Forget about fancy restaurants. The most exciting food in Malaysia is found on the street. You won't find fancy decor, mood lighting or crisp tablecloths. It's purely about the food. Food cooked in a furious fashion, served on plastic plates, and eaten whilst standing, or - if you're lucky - perched on a plastic stool that teeters precariously on the side of the road.
In Kuala Lumpur's former red light district you'll find Jalan Alor, a wide shopping street to converts to a seemingly endless stretch of food stalls and open air restaurants by night. The air is thick with charcoal smoke, men fan away furiously at satay grills of chicken and beef skewers, and the metallic clang of woks punctuates the air. It's a cacophony of activity, with locals inspecting mangosteen tied together with plastic twine, diners at rickety plastic tables spilling their way across the street, and an occasional car slowly and cautiously making its way through the tide of people.
Competition is fierce, and entrepreneurial staff are not hesitant in encouraging you to sit down.
Open air restaurants
We find ourselves at Jalan Alor on our first evening in KL, a late night stop for dessert that inevitably turns into supper. For whilst we are seated at Syarikat Makanan Salai Kiew Brothers, Billy explains that our waiter will happily collect food from any nearby stall at our request. This means that whilst our desserts are being prepared, the waiter ducks off to order and obtain the hawker snacks we suddenly find ourselves craving.
Our order of rojak arrives to a look of pointed disappointment by Billy. There's not enough shrimp paste in the sauce, he bemoans, and there are no crackers or bean sprouts or tofu either, he wails. I'd been craving this dish as soon as we landed in Malaysia, so I relish this regardless, the tumble of tart green mango, sweet pineapple slices and angled wedges of juicy cucumber smothered in a sauce that is salty, fishy and sweet. We stab at it with long toothpicks, the heat from the chilli coming through in sporadic bursts, tempered by the delicate crunch of toasted sesame seeds.
Grilled chicken wings RM2.20 each (about AU$0.80)
The grilled chicken wings have been cut in half, and I leap on the wing tip side. It's a simple soy marinade, the edges slightly blackened from the charcoal grill.
Chicken and beef satay RM0.70 each (about $0.25 each)
Satay skewers are a revelation. There's only a small mouthful at the end of each skewer, but the chicken and beef are each so amazingly tender, and a little smoky in flavour from the charcoal grill. We baptise them in a pool of satay sauce, alternating bites of the meat with the cool refreshment of cucumber and red onion chunks.
ABC ais kacang RM4.50 (about AU$1.65)
And alongside this all, we feast on our desserts that double as drinks. Ais kacang is sweet with gulaka melaka, a syrup made from palm sugar that has a browned toffee undertone. Grass jelly, red beans, palm seeds and toasted peanut are a rubble of textural contrasts.
Cendol RM4 (about AU$1.45)
Minh and I have to wait a little longer for our cendol, the slippery worms of pandan flavoured noodles that quickly turn into frozen pellets beneath the mountain of shaved ice, cooked red bean and river of gula melaka.
Restoran Meng Kee Grill Fish
We find ourselves at Jalan Alor the following night, this time keen to enjoy a proper dinner. Billy is happy to stop at the first restaurant on the street, but Minh and I are in mutual agreement: try to avoid eating at the first restaurant on the street. Surely things get better somewhere towards the middle?
We simultaneously choose Restoran Meng Kee Grill Fish, it's not just in the middle but it's overflowing with locals. The crowds mean we end up at a table inside the tiny restaurant, and whilst this means we're separated from the hubbub of street activity, we're grateful for the relief of air-conditioning.
Plastic plates and chopsticks
If there was one thing I noticed about eating in Malaysia, it was the plastic plates and chopsticks. Light, durable and almost impossible to break, I loved that our plates and chopsticks came in a rainbow of colours that made every meal seem like a kids party.
Pineapple juice and calamansi lime drink RM$3.50 (about AU$1.30)
Our drinks come in plastic tumblers too. Thick walled and sturdy, they arrive with straws and plenty of ice. Calamansi lime drinks soon becomes a firm favourite, the small citrus fruit is the size of a cumquat and green inside and out. The miniature lime is both sour and sweet, creating a drink that is thirst-quenching and refreshing.
