Malaysian street food : Nasi kerabu (ketalanese blue rice)

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In North Eastern Malaysia, the states of Kelantan and Terengganu are staunch Muslim areas, with far fewer Indian and Chinese citizens than other, more touristy areas, like Penang. It’s a fairly interesting area that few travellers take time to explore, often only overnighting on the way across the Thai border or on their way back from the Perehentian Islands.

Being a predominantly Muslim area the food culture is quite a lot different from  the typical Malaysian tourist destinations, obviously there’s no pork  (aside from the tiny Chinese enclave – which coincidently is the only place you’ll find a beer, too.) and plenty of locally treasures, one of which is Nasi Kerabu.

kelantan nasi kerabu kota bharu

Rice is such a staple of the region, and nasi kerabu is a great showcase of Kelantanese cuisine, visually it’s unusual as the rice is a bright blue colour, having been dyed using the leaves of a peaflower (although, I’m sure many shortcuts are taken and  food colouring is more than likely used in its place)  The rice is then a centrepiece of a sort of salad – including salted egg, coconut, beansprouts, ground fish, sambal, fresh herbs and Keropok (a type of prawn cracker).  Additionally,  a bit of grilled chicken, or another local specialty, Ayam Percik can be added with chillies stuffed with ground fish and coconut.

Kota Bharu's famous central market showcasing Kelantan produce.

Kota Bharu’s famous central market showcasing Kelantan produce.

The flavours balance between spicy, sour and sweet – the Ketalanese are known for having a sweet palate. It’s one of my absolute favourite rice dishes, and the area of Kelantan has some other dishes well worth seeking out – Ayam percik & nasi dagang.

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Malaysian Street Food : Banana Leaf Curry (south Indian curry spread)

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India has a long history with Malaysia, mass migration occurred during the British occupation of Malaysia when Indians emigrated for labour purposes and long before then Indians and Arabs were travelling the trade routes and settling across the South East Asian region.
Indians are the third most represented ethnic group in Malaysia and have a good diplomatic relationship – India and Malaysia have a migrant working visa arrangement similar to the one that takes thousands of young Europeans to Australia and New Zealand every year.

As such Indian food is wonderfully represented in Malaysia and one that would be most familiar to western visitors is a banana leaf curry, a popular south Indian curry dish.

Banana leaf curry devi's corner bangsar KL kuala lumpur malaysia

Banana leaf curries are a sort of buffet meal in one, usually you’ll get to choose the main attraction, usually  a chicken, fried fish or other meat (sometimes mutton) curry.   And then a server will ladle spoons of vegetable sides, rice, pickles and a poppadum onto your  big green plate.
It seems fairly standard for everything to be drenched with gravy, but often as westerners we get asked if we like any and a little is poured to the side – it’s worth asking what the sauces are as there’s often a spicy chilli one and a rasam (spicy sour) available.

Banana leaf curry devi's corner bangsar KL kuala lumpur malaysia

Banana leaf meals are traditionally eaten with the hand (typically, your right hand only although, many places will have cutlery if you ask) and to show good etiquette you should wash your hands before and after eating.

 Often you can ask for more rice and pickles at little or no extra charge, and when you’ve finished eating etiquette dictates you fold your leaf in half, both as a thank you and a symbol to staff you’ve finished eating.

Banana leaf curries can be a great way to sample a lot of different flavours, as well as being disposable (they literally grow on trees, after all… ) I read banana leaves contain an antioxidant which food can take on, and also gives a nice fragrance. They’re also usually pretty good value for money and will really fill you up as well as giving you a big chunk of your 5-a-day.

KL and Penang have some good places to check out, click on the links to read more.

Malaysian Bahasa isn’t going to be very useful in your average banana leaf restaurant – most staff will speak Hindi/other Indian dialects and some degree of English.

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Malaysian Street Food: Roti babi (fried pork sandwich)

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The name roti babi literally means ‘pork bread’, a dish of peranakan straits heritage, often referred to as nonya cuisine due to the cultural identity of women, the cooks as ‘nonyas’.

Essentially, and very vaguely they are the descendents (the word Peranakan translates as ‘descendent’ in both Malay & Indonesian Bahasa, according to Wikipedia) of Chinese traders who settled into Malaysia, Singapore and parts of Indonesia and whilst retaining their home culture they took to their new environments, married locals and over time fused everything together to create their own, unique culture.

There’s a tonne of interesting foodie things that have come from nonya culture.

