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Sunday 4 November 2012

The London Foodie Goes to Malaysia - Kuala Lumpur

Arriving in KL, it's hard to believe that a city,  founded as recently as 1857, can have such a buzz with night-life, skyscrapers and traffic jams to match any world metropolis. Malaysians of Chinese, Malay and Indian origins, or mixtures of these known as Peranakans, live side by side. This diversity makes the country unique in its culture and gastronomy, and here is where I started a two-week visit to this intriguing nation.

View from my room at the Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur

KL reminds me of other two major cities - Sao Paulo and Bangkok . Like these two mega-cities, KL is not an immediately appealing place - but if you can see beyond its traffic jams, pollution and the levels of heat and humidity, you will find a capital city with plenty of things to discover and some of the most hospitable people you will ever meet.

What to do

A good place to start is the old Central Market (Pasar Seni), to the southwest of the present-day city centre. Now a collection of shops, boutiques and restaurants rather than meat and fish, it is close to Merdeka (Independence) Square with its colonial courthouses and government buildings.  The old mosque, Masjid Jamek, lies behind the courts where the rivers Klang and Gombak meet (where KL first began). 

From there, you can walk to the National Mosque and Islamic Arts Museum.  East of the Central Market lies Chinatown, then Little India, each with its own style, shops and food.  In the 1980s, the city centre began to shift eastwards from the old city, as a number of shopping malls and luxury hotels opened, then the Petronas Twin Towers opened in the same area in 1999.  Visiting the Petronas Towers is obviously a must-do in KL, and a ticket to the top, on sale from 08.30 each day, is definitely worth the £16 fee in my opinion. 

At the foot of the Towers is another shopping mall, and the KL Convention Centre. Also in this part of town, Bukit Bintang (Star Hill) is a good area for visitors to explore, with shopping malls, and 'Bintang Walk', with its smart outdoor pavement cafes.  

Besides shopping the best activities in KL are eating, or spending an afternoon of pampering in a spa in one of the five star hotels or at a roof-top swimming pool like the one at the Grand Hyatt (see "Where to Stay" below). Malaysian food is complex, reflecting the ethnic diversity of the nation.  Food is definitely one of the highlights of any visit to KL, with a wide variety of local cuisines cooked to a high standard on the streets and in restaurants.  There is food to suit all budgets, from hawker stalls to 5 star restaurants, including Malay, Nyonya, Chinese and Indian options.  For more information, see the 'Where to Eat' section below.

Outdoor Swimming Pool at the Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur

Where to Stay

Grand Hyatt Hotel

Malaysia has accommodation to suit all budgets, and it is possible to live very inexpensively like in other parts of South East Asia.  It is striking though, how affordable 5 star luxury hotels are in comparison to prices in Europe or the USA.  

With that in mind, and having spoken with friends from KL prior to my visit, the unanimous advice was to stay at the Grand Hyatt. The newest and swankiest hotel in KL, the 5 star Grand Hyatt opened in August 2012, right next to the KL Convention Centre and Petronas Towers. It is the first 5 star hotel to open in the city for 10 years, and its opening has been much anticipated. On arrival, guests are whisked up to the lobby, positioned at the top of the building on the 39th floor, for a captivating 360 degree view of the city's skyline and Towers.

All of the hotel's guest rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows, wireless internet, iPod docking station (great for charging your iPhone!) and luxurious bathrooms. Mine was a very spacious corner room.  The bathroom was lined with white marble, the bath tub facing the Petronas Towers. I liked the sober colours used - white and different tones of brown and beige which gave a feeling of cool elegance. It was also impressive to see the highest quality materials and fittings used, giving a sleekly luxurious feel to the room.

The hotel has three restaurants - Thirty8, JP Teres and Poolside. Thirty8 located on the top floor of the hotel, is a restaurant, wine bar and lounge and here is also where breakfast and high tea are served every morning and afternoon.

I didn't get to dine at Thirty8, but I thoroughly enjoyed my breakfast there particularly because of the open kitchen stations where I could see the chefs in action. The various kitchen stations along Thirty8 serve anything from authentic Malay dishes to sushi and sashimi as well as Chinese, and Western cuisines.

I spent a good couple of hours during my first morning in KL, eating Thirty8's many different types of cooked breakfast and chatting to the chefs - it was one of the best breakfast buffets I have seen in Asia. The chicken congee was a favourite, as was the selection of freshly cooked dim sum, and the Malay breakfast dishes including Nasi Lemak and Chicken Rendang.

