Plumes of cigarette smoke rise like white ribbons, coiling amidst the clamour of Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. What incense is to Tao temples, cigarettes are to these streets. Warm notes of roasted chestnuts are replaced by the beer-soaked breath of elderly men quarrelling in Cantonese as I walk down Petaling Road—the spine of a neighbourhood predominantly made up of Chinese immigrants new and old, and throngs of tourists eager to eat.
Some people insist that Chinatowns are the same everywhere. They are, simply, wrong. From haggling over sweet pork sausages in Bangkok to rolling dice over whisky shots in San Francisco, in my experience, Chinatowns are far from cookie cutter replicas of each other. And if I had to choose one in particular to challenge that ill-informed notion, it would be the wonderfully scruffy streets of KL’s Chinatown.
Cherry-red arches and faux Yeezys on ‘discount’ hardly define the area. Cooks are the core of the community, whether they don a sweat-stained ganji or a double-breasted chef’s jacket, and you will realise as much walking down the streets. The culinary roots of this Chinatown’s inhabitants spread out in a tangle, like that of a banyan tree. Baba-Nyona cuisine, also known as Peranakan cuisine, is a mix of influences from early Chinese immigrants who integrated themselves with the local Malays. They are represented by dishes like beef rendang and nasil emak, the latter a medley of coconut milk rice, sambal, fried anchovies, a boiled egg, with the typical addition of chicken. Later waves of immigrants brought along delicacies from their respective regions: char siu pork and dim sum of the Yue cuisine, porridges of Fujian or Hookien cuisine, and the much-coveted Hainanese or Hunan chicken rice, to name a few. In the bylanes of this bustling quarter, culinary traditions stick to these streets like the patina of a well-used wok.
Here, vermilion-hued ducks hang from hawker stands, glowing like the gauze lanterns that line the streets, outshined only by flames dancing below clay pots filled with golden rice and morsels of chicken, fish, and lap cheong sausages. Each stall and station is manned by a master of their craft. Plastic chairs become portholes to skewers laden with charcoal grilled meat and bowlfuls of fragrant asam laksa, wafting tangy notes of tamarind, the broth waiting to be swiftly slurped up.
Finding a memorable meal in KL’s Chinatown is as easy as promenading down its central streets. A hot jumble of thick hokkien mee noodles have been a staple at Kim Lian Lee for decades, the once-upon-a-time stall now a two-storey tall institution. Just across the street is Koon Kee, another neighbourhood stalwart serving up their popular wan tan mee, char siu pork-topped Cantonese noodles tossed in a sweet black sauce, served with pork and shrimp dumplings. And just down Madras Lane (the street’s name has officially been changed, but locals still use its original title) lies a long line for yong tau foo, tofu typically stuffed with minced pork and fish paste, which has had customers queuing up for over 60 years. The catch? In this hubbub, it is all too easy to miss some of the less central but equally important eateries.
This storied assortment of kopitiams (coffee shops), family restaurants, and outdoor stalls from the halcyon days of Chinese culinary influence in Kuala Lumpur are tucked away from the bustle, a few even mapped outside of the boundaries of Chinatown. So if your palate craves a bit of the past in the present, weave in and out of Chinatown and explore restaurants where the same dishes have been served up for decades, for very good reasons.
Address: 5A, Jalan Yap Ah Loy, City Centre
Sang har mee, or freshwater prawn noodles, are quite the treat in KL. The best sang har mee places are typically stalls, yet they do not come cheap, the most popular joints serving up the dish from anywhere between RM50-90/Rs835-1,500. Even though the portions are usually enough to fill two people, for those kind of prices you want to be sure you’re indulging in the best sang har mee in the neighbourhood.
Tucked in a discreet alleyway in the shade of pre-World War II buildings, on a little lane where late night courtesans would once congregate, lies Sang Kee. For over four decades this open air kitchen has been serving up some of the best freshwater prawn noodles in KL.
Those interested in a performance can inch up in front of the old man behind the wok and watch him work his wizardry, he doesn’t mind. Two beautifully big freshwater prawns are butterflied and cooked in prawn roe gravy,
stirred in with egg, slivers of ginger, and leafy greens. Wong San, the chef, understands his wok like Skywalker understands the force—meaning, the wok hei (wok heat or temperature) is on point.
