One of the undoubted culinary highlights of Kuala Lumpur is south Indian food, done with a distinctive Malaysian twist. The eateries can be divided into two main categories: those run by Hindus, and those run by Indians who have converted to Islam, known as Mamaks. Although many dishes turn up at both types of establishment, distinctive differences do exist between them.
Hindu-run places serve up far fewer meat and fish dishes, indeed many of them are completely vegetarian. They are also far more likely to have food from north India, and to be proper restaurants, rather than open-air stalls. Some Hindu-run eateries even serve beer, although this is comparatively rare.
Mamak shops are typically large open-air eateries on corner plots, many of which are open 24 hours (Malaysians do after all love to eat round the clock). In terms of food, they can probably claim to be Malaysia’s best example of culinary and cultural fusion. Many Malay and Chinese dishes turn up at Mamak shops, such as mee goreng (spicy fried noodles), although a strong Indian influence is often present. Overall, the food is fairly meat-based, often featuring beef, which of course would never happen at a Hindu-run place.
What both types of eatery share is an abundance of cheap, filling and tasty food. It’s a shame therefore that so many visitors to KL ignore them. Part of this is because south Indian food has a much lower international profile than its northern cousin. What follows is a brief description of some of the highlights of the cuisine in KL (helping, in our own small way, to redress the imbalance…).
Roti canai: Pronounced roh-tee chan-ai, this is a flat fluffy bread, which is cooked on a hot plate, and normally served with up a pulse-based curry known as dahl. In Mamak places, fish- and meat-based curry gravies are sometimes given instead. It is hugely popular among Malaysians of all races. The basic roti can have other ingredients, including telur (egg), bawang (onion), and pisang (banana).
Dosa: Also spelt dosai, thosa, thosai, this is thin savoury pancake that is usually served with chutneys and dahl. They come in a number of types, including masala (filled with mild potato curry) and ghee (cooked in clarified butter).
Puri masala: Puffed up, deep-fried bread, normally accompanied by dahl and a mild potato-based curry.
Parotta: A layered flat bread, not to be confused with north Indian paratha. It’s normally eaten with dahl and/or a potato curry.
Idli: A savoury steamed white cake, often served with chutneys.
Vadai: A savoury donut eaten on its own as a snack or as a side to other dishes.
Banana leaf: See here for more about this wonderful culinary treat in KL.
South Indian food is mostly commonly drunk with teh o ais (sweet black iced tea), teh tarik (sweet hot milky tea), limau ais (sweet lime juice), and Milo (hot or cold, this chocolate malt drink is a Malaysian institution).
It really is very difficult to find bad south Indian food in KL, but what follows are some of my favourite eateries. Where various branches exist, I’ve given the location for the one likely to be most convenient for visitors:
Saravanaa Bhavan (various branches)
Bangsar: 52 Jalan Maarof, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur
Brickfields: 196 Jalan Tun Sambanthan, Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur
T: (03) 2287 1228 (Bangsar); (03) 2260 3755 (Brickfields)
55 Leboh Ampang, Little India, Kuala Lumpur
T: (03) 2034 2399
Restoran SK Corner (various branches)
46 Jalan Rembia, off Tengkat Tong Shin, Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur
Devi’s Corner (various branches)
14 Jalan Telawi 4, Bangsar Baru, Kuala Lumpur.
T: (03) 2282 7591
By Pat Fama
Last updated on 26th February, 2015.