Stopping by a night market or food stand on a street corner serving piping hot chicken satay (Thailand), or banh mi sandwiches (Vietnam), or hot coconut-milk desserts (Laos) can be a great way to meet the locals and to learn more about their cuisine. Most of the things that we tried were served hot off the grill so there was little risk of getting sick, and we never did. Most important of all is that it’s usually delicious, and so it was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s ethnically diverse and increasingly funky capital.
Jalan Alor, in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, is a street jammed with food stalls and seating on both sides of the street. There are so many people milling about that it’s nearly impossible to fathom that the street is still open to cars—but it is—so you have to watch out. There are many foods for sale, but most include meat.
We began with a thin square piece of meat, cut off with scissors by the woman making it. I have no idea what it was, but it tasted like sweet jerky of some sort, and was quite delectable (we had to prevent ourselves from ordering a second round in order to save room for further street-food treats; there were many).
Next we made our way to a cart with a sign that read “Fat Brother Satay,” where two men stood and offered to grill us meat or seafood, which they had laid out on skewers over ice in an organized fashion, along with an assortment of sauces. We had two pork skewers which they pulled off their display and cooked in front of us, then handed over with a napkin, recommending a dipping sauce. They didn’t let us leave the immediate vicinity of the stall until they confirmed we thought their food was good. They need not have worried; we wolfed it down and were off to the next. And so we continued—Patrick ate chicken wings with a small plastic bag of hot sauce, grilled by a man cooling the flames with a bamboo fan, of the kind normally appearing out of a woman’s purse on a hot day.
Eventually we stopped eating standing up, and plopped down on brightly-colored plastic stools at a busy seafood place. (They stacked three stools on top of each other so Jude could reach the table before re-appearing with a “baby seat” of sorts for Jude.) We ordered a whole fish for dinner, but deliberated over what to drink. The man taking our order suggested their homemade sugar cane juice for Jude. Against our better judgment, we agreed.
What appeared next was a large, open plastic bottle full of a liquid that looked an awful lot like yellow Gatorade. Unsurprisingly , Jude loved it, and perked back to life. Around this time, we heard a very good voice, singing, through what sounded like an ancient set of speakers, and rising above the nosiness of our immediate environment. Eventually we saw the source—a middle-aged disabled man being pushed slowly down the street in a cart, by a woman who appeared to be his mom, and carrying a microphone attached to a boom box. He leaned over and serenaded various people who appeared appreciatively with tips, as he sung karaoke in time with the muzak backing him, belting out of the boom box. It was a moving sight, and sound.
After devouring a delicious whole fish which arrived in a fish-shaped cast iron dish set over a flame, we retired for the evening.
The next morning, we went to the famed Central Market to poke around. It was here that the melting pot that is Malaysia became most obvious. Kuala Lumpur has the feel of China meets Turkey meets India—many of the people are Chinese ethnically, others are Muslim, and there are a fair number of Indians as well. At Central Market, women wearing bright and beautiful head scarves were shopping, with a mix of vendors selling everything from Indian textiles to the fabric with the flowered print so ubiquitous in Malaysia, to cheap plastic toys and electronics.
In the evening, we took a walk to Petronas Towers, the tallest buildings in the world when they were built in 1998 (88 stories). Now the Malaysian Tourism Bureau boasts in a magazine we were given that they are the tallest twin buildings in the world (connected on the 41st and 42nd floors). Lit up at night, Petronas Towers are truly magnificent, and as you walk closer and closer, they become more and more commanding. (Depending on the direction you are coming from, I do not recommend walking to them. Take a taxi, or better yet, the easily navigable subway system, instead. Kuala Lumpur is not pedestrian friendly, but we like to walk, so we did—on a sidewalk next to a highway where there were no other pedestrians.) Night is the time to visit, but learn a lesson from us—the Towers are closed to tourists who want to go to the top for the view on Monday nights (our last night there). Being at the bottom and looking up was awe-inspiring, but dizzying as well.
ALL PICTURES FROM KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA: here
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