Congee Station - Breakfast at Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur

Rice Congee with Numerous Toppings
The Western-style buffet and open-kitchen station were also impressive, and despite being rather full I was tempted to sample the English breakfast but somehow managed to restrain myself. The coffee, normally quite disappointing in Asian hotels, was excellent and just as good as in any top hotels in Europe - it was strong, frothy and rich. I must admit, I skipped lunch that day.

Nasi Lemak Wrapped in Banana Leaves - Breakfast at Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur
JP Teres is the hotel's ground floor restaurant offering Malay, Indian and Chinese dishes and is where I had one of my best meals in Malaysia, see "Where to Eat" below. The Poolside restaurant, as the name suggests, is by the hotel's swimming pool and offers al fresco dining with a more international menu including mac and cheese, beef burgers and fish and chips.

Dim Sum Spread - Breakfast at Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur

The outdoor swimming pool (kept at 28C) has a circular design and is lined with palm trees and cream-coloured linen recliners, some of them covered for added privacy and shading. A great place to relax and cool down from the tropical sun, idling away the hours with a good read.

Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur's Swimming Pool by Night

The hotel has state of the art health and fitness facilities including a 24-hour gym and spa in addition to the outdoor pool. In fact, one of the highlights of my stay in KL was to have a couple of spa treatments at the Grand Hyatt's magnificent Essa Spa, starting with a 60min full body massage (Essa Dream State) followed by a 30min Hydra facial, total bliss! There are dozens of treatments and massages to choose from, and I highly recommend trying one of them.

What most impressed me about the Grand Hyatt however was the high level of personal service that was extended to us and all other guests in the hotel. I have yet to see more efficient and courteous hotel workers than I encountered at the Grand Hyatt. From those turning down the sheets in the early evening to the breakfast chefs, receptionists and security guards, all had a friendly and welcoming approach that made our stay there so special. I was sad to leave!

Where to Eat

JP Teres

Of the 3 nights we spent in KL, the best meal we had was at the Grand Hyatt's JP Teres. If you only have one meal in KL, I would recommend this restaurant. 

The JP Teres restaurant is on the ground floor of the Grand Hyatt, and offers both indoor and outdoor dining areas. The large outdoor terrace is a good place to relax over a few beers and food, watch the football or meet friends.

Outdoor Dining at JP Teres - Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur

The indoor restaurant, where I had my meal, has separate open kitchen stations for Malay, Indian and Chinese cooking. The food we had there was excellent and was also surprisingly affordable considering it was in a 5 star hotel.

The restaurant is open to non-guests, and on our visit, many Malaysian families were also having dinner there. The restaurant has a separate station for Malaysian desserts, pastries and ice creams.

We started with a portion of beef satay skewers (£3.50) served with cucumber and onions, rice cake and peanut sauce. The meat was tender and well cooked and it took us no time to polish them off.

Our next dish was Nasi Ayam (£4.50) a dish made from succulent pieces of roasted chicken accompanied by ginger rice, a flavoursome chicken broth, and different types of sauces including chilli, ginger and soy sauce. This was a delicious dish and one I will long remember from this trip.

 The Sambal Udang Petai (£6.50), a prawn sambal (chilli-sauce based) dish with tomatoes, onions, chilli and cluster beans was also magnificent and paired particularly well with the Garlic Roti (£2) that chef Sanjay baked freshly for us. Seeing that I had not ordered his garlic roti, chef Sanjay brought it to our table urging us to try it (which didn't take much persuasion as it looked and smelled so good) and I am so glad he did!

The Oyster Omelette (£4) was also very good as was the Sambal Kangkong (£3), a vegetable dish of wok fried morning glory, garlic, fresh red chilli and belacan (shrimp paste). I love belacan, it is rather pungent but also sweet and salty, brimming with umami deliciousness and I just can't get enough of it.

Dr G and I were rather full but had just enough space to squeeze in a small fruit selection platter (£3) which was refreshing, very sweet and tropical. Alcoholic drinks are not cheap anywhere in Malaysia because of "sin" taxes, and JP Teres was no exception. Our glass of draught beer cost £3.50 each whilst the most affordable glass of wine started from £6.

All in all, this was a delicious meal, and I hope that the hotel retains its excellent culinary standards until my next visit to Malaysia as I will undoubtedly return for more of their Nasi Ayam.

Old China Cafe

This was my third visit to the Old China Cafe, a favourite haunt of mine whenever I visit KL, but unlike my previous visits, this meal was a tad disappointing both due to the food and the service.

The Old China Cafe is an early 20th century Chinese shop house in Chinatown. The decor is authentic and wonderfully preserved making for a really atmospheric setting. The very affordable menu includes some classic Malay and Nyonya favourites (Nyonya cuisine was developed in Malacca and also Singapore, coming from the inter-racial marriage between Malay women and Chinese men). Booking is recommended as it is always packed with locals and tourists (see Travel Essentials for details).

