Kuala Lumpur, the cosmopolitan heart of Malaysia is a sprawling metropolis made up of a multi-racial mix of people. The culinary options in the city ranges from the international fares to the local Malaysian mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisines, evolving for centuries with recipes passed on by generations. These age-old recipes themselves have evolved through the years with ingredients mixed and integrated from the different ethnic groups that have passed by the land. The many races and their colourful tradition and cultures have assimilated to present a wonderful, unique ethnicity and a quaint palate of cuisines.
Every day, most Malaysians start their day with a 600 year old favorite – nasi lemak. Rice steamed in coconut milk, topped with a dash of sambal, a chili puree, some cucumber, egg and fried ikan bilis – a local variety of anchovies and wrapped in banana leaf. Nasi lemak is a Malay staple and the recipe has remained unchanged probably since the 15th century though additional items have been added on to the meal such as chicken, squids and prawns, it is considered an authentic Malaysian cuisine. A recent Time magazine ranking placed the nasi lemak in the Top 10 of the world’s most healthy breakfast.
The variety of street food, influenced by generations of Chinese is staggering as it is mouth-watering – Al fresco dining Malaysian style. The Char Kuey Teow, fried flat rice noodles, tossed with beansprouts, cockles, chili and garlic is a local favorite. This simple dish, which takes mere minutes to prepare, is enjoyed by the Malays and Indians as well, with their own version of the fried noodles.
KL food is full of variety and contrasts – a richly woven tapestry of cultural influences. The history of KL reveals how a diversity of people came to settle here, bringing their own customs and tradition, each contributing to the cultural landscape. They brought different aspects of their cuisines as well and traders that passed through the land brought even more culinary influences. The cuisine of the country tells the story of their colorful past, a heritage all Malaysians share. With the melting pot of influences, a fusion of the variety of culinary techniques, condiments and spices took place centuries ago resulting in the mouth-watering celebration of this multi-cultural city today. The story of Malaysian cuisine is in fact a story of KL’s cuisine.
There are hidden culinary treasures in KL that can be discovered. Muslims make up more than half the population of KL and the end of Ramadhan, a month of fasting observed the world over, is celebrated by a festival called Aidil-Fitri, usually accompanied by a gathering of family and friends and a feast of many of the most delicious Malay cuisine, some only prepared during the festival period.
No festive feast is complete without the flagship Beef Rendang – a dish that is to the Malays what turkey is to Christmas. Beef rendang is beef chunks marinated in a spicy mix of onions, shallots, ginger, lemon grass, coriander and fennel – introduced by the Indian traders, cooked slowly for several hours and left to simmer till the gravy is a thick consistency. These recipes have been passed down through generations.
The arrival of the Indians added the South Eastern Indian spices to the culinary melting pot giving Malaysian dishes an aromatic flavor. The immigrants brought with them the flavors and taste of home, much of which became part of the local cuisine. A local favorite, Fish Head Curry in actual fact is a fusion of Chinese and Indian cooking. Indians traditionally do not have fish heads and are usually thrown away. With the Chinese influence, the fish head was cooked in curry and has become another fixture on the Malaysian cuisine list.
However, 21st Century cosmopolitan Kuala Lumpur paints a different picture. Rows of side walk cafes, bistros and coffee establishments can be seen at almost every mall in the city, serving a combination of western and local menu. A multitude of international class restaurants now add to the variety and diversity available in the city – from the foreign food restaurants to the now wide range of fine dining options. The traditional KL street food is very much alive and is as popular with KLites and the visitors to the city, standing side by side with the new variety, KL can now be considered a gastronomic destination in Asia with its contrasting and diverse culinary servings.
Coliseum Café Kuala Lumpur
The Coliseum Café in the middle of the city is a fine example of how West and East have assimilated tastefully to present a unique Western Hainanese cuisine. The Coliseum Café and Hotel started in 1921 and generations later, still continues to operate in the same premises at one of Kuala Lumpur’s oldest street, Batu Road, now known as Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman (named after Malaysia’s First King). The restaurant’s ambiance is typical of a British colonial grillroom, retaining many of its original wood interior and trimmings, served the British who worked and lived here then and was famously patronized by writer W. Somerset Maugham, planters and traders who swung by for tea, cocktails and dinner.
Over time, the Western Colonial cuisine evolved into its own unique style as the chefs, concocted their own interpretation of many a western dish. One would detect delicate influences of ingredients synonymous of the Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine in certain dishes. Some of its signature dishes, then and now, include the ever popular Oxtail Soup, Sizzling Steaks and the Hainanese Chicken Chop. Desserts include spring roll banana fritters, fried ice cream, crème caramel and authentic Hainanese coffee.
The Coliseum is a living example of the contrasts and diversity of KL’s culinary scene, make a note the next time you visit KL.