I didn’t know what to expect from Kuala Lumpur. Multiple friends described the city as unwelcoming, difficult to navigate, and unremarkable. More than a few people looked perplexed when I told them I would be visiting KL. Luckily for me, the skeptics were wrong. While KL is not the most picturesque city, and does not have many conventional tourist destinations, it has a rich blend of cultures that is perhaps best experienced through its vibrant cuisine.
Malaysian food reflects its diverse cultural heritage: it has the sweet-sour flavors of the Malay, paired with the wok-frying techniques of the Chinese and intoxicating spices of India, all of which combine to create a truly distinct cuisine. And despite mounting ethnic and religious tensions, there is one unifying characteristic that transcends these differences: Malaysians love to eat. No matter what time of day, every restaurant, street stall, night market, and kopitiam is full of customers, happily devouring the house specialty.
One specialty that I still dream about is murtabak — a less well-known cousin of Malaysia’s more famous breakfast dish, roti canai. Murtabak is a paper thin wisp of a pancake, fried until crispy and light. But unlike roti canai, which is dipped in curry, murtabak envelops a spicy-cumin filling of ground mutton or chicken, eggs, and onions. It’s served with a rich coconut gravy and red onions pickled in rosewater, which provide much-needed relief from the murtabak filling, whose heat grew more intense with each bite. It was my first meal in KL, and perhaps one of my best meals there, perfectly encapsulating the many cultures and flavors that define Malaysia and its cuisine.
Another ubiquitous Malaysian specialty is teh tarik, or pulled tea. Sweet condensed milk and black tea are pulled back and forth between two glasses, creating a pleasantly frothy concoction reminiscent of chai, minus the spices. It’s available hot or iced at pretty much any restaurant or street stall, and every version tastes different. Though I did not witness the acrobatic display that is mamaks (a.k.a. tea masters!) pulling teh tarik, it is a hallmark of daily life in KL — so much so, that it inspired a hipster local clothing line.
Excellent murtabak and teh tarik can be found at Restoran Fathima (10, Jalan Bangsar Utama 1, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur 59200), located on a quiet corner in the expat friendly Bangsar neighborhood. The restaurant is no-frills and unassuming, which in my experience, signals a good meal is in store.
KL is not for the faint of heart, or for travelers expecting guided tours. But those who are willing to venture off the beaten path and explore Malaysia’s diverse culture and cuisine — preferably with an open mind and empty stomach — are in for many rewarding experiences and epic meals.