Once on your plate, plucking a plump piece of prawn out of the open shell is an easy feat. The fresh and supple meat is charged with the gravy, bite into it, and a flash flood of flavour courses out. In KL most versions of sang har mee sport crisp, uncooked yee mee noodles, which are then drenched in the prawn-imbued sauce. A lot of people love ’em this way, but I personally feel this gives the noodles the texture of a wet bird’s nest. Sang Kee’s noodles are cut thick, boiled, and then stir-fried, coated with oodles of scrambled egg, a style that lets the prawn’s flavours permeate every bit of the dish. At Sang Kee, for most folks a single p
ortion is enough for two at RM65/Rs1,085 a plate, but if that’s too steep a price, you can get the dish made with regular prawns for significantly less.
Address: 86, Jalan Tun H S Lee, City Centre
The fine people at Soong Kee have been serving up beef noodles since World War II, and the product speaks for itself. It’s always crowded at lunchtime, but don’t worry about waiting around too long. Usually a server will squeeze you in at one of the many large round tables with plenty of neighbours who don’t mind the company. I love this approach because it means you get a good look at what your table-mates are munching on. That being said, newcomers should inaugurate their Soong Kee experience with beef ball soup and beef mince noodles—simple but hearty dishes that will give you a good idea of why the place has stuck around (small bowl of noodles from RM7/Rs120).
Address: 315, Jalan Pudu, Pudu
Sek Yuen is made up of three separate sections, spread out over adjacent lots a few feet from each other. One is being renovated, another is the original 1948 location, and the last is the crowded AC section built in the 1970s. I wanted to eat in the original section, but by the time I arrived the service was slowing down and everyone was dining in the AC section. When in doubt, follow the locals.
Two noteworthy staples of the restaurant, steam-tofu-and-fish-paste as well as the crab balls, were already sold out by the time I placed my order. So I happily went for the famous roast duck with some stir fried greens. The duck was delicious; the skin extra crispy from being air-dried, yet the meat was juicy with hints of star anise, which paired well with the house sour plum sauce. But what I enjoyed most was the people-watching. A Cantonese rendition of “Happy Birthday” played non-stop on the restaurant’s sound system for the entire 50 minutes I was there. The soundtrack lent extra character to the packed house of local Chinese diners, most of them regulars. To my right, a group of rosy-cheeked businessmen decimated a bottle of 12-year Glenlivet, and were perhaps the most jovial chaps I’ve ever seen. In front of me, a group of aunties were in party mode, laughing the night away with unbridled cackles. Perhaps the most entertaining guest was the worried mother who kept scurrying over to the front door, pulling the curtains aside to check if her sons were outside smoking. The sensory overload hit the spot. You could tell people were comfortable here, like it was a second home—letting loose in unison, reliving old memories while creating new ones.
I learned that when all sections of the restaurant are operational, Sek Yuen is said to employ around 100 people, many of whom have stuck with the restaurant for a very long time, just like the wood fire stoves that still burn in the kitchen (duck from RM30/Rs500).
Address: 1, Jalan Balai Polis, City Centre
Although it has shifted from Lorong Panggung to the quieter Jalan Balai Polis, Ho Kow Kopitiam remains outrageously popular. Customers are for the most part locals and Asian tourists, unwilling to leave the queue even when the wait extends past an hour. In fact, there is a machine that manages the number system of the queue, albeit with the help of a frazzled young man whose sole job is telling hungry people they’ll have to wait a long time before they get any food. It’s safe to say the gent needs a raise. If you haven’t guessed already, get there early, before they open at 7:30 a.m.—otherwise you’ll be peering through the entrance watching the best dishes get sold out.
Many tables had the champeng (an iced mix of coffee and tea), but I’m a sucker for the hot kopi (coffee) with a bit of kaya toast, airy white toast slathered with coconut egg jam and butter; treats good enough to take my mind off of waiting for an hour on my feet. I then dove into the dim sum, and became rather taken by the fungus and scallop dumplings. The curry mee, whether it is chicken or prawn, was a very popular option as well. When it comes to dessert, the dubiously-named black gluttonous rice soup sells out fast, which devastated the people I was sharing my table with.
