Eating in Kuala Lumpur

On my last night in Malaysia, we decide to make our way to Bangsar, the so-called ‘expat’ area, which is supposed to be the most cosmopolitan part of the city. Kuala Lumpur was my introduction to Asia in 2004 and in the years since then I’ve found myself regularly passing through. But somehow I’ve never actually been to Bangsar before, opting to hang around the Golden Triangle and Chinatown areas instead.

We take the train there, and walking the rest of the way from the station gives us an opportunity to scope out the area. The goal tonight is to seek out some good non-Malaysian food. Walking along the suburban backstreets, it’s clear that Bangsar is a well-to-do area, with clean, well-kept lawns and impressive, new-looking homes. It certainly feels very different to the other parts of the city that I’ve been to. But I imagine KL’s satellite towns and other middle-class areas probably feel similar to this in terms of newness. Actually, one thing that’s been surprising on this trip is realising just how young Malaysia is in terms of its nationhood – even younger than Australia, in fact. It gained independence from the British in 1957.

We don’t see any expats on our short walk through the suburban part of Bangsar, but we certainly see a lot of Indians coming in and out of homes. This isn’t surprising given that the Indians that have been in Malaysia a few generations dominate the professional classes so they’re a relatively wealthy group.

(After arriving back to KL that morning to a makeshift bus station, where thousands of people waited under temporary awnings as the monsoonal rain came down and the dozens of buses blasted fumes into the air, I could feel my cool quickly evaporate into the sticky air. This was Kuala Lumpur at its worst and, by extension, Malaysia. Coincidentally, during this time I was in the midst of editing Malaysia’s country report to the United Nations, which was a progress report to show just how on track it was to becoming a developed country. My frustrations with the poor intercity infrastructure made me feel that the country still has a fair way to go, no matter what the report I was working on said…)

We pass through the local Sunday market, same as any other in the country, so when we arrive in the main part of Bangsar, I’m even more surprised at just how nice it is; it feels like an oasis of calm, with very few people about on the spotless pavements. There are boutiques featuring brand name clothes in a very chi-chi shopping centre called Bangsar Village. There’s even a Bang & Olufsen shop on the ground floor, which speaks volumes about who the target audience is. Seeing as it’s dinner that we’re after, we look at all of the restaurants around – most on the surrounding streets don’t seem to serve typical Malaysian food. Instead, there are restaurants that serve Spanish and Italian and Thai; the variety is excellent. I start to feel embarrassed at the fact that I instantly like the area because the standard of living is closest to what I’m used to. Perhaps, after all, I am just a typical expat despite all my attempts to be otherwise. And I can’t get away from the fact that being here, on my last night, is a joyful and much-needed experience to break up the trials of travel.

Madam Kwan's
Madam Kwan's

That’s not to say that I haven’t enjoyed eating the past four days. Despite my ambivalence about KL itself on this trip, with the Islamic Arts Museum proving to be the only real point of interest aside from the cheap shopping, I’ve loved every culinary encounter. My love of Malaysian food and food in Malaysia holds completely steady despite the annoyances I experience. I can distinctly remember every single meal we have, and can say wholeheartedly what a welcome change it’s been from the usual array of food on offer in Chiang Mai. The first day it was Egyptian for lunch (lamb with rice), which was the first time I had Egyptian in over a year. In the evening it’s dinner with two other friends who are also in town and we have Chinese food on Jalan Alor, one of the city’s main eat streets. Afterwards, we end up in a nearby Yemeni café for mint tea and dessert. The following day Josh and I tuck into roti canai at a cheap eatery on Jalan Tengkat Tong Shin for breakfast, followed by a lunch at what is undoubtedly one of the city’s most popular restaurants, the Madam Kwan’s branch in the Suria KLCC shopping centre at the base of the Petronus Towers. I had visited there once before in 2004 and remembered how good the nasi lemak was – a return trip all these years later did not disappoint in the least. In addition to the nasi lemak, we also order some beef rendang and that was undoubtedly the best version I’ve ever had, with the brisket falling apart just like it ought. We also had two days eating our way through Malacca, but that deserves a big post in itself with photos from Josh’s camera (since mine was stolen) — I’ll get to that part in a future post.

So going back to Bangsar…overwhelmed with choices, we finally decide on Delicious, for no reason other than that it seems to be really busy, which is always a good sign. The crowd is a mix of expats and wealthy Malaysians and it’s a family friendly place, as evidenced by the many children drawing with crayons on the paper placemats provided. The restaurant is open and airy and feels very Western. In fact, the restaurant would not look out of place in an Australian city. I can’t help but notice how slick the branding is.

Delicious in Bangsar Village
Delicious in Bangsar Village

At our table for two we are given large menus which I eagerly flip open. And as I read through the dishes on offer, I say to Josh incredulously, “Oh my God, this is an Australian menu!”

Just the week before our trip to Malaysia, some American friends back in Chiang Mai had asked us to define what Australian food was, and we had given a hodgepodge answer that probably left them feeling none the wiser. But the menu at Delicious explained the concept far better than either of us ever could. They had classic Malaysian or otherwise Asian dishes which they dubbed ‘delieast’, but the rest of the menu was unmistakably modern Australian. There were the obvious cues like coffee (flat white, long black etc) and dishes like eggs benedict on toasted ciabatta, braised wagyu beef and mushroom pie, antipasti platter – that sort of thing. Between us we order a fish burger with tartare sauce served with hot chips; shepherd’s pie; and sticky date pudding with vanilla ice-cream for dessert. The pudding was the obvious choice in a very crowded dessert menu that included various crumbles, tiramisu in a glass, and macadamia cheesecake – see what I mean when I say the menu is Aussie?! (The next day I looked up the restaurant online to confirm what the Australian connection is – and indeed, the person behind the business is a young Malaysian guy who went to high school and university in Melbourne and wanted to recreate the tastes he experienced in Australia.)

The first plate arrives fast, and the flurry of activity by the large number of staff in the restaurant seems justified and I’m impressed at just how professional the service is. It seems in no time at all we’re both eating half a fish burger each and savouring every single mouthful. It’s the kind of thing I didn’t even know I craved since it’s not something I ever ate much of; but somehow this burger represents an unmistakable taste of home. Before we even finish the first part of our meal, the shepherd’s pie comes out in a medium sized ramekin with an accompanying salad. So as soon as we polish off the burger, we each take piping hot mouthfuls of the pie; Josh is transported to his mother’s cooking and I’m transported to my own, when I used to make shepherd’s pie for my brothers when the mood struck.

As we sit there, allowing our food to digest and waiting for the empty plates to be cleared for the final course, we both agree that this is a meal we’ll remember for years to come. Even back in Sydney, this meal would have made an impression, but in our current diet of Thai food plus whatever else we come across, Australian food is a truly unique experience. Maybe the definition of Australian food is the approach, the presentation and the fusion of flavours that reflect a mixed heritage. Well, whatever it is, it’s surprising that of all places in the world, Kuala Lumpur is the place where I find it again for the first time since leaving home.

Oh, and as for the sticky date pudding…the pudding tasted so luxurious, doused as it was in butterscotch sauce, and with the perfect complement of vanilla ice-cream that was melting on the plate faster than we could eat it. Never before has a dessert slid so easily off our spoons and into our mouths.

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