I’m sitting with Leonard Tee at a marble-top table in the dining hall of Warong Old China. The Malaysian Chinese restaurant owner has been in business in Kuala Lumpur for 20 years, and this Chinatown address is the newest of his three venues. I ask a question that elicits a long pause for consideration: what dish best symbolises multicultural Malaysia? Tee finally speaks: “The quintessential Malaysian dish is nasi lemak because there’s a Malay, Chinese and Indian version.”
He may be right — this concoction of coconut-flavoured rice, crunchy ikan bilis (the local version of fried anchovies), raw cucumber, roasted peanuts and spicy sambal (chilli sauce) is a convenient choice to summarise, in a few spoonfuls, one of the world’s most complex multi-ethnic societies. In fact, Malaysia’s first astronaut, Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, even took nasi lemak with him to outer space when he took flight in 2007.
Close to KL Sentral, the city’s main transport hub, Chinatown is the most accessible place to begin my mission of mapping the food scene in Malaysia’s gargantuan, multifaith capital. Fondly called ‘KL’ by locals, it’s a labyrinth of pre-independence colonial buildings, Sino-Portuguese shophouses, coils of modern highways and some of the world’s tallest towers — an architectural mix as complex as Malaysian cuisine. This country’s menu of fiery curries, fried rice and noodles, piquant soups, tandoori-roasted meats and a broad rainbow of spices reflects a long history of immigration, cross-pollination and a fusion of influences ranging from the Indonesian archipelago to Arabia, India and China.
I feel this heavy cultural cargo behind the simple rice dish I dig into at Warong Old China. The nasi lemak here is a Peranakan version, hailing from the unique ethnic and cultural mix of Straits Chinese and Malay/Indonesian people found only in Malaysia and Singapore. The rice’s sweet aroma and glutinous texture enriched by coconut milk is a perfect base for this spicy and crunchy concoction — the deep-fried chicken thigh that comes with it crackles satisfyingly as I sink my teeth in.
Things get more creative than a mere marriage of rice, coconut and chicken, however. Next, Tee brings out Melaka-style laksa, a tangy noodle soup tempered by abundant coconut milk, and a refreshing pomelo salad — a citrus-meets-greens match made in heaven. His buah keluak, fried rice served on a banana leaf with a side of chicken breast and a snap-crisp prawn cracker, is blackened with sambal — Malaysia’s ubiquitous umami-rich chilli sauce — mixed with the pulp of the kepayang tree fruit. The resulting scent, believe it or not, is reminiscent of European truffles.
“We have much more than nasi lemak,” says Andrew Wong, one of the owners
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