Koala what? That's what some people asked when I told them I was moving from Berlin to Kuala Lumpur. The capital of Malaysia is a melting pot of cultures, and that makes its cuisine distinctive.
Jalan Alor is the Asian city's food street, and that's where my new co-workers take me on my first evening. When darkness falls, the hustle and bustle begin. It's still 30 degrees Celsius, it smells of curry, grilled meat and other tasty treats. The crowds push us from one stall to the next. It's the start of a culinary adventure.
Our table is full of seafood, chicken satay and plenty of rice. I decide on a green curry, so hot it makes me break out in sweat, but it's delicious. Whether Thai, Chinese or Indian, this street in the Bukit Bintang district is a cross-section of the food you find on every corner. In Kuala Lumpur — KL for short — eating goes on all the time. Six small meals a day are quite common.
A taste of China in the middle of Kuala Lumpur
A few days later I explore the city and go to Chinatown. Jalan Petaling, Petaling Street, was once the center of the Chinese business district. Now, in addition to counterfeit watches and designer bags, it has one thing above all: the best Chinese food in the city.
Red paper lanterns dangle over the street. There are plenty of open-air snack bars and small restaurants, some of which have been here for decades. Fried rice, noodles, wontons, and satay, various kinds of meat on skewers — as far as the eye can see.
A Chinese co-worker has recommended Kim Lian Kee Restaurant to me. It's already been here for more than 100 years and its noodles are said to be fantastic. I order a portion. From the shaky table, I watch an elderly man tossing vegetables in a wok. In the middle of Kuala Lumpur I feel as if the Great Wall of China were just around the corner. A little later, my food comes, freshly prepared and truly delicious.
Food is good and affordable
Just a few kilometers away you can plunge into a completely different culinary world: Little India. In the lively Brickfields neighborhood, next to textile and jewelry shops, there are plenty of small restaurants that serve dhal, curry and lots of other Indian dishes on banana leaves. I pay the equivalent of €3.80 ($4.30), including a watermelon shake as accompaniment.
The temple of indulgence
I plan a trip to the famous Pertonas Towers. A neighbor who is a local gives me a tip on the way. Instead of eating in one of the huge malls there, I should make a side trip to the Buddhist temple around the corner. The Dharma Realm Guan Yin Sagely monastery runs a canteen open to the public. But I have to get there early. After 1 p.m., most of the food is gone.
The temple is really beautiful and its canteen is heaven on earth — especially for vegetarians and vegans like me. The buffet is filled with a wide variety of vegetables. Even the tofu is tasty here: spicy and not as bland as what I'm used to in Germany.
Nasi lemak, the Malaysian national dish
You can find the national dish of this multi-ethnic country both in the many mobile snack bars in the city and in good restaurants. It consists of rice cooked with coconut milk and pandan leaves, served with cucumber, roast peanuts, egg, dried anchovies and chili paste. If you want to take it to go, this treat often comes wrapped in banana leaves. Most locals eat nasi lemak for breakfast.
The forbidden fruit
Everyone here really agrees: nothing beats food — except when it comes to durian. You either hate durian or love it. I'm one of the latter. It's been called the world's smelliest fruit. There are often anti-durian signs in hotels and public buildings.
The stink resembles a mixture of onions, cheese and goodness knows what. That's why people here meet at small open-air stalls to enjoy their durian. Everyone gets a pair of plastic gloves before the adventure begins.
The taste also takes getting used to, especially for Europeans. The durian is native to Malaysia and is considered a delicacy by locals. On Borneo, an island part of which belongs to Malaysia, I find out on a week-end trip that a woman there feels flattered if a man invites her on a date to eat durian. Here in Germany, it probably be the end of the love of one's life.
Something for every taste
There's a bit more mass appeal when it comes to confectionery. I'm entertaining visitors from Germany. We take a trip to the Batu Caves: a huge golden statue and many colorful steps that lead into a cave in which people pray and tourists take pictures. The 272 steps finish me off.
But after this torture I can certainly treat myself to a few of the multicolored sweets and many cookies and biscuits at one of the stalls in front of the temple. A vendor calls my attention to his cookies made from chickpea flour and nuts. He's already pushed one into my hand. I travel home with a giant plastic container full of cookies. Admittedly, the mega-package doesn't last long in the end.
After my first months in Kuala Lumpur it becomes clear to me why my new apartment, like many others here, has no oven. People eat away from home, preferably with friends. And on every corner of this Malaysian metropolis there's another culinary treat that shows how diverse this city is. KL or Kuala Lumpur: whatever you call it, it's an amazing place to eat. So enjoy — or, better said, "menikmati makanan anda."