Roti babi cake at Yut Kee restaurant Kulala Lumpur`

Roti babi is a sort of fried pork sandwich. French toast with an Asian twist, if you will.  Slices of white bread are filled with a mixture of ground pork, crab meat onions, garlic and a spicemix. The whole mixture is egg coated and fried. It’s often best eaten with Worcestershire sauce and chillies.
It’s absolutely calorific, indulgently greasy Chinese Malaysian dish that is increasingly hard to find available from hawkers. Yut Kee in Kuala Lumpur is an old school Kopitiam well worth visiting, and a place to pick up a roti babi.

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Malaysian street food: Curry mee (curried noodle soup)

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After grazing our way through some other areas of Malaysia we made our way up to Georgetown, Penang (or Pinang), lauded as the food capital of Asia, street food mecca, whatever. We had high hopes. 

Penang is world famous for having a cultural melting pot of Indian, Chinese and Malay population who all contributed to the culinary landscape.
Penang did not disappoint, in fact it was probably better than expected – One thing; if you’re planning on eating like it’s your last week alive don’t visit during the lunar new year festivities.

Curry mee, a noodle soup, a sort of curry mixture. That sounds like a safe choice and a nice comforting dinner with a splash of local cuisine. Well, yes and no because curry mee is not entirely as the name suggests.

Curry mee is, essentially a Penang variation on the rich curry laksa, one of the most well known meals in all of Malaysia.
Curry mee varies in a few ways, for example the broth tends to be much thinner with a less creamy texture. One addition less commonplace in laksa is the addition of coagulated blood cubes, with the rich irony taste you should expect (much like a black pudding, for example) but with a jelly like texture. It’s a delicious addition to a rich soup and offsets the curry and (like laksa) cockles.
Penang Curry Mee noodle soup Georgetown

Like a Laksa other ingredients include prawns and light plump tofu pieces.

 It’s a really delicious, wholesome and not too spicy soup which should tick all of those adventurous boxes of experiences and tastes when travelling – The use of cockles and blood jelly are probably unconventional to your tastebuds but they are delicious in the context and shouldn’t put you off trying this. The fresh mint scattered on the top is another great addition and further adds to the layers of flavour.

If you’re heading to Penang, check out my food post about all the great things you should eat and try in this magnificent city.
Phrases worth knowing  

Penang’s a pretty mulitcultural place and English will generally be spoken by almost everyone. But often a few Malay words are useful, although sometimes a grasp of Hindi, Hokkien or Cantonese would be advantageous.

Satu – One
Dua – Two
Tiga – Three
Hello  – Hello
Apa kabar – are you well/ how are you?
salamat pagi – good morning
Salamt tingal – goodbye
sila (see luh) – please
Terima kasih –  Thank you
berapa harga – how much?
tidak pedas – no chilli
bungkus – Take away
Tidak – No
Ya – yes
Maaf – sorry

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Kuala Lumpur Street Food & Eating guide.

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Kuala Lumpur is a pretty interesting city, relatively young only around one hundred and fifty years old with a multicultural population of Malays, Chinese, Indians and expats. Look past the smoggy skies and the building sites, – which are everywhere in their race to rival Singapore – and you’ll find a city of good tasting food. Penangites, used to their UNESCO world heritage listed city and tourists on food pilgrimages might sneer and look down on KL, one person I met in Georgetown said “If a hawker can’t make it in Penang, his food is not good enough and he will move to KL and be successful” but there’s plenty to take from this city. It’s different to Penang, in a good way.

Get your eat on.

Food Courts

Lot 10, collection of street food and hole in the wall style eateries in a food court in a highly stylised setting. Our favourite stalls are Chua Brothers Famous Fish Ball Soup which also sells Hokkien mee, Asam laksa & curry laksa which are all good & Duckking, with decent char siew pork and duck. 10-20MYR per meal. Song Kee, relative of famous old shop in Chinatown apparently sells excellent beef noodle soup.
Good quality ingredients and an excellent place as an introduction to the local food culture, but lacking the attitude of street food and ‘wok hei’ slightly overpriced experience without the usual fun of street eating, which – for me, at least – is watching the world go by.  Great for wary tourists or those who want to experience something local without sacrificing sanitised conditions, or just a cheap meal in the Bukit Bintang area, which is otherwise full of bars and international restuarants.
Closest transport : Bukit Bintang Monorail Located in the basement of Lot 10 Shopping mall. 

