KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – For many travelers to Asia, Kuala Lumpur is more of a transit hub than a travel destination. The sprawling city is home base for Air Asia, a discount airline that ferries its passengers to more far-flung sites, like the panda park in Chengdu or the beaches of Bali. Their short layover in the Malaysian capital is a mere means to an end, but not leaving the airport to explore KL is a mistake!
On a recent trip to Koh Samui, I planned a long layover in KL to do my favorite thing in the city: eat. Thanks to the effects of historic migration, colonization, and a fortunate location, Malaysia has one of the world’s richest multiethnic populations, and the make-up of the country’s people – mostly Chinese, Indians, and Malays – pulls from some of the most food-rich areas of the world. So not only is Kuala Lumpur a city that doesn’t sleep, it never stops feeding you. Whether you’re looking for a full meal or just a quick snack, you’ll find kopitiam selling roasted Chinese meats along main roads or street hawkers down ramshackle alleyways dishing up steaming bowls of spicy laksa.
On this layover, I was after the country’s national dish: nasi lemak. The breakfast dish translates as “fatty rice” thanks to the rich, creamy texture of grains boiled in coconut milk. A typical nasi lemak is served with an egg, sambal chili paste, fried ikan bilis (anchovies), and roasted peanuts. My concierge at The Majestic Hotel recommended I try the nearby Nasi Lemak Tanglin (Gerai no. 6, Kompleks Makan Tanglin, Jalan Cendrasari).
The temperature was already well into the high 80s when I set off at 8 a.m., winding my way along the empty footpath shaded by the steamy, tropical greenery of the Bird and Butterfly Parks. When I reached the address — an open air car park that looked more like an automobile graveyard than a dining destination — my first thought was, “This must be a mistake.” Then I spotted the covered patio on the other side of the lot (and the line snaking out from beneath it), picked up the scent of steaming rice in the air, and knew I had found the right place.
Five vendors set up shop here to serve breakfast to commuters, and while the menus are all similar, only Nasi Lemak Tanglin had a queue. I immediately got behind the last person, counting off 25 people in front of me and trying to quiet my growling stomach. Twenty minutes later, I was finally able to see what was on offer that day. The fluffy rice, sambal, and sides were arranged in deep silver trays, ready to be scooped and served assembly-style. Two workers dished out the selections, one handling takeaway and the other for those eating at the metal picnic tables set up throughout the parking lot. The takeaway orders were packed tightly into a banana leaf, then wrapped in newspaper and rolled with a rubber band.
The specialty at Tanglin is sotong (squid) or ayam (chicken) — both from their original recipe which dates back to 1948. I opted for a deep-fried chicken drumstick (squid stewed in chili paste before 9 a.m. seemed a bit much), with a side of fried egg, sambal, sliced cucumber, fried anchovies, and peanuts, plus a cup of Kopi-O, coffee beans roasted in raw sugar with butter, served hot and with more sugar added. I’m normally a bitter black coffee drinker, but when in KL, I cannot resist the siren song of the sweetened drink.
I found a spot at a shared table right next to the car park, nodding to my fellow diners and tucking into my rice. The grains were firm, but fluffy. When I pushed some onto my spoon, I could smell the rich coconut milk, the perfect sweet balance to the kick from the spicy sambal. The chicken leg was deep-fried perfection, and I dredged it through the chili paste on the way to my mouth. The coffee was so thick and black that I could see my reflection in it as I drank from the cup.
Just a few feet from our table, a vendor opened up the trunk of his van to reveal plastic bags of dried fish slices that he started selling to those still waiting in line. A band behind the car park started playing Malaysian love ballads to the picnic tables set up back there, and more vendors set up shop selling cut mangos, papayas, and colorful head scarves as the commuters poured in. By the time I finished my plate, the line had replenished. It was still about 25 locals deep, with not another tourist in sight.