After 24 years, I finally returned to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a place I called home between 1988 – 1991 as a middle school student at The International School of Kuala Lumpur (ISKL). I’d been wanting to go back for the longest time, but I never made the effort because it takes 20+ hours to get to from San Francisco.
When an ISKL classmate told me he was going to marry a mutual friend, I knew it was now or never! I decided to make it an extended four week trip by first stopping in Seoul for five days, then Kuala Lumpur for the wedding, then Pulau Redang for an island honeymoon getaway with the newlyweds, then Angkor Wat to see the ancient temples, and finally Taipei.
If you’ve never been to Malaysia, you’ve got to go. The food is amazing, the people are friendly, and the attractions are wonderful. This post focuses on the food.
EAT, DRINK, EAT SOME MORE
Without a doubt Malaysia has one of the top cuisines in the world due to incredible taste and extremely good value. This is a personal finance site after all! No other country blends spices so well as to create heavenly dishes such as roti canai, nasi lemak, chicken fish(!), chicken satay, mee goreng, and kangkung belachan. When you blend together Malay, Chinese, and Indian cuisine, gastro perfection is inevitable!
What I didn’t expect on my trip back was how good the Japanese food is in Malaysia, especially at a place called Manmaru, located at the Atria Mall in Petaling Jaya. I’ve eaten at plenty of 5-star Japanese restaurants like Nobu in New York City and dined at many restaurants in Tokyo and Kobe, Japan (grew up there for two years). The meals I had at Manmaru in KL were just as good if not better and for a whole lot less. A meal that would cost $60 in Japan or NYC costs just $20 or less at Manmaru.
I attended the restaurant’s opening week because the co-owner, Audrey Teh, also happened to be a middle school friend and our host while we were visiting! I was in heaven because I could stuff my face, support a friend, and learn about the restaurant business.
Manmaru Robatayaki & Bar
Audrey told me all about the challenges faced to open Manmaru and the several other restaurants she owns around Kuala Lumpur with her partner. The amount of capital commitment needed to build a restaurant is impressive because until the doors actually open, you just never know whether customers will come.
Can you imagine spending $200,000 – $500,000 to buy and build your restaurant and nobody shows up opening week? Luckily, the place was jam packed!
I was super impressed by how Audrey built a loyal staff, sourced her food, created her menu, and focused on returns. Unlike private tech companies in the SF Bay Area where profitability doesn’t seem necessary to survive thanks to hoards of funding, the restaurant business is all about the payback period and the bottom line.
Increasing turnover, having the highest utilization rates possible, and keep costs under control are all musts for a business. But what I didn’t realize was how much went into the testing and creating of the menu. Each item on the menu was sampled over and over again until it won a taste test among the various judges. You know how sometimes you eat something at a restaurant and you wonder, WTH was the chef thinking putting this on the menu? There’s none of that at Manmaru as everything tasted great. Because there was a party of around 20 people, we literally tried 40 things on the menu!
In addition to sushi, Manmaru has delicacies like miso glazed black cod, chawanmushi (a savory egg custard dish served in small bowls or tea cups), shabushabu (thinly sliced beef and vegetables you dip into a delicious broth), kaiseki (a procession of small courses beautifully arranged in little dishes), barbecued freshly caught abalone, and sautéed squid with lemon and fresh shiso (dainty edible leaves with the most unique taste).
If you want to go fancy fancy, you can try Chef Danny’s omakese (chef’s selection) for rm180 ($45) for five courses, or rm270 ($67) for eight courses. Omakese at Masa in NYC costs $500/person! Good value is a big reason why Malaysia ranks up there for me in terms of top food as you’ll see in more examples below.
Here are some of my favorite dishes from Manmaru’s menu:
For all you frugal foodies out there, one thing to note is to not be fooled by restaurants charging exorbitant prices for sushi and sashimi. The premium you’re paying is for the restaurant’s rent, marketing, and branding, and not the quality of the fish. It’s what the chef does with the fish that differentiates the restaurant. Therefore, ordering just sashimi or nigiri sushi for a huge premium is a waste of money!