Another food court in the golden triangle is Food Republic, less stylised than Lot10 and looking a lot more like a conventional food court there’s a huge amount of stalls selling specialties from other Malay states as well as international options, fast food chains and a teppanyaki bar. Like Lot 10, a bit more expensive than the street options
Clostest transport : Bukit Bintang Monorail. Located at Pavillion shopping mall.
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Central Market Food Court: came in here on a whim, and found the kopitiam in the middle sold laksa & prawn mee –  We were surprised to find the prawn mee to be awesome, the laksa, of the Penang asam variation and had a great taste, spiced for malay palate – other stalls are mostly Thai and Indonesian style foods, Nasi Ayam (chicken rice) seemed popular with the clutch of westerners eating, but most patrons were Malays on their lunch breaks.
Clostest transport: Pasar Seni LRT. Located on 1st floor of Central Markets.

Imbi markets : Whilst it’s not a foodcourt, but an outdoor market it’s still a potentially worthwhile place to visit in the mornings for a breakfast – It’s really only likely you’ll bother to make the journey if you’re staying in the Bukit Bintang area, as it’s about a 10-15minute walk away from Bukit Bintang metro station & the city.
Opening times are 630AM – 12noon, but when I visited at 10AM, not much was open, whether this was due to the day of the week I’m not sure.
Clostest transport : Bukit Bintang Monorail. Located at Pasar Besar Bukit Bintang

Chinatown area

 

Mamak canteen in Kuala Lumpur

Mamak canteen in Kuala Lumpur

 

Old China Café: Excellent Nonya laksa (amongst other things), in a beautifully restored shophouse on the edges of the bustling Chinatown : a good option if you don’t have time to get to Melaka. 11MYR a portion. Book a table for the evening to have a nice meal out.
Closest transport – LRT: Pasar Seni/Monorail : Maharajalela. Located on Jalan Balai Polis

Ali, Muthu & Ah Hock: A friendly and modern take on the traditional kopitiam, stripped away walls and clean lines with simple furniture and all the classics of mamak food. The staff are pretty attentive and the food and coffee and both good. Slightly more expensive than your average kopitiam.
Closest transport – LRT: Pasar Seni/Monorail : Maharajalela. Located on Jalan Balai Polis

Restoran Yusoof & Zakhir
: Good teh tarik, tandoor chicken & well spiced kumpung rice but generally quite inconsistent with nasi lemak. Great value for money nonetheless.
Closest transport – LRT: Pasar seni.  Located on Jalan Hang Kasturi

 

 

Hameeds Nasi Kampar Penang: Opens very early & closes very late run by jovial Indians, the Malay equivalent of a greasy spoon café, with honest, cheap food. With roti chanai and curries you cannot go wrong whilst people watching an ‘interesting’ cross section of society. Very close to Petaling street & the backpacking district.
Closest transport : Pasar Seni LRT. Located on  Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lok, opposite Starbucks. 

Maulana foodcourtNasi lemak in the more streamlined takeaway form (wrapped in banana leaf)  but with good, if slightly sweeter sambal. A good range of curries, roti and drinks with helpful staff. Look for the parked taxis outside.
Good place to head for breakfast if you arrive early on a nightbus with time to kill, only two minute walk from Pudu Sentral
Closest transport : Plaza Rakyat LRT. Located at the end of the row of shops closest to the station on Jalan Pudu. Five minute walk from Chinatowns backpacker district.

Koon Kee Wanton noodle : A tiny little shophouse hidden behind the many stalls selling handbags, sunglasses and junk on Petaling Street, in the heart of Chinatown. ‘KL style’ with dark glazed soy noodles and char siew pork with wan tans.  It’s been around for a very long time, it’s very popular with locals and they make everything by hand including the noodles and the wantans. Around 6RM per portion.
It’s hidden behind the hawkers, look for two red hanzi characters on a silver corogated background. Don’t be put off by the back to basics surroundings, they’ve been doing this a long time.
Closest transport: Pasar Seni LRT, Located on Petaling Street’s most northern section.

As the night falls, many restaurants appear in Chinatown with popup kitchens and plastic chairs spilling on the pavement. Our favourite, Restoran Han Kee outside the twenty four hour laundry on Jalan Sultan sells good claypot dishes, and cheap one plate meals.  Lookout for the fishtank with frogs and eels out the front.
Closest transport: Pasar Seni LRT. Located on Jalan Sultan

Banana Leaf

South Indian Malay curry spread.
There’s loads of options all over the city, and expect to pay a little more than an average meal but it’s well worth it.

