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Posts from the ‘Malaysia’ Category

Madam Kwan’s

I can't think of a New York equivalent off hand. Madam Kwan's isnt touristy because locals eat there too. I guess it's overpriced if you compare its menu to hawker equivalents, but its not expensive. $3 for a bowl of laksa is still a bargain to me. Madam Kwans is the kind of restaurant where youd take out-of-towners for Malaysian classics without folding tables and plastic chairs.

James wanted rendang (as he did all trip long) and I figured they'd have it here. They did in a nasi lemak platter. I had high end curry laksa with unorthodox add ins like eggplant and curlicued chayote(?). A young Malaysian couple whod been on the elevator with us, were seated nearby and ordered exactly the same two dishes, he the nasi lemak, she the laksa. Who knows if that's any testament to our brilliant ordering skills, but I like to think so.

Madam Kwan's * Suria KLCC, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


Malaysia was an odd duck when it came to dining. Maybe its just the New Yorker in us, but were accustomed to crowds, especially for restaurants that come highly recommended, and especially for dim sum, which is always a mob scene here. Once again, our early rising (thanks to trouble with the twelve-hour time difference) caused problems.

Xin didnt open until 11:30am and we showed up half an hour too soon. The restaurant happened to be in our hotel, which was kind of cool, especially in comparison to the Hard Rock Café, which was also downstairs. We killed time until quarter to twelve, figuring a lunch crowd would be showing up by them. But we were the first and only diners for quite a spell.

It's unnerving and unappetizing to have five staff members corralled around your table, every bite watched, every tea sip replenished. We ordered lightly, as to make an escape as sooner rather than later. What we find fun about dim sum is the selection, the commotion, the excess, and this was anything but. Perhaps the quality is higher, creations more innovative, but those nuances are kind of lost on me.

Quite clearly, because I'm hazy on what we even ate. Post traumatic stress will do that to an eater. I know we had egg tarts, probably pork buns, chee chong fun stuffed with scallops, er, and thats it. Recovering repressed memories is painful.

Xin * 2 Jalan Sultan Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


It had to be done. James became fascinated by this mall A&W with semi chic design, not fast food style at all. I liked the idea that Malaysia was teeming with forgotten American brands–Orange Julius, Long John Silvers and Body Glove, too (and actually not that forgotten, I had no idea there was a combo Long John Silvers/A&W in Canarsie).

Having been put off root beer floats for life after a childhood stomach sick experience, I refrained from their signature beverage, which seemed to be popular with fellow diners. We ordered a double cheeseburger meal with curly fries and plain root beer. Not bad and perfect for an American food craving (even being S.E. Asian food crazy I still had urges for things like bagels, tacos and pizza).


A&W * Suria KLCC, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Ahwa Coffeeshop

1/2It's a rarity for me, but I'm going to have a go at this one in (blurry) photos because I happen to have to have so many from this particular meal. I spent Merdeka with some equally food obsessed near-strangers I met on the internet who were kind enough to chauffeur us around and show us the best of Kuala Lumpur. We never wouldve found this suburban hawker center in Petaling Jaya without them.


Hokkien mee. We also had a version with rice vermicelli, which isn't
pictured. Lardy, greasy goodness.


Squid with kang kung (water spinach). It's peanutty.

Or chien (oyster omelet)


Chicken satay. I think–there was also beef at the table.


Balitong, a kind of snail/whelk creature that's nearly impossible
to suck out


Bbq stingray with a tasty condiment made of cincalok (fermented
shrimp–James thought it was fish sauce, which is for the best)
and lime juice.

Ahwa Coffeshop * near Jalan 222, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia


This almost ended up being our most expensive meal (top honors went to Mortons in HK) at $150, half the bill coming from a pricy (for us) bottle of wine. And we almost didnt find the place. I dont know what it is with Malaysia, Singapore and directions. No one seems to know street names or addresses. They tend to go by landmarks. Our cab driver dropped us off randomly in the Bukit Bintang shopping area, which isnt the same as Changkat Bukit Bintang, luckily we were able to track that specific street down (we were standing right on it, but had no idea because signage is severely lacking in Malaysia. And on top of things, the public maps You Are Here dot was completely inaccurate) despite addresses not being in chronological order.

This was Merdeka, Malaysias Independence Day , so half the city was out and about celebrating. (I swear, if you squinted and ignored the lack of blaring salsa and reggaeton, youd think it was Puerto Rican Day.) The atmosphere was hot, steamy, chaotic and overwhelming– the dead opposite of Frangipani. Two different worlds, for sure.

Even the crappiest NYC restaurants are full any given night of the week. Not so, in Asia. There was huge rigmarole with reservations, needing a number to confirm and reach us when we didnt have one. I think they just like following rules (same thing happened in HK). I'd counted on crazy fusion and high for Kuala Lumpur prices. What I hadnt expected, and encountered numerous times during our travels, was that wed practically have the entire restaurant to ourselves.

