Kuala Lumpur is not so much the city that never sleeps, as the city that never stops eating. To say that the city’s residents like their food is a serious understatement. They are obsessed with it. Day to day life is planned around meals, not the other way round.
And while the sheer volume of food consumed is awe-inspiring, quality is rarely sacrificed for quantity. All this is very good news for a visitor to KL, because it is possible to get good and affordable food at any time of day or night. The 24-hour eating culture means that six or seven meals can be fitted into the average day.
The most popular way to start the day is with a roti canai, a fluffy flat bread, served with a curry sauce. Originally south Indian, and now served mostly in mamak (Muslim Indian) eateries, it is an unmissable treat. All manner of variations are possible, including telur (egg), bawang (onion) and pisang (banana), but the simplicity of the basic roti canai is hard to beat.
By eleven, most KLites will be getting peckish again, and that’s when nasi lemak (literally, fatty rice) comes into its own. In its basic form, it is rice cooked with coconut milk, served with boiled egg, cucumber slices, ikan bilis (dried anchovies), peanuts and sambal (a chilli-based spicy sauce).
On the dot of 12:30 most workers down tools, and head out for their lunch. More often than not, the midday meal consists of a mound of white rice, surrounded by a selection of pre-prepared dishes. Within this general theme, there are large differences between Malay (very meat and fish focused), Chinese (lighter, less spicy, with more vegetables) and Indian (spicy curries and pickles, mostly vegetarian).
Another common lunchtime dish is laksa, a spicy noodle soup, which comes in a bewildering number of styles. The two most common sorts found in KL are curry laksa, which has a coconut milk-based broth, and asam laksa, which is dominated by the sour taste of tamarind.
From about three to six in the afternoon, stalls pop up across KL, selling a variety of artery-hardening deep-fried snacks. Two of the most commonly offered items are curry puffs (small pies with a meat or potato filling) and pisang goreng (banana fritters). Their purpose is to bridge the long gap between lunch and dinner.
From 19:00 onwards, Chinese-run coffee shops come into their own. Generally non-halal, with beer on sale, they offer some of the best food in KL, often in inverse proportion to the shabbiness of their decor. Chinese dishes predominate, although often with a Malaysian twist, such as char kway teow, a richly-flavoured fried noodle concoction. Apart from flat rice noodles, and the use of both light and dark soy sauces, it can include a whole host of ingredients, including cockles, prawns, pork, egg and fish.
It seems hard to believe, but a KL-ite would think nothing of another meal around 10 or 11 in the evening, with satay (grilled meat or fish on a stick) being a popular supper snack. Although the range of options narrows in the early hours of the morning, it’s always possible to get a plate of mee goreng (fried yellow noodles) or nasi goreng (fried rice). And coming full circle, one of the most common ways to end the culinary marathon is with more roti canai.
By Pat Fama
Last updated on 26th February, 2015.