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Malaysian cuisine is influenced by Malay Chinese and Indian culture
Among Kuala Lumpur's most loved dishes are curry laksa, char kuey teow and nasi lemak
Malaysia’s population is made up predominantly of ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians – diverse cultures that each have unique cuisines.
It’s no wonder the country is a food lover’s paradise.
Street stalls, food courts and restaurants offer everything from barbecued skewers and grilled seafood to fried rice and piping hot bowls of noodles.
The capital, Kuala Lumpur, has some of the best fine dining establishments in Southeast Asia.
But just because something costs $2 doesn’t mean it’s not delicious.
Here are the unmissable dishes in KL that offer a true taste of the local flavors – and where to find them.
Chili pan mee at Restoran Super Kitchen
This authentically Chinese-Malaysian noodle dish is an explosion of textures and flavors that will leave you wanting a second – or third serving.
Soft, chewy noodles are topped with fried anchovy, deep fried onions, fresh scallions, crushed peanuts, shredded pork and a poached egg.
Diners can add as much dry chili as they like and use chopsticks to mix it all together, breaking the egg yolk and making a sauce that coats the noodles with the spices, peanuts and onions.
Where: Restoran Super Kitchen, 33, Jalan Dewan Sultan Sulaiman 1, off Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman
Price: 7.50 Malaysian Ringgit (MYR) ($1.81) per bowl
Curry laksa at Kam Fatt
Laksa is a traditional Malaysian coconut noodle soup and nowhere does it better than Kam Fatt, an unassuming street side restaurant that’s only open for breakfast and lunch.
Choices include egg noodles, flat rice noodles, vermicelli or a combination of two or three.
The noodles are smothered in a thick gravy and served with boiled Hainan-style chicken, fried tofu puffs, cockles, bean sprouts and green beans.
It’s seasoned with a squeeze of fresh lime and extra chili sauce.
Mouths will tingle from the perfect balance of sweet, savory and spicy.
Where: Restoran Kam Fatt, 37, Jalan Tengkat Tongshin
Price: MYR6 per bowl
Banana leaf in Bangsar
Forget plates and utensils.
The authentic way to eat this traditional South Indian cuisine is with hands.
A set meal consists of rice, a crispy papadum and a choice of curries and chutney that are served on a banana leaf.
Diners can also choose to add chicken, beef, fish or vegetable curry and other dishes to round out their meal.
The meal is best ended with a banana or mango lassi, which is sweet and cooling and tempers down the heat of the spicy curry.
Where: Devis Corner, Nirvana or Raj’s Banana Leaf – all in Bangsar
Price: From MYR7.50
Mr. Chiam’s pisang goreng (fried banana) stall
This stall is only open for five hours a day – but it’s so popular that people will stand in line and risk getting heat stroke to get their hands on some deep fried bananas, root vegetables, sesame balls and curry puffs.
Everything is made on order.
The bananas and root veggies are dipped in a batter right before your eyes and cooked in a giant vat of boiling oil.
That first bite into the fried banana makes it worth the wait.
The batter is sweet and crispy, the banana inside is soft and warm.
The sesame balls are also crunchy on the outside, doughy in the middle and have a warm peanut or green bean filling.
The curry puffs are said to be the best in town – with a flaky crust and spicy potato filling.
Where: Mr. Chiam’s Pisang Goreng Stall, Brickfields opposite the YMCA
Price: MYR1.30 per piece of fried banana, root vegetable or sesame ball, MRY1.50 per curry puff
Char kuey teow at Rocky
While most westerners are probably more familiar with Hong Kong-style beef fried noodles, Malaysia’s version, called char kuey teow, is much more complex but every bit is as delicious.
Flat rice noodles are tossed in a wok with egg, prawns, fish cake slices, chicken or pork and a combination of dark and light soy sauce, shrimp paste and just a bit of chili.
The key to a good char kuey teow is the smokey flavor that’s infused in the noodles.
Mrs. Cheong, who runs the stand at Rocky Restaurant, has mastered the skill of heating the wok to just the right temperature to seal in that smokiness.