When we arrived, the entire lofty space was occupied by a one couple. The modern opulence almost feels wasted by the silence and lack of audience. Frangipanis centerpiece is an enormous, dark, reflecting pool surrounded by tables with plush chairs. You are reminded not to step into it, as its so still and glassy. It did indeed look like marble, but I couldnt help wondering who would dare step out of bounds in such a sterile, reserved atmosphere. Service is big in S.E. Asia. Too big for me. You are constantly being watched from angles and corners, hovered over while eating and stood behind while paying the bill. I'm not sure if its part of the culture or a lack of patrons for the staff to attend to.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I cant really remember what I ate, which is absolutely no testament to the forgettable-ness of the food. It was just complex in comparison to much of the hawker food we ate, lots of ingredients, unusual pairings, the menu descriptions consisted of large (intentionally) humorous paragraphs per dish, which would likely draw criticism in NYC. I do know that my entrée involved tea smoked duck breast, I had caviar on my appetizer and the dessert contained chocolate and banana mousses. Frangipani would really benefit from having a website (Malaysia stuck me as lacking in web presence).

The dining experience left me feeling a little traumatized. I remember from visiting Bangkok in 03 that I vowed to avoid upscale restaurants if I visited again, despite their good value. Mainly because of the stifling vibe and suffocating service. I wonder if Europeans get off on this, theres something old world and master/servant about it all that I cant get comfortable with. Youd think after being annoyed by NYC attitude–pointless posturing, velvet rope culture–that I'd enjoy being treated well. But what I used to think of as noise, crowds and obnoxiousness actually feels more like energy in comparison. This passion and verve is what I found lacking at Frangipani, despite the creative cooking.

Frangipani * 25 Changkat Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Kayu Nasi Kandar

Nasi kandar restaurants belong to a broad genre called economy rice, kandar is the Indian version while nasi campur is Malaysian. You point and pick items to be served over rice. But you kind of have to choose wisely or its not quite as economical–at least not by local standards.

We went hog wild, taking a little of this and that, everything looked so good. And besides, I wasn't super sure what everything was, so the more new stuff the better. I asked for the same crimson battered blobs that the person in front of me had ordered, figuring he must know what he's doing. I didn't expect them to be fish eggs, which is what the counter guy explained. I'm still not sure how they were eggs (bottom left corner of photo). In addition, I got shrimp, chicken, squid, black curry, at least five things. I'm certain the counter guy had us pegged as foreign moneybags because he defaulted to biryani when I noticed everyone else had white rice. I said yes to all the extras like meat floss and cucumber relish.

When all was said and done are two meals came to RM40, which is a freaking lot for Penang. But being a boatload of food and still only $5 apiece, we were in no position to complain. It's nice when the exchange rate and local cost of living actually works in your favor for a change. After sitting down, we observed that most diners had only plain rice and two sides, making us look like the American gluttons we truly are. That's ok, its not every day I get to indulge in a nasi kandar feast.

Kayu Nasi Kandar * Penang Rd., Penang, Malaysia



Penang was mildly trying at first. We didn't have our bearings or any sense of distance. Knowing the trouble with S.E. Asian taxi drivers and their awareness of street names (street names aren't even posted on street corners, which is incredibly frustrating and time wasting) and how buildings aren't always numbered at all or in any logical sequence, we took a cab from the hotel straight down Penang Rd. to KOMTAR, a landmark we figured couldn't be messed up. From a map we had it looked like Sisters was two blocks or so from KOMTAR on an off shooting street named Macalister.

Of course the roads weren't labeled so it was impossible to deduce which was Macalister without walking down one until you found out otherwise. We finally got on track and began a trek that was definitely more than two blocks. We wearily continued our journey for supposedly the best char kway teow in Penang (if not all of Malaysia, and hence the world) looking for Jalan Perak, the cross street. It took a good 25 minutes before we finally found our roadside stand. And then the ordering trauma began.

Do you order up front where the old lady is cooking like a hawker stall? Do you sit down at a table and hope that your order gets taken. It all makes sense after you've done it once and get accustomed to the drill but this was our first meal in Malaysia and we did it all out of order. We kept waiting to be acknowledged up front at the stove, but it was frenzied and didn't feel right. English didn't seem to help things along much either. We told a male staff member next to the cooking area that we wanted two large orders of noodles and then looked for a place to sit. The restaurant was packed, we squeezed into the last available mini table way in the back near the sink where old men kept coming and hacking loogies.