Fried oyster egg RM12 (about AU$4.35)
Our dishes arrive almost all at once, and we dig in eagerly. Fried oyster egg is a significantly different take on the oyster omelette I'd tried in Singapore late last year. The omelette is thin and crispy, almost a lattice at the edges, and the oysters are plump and briney. Fresh coriander leaves add liveliness and we dip fragments into the accompanying chilli sauce.
Grilled tofu RM12 (about AU$4.35)
The grilled tofu is infinitely more tasty than its appearance would first have you believe. Julienned strips of carrot, green mango and cucumber are dressed with a spicy shrimp paste sauce and then sandwiched between two fat layers of superbly crunchy tofu puffs.
The earth-shattering crunch of the tofu is more like an airy cracker, and an ideal receptacle for the saucy filling. On our exit later, I notice the tofu being toasted over flames in the makeshift kitchen outside.
Toasting the tofu
Fried sambal chilli lala RM20 (about AU$7.30)
Fried sambal chilli lala are the local version of pipis. The saucy is spicy, a heady mix of garlic, chilli, shrimp paste and sugar, that we scrape at with our teeth, enjoying the small pockets of flesh and licking the shells clean in the process.
Grilled stingray fish RM25 (about AU$10.90)
Stingray isn't a dish commonly encountered in Australia, and in our pursuit of local delicacies we order this with enthusiasm.
Cooked simply on a grill, we're all impressed by the delicacy of the flesh, soft and sweet and flaking easily into distinctive ribbons. Its succulence reminds us of eel and the skin is fatty and delicious.
Fried kueh teow RM5 (about AU$1.80)
Fried kueh teow is a snack-sized serve, the slippery rice noodles wok-tossed with omelette and bean sprouts.
Fried sambal chilli four angle bean RM12 (about AU$4.35)
Our vegetable dish is the four angle bean fried with sambal chilli. Sometimes called a wing bean, it's known as kacang botol in Malaysia. The glossy green vegetable has the texture and taste of asparagus, and its elongated surface area is perfect for holding generous amounts of spicy sambal sauce.
Cooks in the outdoor kitchen
Dessert is back up the hill at Syarikat Makanan Salai Kiew Brothers. The hot steamy night calls for a round of ais kacang and cendol.
ABC ais kacang RM4.50 (about AU$1.65)
[Billy likes ais kacang]
And because food bloggers can never say to more food, we find ourselves joining the throngs around the durian stalls.
Choosing the best durian
It's only the start of the durian season - the fruits are quite small and prices are still somewhat expensive by local standards. The air is pungent with the distinct smell of durian and it only whets my appetite. Sure it's an acquired taste but like all the divisive foods in life - oysters, blue cheese, to start with - once you're addicted, you can never get enough.
Our durian is expertly opened and then delivered to our table with an entire packet of serviettes. Creamy, sweet, floral and buttery, we extricate the butter yellow pods with our fingers and relish its flesh.
Durian RM19 [RM16/kg] (about AU$6.90)
Unlike the frozen durian imported into Australian from Thailand, fresh Malaysian durian has a slightly drier consistency. Without the soggy wetness of a defrosted durian, the flesh peels off in strands, and I find the flavour a little milder.
We exit Jalan Alor, picking up a string of fresh mangosteen along the way (RM12 or about AU$4.35/kg). Behind us the crowds carry on eating as plumes of smoke billow up toward the sky.
View Larger Map
Restoran Meng Kee Grilled Fish
39 Jalan Alor
(opposite Wisma City Tower)
50200 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Tel: +60 (03)
Wednesday to Sunday 6pm - 3am
(closed on Tuesdays)
FREEBIE FRIDAY WINNERS
Congratulations to the winners of the Freebie Friday competition to win a magic Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs umbrella. There were so many mouthwatering entries! Congratulations to atv, Chocaholic, pristine, Jenny C and jmnash.
Don't forget to enter the other competitions still open. Remember you can enter once per day as long as each answer is different.
33 comments - Add some comment love
5/25/2010 01:41:00 a.m.