The Ikan Bilis (£1.50), crispy fried baby anchovies served with homemade chilli sauce, was delicious and well seasoned and perfectly paired with our chilled local Jaz beer (£3). I have made a different version of ikan bilis at home, this is one of my favourite Malaysian appetizers (see recipe here).

The Nyonya Laksa (£2) had yellow noodles in a coconut broth which was rich and spicy, and was garnished with prawns, deep fried tofu and half a boiled egg. I would have enjoyed this laksa had it not been for the deep fried tofu which tasted stale and ruined the dish for me.

The Kari Kapitan Chicken (£3), a Penang version of curry chicken cooked with a range of aromatic spices, chilli paste and coconut cream, had a lovely curry sauce but unfortunately the meat was surprisingly dry and tough probably from overcooking.

Siu Yok Devil Curry (£4.50) is a popular Nyonya dish from the Malacca Portuguese community. It is roasted pork belly cooked in a spicy broth with ginger and chillies. I enjoyed this a lot although their Beef Rendang (£3), the most popular of Malaysian dishes, was unfortunately tough and rather lacking in flavour.

Brinjal Belacan (£2), stir fried aubergine with belacan (spicy shrimp paste), was adequate although I felt the dish could have done with more belacan.

This might have been an off night, I have had excellent food there before so approach this restaurant with caution and do not make this your only choice in KL.

Jalan Alor 

Street Food (Hawker Food) plays a major role in Malaysian cuisine, and if this style floats your boat, the place to head to whilst in KL is Jalan Alor. Occupying the former red-light district of KL, Jalan Alor is a stone's throw from the shopping plazas of Bukit Bintang.

The street is deserted during the day but at sunset, the many cafes lining its pavements will open and put out tables, chairs and lights on the street. Thousands of locals and adventurous tourists will flock to Jalan Alor daily to try the incredibly good value street food on offer. In my opinion, quality and hygiene vary from stall to stall, be sure to find a place with running water and proper refrigeration.

Travel Essentials

Direct flights from London to Kuala Lumpur are available with British Airways and Malaysian Airlines.  Middle Eastern airlines provide indirect flights at lower cost, with a 60-120 minute stopover, including Etihad (changing at Abu Dhabi), or Qatar Airlines (changing at Doha). 

We flew with Etihad, at a substantially lower cost than any other carrier at the time, and we found it to be perfectly satisfactory - http://www.etihadairways.com/sites/etihad/uk/en/home/pages/home.aspx

Some of Kuala Lumpur's sites of interest:
Markets of KL - http://www.malaysiasite.nl/markets.htm
National Mosque - http://visitkualalumpur.com/cmarter.asp?doc=382
Islamic Arts Museum - http://www.iamm.org.my/
Chinatown - http://www.malaysiasite.nl/petaling.htm
Little India - http://www.malaysiasite.nl/littleindiaeng.htm
Petronas Towers - http://www.petronastwintowers.com.my/ 
Bukit Bintang (Star Hill) - good area for shopping, and 'Bintang Walk', with its smart outdoor pavement cafes - http://www.bukitbintang.com/en/

For the best luxury accommodation that KL can offer, the Grand Hyatt Hotel is my top recommendation:
Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur
12 Jalan Pinang,
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 50450 
Tel: +60 3 2182 1234  
Email: kualalumpur.grand@hyatt.com

Rates are seasonally variable, during my stay rates started from around £120, whilst my room cost £180 per night.

For expert local cuisine, in a 5-star setting, JP Teres at the Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur is my place of choice:
JP Teres - Ground Floor of the Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur (see address above)
Old China Cafe (for Nyonya cuisine in Chinatown) - http://www.oldchina.com.my/ocklindex.htm
Jalan Alor (for hawker food) - http://www.malaysiasite.nl/jalanaloreng.htm

Interesting sites about Malaysia:
Malaysian by May - http://www.malaysianbymay.com/
Malaysia Site - http://www.malaysiasite.nl/starteng.htm
Tourism Malaysia - http://www.tourismmalaysia.gov.my/en/master
Visit Malaysia - http://www.visit-malaysia.com/


  1. Ooh such deliciousness. We have been in KL for just one day, as a stop on a cruise. (We're not really cruisers, except to wildlife destinations like Antarctica and Galapagos but this time we did).
    Loving the array of food you have shared.

  2. Hi Luiz, wow what a nice time you had! I love your pictures and how now and then we spot Dr G. Nice and well rounded post. Thanks for sharing. R


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