights and grab a bite at an outdoor market on Brickfields.

Step 5: Cool Down

Is it starting to get steamy? KL is hot and humid throughout most of the year, with temperatures that hover somewhere in the 80s. Thankfully, the city is also home to an abundance of lavishly air-conditioned shopping malls. Head to the iconic Petronas Towers, which reigned as the world’s tallest buildings from 1998-2004, to take a few photos before entering Suria KLCC at the base. If you're not much for shopping, buy a ticket to whichever movie is playing next and rest your feet in air-conditioned bliss. Appreciate the assigned seats (so civilized!) and popcorn and soda prices that will not offend you.

Where: base of the Petronas Towers
LRT stop: KLCC

A smoky, fragrant, and porky noodle dish called hokkien mee.

Step 6: Visit the Hawker Mecca

Head over to Bukit Bintang, the city's tourism and shopping epicenter. Your destination is Lot 10 Hutong, a hawker center developed by Malaysian billionaire Francis Yeoh to house all the country's street food favorites under one (clean) roof. While you could happily eat here for a week, one of the stars is the fried hokkien mee from Kim Lian Kee, the stall that invented the famous noodle dish. Egg noodles are fried up over a charcoal fire with dark soy sauce, prawns, squid and pork. They come out smoky, fragrant, porky, and nearly black.

What to order: hokkien mee 
Where: lower ground level, lot 10, Jalan Bukit Bintang
Monorail stop: Bukit Bintang

Step 7: Be Dazzled

If you have time for one major site, the Islamic Arts Museum, which houses one of the best collections of Islamic decorative arts in the world, should be it. It's a hike from the nearest metro stop, so hop in a taxi if the sun is hot. Marvel at the incredible collection of gorgeous calligraphy, exquisite jewelry, and bedazzled daggers until it's time to eat again.

Where: Jalan Lembah Perdana
LRT stop: KL Sentral

Hungry? Head straight to the ultimate food street, Jalan Alor.

Step 8: Get Your Hands Dirty

Now that it's coming up on dinnertime, walk to Brickfields, the official Little India, for an authentic banana leaf meal at Vishalatchi Food and Catering. Warning: You will have very little idea of what you're doing, but I promise it will be an adventure. When you sit down, a banana leaf will be set in front of you. This is your plate. You'll get some vada (basically a savory doughnut) along with three vats of curries that you will ladle onto your leaf. It's all meant to be eaten with your hands and it tastes better that way. Have you ever tried to eat a slice of pizza with a fork and knife? I rest my case.

From there, you can order any carbohydrate your heart desires: rice, dosa, roti, or idli, a spongy bread with a slight sourdough taste. Servers will bring over vegetable sides and chicken, if you wish. But don't be shy; you can walk up to the buffet and help yourself to whatever catches your eye.

What to order: banana leaf meal
Where: Brickfields 18, Jalan Scott (off Jalan Sambathan)
LRT stop: KL Sentral

Eat food freshly prepared right before your eyes.

Step 9: Explore Brickfields

Now that you're well fed, wander the wide boulevards of Brickfields. Explore the multilevel Indian bazaars on Jalan Tun Sambanthan or stop in the Buddhist Maha Vihara, one of the city's most important Theravada Buddhist temples. If the timing works out, meditation classes are held Mondays and Thursdays at 8 p.m.

LRT stop: KL Sentral

Step 10: Seek Out the Durian

The final stop of the day is smoky, bustling Jalan Alor. One of the most popular night markets in the city, Jalan Alor is lined with stalls hawking fried noodles, chicken wings, grilled seafood, and satay. As you will surely smell, the market is also home to a slew of stalls selling the pungent, polarizing durian fruit. If you can get past the odor, which is somewhere in the realm of rotting onions, the fruit can be custardy, decadent, tropical, and sweet. Or, you will rush to find something to immediately remove the taste from your mouth, as my husband did. Either way, it's an adventurous eater's rite of passage. Find a vendor cutting them up fresh and order 10RM worth to get a taste. If you find yourself in the camp of "never again," dessert is not lost. Get yourself a fresh coconut ice cream and forget it ever happened.

What to order: fresh durian (10RM-worth should do it)
Where: Jalan Alor, Bukit Bintang
Monorail stop: Bukit Bintang


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