Hello from India! The last week or so has been pretty busy, particularly in Kuala Lumpur where I spent my short time there jumping around from one stop to the next. It was my second trip to the city and this time I wanted to focus on one of the things that I loved most on my last visit- the street food.
Malaysian food really doesn’t get a whole load of attention outside of Malaysia. Let’s be honest- walk down any UK high street and you can expect to find at least 3 Indian or Chinese restaurants. But, much like Korean food, you’d be hard pushed to find Malaysian outside of the big cities.
The food in Malaysia really reflects the ethnic identity of the country. Here’s a quick cultural insight- Malaysia is made up of 3 main race groups- Indian, Malay and Chinese. Over many, many years, the 3 cultures have all brought their own cuisine to the table and Malaysian food has gradually evolved out of this.
I am intrigued by the relationship between the food and culture of Malaysia so I decided to book a place on the Kuala Lumpur “Off the Eaten Track” street food tour with Food Tour Malaysia so that I could learn about it. I’m not a huge fan of museums or historical tours, but feed me and I’ll be all ears!
The street food culture in Malaysia is one of the best places to get an understanding of this since it’s one of the most common ways for families, workers, couples and friends to eat together. They believe that it’s the easiest way to eat truly homemade food. It’s also cheap and affordable for locals so they are able to comfortably eat out for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This is why I knew that I had to take a street food tour to really understand the relationship between the food and the culture in Malaysia!
The tour made 3 stops- Chinese, Malay and Indian, and each stop was better than the last! Here’s what we ate and learned during the tour.
Chinese Street Food
Our first stop of the night was a Chinese street food market. As we walked through some of the stalls we sampled our first dish of the night- apam balak.
Apam Balak is a type of Malaysian pancake that is commonly eaten as a snack. The texture is similar to an English crumpet but thinner, and a little crispier. It’s filled with sugar, crushed peanuts and, wait for it, sweetcorn! Originally I was expecting it to taste a lot like hotteok, a popular (super sweet) Korean street food snack but, despite the similar ingredients, it really couldn’t have been more different! It was surprisingly savoury and I actually really enjoyed it!
The Chinese street food stands were more like a gigantic canteen with multiple vendors all cooking in a huge open plan kitchen. Our guide, Charles, took us around to see how each of the dishes were made before letting us tuck in.
We tried chicken and mutton satays, thai fish curry and stirfried seafood noodles.
One of my favourite things about this tour was how Charles pointed out little insights into the culture that I doubt we would have noticed on our own.
For example, the guy who cooked our satays was cooking outside. I would have turned a blind eye to this but Charles explained that he is a muslim cooking in a Chinese kitchen so he cooks outside away from the pork- the Chinese are the only race group who cook with pork in Malaysia. It was so interesting for me to hear about how the three races interact together in their shared country and this tour gave me a much greater understanding.
As for the food, the fish curry was definitely my favourite- the flavours were spicy, sweet and fragrant and the creaminess balanced it perfectly. The stir-fried tofu was crispy and delicious! In Korea firm tofu is pretty rare to find so this was a great treat for me.
Malay Street Food
Our next stop was to one of the more industrial areas of Kuala Lumpur. Our guide wanted us to try one of the street food stands frequented by factory workers- somewhere I would definitely not have found on my own. This place is apparently one of the best places in the whole of Malaysia to try Nasi Lemak, a famous breakfast dish consisting of coconut rice, sambal (a kind of spicy paste), fried peanuts, fried anchovies and a boiled egg.
I loved this dish! A lot of the others found it too spicy but I thought it was perfect. I think all that spicy tteokboki I’d been eating in Korea has burned my tastebuds forever! The lady who makes it was so sweet and asked Charles if she could take selfies with us. Such a wee sweetie.
Indian Street Food
By the time we got to the Indian street food vendor, our final stop, I was cursing myself for eating so much Nasi Lemak- but man, it was so tasty I couldn’t stop! There we tried a different selection of rotis- one of which was over a metre long! We had a selection of curries to dip them into and, I have to say, I enjoyed every one. Curry is my all time favourite food so I was pretty much in my own little culinary heaven.
When we couldn’t eat anymore, Charles ordered dessert for us- roti cooked with a banana inside. I honestly thought I was going to turn into a roti after stuffing my face with so many. But, still, I magically made space for this sweet treat. We had it with some coconut cream and it was the perfect end to our (many) meal(s).
Although I’m not usually one for doing tours, this tour with Food Tour Malaysia has actually made me consider doing a few more in the future. I met some really cool people and enjoyed being able to share the experience with them. I even met a Scottish girl- something I get far too excited about these days being deprived of fellow Scot pals!
As much as I like travelling independently, I often forget the benefits of having a local guide- Charles taught me so much more about the relationship between culture and food than I ever could have learned on my own. Plus, he took us to the best, truly off the beaten track places in the city that tourists rarely frequent.
This was an extremely local experience and I know that it benefited local businesses around the city. As a traveller I really value knowing that my money is going to a good place. If you’re ever in KL and want to really experience the food, don’t bother with fancy restaurants- get down with the locals and learn about the culture the way that they do everyday. This is much more fun and unique than a suave sit down meal you could have anywhere!
To book your place on a tour with Food Tour Malaysia, check out their website here.
Disclaimer: I was invited as a guest on this tour by Food Tour Malaysia but, as always, I only work with companies that I really love, and all opinions in this post are my own.
Do you like to get down with the locals when you travel? Where is your favourite street food destination?