Kuala Lumpur is the perfect place to learn about South Asian food. The city’s cuisine includes traditional Malay dishes and foods from India, China, and Thailand. But it’s overwhelming. I needed a guide.
Booking a Food Tour
I usually book tours through Viator. I’ve used their site to book everything from cooking classes and mountain hikes to a vintage Fiat-driving wine tour in Tuscany.
But I wanted to try one of the tours-with-locals-style websites, so I checked out WithLocals.com. The Kuala Lumpur tours are dominated by a French ex-pat named Mathieu who’s been exploring the jungles around KL for eight years. Mat will take you to waterfalls, caves, elephant sanctuaries — or on a Food Marathon tour of KL!
As a solo traveler, I had to pay quite a bit for the tour (50 euros) but that was a bargain given the ridiculous amount of food, not to mention more than five hours of Mat’s time. If you can get a small group together for one of these tours, you’ll save a lot of money.
Mat met me at my hotel and our first stop, to my delight, was the underground food court where I’d been so confused the day before!
Nasi Lemak: Breakfast Anchovies?
Mat made sure I knew about Nasi Lemak, the national dish of Malaysia. Coconut rice is served with chili paste, crispy fried anchovies, peanuts, a boiled egg, and cucumbers. We didn’t eat any since it’s a breakfast dish, but I tried it the next day. Yes, those are whole tiny fried fish — a good source of calcium, I suppose? They don’t taste fishy at all, just crispy.
Popiah: Malaysian Spring Rolls
Mat took me to a booth that offered Popiah, a local spring roll filled with cooked turnips and crispy fresh veggies. Mat ordered ours “white” rather than fried. It was delicious.
Then we hopped on the monorail and I got a bonus lesson on using the public transportation system in KL.
We were soon walking down a street lined with vendors, and Mat bought some treats for us to pack along.
Street Vendors & The Market
The first dish he bought was Tapai, a packet of fermented tapioca (cassava). Muslims don’t drink alcohol, but apparently they can eat it. Tapai can have as much as a 5% alcohol content, making it stronger than most beers.
Then we picked up a generous portion of rambutan, a fruit I’ve been wanting to try. Apparently “rambutan” means “in need of manscaping.” (actually it literally translates to “hairy.”) The inside tastes like a peeled grape with one large seed, very similar to the Longans I talked about in a previous post.
Mat took me through the market and showed me lots of fun things. Not pictured: The river snails, covered with slimy mud and crawling over each other in a box.
We paused a while to watch a street vendor making Putu Bambu. He patiently stuffed bamboo tubes with shredded coconut, poked brown sugar inside them, then steamed them over a special cooker. Mat bought us some of these to try.
I got more than just food on my trip. I saw a lot of the city and learned a lot. Mat pointed out these charming local houses on stilts, just across the highway from the skyscrapers, and I learned a little about local politics when he told me about the battle to preserve this area.
Soon we arrived at a large open-air restaurant serving Nasi Kerabu, a blue rice dish from the east coast of Malaysia. The blue comes from a flower (though the color isn’t always authentic these days). The rice came with dry beef slices, veggies, and seasonings. I was invited to take what I wanted from the buffet as well, but that was a bit overwhelming.
We unpacked all our treasures from the market and sampled everything.
Walk it off
By this time I was stuffed, but the food marathon was only warming up! We took a scenic route through the city and Mat showed me the palace and the place where the rivers come together, an important spot marked with a lovely mosque.
We strolled to Kuala Lumpur’s Little India neighborhood for our next stop, and I was presented with a popular South Indian specialty: a variety of dishes on a banana leaf platter. At this point, Mat dropped out and left me to do all the eating — with my fingers.
An Indian gentleman at the table next to us enjoyed explaining the dish to us. All the flavors are chosen to complement each other, and only the tip of the banana leaf is used since the wide part of the leaf is associated with wrapping dead bodies. If you fold the leaf away from you instead of toward you when you’re done, it’s a signal to the chef that the food wasn’t good. I folded mine toward me firmly, hoping the cook would understand that I just couldn’t eat another bite.
I felt stuffed and rice-drunk, but we weren’t done yet.
A few more stops
We stopped at a Hindu temple, and Mat watched my shoes while I went inside. Shoe theft is a big problem here — everyone leaves their shoes outside and thieves scoop them up. (Mat even showed the me the market where you can go to buy your shoes back if they disappear one day).
The temple is the beginning point for an annual Hindu pilgrimage to Batu Caves, and Mat described some of the self-flagellation rituals, including one in which people pierce their skin and hang small pots of coconut milk from themselves, which they will pour out at the caves.
Last stop: Chinatown!
KL’s Chinatown is a crowded, busy place where I got my first taste of Durian, a fruit with such a strong smell that it’s banned in most hotels. If death farted, it would smell like durian.
On our way back, Mat stopped to get something for his wife, and showed me Jalan Alor, literally “Gutter Street,” a fun place for tourist dining. It’s not far from my hotel, so I’ll bring you a full report on Jalan Alor soon.
Mat accompanied me all the way back to my hotel, more than five hours after we started, and I fell into bed fat and happy. My first impression of the sharing-economy tours: Wonderful! Like hanging out with a brand-new friend who knows a lot and wants you to have a good time.
Like any site that hooks you up with un-vetted folks, read the reviews carefully, charge your phone before you go, and trust your gut. I wouldn’t take a tour that had no reviews or get in a car with anyone I didn’t feel 100% comfortable with.