Almost a decade ago, I spent 10 months working at a traditional Malay restaurant in Kuala Lumpur ("KL" to locals) called Seri Melayu. I was the only Westerner who had ever cooked there, and the experience was life-changing: It completely opened my mind to new flavors and a whole new style of cuisine, and it ultimately led me to open the Malaysian-inspired restaurant Fatty Crab in Manhattan in 2005. Last year, when I started developing a Malaysian-inspired bar menu for 230 Fifth, a rooftop bar in Manhattan, I decided I needed a refresher trip to KL to revisit old haunts and discover new ones. That trip still resonates with me as I work on my most recent restaurant, Suka, in London’s Sanderson Hotel.
Malaysia is a peninsular country just south of Thailand. Because it was an important trading post in the 15th century—when the coastal city of Melaka, about 90 miles south of KL, was a well-established entrepôt—its food bears the influences of China, India, Portugal, Thailand and the Middle East. The majority of its citizens are ethnic Malays, but there is a large Chinese population, whose ancestors were brought to Malaysia in the 18th century to work in tin mines. The result is a fascinating mix, both culturally and culinarily.
When I arrived in KL, Malaysia’s capital, I noticed right away how much the city had changed since my last visit. Gleaming glass office towers and hotels have sprouted up on nearly every corner. Even the small, open-air restaurants and roadside vendors the locals call hawker carts, which serve KL’s best food, have changed dramatically. In Chinatown, street stalls that were once frequented only by Malaysians and a smattering of expatriates had become nearly full-scale restaurants, with lots of Western customers and menus with English translations.