They also serve an assortment of kuih for dessert, including my personal favourite, the kuih talam. It is a gelatinous square made up of two layers—one green, one white. They share the same base, a mixture of rice flour, green pea flower, and tapioca flour. The green layer is coloured and flavoured by the juice of pandan leaves, and the white one with coconut milk. For someone like myself, who doesn’t have a big sweet tooth, the savoury punch, balanced by a cool, refreshing finish make this dessert a quick favourite (kaya toast and coffee for RM5.9/Rs100).
Address: 11, Jalan Balai Polis, City Centre
A relic from the 1920s, the Peranakan cuisine at Old China continues to draw in guests. The ambience seems trapped in another era, as is the food, in the best way possible. Post-modern, emerald green pendant lamps, feng shui facing windows, and old timey portraits make up the decor. A meal here is not complete without the beef rendang, hopefully with some blue peaflower rice. It is also one of the few places to get a decent glass of wine in Chinatown (mains from RM11/Rs190).
Address: 2, Medan Pasar, City Centre
There is something incredibly satisfying about cracking a half boiled egg in two at this café, the sunny yolk framed by a cup of kopi, filled to the point the dark liquid decorates the mug with splash marks, and slabs of kaya toast. Despite a new lick of paint, I could feel the almost 100 years of history welling out of the antique, yellow window shutters lining the three storey facade of the building, the last floor operating as the café’s art gallery.
This place won me over as the perfect spot to read my morning paper, everything from the high-ceilings to the petit bistro tables allowed me to pretend I was in another era—a time when people still talked to each other instead of tapping at their smartphones like starved pigeons pecking at breadcrumbs. Yet, the best time to see this place in its full form is post noon, when the lunch crowd buzzes inside. Droves of locals cluster in front of the nasi lemak stand placed inside the café, hijabs jostling for the next plate assembled by an unsmiling woman with the unflinching demeanour of a person who has got several years of lunchtime rushes under her belt (lunch from RM6.5/Rs110, breakfast from RM1/Rs17).
Address: 21, Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, City Centre
Beneath the now defunct City Hotel, Capital Cafe is your one-stop satay paradise. The cook coaxes up flames from a bed of charcoal with a bamboo hand fan, using his other hand to rotate fistfuls of beef and chicken skewers liberally brushed with a sticky glaze. The satay is a perfect paradox, so sweet, yet so savoury; the meat soft, but also blistered with a crisp char. This snack pairs wonderfully with hot kopi—perhaps because it cuts the sweetness—served by a couple of uncles brimming with cheeky smiles and good conversation (satay from RM4/Rs70).
Address: 1, Jalan Kamunting, Chow Kit
Like many of KL’s golden era restaurants, Yut Kee moved just down the road from its original location. Serving Hainanese fare, like mee hoon and egg foo yoong, with a mix of English and Malay influences, YutKee has remained one of the most famous breakfast joints in all of KL for almost 100 years. At breakfast it features an almost even mix of locals and tourists, the former better at getting to the restaurant early to snag their regular tables.
During peak breakfast hours, waiters slap down face-sized slabs of chicken and pork chops, bread crumbed and fried golden brown, sitting in a pool of matching liquid gold gravy, speckled with peas, carrots, and potatoes. You can’t go wrong with either one. If your gut’s got the girth, follow up a chop with some hailam mee, fat noodles tossed with pork and tiny squid.
On weekends guests also get the opportunity to order two specials, the incredible pork roast and the marble cake. A glutton’s advice is to take an entire marble cake away with you. By not eating it there you save room for their seriously generous portions. The cake also lasts up to five days, which gives you about four more days than you’ll actually need. Plus it makes for a perfect souvenir, especially since the Yut Kee branded cake box is so iconic.
One of the many delighted people I gave a slice of cake to back home hit a homerun when they put into words what was so special about the marble cake: “It’s not super fancy, with extra bells and whistles, but it tastes like what cake is supposed to…like something your grandma would make at home.” As he said the last words he reached for another sliver of cake (chicken chop is for RM 10.5/Rs180, a slice of marble cake is for RM1.3/Rs20).
Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.