The following post is a compilation of all the markets places we visited throughout Kuala Lumpur. Outdoor vendors that set up tables and sell all sorts of wares from raw vegetables and homemade cleaners, to ready made snacks and full entrees stir fried on the spot.
The focus of this post is on the food and the ability to see it prepared before my eyes. I also stop to note all the different food stuffs not readily made available to us in the North American grocery scene.
Our first stop is one of the most memorable, truly one of those places only the locals know to go. A shack in the middle of no where that offers various grilled fishes over a fire, served on a banana leaf. It is like a covered cafeteria which services the neighbouring mosque and schools. They offer everything from pickled sides, fresh fruits, and chilled beverages. But it was the vendor constantly frying up fish and seafood that was centre attraction.
He, behind the open stove is one of the most authentic things I have ever seen. I was in awe of how he was able to work such long period over this three wok grill. Three large pans, and cooking in each: enough protein to feed a family of 10, in full. Surrounded by the heat and smoke from sizzling meat, I was surprised by his endurance, and ability to withstand a heatstroke.
The fish is continuously being grilled and when fried to a blackened crisp, removed from the heat, and stacked in bins for self service. Each fish is priced accordingly and you dig through the mound to “fish” out the one you want to have and pay for. There is no fear of it cooling in the heat. There is also an attendant to help and write up your bill. You pay as you go.
My host selected the “Kelip fish”, fried crisp and served blacken for that kissed by charcoal flavour. The squid was my favourite. I enjoyed the way they cut off the tentacles and stuffed it back into the cone of the squid for easier eating. And this would be my first taste of stingray. It flaked off like any fish, and it tasted like any white fish would, but just without all the small bones. You are eating its wing, so it’s a length of bone and you are eating the chunks of meat off it. But overall they all had the same kind of fishiness to them. They are seasoned quite similarly. And it is the sauces you choose for dipping that sets it apart.
We made it a full meal by adding rice and sides, scooping whatever we wanted from all the metal bins. Mixed nuts, salted egg, cucumber salads, and bean sprouts; to name a few. I thought about stopping to question the sanitary-ness of their kitchen and their operation, but instead thought it best to just enjoy the moment.
As is common, various sodas and mixed juices are available for the taking. Instead of ordering each, you pick any up from the iced pre-made tray and they charge you for it. My host strongly suggested getting any such drinks.
Instead, we drank our dessert with “ABC” aka “ice kachang”. This is the Malaysian equivalent of shaved ice. A mountain of powdery ice flavoured with cane syrup, condense milk, red kidney beans, cream corn, tapioca balls, and cendol (the green tubes of rice flour gelatin). I have had this before, and it tasted just as how I remembered it.
The next market place was part of an international plaza with indoor alleyways that differentiated the vendor by what they sold ethnically. From Indian beads and saris, to Chinese stone stamps, Thai paper puppets, and African carved masked. It reminded me of a a flea market with all its corners and makeshift stalls.
Outside there were tables of fresh fruit stacked into a pyramid. Here, I tried a fruit that I have never seen before. It was red and looked like a pepper. It tasted like a hybrid between a pear and an apple. Crisp and sharp, yet juicy.
We also stopped for some fish cakes from a vendor that offered various tofus and meatballs on skewers. The one we had was served along side its sauce for dipping, in a small plastic bag. You basically eat them like potato wedges.
The next market was comparable to our night markets in Vancouver. Similarly it opens during the weekend, where roads are shut down for the durations. And instead, rows of food vendors are lined up on either sides of the street, offering up everything from chicken wings to ice cream. As is my typical strategy for such places, I insisted on walking the block to suss out our best opinions before deciding on which stand to order from.
We had the soy sauce chicken wings, a few of the dozens that were spun around and around over a flaming spit. They are served with the tips and a sauce dish of chilli.
Seeing and smelling them on the grill, it is hard to not be lured in by the smoke being fanned, and the sizzle of grease on the hot coals of the satay stand. We got one of each protein: chicken, beef, and mutton. Served with a refreshing side of red onions and cucumber chunks, and the traditional creamy peanut butter sauce from dipping.