AN INTRO TO MALAYSIAN FOOD
Now that I’ve highlighted Manmaru in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, let’s talk about why you also must experience Malaysian cuisine. Malaysian food is generally divided into Malay, Chinese and Indian styles. Many dishes are rice based, served with meat and savory spices and sauces. Vegetable dishes aren’t too common, although kangkung belachan (water spinach serviced with dried shrimp, chili paste, shallots and garlic) is one of my favorites and pretty easy to find.
Some of the classic Malaysian dishes include nasi lemak (moist coconut rice served with dried fish, shrimp, peanuts, and spices), beef rendang (stewed beef with lemon grass, ginger, chilis, coconut milk and spices), roti canai (a paper thin, crispy flatbread served with dhal), and chicken satay (seasoned grilled chicken served on small skewers with peanut sauce).
If you live in New York City, I highly recommend Nyonya on Grant Street in Little Italy. I first went there in 1999 when I lived in Manhattan and I look forward to going back every time I go back. The crab with black sauce there is the best! If you live in SF, unfortunately, my favorite Malaysian restaurant closed down! There’s still Penang Garden in Chinatown, which is OK.
WHERE TO EAT IN MALAYSIA
If you get the chance to visit Malaysia, here are some of my recommendations for where to eat. If you are comfortable venturing into the street markets and mamak stalls (side street eateries typically open 24-hours serving Indian Malay “fast food”), you can eat very well for just a couple dollars or less.
Jalan Alor. This is one of KL’s culinary gems and not to miss if you want to experience KL hawker stalls (Chinese influenced Malaysian street vendors) at their best. This street comes alive at night, bustling with people, tables and food as far as you can see. The incredible selections of fruit, drinks, skewers, and savory dishes are any food lover’s paradise. I tried chicken fish here for the first time and wow the name doesn’t do it any justice. The sweet chili sauce it came with was surreal. Even despite the crowds, your food will be piping hot and brought to your table in a flash. Our whole meal for two was about $15.
Kopitiam. Forget about Starbucks. Try a kopitiam when you’re in Malaysia for a local coffee shop experience. My friends and I stopped at one on our road trip back from Pulau Redang. The hot coffee was unlike any I’d had before and almost tasted like chocolate. They also served the most delicious toast made (75 cents) with condensed milk that paired perfectly with an iced coffee (50 cents). We ate some nasi lemak (85 cents) to hold us over until dinner and then hit the road.
Mamak Stalls. Want a midnight snack or a quick bite to eat after a night of partying or jetlag? Head to a mamak stall (Indian Muslim food) for a fast meal. Order a fresh green apple juice (50 cents) while you’re at it. The freshly squeezed juices in Malaysia are super refreshing and help beat the heat since most stalls don’t have AC. I’d try Nasi Kandar, a rice dish accompanied with fried chicken, fired prawns, fried squid, all mixed together with curry sauces. Roti Telur is a version of roti canai with egg. If you like hot tea, try Teh Tarik, where the vendor pours the tea back and forth between two vessels to give it a thick frothy top. You’ll be happily stuffed for under $3!
Is your stomach growling yet? Mine sure is! Malaysia really has some of the best food in the world and I hope to get back to KL again soon.
MALAYSIA IS WONDERFUL
Malaysian and Japanese food are my two favorite cuisines in the world. I could eat their food every day for the rest of my life and be happy. With the US dollar buying ~4 ringgit, I also felt rich for the first time in my life too!
If you’re looking for a place to retire abroad, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia might just be the place as well. The country has a great foreign retirement program called, Malaysia My Second Home you can check out if interested. Some of the benefits include a 10-year visa, and housing assistance. KL is definitely on my retirement hit list, as is Playa Del Carmen, Mexico.
I could go on and on about my time in Malaysia, including five days on the island of Pulau Redang where we scuba dived in warm turquoise water every day. But I’ll save the other sites and sounds of Malaysia for some other time!
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Updated for 2019 and beyond.