Kuala Lumpur is a city that has been transformed in a relatively short time, evolving in a few decades from a sleepy outpost of the British Empire to one of the modern world's great cities. Today you can find traces of this metamorphosis everywhere, with gleaming skyscrapers towering over old colonial buildings and bustling street markets next to huge shopping malls. The population is equally diverse, with Malay, Chinese and Indian communities dispersed throughout the city.
This makes Kuala Lumpur a food-lover's paradise: the breakfast buffet at our hotel not only had eggs and bacon, but also Chinese noodles, Malay satay skewers and South Indian curries. Our biggest problem was deciding where to start from! All these cuisines not only coexist but also influence each other, creating flavours that are unique to the city. My absolute favourite dish was chickpeas cooked in a spicy coconut milk sauce, poured over freshly steamed idlis (rice cakes). I have never come across this combination before and it was heaven!
Kuala Lumpur's ultimate street food destination is Jalan Alor, a long winding street filled with food vendors selling their wares from pushcarts, the back of motorcycles, and makeshift stalls. It is best visited at night when pavements are lined with happy diners seated around tables, surrounded by food of every description, with that indefinable aroma from innumerable charcoal grills filling the air.
Walking down this street, dodging cars and throngs of passers by, weaving your way through the tables and food stalls that are everywhere, you begin to wonder whether anyone cooks at home. And with food this good, exciting and cheap, why would they even bother!
One of our favourite ways to get out of the fierce day time heat was to duck into the myriad food courts that dot Kuala Lumpur. They are a wonderful, inexpensive way of exploring the staggering variety of food on offer. Some of these food courts or hawker centers are charmingly laid out under spreading trees, offering a green oasis in the middle of the city, while others are in shopping malls or office buildings.
Petaling Street or Chinatown is a lively, bustling shopper's paradise with a fascinating night market. This is where you will find brand name knock offs for almost every item imaginable as well as street food that is hard to find in most restaurants.
In between bouts of bargaining and shopping you can revive yourself with dishes such as salted roast duck, deep fried sweet potato balls, grilled beef jerky, meat buns, roasted chestnuts, fruit juices and iced tea!
Just around the corner from Petaling Street is the famous Old China Cafe. Housed in the guildhall of a defunct laundrymen's association, this cafe retains all its glorious original furnishings, exudes old world charm and serves fantastic Nyonya food.
Having heard so much about this little cafe, we resisted the heady aromas of street food vendors around us and went here for dinner. It is reputed to have the best Beef Rendang in town and we were not disappointed!
Rendang is a spicy meat preparation popular in Indonesia and Malaysia. The meat is cooked for a long time with coconut milk, spices and other ingredients such as shallots, lemongrass and galangal. The process of cooking progresses from sauteing to simmering to frying as the liquid evaporates and the meat absorbs the wonderful flavours, caramelizes as it becomes spice crusted and literally falls apart in your mouth. This is an age old preservation cooking technique for hot climates in the days before refrigeration.
We first came across Rendang a few years ago in an Amsterdam restaurant. Beef rendang was part of our Rijstafel menu and the chef himself came out to warn us that no one had ever managed to finish an entire bowl of it in his restaurant. While we scoffed at this, assuring him that as Indians we had an innate ability to handle spicy food, we couldn't finish it either. It was just too hot!
Even though we couldn't eat too much of it the first time, we loved it's complex, spicy flavours and often sought it during our travels. We discovered (much to our relief) that rendang doesn't have to be searingly hot and it is possible to finish an entire bowl of it!
Lamb rendang is easy and satisfying to make at home. Although the cooking process requires a bit of time and patience, tantalizing aromas fill up the house and whet the appetite! I like to leave a bit of sauce clinging to the meat so that it is nice to eat with rice. In most restaurants though, the sauce is cooked off till only the oils remain and the meat is cooked in this till it is a rich brown colour and falling apart tender. If you wish to do that, simply uncover the skillet and cook for an additional 15-20 min till the desired result is achieved. If you want a hotter dish, add more cayenne pepper to taste!
I love adding baby potatoes to my lamb rendang. They absorb and thicken the sauce and become very flavourful. Serve with plain rice or Nasi Biryani as is traditional in Kuala Lumpur.
1 cup roughly chopped red onion
4 cloves garlic
1 inch piece ginger or galangal
6 macadamia nuts
2 fresh hot red chilies, optional
1 inch piece fresh turmeric, optional
1 tsp each: ground coriander, sugar
1/2 tsp each: cayenne pepper, turmeric, paprika, tamarind paste
1/4 tsp each, ground spices: cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, fennel
Salt to taste
2 tbsp olive oil
2 each, whole spices: cloves, cardamom, star anise, cinnamon stick
2 lb boneless leg of lamb, cubed into bite sized pieces
1 can (400 ml) unsweetened coconut milk
6 lime leaves, optional
2 stalks lemongrass, ends trimmed, crushed lightly with mallet
Combine onion, garlic, galangal or ginger, macadamia nuts, red chilies, fresh turmeric (if using), ground coriander, sugar, salt, cayenne, turmeric, paprika, tamarind paste, ground cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and fennel in food processor or blender. Process until well combined and finely minced. Transfer to a bowl.
Warm oil in large non stick skillet over medium heat. Add whole cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and star anise. Sizzle spices 1 min, then add spice paste from bowl.
Saute for 3-4 min until paste is fragrant, then add lamb pieces. Fry lamb for 3-4 min to seal flavours.
Add coconut milk, lime leaves (if using) and lemongrass. Mix well, cover and cook on very low heat for 2 hours or until lamb is very tender and sauce is very thick, stirring occasionally. Garnish with slivered lime leaves or mint and serve.