Lawrence Lee, owner of Melbourne’s Go Noodle House, is a Malaysian native. Wisely, he brought the flavours of home with him when setting up his first Australian restaurant in 2014. In the five years since, the chain has grown to more than 30 eateries throughout Southeast Asia. Lee clearly knows what he’s doing.
Malaysian street food is well-known for its eclectic influences, with a culinary diversity that stems mostly from its cultural one: where Chinese, Malay and Indian flavours mingle and chilli is all-pervading. If you’re eating on the streets of Kuala Lumpur (KL to its friends) expect to find coconut rice and sambal (chilli jam) everywhere, as well as intense, aromatic broths and tingling combinations of spices, with freshly cooked meats and crisp vegetables.
We asked Lee to share his tips on five must-order dishes on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, plus what makes them great and where to find them.
You can’t go to Malaysia without trying the unofficial national dish. Nasi lemak is built around a plump mound of rice, cooked in coconut milk and complemented with standard condiments and pumped with protein.
“There are a few condiments that never change,” says Lee. “Boiled egg, fried peanuts and fried anchovies, plus something refreshing like cucumber. Then, depending on where you go, you’ll get curried or fried chicken, beef rendang or fried calamari. I like mine with curried blood cockle.”
Lee says a reasonable nasi lemak needs good coconut-infused rice, cooked perfectly, and a nice sambal (chilli jam). “I prefer a little kick and a little sweetness to mine.”
You won’t have to look far to find a good nasi lemak – it’s everywhere: coffee shops, on the street, restaurants, even supermarkets. Lee recommends heading to Village Park Nasi Lemak in Damansara Utama, Selangor, or Warung Pak Hassan in Kampung Baru.
You think you know laksa? The famous spicy noodle soup can be found all over Australia, but if you’ve only ever had laksa Down Under, you’re missing out. “Laksa in Australia are all quite similar,” says Lee. “But when you go to Malaysia you’ll be amazed at the variations.”
The streets of Kuala Lumpur are filled with the aromatics of laksa: onions, garlic, ginger, lemongrass and curry leaves. You’ll find laksa made with fish broth, pork broth, chicken broth. You can get a sour laksa or a hazy laksa or a spicy laksa or a milky, coconutty laksa. “Laksa goes hand in Malaysia,” says Lee. “There’s no other way to put it.”
According to Lee, an acceptable curry laksa has an aromatic, creamy broth – and is well seasoned to boot: “It should have strong flavours. When you sip a laksa down it should leave a lingering taste from your mouth to your stomach. Some say curry laksa must have cockles, and I agree.” Expect to find laksa served with calamansi (a citrus fruit similar to lime) and with condiments such as sambal, so you can tweak the spiciness to suit your taste.
Whenever Lee gets back to Kuala Lumpur he heads to Madras Lane in Chinatown. “Chinatown is full of laksa,” he says. “You can’t go wrong.”
Banana leaf rice
A staple meal from Malaysia’s huge Indian community, banana leaf rice is as much about the ritual as it is the food (though the food is amazing).
The ritual begins like this: you’ll be ushered into a basic restaurant, sat down on a plastic chair, and get a big, clean banana leaf thrown in front of you. First tip: don’t eat the leaf, it’s your plate. You’ll then receive a hefty portion of rice before a different waiter appears to dollop on your condiments.
Lee says going out for banana leaf rice is a whole experience. The restaurants are busy, noisy, and a bit chaotic, but the service is always ruthlessly efficient. “Depending on the place, you might get potato masala, beans, melon, a range of curries,” he says. “Then someone else delivers pappadums. That’s just the beginning.”
Next comes fried chicken, fried squid or blue swimmer crab curry (a popular choice). Lee’s favourite is lamb bone-marrow curry served with a big piece of fried chicken. (We told you he knows what he’s talking about). “You have to be in the right state of mind when you go out for banana leaf,” he says. “You need to go hungry, that’s the important thing, because it’s very heavy, very filling.”
A good tip is to check if the restaurant cooks its meat fresh. “It needs to be done on the spot, not pre-fried,” says Lee. “If they have a cooking station outside that’s a good sign. It’s really important that the proteins are cooked to order.”
When Lee heads home he goes to Acha Curry House in Petaling Jaya, Selangor. “Just make sure you try the bone-marrow curry.”
Bak kut teh (“pork bone tea”)
Heading out for bak kut teh is something of an institution for any kid who grew up in Malaysia. A communal dish that’s all about pork, Lee says some of his happiest memories are going out for bak kut teh with his dad on the weekend. “I’d be really excited,” he says. “We’d get up really early and go into town, but you can have it any time of the day.”
The dish features all manner of pork cuts floating in an aromatic broth, loaded with Chinese herbs and spices such as peppercorn, star anise, clove, cinnamon and fennel seed. It’s a dish you won’t find in Australia. “It comes from the Chinese,” says Lee. “The Chinese community who came to Malaysia mixed with the local community and created it. It then extended down to Singapore, but it remains a classic Malaysian dish.”
Unlike banana leaf rice, bak kut teh won’t weigh you down or send you to sleep. “You can eat a big meal of it and head back to work, or get on with exploring the city,” says Lee.
A hot tip is to ask for the emperor’s rib,” the juiciest, most tender section of the pork rib. “It’s never on the menu but it’s usually available if you ask,” says Lee, who adds that a good bak kut teh shouldn’t leave your mouth dry afterwards. “The flavours should also linger.”
For the most authentic bak kut teh experience get down to Klang on the docks, where it originated. It’s home to literally dozens of restaurants specialising in this must-try dish. Teck Huat Bak Kut Teh at Bandar Baru Klang is said to be the oldest and still one of the best.
“How can you not have roti in Malaysia?” asks Lee, of the popular flatbread. “You get roti in Australia but in Malaysia there are 30 to 40 variations of roti. It’s insane.”
Light, flaky and fresh are the three essentials of a real roti, Lee says. “It needs to be paper-thin and flattened so it becomes crispy but with the inside still soft. A good spread of tasty curries and a nice sambal is a must.”
Malaysian roti can come with meat or fish and be savoury or sweet. There’s a special trade secret, too: milk powder. “If you like it a bit sweet, the trick is to put a bit of milk powder in the flour mixture,” says Lee. “You can even try this if you make it at home.” Expect to have your roti served with sambal, dahl, quince curry or chicken curry. “If you’re lucky it might come with a third curry,” says Lee. “Maybe fish or chicken or crab. It could be anything, you just get what you get.”
But with roti canai costing around 30 cents, no one’s complaining. “Roti is a staple food, in every suburb,” Lee says. “A life without roti is not worth living!”
Try the roti canai at Valentine Roti in the KL city centre; Mansion Tea Stall, also in the city centre; Lan Roti Canai in Bangsar, or IV Restaurant in Klang.
For a limited time you can fly Melbourne-Kuala Lumpur return from $519 (all extras included). This fare is available from Jan 6-17. See Malindo Air for details.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Malindo Air.