Where: Rocky Restaurant, 15, Jalan Telawi 5, Bangsar
Price: MYR5.50 per plate
Roti canai at Raju Restaurant
On weekends this long established South Indian restaurant can be found packed with people who’ve just finished a hike through Bukit Gasing Forest Park and want to reward themselves with a hearty roti breakfast.
The fresh made bread is warm and crispy on the outside, with soft, chewy layers inside.
It can be torn apart with hands and dipped in a choice of vegetable, chicken or fish curry.
Where: Raju Restaurant, 27, Jalan Chantek 5/13, Bukit Gasing, Petaling Jaya
Price: MYR1.50 per roti
Sun Fong’s bah kut teh
This 45-year-old establishment specializes in bah kut teh, a pork bone soup that’s slow cooked in a clay pot with Chinese medicinal herbs.
The place is popular among locals and celebrities from around Asia – photos of them taken with the owner are plastered on the walls.
One taste of the signature soup reveals why they came.
The flavor is rich and savory with a kick of sweetness that hits at the very end.
Malaysian bah kut teh is not to be confused with its Singaporean counterpart, which is cooked with garlic and pepper rather than Chinese herbs.
Though they share a name, the two variations could not be more different.
Where: 37, Medan Imbi, Pudu
Price: MYR17 for an individual serving
Sin Kee’s signature braised rice
Chinese restaurant Sin Kee is an institution in KL’s predominately Indian neighborhood of Brickfields.
Its signature dish is braised rice.
It’s hard to know what to expect at first because it’s served as a plastic bowl turned upside down on a plastic plate.
Slowly lifting the bowl and exposes a medley of meat, seafood and vegetables slow cooked in a sweet sauce that smothers the rice below.
The traditional serving includes pork, sausage, fish cake slices, lettuce, squid, onions and a fried egg, but Sin Kee also does a non-pork version.
Where: Restoran Sin Kee, 194, Jalan Tun Sambanthan, Brickfields
Price: MYR9.50 per bowl
Nasi lemak at Nasi Lemak Famous
Nasi Lemak literally translates into “fatty rice.”
It’s rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf. In Malaysia it’s the breakfast – or midnight snack – of champions.
The dish is often served with a piece of fried chicken, a fried or boiled egg, a side of sliced cucumber, dried anchovy, fried soy beans and a spoonful of spicy sambal sauce.
It’s a delicious combination of sweet, salty and spicy, soft, chewy and crunchy.
Locals flock to Nasi Lemak Famous in Bangsar– which has the reputation of being the best in town.
Where: Nasi Lemak Famous, Bangsar Selera Food Court, Jalan Telawi 1, Bangsar
Price: MYR7 per basic plate of rice, chicken and fried egg
Kam Lian Kee’s famous Hokkien noodles
Many Chinese-Malaysians can trace their ancestry back to Fujian province in China.
Hokkien is how Fujian is pronounced in the local dialect.
Hokkien fried noodles are thick egg noodles, stir-fried with pork, prawns, squid, cabbage and very small bits of crispy pork skin in the dark sweet soy sauce that has become synonymous with Southeast Asian Chinese cuisine.
It acts as camouflage for the other ingredients so there’s a surprise with every bite.
Where: Kam Lian Kee, 56, Jalan Petaling, City Centre
Price: MYR9 per plate
Ngau Kee Beef Noodle Stand
This family business has been running for more than 40 years.
Tucked away in an alleyway in Bukit Bintang, it’s a popular spot for people to eat at after a night of clubbing but it opens at 6 p.m. for anyone wanting an early dinner.
Customers get a choice of egg noodles, broad rice noodles or silver needle noodles, which are topped with minced beef that’s slow cooked in a dark soy sauce.
It’s topped with fresh cut scallions and dry chili and mixed well before eating.
It’s served with a side of soup with beef balls, chuck and tripe that can be dipped in homemade chili sauce.
