A Food Bloggers' Tour of Kuala Lumpur

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CHOOSING where and what to eat in Malaysia's food-obsessed capital of Kuala Lumpur is no small feat. From the moment you enter this hot, humid, traffic-choked capital, known locally as K.L., endless culinary options influenced by numerous cuisines beckon, from wok-fried noodles topped with fresh seafood to steaming piles of naan and vats of fragrant curries. So how best to navigate this complex world of food? I turned to the local blogosphere for advice and personal guidance. These passionate food bloggers spend their weekends tirelessly hunting down the city's hidden treats, reporting on their gastronomic adventures to a devoted readership that's just as infatuated with local cuisine as they are. And as the city welcomes a dizzying number of eye-catching high-end restaurants, it's the bloggers who ensure that Kuala Lumpur's age-old culinary gems -- and some of its most memorable meals -- won't be forgotten.

On a sultry weekend morning earlier this year, I joined a group of local customers -- women in colorful headscarves, men in short-sleeved, button-down shirts and slacks -- in partaking of a Malaysian ritual: a plate of nasi lemak at R. A. Nasi Lemak (15A Jalan Raja Abdullah; 60-12-354-6800), an outdoor restaurant along a busy road in central Kuala Lumpur, where nasi lemak is about 6 ringgit, or $2 at 3 ringgit to the dollar. Nasi lemak, the unofficial national dish, translates from the Malay as "fatty rice," and it quickly became apparent why. As a server scooped a hearty helping of coconut-infused white rice from a wooden barrel onto a plate lined with a banana leaf, Lee Khang Yi, one of my blogger-guides, looked on approvingly.

"This is nice rice," she said, before selecting from a dozen or so side dishes, which ranged from glistening hunks of fried chicken to paru goreng, deep-fried beef lungs coated in ginger, shallots and shredded lemon grass. Before grabbing a plastic stool at one of the stall's metal tables, Ms. Yi topped her plate with roasted peanuts, ikan bilis (small fried anchovies), a fried egg and sliced cucumbers -- all essential accompaniments to nasi lemak.

The bespectacled Ms. Yi, 40, is the authoritative voice behind the popular food blog Masak-Masak (masak-masak.blogspot.com) -- literally "cooking-cooking" in Malay -- a site she began seven years ago while between jobs. Her site became so popular that Ms. Yi abandoned a career in finance and is now a food editor for a major national newspaper, The Malay Mail.

Drawing from the country's Malay, Chinese and Indian populations, versions of nasi lemak are as varied as the national population. "As the years have gone by, there is a racial division when it comes to food," Ms. Yi said. "People will eat within their group. But nasi lemak has transcended all the races. Somehow or another everyone eats nasi lemak and finds something they like about it."

She was quick to point out, though, that all iterations of the dish share a foundation. "It all starts with the rice, which has to be fluffy, nicely balanced and not too sweet," she said. "I'm quite biased when it comes to nasi lemak."

My next blogging companion, Jonathan Ooi, 32, brought me to Yut Kee restaurant (35 Jalan Dang Wangi; 60-3-2698-8108), where he has been going since childhood. "This was my grandfather's favorite coffee shop," he said as we crammed into a table between families with small children, elderly men reading local newspapers and servers shouting orders. "He used to come here for his daily breakfast when he worked at the nearby HSBC bank," he continued. "Since he passed away, my parents, aunts and uncles and I have continued his tradition."

Mr. Ooi, who works as a store designer, clearly inherited his grandfather's passion for food: he now runs the blog A Lil' Fat Monkey (alilfatmonkey.com), which chronicles Mr. Ooi's food and travel adventures around the world, covering both trendy new openings and old-school neighborhood favorites like Yut Kee, where the Lee family has been wooing patrons with Hainanese delicacies since 1928 -- though at least one of the draws for Mr. Ooi is a ubiquitous one. "There is just something about the coffee here," Mr. Ooi said, sipping a cup of freshly brewed kopi-O (1.50 ringgit), coal-black coffee served with sugar. "You can taste the traditional roasting. The robusta beans are roasted with sugar and margarine."

In the Chinese-Malaysian tradition, the glimmering, potent brew is served with thick slices of Hainanese bread (2.40 ringgit), either steamed into a pillowy texture or toasted on charcoal. "The bread should be full of holes, which gives it a nice crisp," Mr. Ooi said.

In a style employed across Malaysia and Singapore, the bread is accompanied by a pair of soft-boiled eggs (2.50 ringgit) cracked in a bowl and a dollop of kaya, a sweet concoction of whipped coconut, egg and sugar. Kaya, which manages to be both light and viscous, may be one of Malaysia's most sublime flavors, and Yut Kee's family recipe is among the best of the best; I hoped to snag a take-away container for my husband, but by 11 they had sold out.

Mr. Ooi demonstrated proper technique: the bread is buttered, then dipped in the egg or spread with kaya. A quick plunge into the kopi-O gives the combination a boost of extra flavor. "You can't call yourself someone from K.L. if you haven't been to Yut Kee," he said with a smile, as he took a bite.

The next morning -- another hot one -- I followed Wei-Zhi Chin as she expertly maneuvered her way through the morning rush at Bukit Bintang wet market, or Imbi market, as it is locally known. The market is not only a trove of vendors selling fresh produce, meat, knockoff DVDs and cheap trinkets, it's also where you'll find some of the city's best cooks, according to Ms. Chin, 27, a banker by day who's also the voice behind the blog KampungBoyCityGal (kampungboycitygal.com). (Lex Lim, her boyfriend, is responsible for much of the site's photography.)

Sporting a short bob and jean shorts, Ms. Chin made a beeline for Sisters Crispy Popiah (60-12-628-0690; sisterscrispypopiah.com.my), snapping up the stall's last pair of the delicate, savory-yet-sweet Malaysian delicacy (2 ringgit) that give it its name: rice crepes stuffed with braised turnips, shredded cucumbers and carrots, egg, crushed peanuts and sweet hoisin sauce. "The turnips must be juicy and the skin of the crepe thin and soft, yet strong enough to hold everything well," she said. "And you should be able to taste each component."

At an adjacent nameless vendor, she picked up a plate of chee cheong fun (5 ringgit), flat, folded rice noodles served with a selection of yong tau foo: handmade bite-size pieces of savory parcels like green beans encased in deep-fried fish paste, steamed cubes of tofu, and pork links. The secret to the popularity of the market's variety is its trio of sauces and dashes of roasted sesame seeds. "The sweet and chile sauces are typically Chinese, but the curry adds aroma and a bit of spice," Ms. Chin said. "It's the best way to enjoy the dish."

She topped off her order with a cup of Hainan tea (1.80 ringgit) made by Ah Weng Koh, a 30-year-old shop renowned for the frothiness of its drink, a mixture of coffee, black tea and condensed milk. The shop's sinewy, sweat-drenched owner, who, despite his salt-and-pepper buzz cut, is known as Little Hainan Boy, welcomed Ms. Chin like an old friend.

Ms. Chin's passion for food blogging has radically boosted her social network in Kuala Lumpur, and not just online. "The biggest gain is all the friends I've made," she said as she expertly lifted a fat rice noodle with a pair of chopsticks. "Two bloggers have become my best friends. I was even a bridesmaid at one of their weddings."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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