Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur

When I was younger, I thought that Kuala Lumpur - KL - had the best fried noodles in the world.

This was coloured, perhaps naively, by an ad I saw on TV. A production of Filem Negara Malaysia, it had Sharifah Aini's song remixed dangdut style and sung by a male, extolling the virtues of KL.

One of the visual sequences had a street hawker letting flames rise up from his wok. It was unclear what he was cooking - noodles, rice, lala or oysters - but it sure looked good.

When I was old enough to remember family trips to KL, I was woken up at 4am by my father and brother who had bought Nasi Lemak at Petaling Street. It was the best Nasi Lemak ever.

We were on a trip to send one of us to study abroad. Stopping at Yaohan Mall, I had for lunch my first claypot rice with chicken and salted fish. I have never tasted anything as good in my life.

And so it was that when I got older, I would make it a point to eat whenever I find myself in KL. Having been accepted to a full-residential school in Seremban, the opportunities were much more frequent.

To get back to Kuantan - my hometown - from Seremban, I had to take a RM3.50 bus to KL's Pudu station and then hop on an express to Kuantan.

The chicken rice at some anonymous food stall was just heavenly.

When I was old enough to go to college, I chose UM, because it was the only university without a proper dress code, and also because it is in KL.

After two years of college food and eating roti canai at Section 14, I did not get to stay in the hostels because I am not a girl and because I was too lazy to be active in any college activity.

So I rented a small apartment in Pantai Dalam with eight other guys. It was a culinary godsend.

My favourite eateries were Zam Nasi Kandar (packs of rice as big as pillows!) and a nameless stall in Pantai Dalam, which serves the best fried lungs in the universe. Plus, a random mamak stall which serves some really crunchy roti canai and a very small stall which sells steamed nasi lemak.

I began to notice that I prefer establishments - if you could call it that - with questionable hygenic practices. I guess the dirt and bacteria adds to the savour of the meals.

Zam Nasi Kandar used to have rats as big as cats running on the makeshift gunny sack roofs. The floor was just hardened earth, trampled on by the many customers it had, but it had the best mutton curry ever - and I hate mutton!

Zam Nasi kandar and countless other roadside stalls were demolished before the 2008 March elections - a decision which I think contributed to Datuk Sharizat Jalil losing to Nurul Izzah. Though it must be said that after more than a year of Pakatan rule, Zam Nasi Kandar and other stalls are still nowhere to be seen.

In UM, I was taking computer science as my degree. As with all computer science students, we all thought we would be called upon to piece together PCs from scratch, when we start our careers.

So all of us would make at the very least one pilgrimage to Plaza Imbi and/or Lowyat Plaza.

There, the best food was at a chicken rice shop. It may still be there. It has these nuts in the soup. Doesn't do anything for the taste, but the chicken was fantastic.

The only real rival was Pantai Dalam's very own Yahya Nasi Ayam Hainam. Yes, Hainam, with an 'm', not Hainan. Where the waitresses would refer to toilets as 'gamets' or possibly a very much corrupted 'jambe' (jamban).

The famous Ayam Golek was also there, and on the side which was bulldozed, was another perhaps illegal restaurant which sports - proudly - clear sacks of cancer-inducing Thai aji-no-moto on its display.

Reaching graduation, my father gave me RM200 to buy a pair of shoes, a shirt and a pair of slacks as well as a tie. I bought a pair of black slacks and used the rest of the money for food.

First, though, was a haircut. I took the LRT to Kampung Baru and had one of the best Nasi Padangs ever at yet another nameless, cockroach-infested stall.

The daging dendeng was smoked, fried and cooked in coconut milk, making it the only triple-cooked meat I have ever tasted.

When my friends and I first started working, I continued to eat at rat-infested eateries of KL while they blog about having tiramisu and sushi.

On the job, I managed to interview Anthony Bourdain, the travelling chef dude. He said that he believed dirt was good for the stomach. Makes us tougher, more resilient to illnesses.

Well, I have yet to die from food poisoning, so that's all right, then.

Then, I got my passport and tasted the street-food of Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand. Each, I was pleasantly surprised, had its own taste. Its own flavour. And it wasn't just the ingredients used.

Neil Gaiman wrote, in an article for SimCity 2000, that he believes that cities have personalities. In another work, part of his masterpiece that is The Sandman Comics, he wrote of a character trapped in the dreams of a city fearing that one day, 'the cities would rise'.

If cities can have personalities, then they surely would have a unique taste to them as well.

Most of the food I had in metropolitan KL were flavoured not just with lemongrass, curry leaves or other spices. They were also perhaps seasoned with the soot from Intrakota (now RapidKL) buses, bacteria and, disgustingly enough, rat droppings.

To taste its food is to taste the soul of a city. It thrives, winces and bristles. You can't find it in air-conditioned restaurants which charge you RM17 for a bottle of melted French snow or RM50 for six garden snails. Or RM67 for a tiny plate of mushrooms dug up by pigs.

The real pulse of the city is in its gutter, and within its bowels, we find its face.