June 17, 2004

Come to your senses

This unsung city tempts with diverse ethnic delights

By Rob McKeown, Globe Correspondent

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- The equatorial air is damp and scented with curry, dough, and sweat. Even after midnight it is thick and heavy, like wool. Dust stirred by traffic on Jalan Pinang hangs at ankle-height, and the occasional breeze is the atmospheric equivalent of a lukewarm dip in the ocean.
Though I am in the heart of the city, vegetation is thick and one gets the sense that if the office workers were to evacuate the glassy high-rises, and the manual laborers abandon those still rising (I count at least two, plus a convention center and mall, from where I am seated), it would not take long for the oil and coconut palms, the thick grasses that shoot out of the odd unlandscaped patch in the municipal heart of Kuala Lumpur, to claim things back for the jungle.
These are among the thoughts that always jump to mind when I sit down at the ''mamak" stall-- my convenient, downtown stall with good mutton curry -- that sits on the concrete island by The Ascott in the shadow of the Petronas Towers. My friends Joe and Rachel, both Malaysian-Chinese, are with me. Like the other denizens of these open-air Indian-Muslim food stalls that pepper every corner of the capital, we've been doing nothing but talking and looking around and eating for several hours.
Squealing Chinese teenagers sharing aluminum chairs, young Malay men in baggy hip-hop clothes, a tall group of Tamil Indians who must have ordered from every hawker in the place -- these are but a sampling of tables that have come, gone, or in the latter case stayed since we met here at 10 p.m. The food is very good and the rapid-fire way everyone gives their order assures me I'm probably not alone in having the same thing every time. Like diners in the United States, mamak stalls are all about ritual. They serve more or less the same things (spiced milk tea, rice-and-curry, Indian flatbreads), but they also have specialties like noodles bathed in gravy or spiced prawns. Locals tend to know who serves what, where, and when. Here, I like the mutton curry with licks of pepper, clove, and chile with egg-stuffed roti -- if the rail-thin vendor hasn't gone home early. (Mamaks are Indian Muslims, for the most part from Madras originally.)
A semi-lackadaisical ability to couch the exotic in the everyday is what makes Kuala Lumpur the most unsung city in Southeast Asia. The majority of the hordes run to fun-loving Bangkok or self-promoting Singapore, yet it is ''KL" that has the most diverse ethnicity in the region along with a traditional culture folded into a thriving modern one.
So why the lack of recognition and visitors? It is partly a lack of understanding. Many equate Malaysia with the enchanting, slightly sexy, and often dark mosaic of colonial times described in the novels of Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham. With age-old rain forests, green and voluptuous plantations, and white-sand beaches as a backdrop, it is no wonder the city of Kuala Lumpur comes off as dull.
Expectations long have been traveler voodoo: Once they have taken root in the mind, they are infectious. Better to scrap the sexy-mosaic reference and approach KL one neighborhood, one people, one day at a time. Remember that the city only came to prominence some 120 years ago as a boomtown for tin mining and rubber trade. Even if it did look wholly colonial -- and there are fascinating pockets of the old still standing -- it is today an infant-age city hosting a centuries-old collection of people from all over Asia. This may be why a natural streak of curiosity runs through life here. Even at a mamak stall under the Petronas Towers, those twin, momentarily tallest buildings on Earth that meld Moorish with space age and dwarf all around them, people tend to look around at one another and not up. And great as the works of Conrad and Maugham are, it is the journals of the more-assimilated colonial administrators, which can be bought in bunches in KL's great English-language bookstores, that are the key to the Malaya of old and whose words hold true today.
One of my favorites is ''A Nocturne and Other Malayan Stories and Sketches" by Frank Swettenham. He can be lyrical about something like weather, whose power still reminds one that nature may be the almightiest thing of all in modern-day KL: ''The glory of the Eastern morning, the freshness and the fragrance of the forest, the sultry heat of these plains and slopes of eternal green on which the moisture-charged clouds unceasingly pour fatness -- these are the home of the Malay, the background against which he stands." It is his insight into the people, though, that is timeless: ''In his youth, the Malay boy is often beautiful, a thing of wonderful eyes, eyelashes, and eyebrows, with a far-away expression of sadness and solemnity, as though he had left some better place for a compulsory exile on earth."
Such a gaze applies to all Malaysians now and not just the Malay Muslims. When I think of KL, I think of the small, pensive, darting eyes of the many Chinese, the long dark lashes and curious gaze (usually followed by lots of questions) of the residents from South India, and of course the almost slow-motion peer of Malays. I wonder how they think of my eyes, which, for a ''matsali," or foreigner, are quite small; and I regret being nearsighted, as spaces are vast and sprawl across the voluptuously humid Klang Valley.
