On a street-food mission in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown
Matador community expert Phillip Lombardino gets ninja training in the KL street-food scene.
I COULD NEVER be a food critic. I like food — a lot — but I’m not picky. Luckily, I wasn’t in charge in Kuala Lumpur.
My first morning in KL, an overconfident Singaporean from my hostel commandeered me for a series of street-food missions in Chinatown. We began at the western end of Jalan Hang Lekir and walked east.
Raw fish porridge
His first question was whether or not I liked sashimi. I answered in the affirmative, but he talked on, hardly waiting for a response. The choice was set: raw fish porridge.
Straight through the hectic main crossroads of the covered Petaling Street and we approached a small stall on the right, crammed between shops selling souvenirs and knockoff Nikes. The tarp “roof” hung too low for me to stand up straight, and its two full tables didn’t look large enough to seat many hungry visitors, especially two more. Not deterred, my new friend placed our order in Chinese while I stood there dumbly, then led me around and behind the line of shops opposite the food stall to another not-so-obvious seating area, this one full of locals but containing an open table.
When our breakfast arrived, I burnt my tongue on the simple steamy rice porridge, which contained little more than rice and a few green onions. Proper technique, I learned, was to skim a serving from the uppermost and coolest layer. The plain porridge stood in stark contrast to the main dish: thinly sliced raw fish covered in green onions and ginger. What kind of fish, he couldn’t tell me.
Cost: 6 ringgit for the porridge + fish.
Soy bean drink
After the raw fish breakfast, there was apparently only one place to head. I’m still not entirely sure if this is a direct translation, but “soy bean drink” was next.
Backtracking to the main crossroads in the center of Petaling Street, our desired drink stall sat on prime real estate directly on the corner. The line stretched far beyond the adjacent luggage shop selling backpacks, and the small crowd formed around the stall made it impossible to get close. Mr. Singapore walked around back and got the attention of the shopkeeper.
Within minutes, a cloudy milk-like liquid was in my hand. I’ve had soy milk before and didn’t classify it as a favorite, but whatever they put in this drink (soy bean, perhaps?) makes it much more refreshing. Before I knew it, my straw was making that bubbly slurping sound. Bummer.
Cost: 1.40 ringgit gets you one.
Pearl noodles and dumpling soup
For our next meal, my friend walked me past my new favorite raw fish stall, dodging low-hanging rainbow umbrellas, and we turned right at the end of the road. Steaming portable stalls and small plastic tables and chairs crowded the sidewalk, leaving no room for actual walking. After avoiding oncoming traffic in the middle of the street, we entered an actual restaurant with a large, plain seating area. Luckily, the decor was not indicative of the food.
In a round clay pot and still bubbling hot came the self-proclaimed “famous” pearl noodles. An over-eager stir to mix in the minced pork and runny egg yolk and the fat noodles flopped right out onto the table. The delicious earthworm-like suckers are slippery, and I learned to handle them with care.
We washed those down with dumpling soup. The dumplings, cabbage, and garlic were nice, but it was the culmination of their flavors in the broth that made me close my eyes and take a moment. Unfortunately, this gesture cost me dearly — the dumplings were quick to disappear. Be sure to call dibs.
Pearl noodle places are typically open for dinner and late night. 8 ringgit for pearls and 6 for the dumpling soup.
Soup for breakfast is a KL staple. While someone wandering the streets of Chinatown could easily stumble into any number of noodle shops, they’ll likely miss the best one, at least according to one Singaporean. With a Tiger Beer-induced “I’m sleeping in today,” he sent me out the door solo with instructions to find the “beef noodle.”
Instead of taking off into the heart of Chinatown, I went left at the start of Jalan Hang Lekir, up to the busy intersection full of gridlocked buses, aging red cabs, and beeping motorbikes. With no clear path in sight, I couldn’t cross the street even if I’d wanted, and luckily I didn’t have to. I took a right. He said it’d be on my right, but when I reached the jumbo-sized Chinese=themed archway signaling the entrance to Petaling Street, I knew I’d gone too far. Sure enough, the humble “Beef Noodle Specialist” shop was a few addresses back.
Simple indoor seating lay just past the foodcart-style kitchen, complete with a lovely tub of floating meatballs. Steaming hot bowls get served here at an alarming rate, and one was in front of me before I knew it. I went with yellow noodles and thin slices of beef, which are cooked by the hot broth. Obviously, chili sauce is found on each table, and the cook gave me a crooked-teeth smile after I went for some extra pizazz.
I couldn’t argue with the 7 ringgit price tag or the burning sensation on my lips. Beef Noodle opens at 10:30am — perfect for a late riser such as myself.