Where: Tengkat Tong Shin, Bukit Bintang
Price: MYR7 for small serving
Nitro coffee at Bean Reserve
Not traditionally Malaysian, but definitely a treat to escape the heat in KL – Bean Reserve specializes in cold coffee that’s chilled by nitrogen and poured out of a beer tap, bearing a texture similar to Guinness.
Owner Jeremy Chan also recently introduced “nitro white” to the menu – the milk coffee has a striking resemblance to Bailey’s Irish Cream.
Those not into coffee can try the specially brewed nitro tea, which is infused with lemongrass.
Bean Reserve is also known for its soft serve ice cream, which tastes just like the milk left in the bowl after you’ve finished your sugar-laced cereal.
Where: Bean Reserve Coffee Roasters, 8, Lengkok Abdullah, Bangsar
Price: From MYR8 for drinks, MYR8 for soft serve
Beggar’s chicken at New Heong Kee
New Heong Kee Restaurant has been around for decades, but its location is conspicuous – hidden along a highway next to the national zoo.
A lot of locals don’t even know about it.
It specializes in beggar’s chicken – a dish that has its roots in China’s Jiangsu province.
A fresh chicken is marinated in Chinese medicinal herbs and Shaoxing cooking wine, then encased in clay and buried in a kiln and slowly roasted for six hours.
When it’s served, the succulent meat simply falls off the bone and melts in the mouth – having absorbed all the juices and flavors.
Other star attractions are the double boiled winter melon soup and the country-style fish – meat is deboned from a mackerel, then turned into a paste and stuffed back into the fish so it looks like it was never deconstructed to begin with.
It’s both skillful and delicious.
Where: New Heong Kee Restaurant, 446, Batu 7 1/2, Jalan Ulu Klang
Price: MYR48 per chicken
Nasi padang at Restoran Minang Salero
Minang Salero is one of Kuala Lumpur’s hidden gems if you’re a fan of Indonesian-style nasi padang.
This place, tucked away in the unassuming (but rapidly gentrifying) inner city suburb of Sentul, features a veritable smorgasbord of Malay and Indonesian staples.
But the piece de resistance is the beef rendang – a delicious curry made of coconut, chilli and spice.
Unlike most places, the beef in Minang Salero’s rendang is rather chewy, which adds fantastic texture to the dish.
It’s best eaten with chili potato chips and sambal oelek (a spicy chilli sauce) on a steaming pile of rice.
Where: No 1088, Sentul Pasar, Kuala Lumpur
Price: About MYR8 per plate, price varies depending on combination of dishes
Claypot butter crabs at Restoran Wong Poh
Wong Poh has everything you’d expect from a Malaysian Chinese restaurant – the usual noodle and rice dishes, the assortment of pork staples as well as the expected range of riches from the sea.
What truly stands out though is its claypot butter crabs.
While the best known crab dish from the Southeast Asian region is Singapore’s chili crab, Wong Poh’s method of cooking the crustacean is an underrated joy.
Slathered in a buttery sauce, the dish comes with an added dose of savory flavor thanks to the liberal amounts of curry leaves added to it.
A plate of man tou (fried buns) is a great way to mop up whatever sauce remains.
Where: 36 & 38, Jalan Bukit Mayang 1/2, Bukit Mayang Mas, Petaling Jaya
Price: MYR28 per crab
Palm sugar appam at Om Shakti Chelo’s Appam Stall Bangsar
Appam is a traditional Indian breakfast pancake made from fermented rice batter.
It’s soft in the middle, crispy around the edges and usually served with a hefty dose of coconut milk, making it a warm, sludgy and absolutely delicious mess of a meal.
While Chelo’s, which has been going strong for more than 20 years, features the classic version of this timeless staple, what takes our breath away is their riff on the dish, which sees the soft white center of the appam swimming in swirls of caramelized palm sugar.
The addition of the sugar doesn’t just add a kick of sweetness, it also gives the light and airy dish a unique full-bodied texture.
Don’t let its humble roadside location fool you – it’s the best appam joint in town.
Where: Lorong Ara Kiri 3, Lucky Garden, Bangsar
Price: MYR1.50 per brown sugar appam
CNN’s Marc Lourdes contributed to this feature.