Malaysia is a melting pot of cuisines thanks to large populations of Chinese, Thai, Indian and indigenous Malay. To find all these cuisines, start in Chinatown with a breakfast of warm herb grass jelly from Koong Woh Tong. You’ll find this freshly made jelly at several shops with large gold-plated tea holders visible from the street. This black jelly is often found in cans in Asian grocery stores, but the canned version can’t compare with its fresh equivalent. Either sit with a large bowl of the bitter jelly pulled from the giant gold-plated tea warmer and pour a drizzle of honey over top, or take a container to go.
Koong Who Tong
Petaling Street, Selangor, Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur
Your next stop is Wing Heong BBQ Meat, which sells tablet-sized squares of chicken and pork jerky called “bakkwa,” and thick-cut slices of succulent, crisped bacon. The mini chain of shops also offer samples of “chicken floss” and “meat floss”—whisps of savory cotton candy made of meat. While your free sample may not inspire you to buy a bag, stock up on gourmet snacks from the back of the shop including freeze-dried durian chips. The aromatic fruit is much less noxious when packaged.
From Chinatown, walk through Little India and watch the dosa-makers swirl ever-expanding paper-thin crepes out of fermented rice and lentil batter. Once bubbles start to form they add a scoop of garam masala-spiced potatoes and wrap the dosa (called thosai in Malaysia) into a cone to be dipped into mildly sweet coconut chutney and soupy tamarind-flavored sambhar. One of the best is found at Bhakti Woodlands, where the dosa thali comes with more than ten other dishes, including fried okra with mustard seeds, eggplant curry, saag spinach, lentil daal, and yogurt with toasted cumin seeds.
Bakti Woodlands Vegetarian Food Café
55 Leboh Ampang, Little India, Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur’s Central Market is actually an indoor shopping mall, which Malaysians love mostly for the air conditioning. (If you lived in a city built on jungle you might love free air conditioning too.) While extremely touristy, the market has a large food court of shops with dishes from all over South East Asia. Rather than eating at any of them, hold out for Chow Kit market (below) and use the mall as an overview of the variety of foods the city has to offer: from the national dish of nasi lemak (spicy chili sambol with hardboiled eggs, coconut rice, toasted peanuts, curry chicken, and rice crackers), to Hakka fried rice, Thai green curry chicken, and sweet Malay pancake filled with peanut and palm sugar and folded into a half moon fresh off the griddle.
The Central Market is a good choice, however, for fresh fruit drinks and jelly desserts. So do grab a watermelon shake and a sky-high bowl of rainbow-colored ice, fruit jelly, and coconut or sweetened condensed milk.
Jalan Hang Kasturi, 50050, Kuala LumpurWebsite
For the best Nasi Lemak in Kuala Lumpur, head to the KG Baru hawker stalls behind the Chow Kit market. The walk will make you miss air conditioning, so once you arrive, buy a fresh young coconut to rehydrate. Suck its electrolyte-rich water through a plastic straw (locals do it too) while wandering the dirty fruit, vegetable, dried goods, clothing, and décor market. The market is grouped roughly by country (Thai eggplant and winged beans in one area, Malay coconut and pandan dessert squares on sticky rice in another), so wandering aimlessly through the madness is best. Pick up small, purple mangosteen, local ciku (called salacca in Thai—a sweet, caramelized toffee-like fruit), lychees, mangoes, and jackfruit in the wet market, and dried chilies in the Indian section of the dry market.
If you’re in search of durian, you’ve come to the right place, but you’ll have to buy an entire fruit as none of the market vendors will sell you just one piece (it would make the entire market smell). The market isn’t the safest or cleanest area, but it’s worth it to see the catfish so fresh they jump from the displays; fresh turmeric that will stain your fingers yellow; and piles of fresh chili peppers ranging from the small Thai variety to large, relatively mild Malay versions.
Chow Kit Market
Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, 50100 Kuala Lumpur
You can’t leave KL (the city is pronounced “Kay-El” by locals) without seeing the Petronas Towers. Skip the ride to the top and the tower tour in favor of a drink at nearby Skybar. The cocktail bar’s wrap-around windows give an equally stunning view of the city. And the multi-page cocktail list (Negronis, Manhattans, and refreshing exotic creations) can be enjoyed poolside from reserved sofas—the best views in the house—and the city.
Level 33, Traders Hotel, Kuala Lumpur City Centre, 50088Website
S.Pellegrino and Food for Soul, the non-profit organisation founded by Lara Gilmore and chef Massimo Bottura, form a new global partnership to drive social and environmental change and promote a sustainable food culture.