Food is the one thing that unites us all. We all have to eat, it's a basic necessity of life. Because of this, every culture has used food to express itself, and every culture, country and region has a dish that it's known for. If I say New Orleans, what's the first food that comes to your mind? Beignets? How about German food? Bratwurst & sauerkraut? Japan? Sushi? We can't help it. We are hard wired to think about food. And so, what better way to learn about a country and its culture than through food.
If we are going on a food tour, it's got to be a good one. Criteria:
1) Diverse offering of foods to try
2) Adventure aspect
3) Knowledgeable tour guide
4) Small group
5) Real local food, not tourist traps
We nailed it when we booked our 'Cooler Lumpur by Night Vespa Tour' through Vespalicious Tours. Yup, you guessed it, Dyann and I cruised through the busy night streets of Kuala Lumpur on the back of Vespas. And not just any Vespa, but classic fully restored Super Vespas.
I wasn't sure what to expect when I booked the tour. For one, I wasn't sure if Dyann would be up for weaving through the busy streets and back alley ways of KL at night. As I started to book the tour, I tentatively asked Dyann if she would be up for it. What I got back was a resounding 'YES', and a 'why would you think that I wouldn't want to do that?' I had of course, once again, underestimated Dyann's adventurous side (I guess that means I can take it up another notch on the next trip).
The tour description promised a night of culinary delight as we visit where 'the locals eat'. Kuala Lumpur is a food town. There are food stalls, carts, tents, garages, restaurants and sidewalk vendors everywhere. You can't turn a corner without being besieged by the smells of fresh food being cooked all around you. As a chef and devote foodie, it truly is paradise. One stop that I felt I had to see was Jalan Alor at night. Every blog I read said that this was one stop not to miss, especially at night. So I traded a couple of emails back and forth with our guide and he assured me that we would be able to go to Jalan Alor, but to my surprise it wasn't part of the original itinerary. It being such as 'must see' I couldn't quite understand why, but as faith wold have it, I would find out later.
After several hours of traveling back from Tioman Island to KL, a quick walk about town, a glass of wine, or two later, Dyann and I were ready for our night adventure. Our guides, Kingston and Vincent, came to the hotel to pick us up, right on time. These guys are awesome! They know their stuff and they did their homework. Kingston had found our blog and was all caught up on our travels to date. Fast friends were made. We get our safety briefing (have to wear helmets!), I get my bandana, so as to not get helmet head, we meet our two amazing Vespa drives, Shukri, or Sun, and Din. It is time to go!
We speed off into the night streets bobbing and weaving through traffic. It's awesome! Cars, horns, motorcycles, pedestrians, cats. It's craziness. And of course, the wafts of food being cooked everywhere. Pandemonium is the best way to describe it. Scooters and motorcycles own the streets of KL. It's the primary mode of transportation as it's the easiest way to get around. At times you could see any entire family of four on a scooter scurrying about town. (Check out more pictures and videos of our adventures on Instagram)
Our first stop, Kampung Baru. The last village settlement left within the city limits of KL, Kampung Baru is roughly 4 square kilometers of traditional stilt houses and food markets in the heart of the city. Much like New York's Central Park, Baru is surrounded by skyscrapers and is some of the most valuable land in KL, but the village elders maintain that it is not for sale, wanting to preserve the ethnic Malay lifestyle.
We pull our Vespas over and stop at Kak Som, a traditional Kelantanese restaurant. Kelantanese food originates from the eastern province of Malaysia and is known for a sweeter style of cooking. Walking into the open air restaurant was like walking into another world. The bustle of people moving between the tables, the chatter of conversations in Malay and the clinking of plates and silverware was the harmony of pure joy. People eating and enjoying the warm humid night as they begin what is known in Malaysia, as supper (not to be confused with dinner, which is eaten earlier in the evening. Supper is like the 6th meal of the day, starting with breakfast, then morning snack, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, and finally supper). The perfect environment for someone like me who enjoys eating all day.
As you walk into Kak Som, the first thing you see is a 10 foot long table filled with hotel pans of a rainbow of foods.
Not knowing what to try, and wanting to eat it all, Kingston sets us down at a table and does the ordering for us. As we start to talk about the Malaysian culture our food begins to arrive being dropped off by a young Malay boy who scurries from to table to table delivering food and drinks. First comes the Nasi Dagang, semi-glutinous rice indigenous to the Kelantanese region studded with spices and paired with a tuna curry. The Tongol Tuna is found off the eastern coast of Malaysia. This neurotic species of tuna favors near shore waters and is hand and line caught by small boats right off the shoreline. This species only does well with long, slow braising, such as this curry dish.
If you haven't figured it out, I love rice, and I love curry, and this dish did not disappoint. The rice's flavor was clean and fresh with the spices just adding a hint of additional flavor. The tuna curry was earthy and mildly spicy with the tuna fat rounding out the flavor. Just devine.
Our next dish was Nasi Kerabu, a traditional blue rice dish with with crisp pickled vegetables, fish cake cracker and braised mutton. The rice is blue because it is cooked with the butterfly pea flower, giving it the bold, cerillion blue color. The uncommon flavors to my western palette were a little difficult to describe at first, but after a few bites I was starting to get it. The rice was mildly sweet with every grain separate like small ball bearings. The fish cake cracker tasted of the salty sea and sweet baby fish, the pickled vegetables cool and crisp with a hint of acidic tang. And finally the braised mutton. A true dichotomy in and of itself. It was tough at first bite but quickly softened as chewed with a deep gamey flavor and back notes of cardamon and cinnamon. A truly unique and satisfying dish.
The food just kept coming...
Noodles! Dyann's favorite. She was looking forward to all the noodle dishes we were going to get to try while on the trip, and tonight was not going to disappoint.
Laksam. The traditional noodle dish of the Kelantan, this is a wide, flat rice noodle that is wrapped tight like a pig tail, simmered in a rich, full bodied fish and coconut broth, topped with crisp, quick pickled cabbage and bean sprouts. What a beautiful bowl of noodles. A sublime balance of simple rice noodles and bold, uncutuous fish broth with the crispy sweet cabbage. We could have eaten 3 more bowls, if it hadn't been that we knew we had hours more of eating to go.
OMG! Dessert. You have to be kidding. Will they ever stop bringing food. It's only 8:30 and we still have at least 3 more stops to go. And Kingston said something about beers? Oh geez.
As you can see, we didn't leave much behind. As we part company with Kak Som, we mount our trusty transportation and begin weaving through the even more busy streets on our way to the next stop, the Wet Market...