There's more to Malaysia than just great shopping in its capital, Kuala Lumpur. The street food of Malaysia is a predominant mix of Chinese, Malay and Indian. The influence of its neighbours runs strong, with flavours borrowed from Indonesia, Japan and Thailand.
Everywhere you look, there are people preparing or eating food. On the streets, in back alleys, outside of local businesses and even in the middle of parks. Also known as Section 21, Seapark is the go-to destination for delicious food in Petaling Jaya (PJ). It's a place where the locals know the the shop lot owner's families, favourite colours and pet's names. People bussing the tables will have your regular drink order memorised and you're more than likely going to know everything about the owners of the shop lots - their favourite colours, family names and even the names of their pets. Of equal importance, you will also know if their food is good or not.
Petaling Jaya is a hotspot for hungry tourists in search of local culture and delights. It's fortunate that my mother is from one of the food capitals of Malaysia. It's even better that I've had my uncle and cousin to guide me to the best local eateries and street stalls you can find in PJ and ultimately, the best food. Maybe another factor topping the list is the fact that my grandmother owns shop lots outside her house - of which I visited constantly for breakfast and for the odd snack. (Although parking is a nightmare and the old neighbourhood is usually packed during breakfast, lunch and dinner on weekdays, it's easily forgiven for its flavoursome foods.)
It took me a little while to get accustomed to eating a heavy meal like wanton mee at 9am in the morning. Nonetheless, I made it work. I was spoilt for choice and you will be too with a wide range of delicacies on offer.
Penang Assam Laksa
Assam Laksa isn't something you have to drive all the way to Penang to get. Although I have been told by my cousin that on the odd occasion her friends do drive all the way to Ipoh to buy egg tarts when they're craving them so I guess it isn't out of the question. Assam Laksa is a spicy coconut based curry noodle soup, accompanied with a hokkien mee (or egg noodle). The fish-based soup is sour and the noodles themselves are served hand in hand with bean curd puffs, fishballs, lemongrass and mackerel. Squeeze some lime onto the soup and you're set. Get ready to welcome your first meal of the day.
Chee cheong fun
Ridiculously simple but also ridiculously yummy, chee cheong fun is a Cantonese rice noodle dish. This thin roll is sometimes filled with pork, shrimp or other vegetables but most commonly served by itself, coated in a sweet black soy sauce called timzheong which somewhat resembles hoisin sauce. Topped with sesame seeds and shallots and served with green chilli and sauce on the side, chee cheong fun is a popular breakfast food because it is light, sweet and savoury at the same time.
Char kway teow
Literally translating into 'stir-fried rice cake strips', this particular dish is the unofficial dish of the nation. Again, depending on where you go you will get variations of the same dish. One thing you want when eating char kway teow is the 'wok hei' or 'Breath of the Wok'. This particular picture is a mix of hokkien noodles and flat rice noodles (ho fan), but typically char kway teow's base is are ho fan, bean shoots, spring onions, lapcheong, egg, prawns and char siu pork. Other additions include cockles, chicken, chives, onion and as pictured here, hokkien noodles. My favourite char kway teow however, is with the original flat rice noodles, egg, spring onions, bean shoots and prawns in that delicious dark soy sauce.
Popiah is a fresh type of spring roll, filled with fresh vegetables and shrimp. The spring roll skin is a thin and flat crepe, served with bean sauce or hoisin sauce. Chili is also optional. Popiah is a favourite street food and depending on the vendor can be cooked with a combination of ingredients including finely grated or steamed turnip, jicama, shredded omelette, fried shallots, peanuts and carrots. They're fatter than the usual Vietnamese Spring Rolls and are often cut up into four delicious mouthfuls.
Teh tarik, literally translated into 'pulled tea' is a black tea and condensed milk drink sold at almost every hawker lot, restaurant and outdoor stall. It can sometimes be served with evaporated milk, but nevertheless one or the other be it teh C, teh tarik or teh ice, will be ordered by someone at the dining table. The tea is continuously pulled between two jugs from a height, giving it it's froth at the top of the glass and as a way to cool the tea to an optimal drinking temperature. According to the locals, it is also to give it a better flavour by thoroughly mixing the condensed milk and tea together.
