Danny Chen is the author of Train2e@t, this small yet deliciously stuffed book. He is the complete modern man, being a lover not only of Malaysian cuisine but of music and travel too, and well placed to pen a volume that considers one of the best things in life: Food.
Danny isn’t a full-time food writer although he is evidently a full-time eater. It’s the Malaysian national hobby which is practised to perfection at least five times each day. People talk about lunch at breakfast. They ponder dinner at lunch, and then there are those other between-meal meals.
Malaysian street food is fast food. That expression will lead my dear reader to assume that the roads of Kuala Lumpur are lined with pizza parlours and burger joints. Well, they are creeping in and it’s a mystery why. Fast food here is the traditional street food that is made while the drooling diner waits, or is already in a steaming pot ready to be served. Now that is surely faster than that Western ‘fast-food’ for which one will queue to order, queue to pay, and leave after only moments, having chewed an insubstantial and iffy patty which lacks flavour, cultural context and pertinence outside the land of its inception.
Kuala Lumpur has thousands of restaurants and street stalls selling food to the local population who appreciate a cuisine as diverse as those who seek it. Every resident will have his favourite spot for a soup noodle dish, his preferred stall for fried tofu, and a restaurant which he believes sells the best rice dish.
Danny Chen gives the food lover, be they Malaysian or visiting tourist, an overview of some of the most iconic, tempting and economic dishes to be found in the city, and the element that links all these plates is the transport system. Danny has selected eateries that are within a kilometre of a station. There is an Integrated Train System map at the front of the book to enable the hungry to plan both meal and method of getting to it.
Kuala Lumpur offers vibrant foods that reflect the cultural mix of those living in the city. Train2e@t Local Foodbook will encourage locals to try some restaurants and stalls with which they might not be familiar, and it’s surely going to become the must-read guide for the visitor. More accurately it’s the must-carry guide for any tourist who wants to immerse himself in traditional culture. Remember those aforementioned 5 meals per day.
I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with this charming and culinarily passionate writer who took me on a mini grazing marathon. There is a world of traditional Asian dishes in Malaysia and it seems we made an effort to sample an embarrassing wealth of them. Every nation who has had even a passing relationship with this peninsula has left its mark. Along with Malay there are Chinese specialities and Indian curries, amongst others.
We stroll through the thronging Chinatown and pass stalls selling ‘designer-label’ handbags along with the usual array of tourist kitchery, but we were on a mission and heading for Madras Lane. The official name of the street is Jalan Sultan but Madras Lane is the name by which it’s known, and is said to pay homage to the Madras Cinema which burnt down in 1978. In typical Malaysian fashion, the Madras showed Chinese films to a Malaysian audience.
Madras Lane can be intimidating with its cramped tables and novel dining etiquette. Danny says that it’s important to pick a stall for one’s food and then find its associated tables, as there are rules about sitting in the correct zone.
We sample assam laksa which is a sour, fish-based soup and was listed at number 7 on the World’s 50 Most Delicious Foods complied by CNN Go in 2011. Assam is the Malay word for tamarind which is a common souring ingredient in Indian recipes. It was used to great advantage here to give rich sharpness. Next was the more usual Curry Laksa which has a creamy coconut stock base. We also enjoyed rice noodles and stuffed tofu. With each dish Danny gave information about origin and ingredients.
The meal was hot and spicy so a refreshing drink was in order. Danny and Train2e@t suggestPetaling Street market in Chinatown for a mug of Air Mata Kucing. This is a traditional Malaysian drink and the name translates literally as “Tears of the Cat’s Eyes” as the leaves of this tree seem to glow in the dark. You may know the fruit as a Longan which is related to the lychee. Dried longans are boiled with rock sugar to produce a sweet liquid looking like black brewed tea. Unmissable.
Our next stop introduced us to Indian food in Malaysia. It’s exactly like Indian food in India and Anuja restaurant made no concessions to Europeans. No silverware here …and no plates. Restoran Anuja, in Jalan Pudu, is a 2-storey restaurant and those in the know will head upstairs to enjoy air-conditioning. It’s famed for its banana leaf rice. The leaf is in fact your plate and it’s a substantial swath of green to accommodate an equally copious spread of biryani with eggs, side dishes, sauces, chutneys and piping hot fried fish. There was also moist and flavourful fried chicken along with papadoms and naan bread. The restaurant is casual but the standard of food was as good as one would find in any restaurant sporting the usual complement of forks and crockery. Delightful.
Yes, I was spoilt by having Danny Chen and Train2e@t as guides but anyone can buy his book and it’s worth the investment. You will find the best examples of remarkable dishes; you will eat with locals; you will eat like locals; and will doubtless be planning your stay to encompass as many of the gastronomic attractions of Kuala Lumpur as the historic variety. This is a colourful, informative and exciting book for anyone who considers eating as important as breathing.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018