I also think of neighborhoods. Chinatown is all hustle and bustle with skinny old men who spit on the street and yelping hawkers. There's more grime than in other parts of the city, but there is also more life. It's a small area of a half-dozen or so square blocks and yet it squirms with activity. The large Jalan Petaling market is all Sino knickknacks, veining alleys, and whiffs of hot concrete, coffee, and smoke from charcoal grills. Canvas-draped stalls sell everything from cheap bras to pirated DVDs. By day, it is a great shopping strip and the destination for ''nasi ayam," or chicken rice, and dim sum; after dark, food vendors famed for claypot chicken rice with salted fish and chiles and Portuguese-style ''ikan bakar" (grilled fish, including stingray, rubbed with ''sambal," a multipurpose condiment, and doused with kalamansi lime) line the sidewalks until well after midnight.
Little India is just up the block. Most days, it is a muted swirl of incense, silk traders, and cellphone vendors punctuated by the occasional blare of Bollywood films. But it reaches fever pitch on Saturday when the the night market turns it into a combination food center and flea market. Thumping bhangra music, hollering mango sellers, touts of every stripe, wafts of garlic, cumin, clove, bad perfume are just the beginning.
Nature ranks with religion as an influence on Malaysia. Just driving around KL, one feels its robust presence. The Lake Gardens are a verdant and vast assemblage of parks and ponds, meandering trails, and palm frond-shaded patches of quietude. They are worth an early morning (it tends to be very hot by 10 a.m.) or late afternoon (evenings stretch until 6:30 or 7) to themselves. There is a palpable and good tension afoot in KL, and one feels it most in the contrast of things traditional and things contemporary. Pockets of the ''old," which is to say the 19th-century, are hidden all over KL. The Coliseum Cafe serves the same kind of sizzling steaks and milky coffee that Hainan-born Chinese would have made for their British employers. Kampung Baru is a Malay village-in-a-city just two stops on the subway/elevated rail system from the Petronas Towers and yet time trickles by there. Wooden houses line the back streets, and by the time call to prayer has rung five times a day, life eases to a halt. The calm, expansive quality of Islam pervades along with the song of the muezzin and scents of oil and spices.
The ability of Muslim countries to integrate with contemporary times dominates the airwaves in places like the United States, yet here it seems to bubble happily away like a rich sauce. It reveals itself in everything from fashion (batik and even Muslim head scarves are recast in designer boutiques) to KL's quirky yet profound mix of architecture. It is worth taking taxis around town just to happen by places like the old train station, with its Moorish spires, Ottoman grandeur, and colonial flourishes, and the bamboo-shaped headquarters of Telekom Malaysia, its concrete curves and dark windows reaching gleefully skyward like a grass shoot. Islam, the role of nature, ethnic history -- Kuala Lumpur may come off as low-wattage in some ways, but it is also increasingly self-aware in profound ways. While a touch cheesy, my favorite public space of late is the Lemon Garden Cafe in the Shangri-La Hotel. It's a buffet restaurant meant to mirror the way people eat here with stations broken down into Malay, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian, and Western foods. The design reflects this cacophony with a visual party of expressionistic reds and yellows, white marble, bamboo details, and the odd touch of shag carpeting. All the boundary-crossing in design makes one wonder if the ability to embrace such sensory overload will soon spill into something more cultural -- a real embrace of mixed and not just multi-ethnic life perhaps?
A neighborhood known as Bangsar provides a possible glimpse of the Kuala Lumpur future. I imagine it is what Ipanema in Brazil or Santa Monica in California must have been like in their early years. Ten minutes from downtown by car, it has grown from an Indian enclave renowned for its post-midnight eating into one of the city's most sought-after addresses. It draws its singularity in ways high and low, at every hour, in a grid of blocks between Jalan Telawi and Jalan Maarof. Diversity is such that within two blocks, it is possible to eat ''laksa" noodle soup from Sarawak, order Cantonese-style seafood, listen to English expats rail against Tony Blair at a Spanish tapas bar, and smoke nargileh at a street stall with visiting Kuwaitis.
Bangsar's sophistication hits fever pitch on weekends. Streets clog with traffic of all types: Protons, the national car, bumper to bumper with SUVs and BMWs and teenage couples on Kawasaki motorbikes. Vendors sell Indian peanuts and Chinese dried fruits alongside what seem vintage boxes of Lorna Doone biscuits. Another block is full of longan juice, ''bak chiang" (banana-leaf wrapped pyramids of rice, salted egg, pork, and other goodies), fresh shrimp, and mangosteens. I always arrive early to try Andy Chua's ''assam laksa" (a soup of ground fish), made in the style of northern Malaysia and sold at a different place every day of the week from the back of a milk truck.
The most popular destination in Bangsar is still a rubble-strewn section of sidewalk that leads down a small alley. It is covered with formica tables and is the nexus of a series of late-night food hawkers. The specialty is ''nasi lemak." Historically a breakfast dish, the fragrant rice is cooked in coconut milk and served with eggs, ''ikan bilis" (fried anchovies), and shrimp-paste-pungent sambal. Just as I do at my mutton curry mamak stall, I can't help but observe and think of those around me. Chinese families in pajamas graze on satay, Malay students eat noodle soup, Indians and local artists sip pulled milk tea. They gaze back, we exchange nods, and everyone keeps eating, calm, and from what I can tell, happy.
The above article appeared in The Boston Globe of June 6, 2004. Rob McKeown is an Asia correspondent for Gourmet magazine.

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