This would be my first time tackling a whole frog, and “they” aren’t lying when they say it tastes like chicken. From the meaty legs to the crispy skin. They are skinned and kept chilled, sitting in ice with other aquatic marine life, ready for the frying.
They were almost as much of an eyesore as the seasoned chicken feet, claws pointed, ready for their time on the grill.
And as the sun set, a dry day quickly became a wet night. But a tropical, heavy and warm downpour was not enough to have us bailing on the night. We sought shelter at a “7-eleven” and ended up buying an umbrella therein, which allowed us to continue on with our evening, relatively dry.
I had to indulge in the multicoloured dumplings from the stall that featured large bamboo steamers. It gave you the ability to pick and choose what you want with tongs and drop it into a styrofoam takeout box. Each meat or seafood dumpling was wrapped in a shell dyed naturally by the vegetable used to flavour it. Beets were used to colour the shrimp dumplings pink, purple was from the taro yam used for taste and colouring, and the green of cabbage was paired with chicken.
We capped off the night with some playful cookies. These were regular biscuits combined with liquid nitrogen to flash freeze them. You ate one and it instantly crumbled under the weight for your tongue. And what is then left is the smoke from within it escaping through your closed mouth, and exposed nostrils. Hence its name, “dragon breath”. It really isn’t all that tasty, you more or less get it for the novelty, like we did.
The next market was like a Chinese farmer’s market, only around during weekend mornings. It was stalls set up table to table selling raw vegetables and meat, cooked food and pre-made snacks, and every kitchen tool in between. This is the kind of market you go to, to get fresh ingredients for the dinner you are making on the same day.
Skinned geese and black chicken with their throats slit to drain them of their blood.
Butchers offering their meat on parchment, and hanging off metal poles of their booth.
They are even crates of live frogs for sale. If you purchase one, they kill and skin it for you on the spot.
There were also beautifully bright flowers used for prayers, for sale.
We stopped at the vendor preparing fried rice noodles in cubes, stir fried over a giant steaming wok, under the hot sun. Your order is served in a plastic bag, despite being scooped up right from the wok, and should be hot enough to burn through the plastic.
And then we had some kueh stuffed with either coconut or red bean.
And were tempted by the Chinese doughnuts bobbing in the pool of heated oil.
We ate a fuller meal at the noodle cart offering various noodles in broth, and a place to sit and enjoy it at. We had some rice noodles in sheets with some sambal, sesame, and fried onions. And some egg noodles with barbecue pork.
The last market we visited together was one held only on Monday evenings. It was a Malay heavy market, where I found my highly coveted dish of “lou shu fen” in the covered food court area. I have never had these “mouse dropping noodles” in a clay pot or with a runny egg before. The noodles were tender and chewy with plenty of flavour from its brown sauce, ground pork, fish balls, fish cakes, and fried egg.
Also had kueh in green rice flour gelatine and blue sticky rice, this is the first time I have seen kueh dyed blue before. Although at this booth kuehs came in all sort of shapes and sizes, in every flavour combination highlighted in its own hue.
Like at the other markets. There was a steamboat cart featuring skewered items on ice, to be plunged into vats of boiling water to cook and steam.
There were also mass amounts of coloured dim sum, kept warm by the heat from the giant bamboo steamers they sat within.
My host was excited for me to try “otak otak”, a grilled fish cake made from ground fish meat mixed with tapioca starch and spices. It is wrapped and cooked in a banana leaf, on the grill.
And we capped off the night with one of the best servings of “Char kway teow” I have ever had (stir-fried ricecake strips). And it was from the makeshift kitchen on the side of truck. Another one I will be craving for, but won’t be able to recreate.
And this ends my account of all the outdoor market places we visited in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Out of everything I saw and tried during my trip, hands down, my favourite experiences were that of the culture and food scene within the markets above. This is where I felt closest to being a local.