Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Very nasi done
Finding authentic local food in Kuala Lumpur, a city renowned for its multi-ethnic flavours, can be a hit-and-miss affair.
Arriving in the city, after an absence of 18 years, I foolishly follow the swarm of tourists to Jalan Alor, a street food honey trap where 98 per cent of diners are foreigners.
The result is the worst laksa I have attempted to eat. I don't fare much better in Chinatown or Little India.
It's my third night before I soothe my gastronomic ennui, in an upmarket setting, at Songket, a traditional Malaysian restaurant, close to the Petronas Towers.
In the following week, travelling around Sabah in Malaysian Borneo, it's a similar story of the ridiculous and the sublime. At dive resorts I am served inedible slop while at Naan at Shangri-la Rasa Ria resort, dinner is the stuff of spicy dreams.
Back in Kuala Lumpur for a final night, I'm craving street food and, after researching online, discover the Off the Eaten Track tour.
It begins at 7pm from Taman Paramount station, near the end of the city's red train line, in the Petaling Jaya industrial area. Here, four guests, including three holidaying immigration officials from Vancouver, squeeze into the guide's hatchback car.
Our guide is Charlie Steven, from Food Tours Malaysia.
"We don't do fancy dining," begins Steven as we pull up at an industrial food court around the corner, "we don't do white table cloths."
The food court is packed with Malaysians of all ethnicities and there's not a single westerner in sight. "We take you to where authentic Malaysian food is made," continues Steven. "People drive for an hour for this nasi lemak."
The nasi lemak (meaning "fatty rice"), traditionally a breakfast dish served inside a banana leaf with spicy sambal sauce, is as good as Steven claims. But when he introduces the next dish as "mixed animal brains", we're nonplussed.
He is only joking. Ota Ota is a pinkish mackerel paste made with curry powder, cooked in banana leaf, that tastes better than it looks.
After a short drive we arrive at Millenium Eighty-Six Chinese food court, also in Petaling Jaya, our attention caught by flames billowing from hot coals beneath a wok in which a chef is flash-frying noodles.
Within minutes we are hoeing into Kong Foo Chow, egg yoke and rice noodles with crunchy pieces of deep-fried pork. Steven tells us it costs 20-40 ringit ($7-$14) per night to rent a stall here and they are all flat out catering to demand from an exclusively Chinese Malay crowd.
Our experience peaks with a multi-flavoured fish-head curry cooked in a clay pot, white-fleshed stingray that falls off the bones and lobak, deep-fried pork in bean curd and five spice. There is some serious artistry in the cooking.
Our third stop is at the nearby Pasar Malam night market that pops up in different residential areas each day. Malay Muslims, Chinese and Indians are busy creating satay, sweet apam balik pancakes filled with crushed peanuts, and murtabak, a chunky, omelette-like concoction made with beaten egg and mince meat.
"Malaysia's best food comes from the street," says Steven as we leave, "cooked fresh and eaten outdoors."
To end, Steven takes us to the central Semarak district, to Roti Valentine, an eatery so new it is still under construction. After watching a chef fashion roti from eggs and flour, on a hot plate we try several varieties, including a crispy cylindrical roti canai spiced up with curry and sambal sauces, and a soft roti Pisang, filled with banana.
It's taken just three and a half hours on the Off the Eaten Track tour to unearth authentic Malaysian food.
The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism Malaysia and Air Asia.
TOURING THERE Food Tours Malaysia runs tours in Kuala Lumpur and beyond. Off the Eaten Track costs 160 ringet ($57.4). foodtourmalaysia.com.
MORE INFORMATION tourismmalaysia.com.