Welcome to the land of unhealthy salads. What's that? An unhealthy salad? Rojak is a traditional fruit and vegetable salad, peddled by rojak vendors on the side of mini trucks and behind motobikes (but also found in restaurants). It's actually not that unhealthy and I wouldn't want to subtract from this salad what makes it so characteristically Malaysian. Coated over an assortment of chopped pineapple, cucumber, jicama, deep fried tofu, green mangos and on the odd occasion jambu, is a dressing made up of belacan, peanut sauce, sugar, chilli and lime juice. Of course no Malaysian salad is truthfully complete without it being topped with chopped peanuts. The textures of crunchy fruit and vegetables with the soft and doughy fried youtiao (dough sticks) mix well with the sweet and sticky dressing. Usually the rojak is already tossed and mixed for you, however this particular one was had in a restaurant - our usual go - to rojak stall was shut most of the time we were in PJ.
Kueh is the broad term for bite-sized snacks/desserts found in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Kueh covers cakes, cookies, dumplings, biscuits, tarts and pastries. Made from glutinous rice and/or rice flour, kueh are steamed sweet or savoury desserts. They are made for daily consumption as well as being made especially for important festivities. Of particular note are onde onde, glutinous rice balls filled with gula melaka (palm sugar) and coated in fresh shredded coconut. Second are the kueh seri muka, a delicious sweet and savoury combination of creamy but salty coconut rice and a green custard pudding topping. Kueh lapis is the colourful layer cake, sweet in nature hinting sugary pandan flavours.
A breakfast staple, kaya jam (made from eggs, sugar, coconut milk and pandan leaves) is spread in between two slices of barely toasted bread, with a perfectly cut slice of butter in between. Often served with teh or kopi (coffee) kaya toast is almost always on the menus of coffee houses. My younger self was in love with kaya, always having it on toast or in between two soft and fresh slices of bread for lunch. Every time I return to Malaysia (or even Singapore) I have to get my hands on kaya toast. It's often part of a set menu, served with half-boiled eggs, however I like my kaya toast and tea, just as it is.
Roti canai is so fascinating to watch being pulled, kneaded and pressed and is even better to eat. It is always accompanied with a mixture of curries, for example dahl, kari ayam (chicken curry) or kari ikan (fish curry). Roti has many variations and can act as both a sweet and savoury dish. It's particularly delicious served with sticky condensed milk and sugar, or with egg and onion. Roti can also be made into a very paper thin, tissue-like cone, called roti tisu, which is sometimes spread over seven plates long and covered in sugar.
Hainanese chicken rice
A classic dish, it's often served with a range of condiments. The chicken is either white or brown (being that it's been boiled or roasted) and steeped in chicken bone stock over and over until it possesses the amazing and flavoursome characteristics that make this dish what it is. Rice is often made with garlic, ginger and a separate chicken stock, served on the side, hand in hand with freshly pounded ginger and chili sauce. Chicken rice is a love of Jason and Wendy, and I particularly love it with coriander and a hint of tamarind juice.
Hokkien char mee
Egg noodles and rice noodles are tossed around together in a work with prawns, slices of pork, egg, beansprouts and vegetables. Although the ingredients are similar to that of fried kway teow, the tastes are quite different. Thick yellow noodles are braised in a dark soy sauce, cooked over a firey wok.
There are so many different versions of this ridiculously delicious and simple dish. Served wet or dry, wonton mee is one of my favourites. You have so much flexibility with this dish. Malaysian wanton mee is particularly identifiable just by how dark the colour of the noodles are, with the amount of dark soy sauce. Wontons can be filled with pork and spring onion and fried til crispy, served dry with vegetable and with a side of soup. It can also be served in a soup with wontons boiled in broth until they're cooked - signified by their floating to the top. You can mix dry wonton mee with soft boiled wontons or have the wontons separate in a soup or vice versa. Often accompanied with char siew pork, wonton mee is a signature dish adapted and varied in different places in Malaysia and Singapore.
Of course I could not forget satay. Skewered chicken, beef or any other meat on a stick, slightly charred and served with fresh red onion, cucumbers (to balance the heat of the onion), compact rice and peanut sauce - satay is incredibly popular in Malaysia. Although it looks simple, it's one of the dishes hardest to get right. The rice has to be soft but taut enough to stick together and you have to have just the right amount of cucumber to offset the kick of the onion. Peanut sauce is another component that is difficult to get just right, sometimes the peanuts are not ground up enough and other times the sauce is too runny. So that's why when you come across a particular satay that ticks all the boxes, you order about fifteen sticks to gobble them up by yourself.
When visiting Malaysia, you’ll find that there is a lot more to Malaysian cuisine than just satay, and discover the range of flavours that can come from the use of simple and fresh ingredients. Although you may order the same dish every day, the dish and the flavours vary from independent hawkers to restaurant chefs. There is always a different take on the local favourites.