Kuala Lumpur‘s street markets offer a fascinating introduction to one of the most diverse cuisines in Southeast Asia.
Editor’s note: The old adage about familiarity breeding contempt generally holds true, but for me, Malaysia is one of the exceptions. Over the last twenty years my work has taken me to this fascinating country nearly two dozen times, but every trip continues to yield exciting revelations. From the beauty of its natural setting to its cultural richness, its vibrant cities and its indescribably good cuisine, Malaysia is one of my favourite places on earth.
This story appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of Explore, helloworld New Zealand’s magazine for premium customers and agents*. John Corbett flew to Kuala Lumpur with the assistance of Tourism Malaysia and 4PR, Auckland, New Zealand.
BY JOHN CORBETT.
“Monday is a quiet day at the market,” said Miss Julie, our guide from Mayflower Acme Tours Sdn Bhd, interrupting her commentary to peer through the minibus windows at the slow-motion ballet of morning traffic in central Kuala Lumpur. At 8.45am, this part of the city was still in full spate, the drivers around us performing feats of Zen-style manoeuvring that in New Zealand would cause a storm of honking and road rage. In Kuala Lumpur, where everyone unites in the task of getting to where they want to go, no-one turns a hair.
“Saturday and Sunday are very busy,’ continued Miss Julie. “Many housewives work during the week these days so they go out specially during the weekend to get their fish and meat and vegetables. The supermarket is only for certain things in KL. Many people still buy their food at the market.”
Our destination was Pasar Pudu (the name “pasar” means “market” in Malay), one of the city’s largest and oldest traditional wet markets where fresh meat, produce and live animals are sold in the open air. Located near KL’s “Golden Triangle” of premium shopping streets and plush hotels, Pudu is an old part of the city that was once synonymous with a grim colonial-era prison, now demolished. After a few more minutes of traffic Zen the minibus stopped abruptly beside a row of old shophouses and we disembarked into the tropical heat.
“Dokong!” said Miss Julie, pointing to a stall featuring some unremarkable-looking brown fruit. She cast a glance at the stall owner for permission before opening one to display its translucent, lychee-tasting flesh.
“Very tasty, but a bit pricey because they are seasonal,” she said, offering another of the endless stream of facts and observations she delivered throughout our tour. “We are now in the season of little fruits.”
All around us, Pasar Pudu stretched away in lane after stall-crammed lane, sprawling out of its central square and into the adjacent streets. It definitely lived up to its description as a wet market: the uneven asphalt paving (we had been strongly advised to wear comfortable, closed footwear) was splashed with the drippings and rinsings and trimmings of the most astonishing variety of fresh seafood, meat, fruit and vegetables you could ever hope to see. And even on a Monday it was jam-packed, with shoppers jostling three to four deep in the narrow aisles and porters yelling and pushing trolleys and barrows in every direction. It was also hot: although sun umbrellas covered most of the stalls the temperature in the shade was still around 30 degrees C, with 90 per cent humidity. We half-joked that we would hate to see the place on a busy day.
But Pasar Pudu was a revelation. For all of its devotion to commerce, the market had an unexpected beauty. There was counter after counter of gorgeous, subtly-patterned cuttlefish, frilled gurnard, spiky black sea urchins and slithery eel-like fish completely unfamiliar to Westerners. Big blue crabs sat grumpily in shallow polystyrene tubs with air bubbling into the water to keep them alive, their ferocious nippers tied securely with green rubber bands. There were tiny sharks, perfect red snapper, garfish, grouper and octopus.
The produce section was equally fetching. Purple- and white-streaked eggplants were arranged in big eye-catching piles, as were tomatoes, garlic, coriander, galangal, ginger, lotus root and mint. The spices section smelt like the Arabian Nights, with counters heaped with black peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, nutmeg and cardamom. In the dried foods section, a couple of us recognised ikan bilis, the crunchy dried anchovies that are a key ingredient in Malaysia’s “national” breakfast, Nasi Lemak. Miss Julie stepped in to explain at times.
“This is known as square bean”, she said, holding up a sample in one hand. “And this is snake bean”, she said, shaking the other. ”The kampong (village) chickens are also very tasty to Malay people,” she observed as we entered the butchery section where hens with distinctive red-brown feathers sat in cages awaiting their fate. At the red meat counters, whole beasts were being filleted, with impressive skill, with meat cleavers.
Back in the cool of the air-conditioned mini-bus and its supply of wet wipes, we headed across town to look at another aspect of market life. By night, the bars, restaurants and discount shopping outlets in the Chinatown district do a roaring trade. By day, its streets are the realm of street food vendors, although at 10.30am things were only just starting for some of the locals who were quietly spooning up bowls of congee, a rice porridge dish that sets you up for the day. If KL’s wet markets illustrate the abundance of the land and the richness of tropical seas, its street stalls reflect the extraordinary mix of influences that makes Malaysian cuisine one of the most interesting and diverse in Asia.
A thousand years before 16th-century European voyagers ventured into the region, Malaysia’s ancient kingdoms were part of a network of trading routes that extended west to the coasts of Africa and Arabia, east to Indonesia, and north to China. Later, under colonial rule, came influences from Portugal, Holland and Britain. A stroll past the street stalls in Jalan Petaling revealed some of the happy results: fragrant curries harking back to India and Indochina; soy bean milk and grass jelly drinks brought by migrants from southern China; popiah, a Southeast Asian-style spring roll) especially popular in Indonesia, and stands selling the brightly-coloured ais kacang (shaved ice) confections of agar-agar, tapioca and glutinous rice that Malaysians adore. At a vendor’s cart next to some guys doing building work I enjoyed the best curry puff of my life. Sort of like a samosa or Portuguese empanada but something else yet again, this puff-pastry cousin of the meat pie has been beloved by everyone since colonial times.
Another short hop took us to a Muslim eatery close to Central Market where Miss Julie introduced us to teh tarik, another colonial-era classic whose name literally means “pulled tea”. With a dramatic flourish, a café staffer poured our servings from a jug held high over his head. The tea was frothy from its exertions and tasted like tea made with Nestlé evaporated milk and sweetened liberally with palm sugar. Which it was.
Then it was on to Central Market where we roamed the profusion of stalls selling souvenir items, batik and songket fabrics, culinary utensils and even food art. Upstairs, Miss Julie pointed out the market’s well regarded food court whose stalls include Nyonya, the world-renowned fusion of Malay and Peranakan (Straits-born) Chinese cuisine.
Two of us noticed the exquisite kueh (small cakes and tarts) that are Nyonya specialities and our eyes swivelled over to Miss Julie. She had officially discharged her duties and was readying us to head back to our hotel.
“If we bought a few of these for us all,” we asked, “could you squeeze some in?”
“Of course,” she replied. “You’re in Malaysia. There is always time to eat.”
* John Corbett is Subeditor of Explore magazine.
Photos by John Corbett