Banana leaf curry devi's corner bangsar KL kuala lumpur malaysia
Vischaltchi Food and Catering in Brickfields was worth a trek, a little on the more expensive side, although the tandoor fish pieces were the highlight of the meal.
Closest transport: KL Sentral. Located on Jalan Scott

Devi’s Corner was also well worth hunting down in trendy Bangsar, full of coffee shops and bakeries. The fish curry was delicious and all the vegetable sides were fantastic – you get a little bit more for your money here than at Vischalcthi. Around 15-20MYR per person
Locals also recommended we try Sri Nirwana Maju, also in Bangsar but we didn’t quite get the chance.
Closest transport Bangsar. Located on Jalan Telawi 4

Other

 

Restoran Kin Kin: Selling one very popular dish, chilli pan mee. A bowl of thick noodles, meaty ragu, ikan billis and a poached egg served with a wickedly spicy dry roasted chilli paste. It’s exceptional, good value & very popular with locals. A bit off the tourist trail but well worth seeking out & trying as a double hit with Yut Kee, a five minute walk away.
Less than 10MYR per serve, open seven days, between 7am and 7pm but closes earlier on weekends. Closest transport : Medan Tunku (monorail) but also a short walk from Dang Wangi. Located on Jalan Dewan Sultan Sulaiman.

Chilli Pan mee Restoran Kin Kin Kuala Lumpur  KL

Yut Kee: Had been trading since the 1920’s in the same shophouse until a forced move in 2014, The style, food and ownership have barely changed since it began and they serve traditional Hainanese style food, great marble cake, kaya roll and coffee. They also have roast pork dinner on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
A good stopping point for coffee and cake on a walk about the city, as well as main meals. The roti babi is the stuff of dreams. Big fat greasy delicious dreams.
Closest transport :Dang Wangi LRT station. Located on Jalan Kamunting.

little India is also home to a heap of options to eat simple Indian snacks and spreads, a good place to pick up Indian sweets as are the market stalls around the Batu Caves.

You can buy fresh fruit including all the tropical favourites from all over the city at little stalls, they are usually similar prices per kilo as the big food stores like Cold Storage you find in the malls, just be picky as they will try to offload the overripe first.

Cold Storage and Isetan are also good options for picking up pieces for a picnic, the Botanical Gardens, KLCC park & Mederka Square are all great options to laze the afternoon away reading and snacking. Isetan in particular is good stop to pick up sushi.

 

diners at kl restaurant yut kee

Diners at the famous old Yut Kee restaurant.

 

Unfortunately, due to visiting during Ramadan we didn’t really get a chance to sample the delights of Kampung Baru, the traditional, lowrise Muslim residential enclave of KL. It’s a great area to visit, just to see another side of KL, which isn’t all commercialisation and modernity. Another reason to visit is the availability of pop-up street food stalls which reputedly sell some of the best nasi lemak in the city, amongst other delights.

Ramly burgers are to KL like a hot dog to New York, the typical local fast food.  The end product can vary depending on whats available but generally it’s a thin patty of chicken or beef with condiments and then wrapped in egg, served in a bun. Locals love them, the stalls are pretty much all over the city, several in the Chinatown area. Cheap, quick and affordable.

Transport

The transport network is great and you should never really need to take a cab, single journeys are between one and three ringgits. The LRT (red) line is very efficient and should cover most places you could want to visit. The monorail (green) line covers the gaps, but wait time seems to be a little longer.
There are also free GO KL! buses, which travel from Chinatown to Bukit Bintang and back.

words worth knowing!

Satu – One
Dua – Two
Tiga – Three
Apa kabar – are you well/ how are you?
salamat pagi – good morning
Salamat tingal – goodbye
sila (see luh) – please
Terima kasih –  Thank you
berapa harga – how much?
tidak pedas – no chilli
bungkus – Take away
Tidak – No
Ya – yes
Maaf – sorry
Lagi – more/again

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Whilst this selection is by no means exhausted it’s places we enjoyed hanging out, drinking teh tarik and eating on a budget in no frills kinda places, generally we just wandered into places for a teh tarik, and came back to eat if we liked the vibe.
We like to think we have good taste, but we’re open to suggestions. Join us on Facebook & if you liked our posts please share them using the little social media buttons below.