As the sun sets behind the towering skyline of Kuala Lumpur, life dawns on the night food street of Jalan Alor. Running parallel to the fashionable Bukit Bintang, dotted with upmarket restaurants and high-end retailers, this food street can be considered and antithesis to its neighbor. Extending from Changhkat on one end and Jalan Pudu on the other, this food street is a true representation of Malaysian culture and most importantly cuisine. The delightful multicultural fabric of Malaysia can be witnessed on Jalan Alor, with the synthesis of Chinese, Malay and Indian fare on offer. And if that was not enough the influence left behind by the British, Dutch and Thai are still visible in Malaysian cuisine. The wide array of cooking styles adopted in Malaysia can be found all in one mile radius. To discover the cuisine of Malaysia, you must begin your journey at Jalan Alor.
As I began my culinary adventure on this festive food street, I was greeted by the aroma of spices, the sounds of sizzling woks, the chatter of avid tourists and locals, smiles of vendors and satiated expressions of the diners. The general buzz in the area created an aura of a food haven lined with hawker stalls, restaurants and kopitams (Malay name for coffee shops). Jalan Alor is a gastronomic adventure where, searingly aromatic Malay fare to fiery, piquant Indian food to sizzling Chinese delicacies (all styles such as Cantonese, Hokkein, Szechuan and Hainese) to Chinese-Malay fusion cuisine Nyonya, can be found. All that is left up to us is to decide what we would want to dine on; which is probably the most difficult thing to do here.
Large signboards with pictures of the food on offer are place atop most restaurants. We had the option of sitting inside or on the roadside which is lined with plastic tables and stools. But before that it was the tough task of deciding what to eat. Local staples soups such as Pan Mee, Wan Tan Mee, Laksa and Tom Yum Goong, rice dishes Nasi Lemak and Nasi Goreng and noodles Mee Goreng and Char Kueh Teow are widely available. Larger portions of fish, prawns, meat, crabs, lobster and chicken can also be ordered in a wide array of sauces such as black bean, honey and pepper to name a few. Such dishes can be shared between two people with a side of rice. Could you ever imagine ordering rice would send you into a tizzy? Well anything is possible on Jalan Alor where just rice has a plethora of varieties such as garlic fried rice, spicy chicken fried rice, coconut rice to name a few. My advice, walk the entire stretch of the road to soak up the atmosphere, make space in your stomach and decide your main course options on the way.
This food street is for the adventurous. Other than local delicacies and staples, there are certain off the beaten track items as well. Seafood is very popular here hence you will find all sorts of cockles, mussels, calamari and clams cooked in spicy pastes. That is not all, if you have a palate for oysters and baby octopus, this is the place to be. They will present you with an option of either fried or grilled, whatever tickles your taste buds. If you are in the mood for more adventure, then a plate of fried frog’s legs would be right up your alley. As I said, there is something to eat at Jalan Alor for everyone.
Like us, if those large display pictures cannot help you make up your mind, then walk around the open air kitchens and stalls where the food is actually being cooked. Maybe an actual visual display can help make up your mind. Malaysian food would be incomplete without the inclusion of their world famous satay. Hence, satay vendors were aplenty in Jalan Alor, serving up chicken, meat, and even vegetable satays. The best part, they gladly posed for pictures while cooking their secret recipes as well.
According to one of the chefs, they marinate the meat in a special peanut and chilli marinade for a few hours till the meat is tender. Then it goes on the barbecue for that smokey satay flavor and is served up with a peanut dip. That is about all the information that I could gather from him. It was a busy Saturday night and satay orders were aplenty, hence could not keep him off the job for longer.
Another popular dish on this street was chicken wings. The sheer size of the wings was enough to put you into a spin. Ordinarily, the wings served in most restaurants are bite sized, here this was not the case. Large chicken wings, at least 4 times the size of normal wings were being cooked on the rotisserie. With a closer look, you could actually see the juices dripping onto the tray below. The aroma generated by the marinade basted on top on the wings infused with the heat was enough to send you into a culinary trance. The best way to experience this food street is to soak in the sights, sounds and most importantly, the smells.
Still undecided, we opted to walk some more. Deeper into the street we found a vendor selling steamboat. A popular concept in Malaysia, Steamboat restaurants, offer a variety of uncooked ingredients such as any vegetables, meat or seafood of your choice along with a bubbling stock, either chicken or tom yum. The stock is placed in front you on a small personal stove with a cooking dish. From there on you are on your own. You cook the meat,vegetables and noodles yourself in the broth. It is something like a meat fondue. Once cooked, pour it in your soup bowl and enjoy. It is time consuming and more enjoyable if you are in a large group of people. Hence, we decided to move on.
One restaurant had displayed various varieties of fish, prawn, crabs and lobster on ice, just go and choose your meat and they will cook it for you in the sauce of your choice. So many choices and such limited space.
If you are still clueless about what you want to eat, then last option- look at other people’s tables. The finished dish will definitely help you decide faster, and of course do not forget to check their expressions, you might get an inkling as to whether the dish is good or bad. To wash down your food, you have the option of ordering beer, fresh juices, water or the very popular coconut water that comes in the coconut shell. Very refreshing on a hot summer day.
After our long search, we decided to sit outside and order from CuCha restaurant, needless to say it due to the perfect salesmanship of their persuasive staff. To the extent that they offered to get food from other restaurants or vendors as well if we liked. As we started to enjoy the cool breeze on a balmy night, I felt droplets of water. Rain had decided to ruin our outdoor dinner and we had to be shifted inside.
My order was seafood char kueh teow. They were thick egg noodles, cooked in garlic and ginger topped with prawns, calamari, clams and baby oysters. Tossed together and stir fried with bean sprouts, cabbage and spring onions, it was the perfect dish for any seafood fan. Not overly gingery, yet not bland either. The best part was the seafood was aplenty.
To share, we ordered a plate of fried calamari with a sweet chilli sauce. The calamari was cooked just right, crunchy from the outside and soft from the inside. You could tell that calamari was not overcooked as my jaw was not hurting after wiping the plate clean.
My husband’s food was a slight disappointment. He had ordered black pepper beef noodles, however there was barely any trace of beef in it and the noodles seemed overcooked and mushy. However, the fried calamari and the whole experience made up for it.
If you have any space left, we sure did not, you can opt for the various desserts available as well. There were freshly bakes biscuits, soy ice cream, coconut and pineapple filled tiny pastries, egg tarts and innumerable local sweets. Normally, I would have bought at least one item, just to give it a try but the large portions had not left any space.
Packed with hungry food lovers, this culinary jewel in the heart of Kuala Lumpur is a must for anyone who visits Kuala Lumpur and has a penchant for Asian cuisine. There is no other best way to experience Malaysian cuisine. Bear in mind it is a night food market, hence it opens at 5pm but activity picks up as night falls. One word of caution though, even though it is a street food market, the prices are higher than normal street hawkers. They can be comparable to any mid-tier restaurant in Malaysia. But that should not act as a deterrent, there can be no price tag attached to a culinary experience. Discover the soul of Malaysian cooking by spending an evening at Jalan Alor.