Kuala Lumpur: A Kaleidoscope of Cuisines and Cultures

If you’re traveling to Kuala Lumpur anytime soon, you’re in for a real treat as far as cuisine goes. I first visited the city for business in the mid-2000s and was so enamored by the food, vibe, and culture that I returned multiple times.  

This alpha world city serves some of the most delicious, varied, and spicy dishes in Southeast Asia. What’s more, unlike other world-class destinations like Tokyo or Paris, you won’t have to break the bank to enjoy the best dishes in KL.

A Quick History Lesson on Malaysian Cuisine

Kuala Lumpur is the capital of Malaysia, and the city has become a thriving center for Malaysian cuisine that reflects the nation’s multi-ethnic character with strong Malay, Chinese, and Indian influences.

Due to Malaysia’s historic position along the maritime trade routes linking India and China, Malaysian cuisine is heavily influenced by various Western colonial powers, as well as the cuisines of Thailand and Indonesia.

The main variations of Malaysian cuisine are Malay cuisine, Malaysian Chinese cuisine, and Malaysian Indian cuisine. Different states and communities (such as the Baba-Nyonya community) have also produced sub-variations of the national cuisines.

While the sheer variety and intricacy of Malaysian cuisine sometimes confuses and intimidates foreigners, you won’t feel so disoriented and your tummy will be satisfied if you do some research before embarking on your food adventures.

I’ve made many friends in KL, and they have introduced me to some of the best restaurants, hole-in-the-walls, and dishes in the city. If you want to sample the spices and curries of Southern Indian cuisine, consider visiting a Chettinad restaurant. I highly recommend The Lotus Family Restaurant in Jalan Gasing, Petaling Jaya. Suburban areas like Bangsar are also famous for their Chettinad restaurants.

Note that though Malaysia is a multi-cultural society, Islam is the state religion and Muslims will not eat in “non-halal” restaurants. Halal refers to food that is permissible under Islamic Sharia law. If you’re Muslim, always inquire if the restaurant serves halal food before entering the premises. There will usually be a sign outside the restaurant indicating that the establishment serves halal or non-halal food.

Also, observe simple dining etiquette while you’re in KL. If you’re eating at a Chinese restaurant, avoid sticking your chopsticks upright in a bowl of white rice. The Chinese find this offensive, as the gesture resembles the joss sticks offered to gods and ancestors. Also, if you’re dining in a Chettinad restaurant or are eating off a banana leaf, always fold the banana leaf upwards after your meal to indicate that you’re satisfied with the meal.

Food photos are generally allowed, and no one will mind if you whip out your smartphone or DSLR to take a food pic. I’ve never been adept with a camera myself, so I was not able to “professionally” document my gastric adventures in Malaysia—save for a few unattractive camera phone shots, of course. Nonetheless, not being a professional photographer shouldn’t keep you from snapping photos of those amazing exotic dishes for your next travel album. If you’re anything like me when it comes to camera skills, there are plenty of resources online that offer great food photography tips to help you refine your technique when taking those #foodporn pics.

Hawker Stalls: World-Class Cuisine at Modest Prices

Unlike France’s haute cuisine or Japan’s kaiseki ryori, you don’t have to dig into your kids’ college fund to afford some of the best cuisine KL has to offer. In fact, some of the best cuisine in Kuala Lumpur is served in humble hawker stalls. Malaysian hawker stalls are modest (usually open-air) eateries. The food is cooked in the stalls and is served to diners sitting on plastic chairs and tables.

If you’re interested in sampling some of the best of Malaysian Chinese hawker fare, consider having dinner in Jalan Alor in the Bukit Bintang district. This district is home to legendary hawker-style restaurants like Wong Ah Wah and Restoran Sai Woo. Notable dishes include chili crabs, roasted chicken wings, butter chicken, and Sichuan red chili chicken. While these and other dishes bear similarities to dishes found in mainland China, the Malaysian variants have distinct innovations, such as the use of belacan (spicy shrimp paste) and cili padi.

There are also hawker stalls that specialize in Malay and Indian cuisine. Different neighbourhoods in Kuala Lumpur have open-air restaurants and hawker stalls that residents will serve the best roti canai, nasi lemak, or satay.

While such establishments may have reputations that stretch far and wide, they usually don’t have websites and won’t show up on your favorite food delivery app. The best way to experience hawker cuisine is to go to one of these eateries, sit down, and order food like a local does.

Must-Try Dishes in Kuala Lumpur

While Malaysian cuisine is dominated by spices and chilies, your palate will encounter an array of other flavors ranging from savory and sweet to salty and bitter. Note that unlike Western cuisine, plating is not really a priority in restaurants (unless you’re eating in a high-class establishment or restaurant that serves Western food). Rest assured, though, that the food will be delicious despite the slapdash presentation.

Listed here are some of the must-try dishes you cannot afford to ignore during your stay in Kuala Lumpur:

1.    Nasi Lemak

Considered to be Malaysia’s national dish, nasi lemak consists of fragrant rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf. Side dishes include ikan bilis (fried anchovies), slices of cucumber, fried or boiled egg, peanuts, and sambal.  There’s also an optional viand (such as fried chicken, beef rendang, or sambal squid).

Nasi lemak is eaten throughout the day, and you can buy the dish in roadside stalls and restaurants. If you’re staying in a hotel, you can order it from room service.

2.    Hainanese Chicken Rice

Cheap, delicious, and filling, Hainanese chicken rice is a great lunch option. The chicken is usually roasted, though there’s also a barbecue and honey-roasted version. Hainanese chicken rice is enjoyed with a dipping sauce of freshly minced red chili and garlic, fresh cucumbers, as well as freshly ground ginger.

3.    Satay

Satay is a superb dish consisting of seasoned, skewered, and grilled meats served with a spicy-sweet peanut sauce. The meat may be chicken, goat, beef, or mutton, and it is grilled or barbecued over a wood or charcoal fire. Side dishes include raw cut vegetables and rice cakes.   

There are some great restaurants and hawker stalls around KL that serve satay (though some of the best, in my opinion, are situated in or near Ampang).

4.    Roti Canai

Closely associated with Malaysian Indian cuisine, roti canai is a type of flatbread. While you’ll see many office workers and students eating roti canai for breakfast at mamak stalls, the dish is consumed throughout the day and is a favorite dish of party-goers in the early hours of the morning.

Roti canai is served with dhal (lentil curry) or other types of Indian curry, and it tastes great with viands like fried squid and chicken curry. The chewy, oily, and delicious bread tastes even better with a cup of teh tarik (hot and sweet milk tea).

About the Author

Lacey Hauptman is a writer, graphic designer, and stay-at-home mom. She is also an animal lover, a wanderlust sufferer, and a Harry Potter nerd. When she’s not fulfilling wife and mom duties, she enjoys reading YA fiction (which she’s probably too old for) and writing about anything under the sun.