Experiences - Asia

Down and dirty: Malaysia’s best hawker food

When it comes to a holiday that blends fantastic food with bustling city scenes and cultural sites, Malaysia ticks all the boxes. I’m kicking off my Malaysian getaway with a week of feasting in Kuala Lumpur, before heading southeast to the historic state of Malacca. Touching down in the capital, I’m immediately struck by the heat and humidity – the tropical warmth makes a welcome change from the cold of a Melbourne winter.

Kuala Lumpur’s food scene is one of the most dynamic in the world, with fine-dining restaurants surrounded by low-key street eateries. It can be hard to navigate the thousands of dining options on offer, so a local offers me a hot tip: If you don’t know where to eat, look for the dirtiest eatery with the most people. Really? I ask, but what about the hygiene? His response is simple: If the eatery is busy, then the turnover will be high and the food won’t be left lying around to go off.

Must-try dishes

With this in mind, I head to Jalan Alor, a buzzing open-air market that’s renowned for serving KL’s most authentic hawker dishes. At the top of my hit list is a glass of teh tarik, which literally means ‘pulled tea’. Man, I see some great teh tarik technique along this street, as the stallholders pour the hot, milky tea back and forth between two cups from a great height, all without spilling a drop. One tea maker explains that the ‘pulling’ method helps with the oxidisation, giving it a slightly bitter flavour that tastes great with the frothy condensed milk.

Many of the hawker stalls are simple set-ups with a gas stove or charcoal grill. I trawl the different stalls, checking out each of the specialities before trying ikan bakar, or ‘burnt fish’, basically grilled fish served with a spicy sambal of chilli and dried anchovies, and ikan panggang, stingray marinated in curry paste and char-grilled for a fabulous smoky flavour.

ikan bakar - Down and dirty: Malaysia’s best hawker food

Image Courtesy: Alpha used under the Creative Commons Licence

Another Malaysian classic is nasi lemak, coconut rice with accompaniments of sambal, ikan bilis (fried anchovies) and peanuts – it’s usually served on a banana leaf for added fragrance, and you can combine it with other dishes such as squid in sambal or fried chicken. Just off Jalan Ampang, near the Sime Darby building [more details to come], I sample the best chilli pan mee of the trip, a typical breakfast dish of flat noodles with minced pork and sambal.

Over the next few days I also indulge in bowls of tangy assam laksa with noodles and mackerel, orr chen (fried oyster omelette), popiah (fresh spring rolls) and char sui fan, a Chinese-inspired dish of barbecued pork with rice.

For those visitors who are worried about hygiene but still want to get into the local hawker food, your best bet is to hightail it to the bottom level of the Lot 10 shopping mall in Bukit Bintang. The owner is one of the richest men in Malaysia and he obsessed with the street food of his childhood, so he gathered the city’s best-known hawker vendors under one roof. The result is Hutong, a buzzing dining hall offering everything from popiah to buk kut teh, a classic Malaysian pork broth laced with herbs. Work up an appetite in the mall’s luxury boutiques for a spot of retail therapy.

Where to stay

Shopping is serious business in KL, with myriad malls often offering a mix of accommodation, shopping and activities. One such mall is the Sunway Pyramid, an all-in-one destination with a hotel, theme park, ice-skating rink, buzzing nightlife and hawker stalls. It is also quite handy to the centre of Kuala Lumpur, so it provides the perfect base for exploring the city.

Multicultural Malacca

After the non-stop energy of KL, I’m looking forward to relaxing in Malacca. Located 235 kilometres southeast of the capital, the Unesco World Heritage listed city has a great sense of history. It was once a bustling trading port, and the Portuguese, British and Dutch have all left a mark, most obviously in the architecture – it’s a blast from the past really. While the locals have embraced that European influence, they’ve maintained their Chinese, Malay and Indian roots, creating a rich and diverse culture with a fantastic food scene.

Malcca - Down and dirty: Malaysia’s best hawker food

Image Courtesy: Capella “Pia” Boltiador used under the Creative Commons Licence

Must-visit sites include the A’Famosa Fort, built by the Portuguese in 1511, the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum, the Malacca Sultanate Museum, and Jonker Street, a vibrant night market offering knick-knacks, antiques and mouth-watering hawker meals. The town’s multicultural makeup can be seen in its cuisine, which spans ikan bakar (Malay grilled fish restaurants), Nyonya laksa, tandoori chicken and Portuguese egg tarts. One thing’s for sure: you’ll never go hungry in Malaysia! This was a guide to the Malaysia’s best hawker food.

Asian Inspirations would love to hear about your own foodie experiences, so share your gourmet journeys here.

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