After a coma inducing wait (I began to recall reviews I'd read about slow service. Oh, and how expensive Sisters is. Maybe in comparison to the norm of Penang, but $1 a plate wont invoke any cries from New Yorkers) we figured out the routine and that we'd mangled it. It was very simple. You find a seat, sit down, and a waitress will come take your order and the food will arrive quite some time later. I actually think they forgot our order because we hadn't done it right in the first place. It took nearly an hour to get two plates of noodles

But the char kway teow was really freaking good and became our benchmark for the rest of the trip (none surpassed it). If ordering wasn't such an ordeal I swear we'd have had seconds. It was spicy and a little sweet, the ingredients were charred around the edges not soggy like many renditions. And yes, this is a greasy dish, the serving swatch of banana leaf was slicked with orange oil. But hot and oily is a good thing. Others we tried were more sweet and wet.

I didn't encounter any CKT in Singapore or Malaysia that contained Chinese sausage, which I always thought was typical. Apparently its not. Bean sprouts, shrimp, broad noodles, dark soy, egg are all basics. Lard is traditional, though I'm not sure what Sisters used because we were scared the cook was going to throw rotten cockles or something at us if we got too close and bugged her again.

Now were like old hands, total char kway teow experts (ok, not really—but these people are) We could find Sisters in a pinch. The problem is when will we ever get back to Penang? We really need Star Trek style holoports to make world dining more practical. Ok, I swear thats the last food geeky thing Ill write…but you have to admit it would be pretty cool to pop up in Penang for lunch, then get back to your midtown office unnoticed. 

Sister's * Jalan Macalister near Jalan Perak, Penang, Malaysia


Yes, I ate at KFC in Penang. So sue me (jeez, the ‘80s bug just bit me). Everyone has conniptions when you tell them you ate at American fast food chains while on vacation. I understand, it weirded me out that my grandma ate at Planet Hollywood in Beijing (never mind the fact that the woman visited mainland China at all—she always struck me as more Branson).

KOMTAR was giving us the heebie jeebies. It was like an Eastern Bloc, cold war era shopping center, but Muslim, if you can imagine. James started getting sick, claiming the entire place smelled like hair spray (there were lots of little eerie beauty parlors inside). I think it was more like bug spray or disinfectant. No matter, he needed to sit (normally, I'd think he was exaggerating about not feeling well, but hed said the same thing on our flight from NYC and then proceeded to pass out) and well, KFC was recognizable and air conditioned. Plus, who can resist fried chicken, Malaysians love fried chicken, how bad could it be?

So, we ordered combos containing one regular and one spicy piece of chicken, soda and a little something called Cheezy Wedges, which were fried potato chunks drizzled with nacho cheese and mayonnaise. So wrong. (They also had a Cheezybon at their Cinnabon, which was also doused in a Cheez Whiz-like substance). The chicken itself was perfectly tasty, and I'm a total sucker for the “sos chili” a.k.a. sweet chile sauce that's served at most S.E. Asian fast food joints. The portions were notably smaller than not just American ones, but Singapores (the only country that seemed to have Big Gulps at their 7-Elevens) as well. The small amount of food we actually consumed made me feel slightly less guilty about frequenting KFC.

KFC * KOMTAR, Penang, Malaysia

Gurney Drive Hawkers

There are moments when I feel smart and smug, but mostly I feel dumb and confused. Figuring out where the well known Gurney Drive hawkers actually set up made me feel profoundly stupid. We had taken a taxi to Gurney Plaza, the big modern mall, and passed a bunch of roadside stalls along the way, but I didnt think any of those were this specific hawker center. After an afternoon of shopping we were stymied, for some reason we didnt think the esplanade went much further, but didnt think the hawkers were behind us either. Of course, there is a bit more esplanade beyond the mall and thats exactly where the hawkers were. Maybe it was the heat, or our ragged body clocks, but we were baffled enough to almost ask a taxi at the mall to drive us there, which wouldve been really ridiculous as it was mere blocks away.

 I'm still not clear how hawkers keep what you order and where youve sat straight. And why some approach/attack before youve had a chance to think and make it seem that you must order from them when I'm pretty sure you can sit wherever, at least at this particular center. After getting our bearings, we got two bowls of assam laksa. I still cant believe this was the only time we sampled this soup style (thick round rice noodles, sour tamarind broth, fish, mint, spice–its nothing like the coconutty lemak versions except in name), but with so many food choices you dont want to repeat yourself. I also got rojak, which was full of mystery items despite my watching the old and young male duo assemble my dish. I think theres jicama, cucumbers, pineapple, maybe squid, and something I later learned were water apples. I love the sweet, spicy inky shrimp sauce the crunchy wedges are tossed with. James got some little mystery fried things and a plate of char kway teow.

On a non-food related note: Penangites seem to have a penchant for loud inappropriate music, not wholly unlike how Mexican joints like blaring jukeboxes. Earlier, at the mall there had been some automobile promotion out front and really really loud hip hop was blasting. Way over the top. At Gurney, a table was set up where two guys were selling dvds and they were also letting the crowd involuntarily sample their wares. But one mans distracting is anothers enticing–they garnered a decent amount of customers. Me, Ill stick to the food.

Gurney Drive Hawkers * Gurney Dr., Penang, Malaysia