Open any guidebook to Kuala Lumpur, and you will find street food listed right at the top of things to do. The capital of Malaysia is renowned for the diversity of its cuisines and its abundance of night markets (pasar malams) and hawker food centres. As an expat family living in Kuala Lumpur, discovering street markets around the city has been a priority of ours.
What makes street food in Kuala Lumpur so unique?
Traditionally, street food in Kuala Lumpur was a way for manual and low-paid workers getting cheap and energy-filled meals during their working hours. Expect greasy, fatty dishes like Nasi Lemak (literally fatty rice) and Char Kway Teow (rice noodles stir-fried in pork fat with prawns, cockles and egg) to dominate the food stalls.
Although the population of Malaysia is predominantly Muslim, in cities like Kuala Lumpur, huge Indian and Chinese communities reside side-by-side. Many of the most famous street foods aren’t halal at all and consist of favourites like roasted pig and stir-fries cooked in lashings of pork fat.
With so many cultures contributing dishes, the choice of food in the morning and night markets is eye-watering. For breakfast alone, the selection of food is astounding. Enjoy a Malay-style banana-leaf wrapped parcel of nasi lemak (coconut rice, chicken, fried anchovies, hard-boiled and sambal) or queue up for a freshly roasted duck in Chinatown.
Our family favourite is a simple plate of roti canai (around 2RM or 50p). It’s delicious, greasy pancake-like bread that you dip in tasty curry sauce. It’s a bit spicy for the kids who instead opt for roti pisang, made with sweet bananas.
Where can you find the best street food in Kuala Lumpur?
By now, your mouth should be watering at the very thought of all these delicious dishes, but where can you find the very best?
As residents, I started asking some of my Malaysian friends and got a pretty shocking answer. Locals I spoke to were adamant that the quality of street food is going downhill! Decades-old food stands have become so popular than the owners no longer cook. Instead, they leave the hands-on work for the staff. Not every business does this, but it’s something tourists should bear in mind when they sample ‘authentic’ street food. Here are some more tips from locals on how to experience the best street food in Kuala Lumpur.
The ultimate street food experience in Kuala Lumpur is Jalan Alor. In direct competition with Khao San Road in Bangkok for tackiness, this long, pedestrianised street at the heart of Bukit Bintang is brimming with plastic stools, jet-lagged backpackers and cheap souvenir stands. It’s not a great place to take the kids – the crowds are a little intense. Having said that, the locals have no qualms pushing their strollers through the hungry hordes at 11 pm! While our local friends rave about the Wong Ah Wah chicken wings stall; we’re obsessed with a little Thai stand right at the far end which does amazing steamed fish and Chang beer.
The historically Chinese area of Pudu is another excellent place to head for street food in the centre of the city. If you’re there in the morning, get down to the ICC (Integrated Commercial Complex) where the basement floor is jam-packed with stalls selling breakfast favourites. Try popiah rolls – one of my favourite KL snacks – at Sisters Crispy Popiah in the Ah Weng Koh Hainan Tea kopitiam. These delectable crispy spring rolls are available with chicken or prawn stuffing, crunchy vegetables and tangy sauces.
If you have time, pop down to the vibrant and bustling Pudu Market (open 4am-2pm) to see the raw ingredients of your breakfast very much alive including clucking chickens and jelly-like fresh cow tongues.
If you visit Pudu in the evening, wander down to Glutton Street (Pudu Wai Sek Kai). This simple outdoor food market sells typically yummy street food like deep-fried squid, corn on the cobs and steamed bao (Chinese buns filled with meat or red bean paste). Choose a stall with a long queue and a steaming-hot wok.
Other street eats around Kuala Lumpur
The largest street food market in Kuala Lumpur is the mammoth once-a-week affair in Taman Connaught. On Wednesday evenings, this street in Cheras is home to over 700 traders who set up shop to offer everything from spicy chicken satay sticks to fresh sushi.
If you’re in town on a Sunday evening, head west out of the city to the suburb of Tamun Tun Dr Ismail (TTDI for short). Experience a truly local night market (Sundays 4-9pm) and treat yourself to melt-in-your-mouth deep fried chicken skin (the antithesis of a health food but so good), apam balik (sweet pancakes) and more delicious satay.
Of course, you don’t need to head anywhere, in particular, to find street food in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysians LOVE to eat. All around the city you will see food vans parked up on the corners of streets selling simple snacks like noodles. Steam boat vans are incredibly popular. Here, you can choose a stick of tofu, chicken or fish ball which you dip in a steaming, hot broth before slathering in sauce and enjoying.
Likewise, virtually every street corner has a cafe selling nasi kandar (rice served with a variety of curries and side dishes). These basic kopitiams have plastic chairs spilling out onto the street and are more or less street food given that most of their kitchens and dining areas take over the sidewalk!
What are the alternatives to street food in Kuala Lumpur?
So, if the locals in Kuala Lumpur are describing traditional street food as too touristy and not authentic enough, where do they recommend?
Many of our Malaysian friends recommend Hutong Lot 10. Some of the best street sellers in the city have moved into the basement of the Lot 10 mall to offer a sanitised version of street food. Here, the same delicious food is prepared in proper kitchens and served on standard chairs and tables. This definitely has appeal for families and those sheltering from the rain and the humidity.
Another favourite at the moment is Tapak Urban Dining Street off Jalan Ampang. Even street food in KL has gone hipster! Here you can dine on dendeng-style tacos (an interesting mix of Indonesian and Mexican flavours) whilst taking a selfie with the Petronas Towers in the background. Tapak Urban Dining is the place to savour innovative takes on local staples in an enjoyable environment. Around 30 food trucks serve food daily from about 6pm to midnight. It is a safe and clean place for families with live music on some nights. However, expect the prices to go with it! There are now branches in Petaling Jaya and Cheras as well.
If you head up to Glutton Street in Pudu, but nothing takes your fancy at the night market, or if it’s raining, walk 5 minutes down the road to Sek Yuen restaurant. Make sure you get a table in the fabulous art-deco building, not the gloomy restaurant next door. The incredibly atmospheric setting will take you back in time. There’s no menu. Just order roast pork, duck or chicken from the wait staff. Add on some rice, vegetables and a beer. And enjoy Malaysian comfort food at its best.
Plan your visit to Kuala Lumpur around experiencing street food
Before moving to Kuala Lumpur, we had no idea that Malaysian cuisine was so eclectic, abundant and unquestionably delicious. Great snacks are available everywhere and anytime. Sampling the street food will not only tantalise your taste buds, but it will also give you a lesson into the complexities of Malaysia’s history and cultural diversity. If you’re visiting Kuala Lumpur make sure that you occasionally leave the air-conditioned shopping malls that dominate the city and instead try some awesome street eats.
About the Author: Kirsty is a British family travel blogger currently living in sunny Malaysia. She has travelled to over 100 countries including 25 with her young children. Her family travel blog “World for a Girl” takes a unique look at travelling the world whilst uncovering women’s history and global feminist issues. You can also follow her adventures on Pinterest and Facebook.