We were promised an eat-till-you-drop experience on the side streets of Kuala Lumpur. That we got, and so much more.
As we sat ourselves down at a humble drinks stall near the Bangsar LRT, Charles ordered a round of “teh o ais limau, ikat tepi!”
Most locals would understand this instantly as iced lime tea, served in a takeaway plastic bag, with a nylon string tied at a corner for easy transporting. Beloved as a refreshing relief from the heat, it is commonly ordered in eateries across Malaysia.
But what if you aren’t familiar with the language or lingo? You might steer away from the street stalls, and wouldn’t have thought of ordering local delights like this. Which is a pity when you are in this gastronomic food heaven!
This is a barrier Food Tour Malaysia is keen on breaking. Founded by three locals in 2010, their idea of sharing the nation’s remarkable food scene and culture with guests quickly caught on via word of mouth and online media. Today, they run food walks in Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh Old Town and Penang.
Eating Around the Neighborhood
To get a taste of it for ourselves, we followed Charles Vix, 34, on the Kuala Lumpur Food Heritage Walk. Charles, who sometimes goes by Charlie, is one of the four guides in Food Tour Malaysia, where he had started off as a part timer.
“When I started doing this, I was also learning. I learned to see life from a different angle, by seeing myself improving from time to time, and I started learning a lot from these travelers,” he said.
It wasn’t long before he decided to leave his corporate job in retail behind, and embrace his new role of sharing Malaysia’s beauty with people from around the world.
It was a whole different ballgame, when I started seeing how our culture is so important, that we take the smallest things for granted in life. – Charles
After having our teh o air limau, we strolled along the city streets and back alleys. Charles pointed out a lone kampung house, standing amidst skyscrapers like the house in Pixar’s Up. He got us to imagine the old Kuala Lumpur before all the transformation took place, before the tin-mining industry turned a forested settlement into the lively city it is today.
As his stories unfolded, we made our way towards Little India and Petaling Street, two vibrant districts that still preserve the cultural identity of KL. Among the attractions, we also had a chance to visit the Sri Mahamariamman Temple and the Sin Sze Si Ya Temple, for a look into the country’s religious diversity.
Food was what we came for, of course, so we made several stops at snack vendors and little stalls. Hidden along narrow streets and unlikely places, we were barely camouflaged amidst the hungry crowd. At one stop, we were encouraged to blend in at a nasi kandar stall by eating the mixed rice using our hand, like the locals around us.
The secret spots we were brought to are not necessarily raved about in websites or food magazines, but locals know and frequent them. Even as a local who often walks around KL on weekends, I have to admit that I didn’t know some of places existed either, which really makes you look at everything differently!
On a normal walk, this is nothing. But putting ourselves [in] the tourist’s shoes, there’s lots to see. – Charles
At every stop, Charles would explain a bit about the tempting dishes before us, as well as the diversity of Malaysian food and culture. In a way, it felt like a friend was showing us around his favorite places.
Here’s our tip of the day: sample instead of trying to eat everything. Save your stomach for all the yummy food and desserts that may just be around the corner. You can always keep your pisang goreng (banana fritters), vada (Indian fritters) and curry puff for later.
Of the F Word and “Food-ful” Future
While helping ourselves to noodles down an alley at Petaling Street, someone in our group put down her chopsticks and uttered, “I’m full.”
It was something we could all agree with.
Charles joked that no one should use that “f word” in a food walk, but this meant that it was time to call it a day.
Throughout the day, we couldn’t help but notice that Charles was greeted warmly by every stall owner. His time as a guide gave him the chance to get to know them and learn to communicate with them in different languages. They would joke around like friends who have known each other for years.
He hopes that this can be a game changer for local stall owners, especially those who may not be comfortable speaking or attending to foreign customers.
As you know, most of our local vendors don’t speak in English. So when we kind of share it with them, they have a better understanding [on] how to tackle the tourists. We just share and try to impact their lives….try to get them to see the other side of the tourists coming in.
It is also this connection that determines whether a guide is a good fit for them, which is why getting the right guides can be a challenge for their small team.
According to Charles, selected guides must be able to understand and connect with the locals they meet, and be flexible when delivering their food-centric narrative of Malaysia. That way, their travelers would feel comfortable too. He adds, “The guide has to be the key ingredient, the key thing that makes it different.”
On top of their existing walks, Food Tour Malaysia is in the midst of refining some new trails. In Kuala Lumpur, they have the day and night walking tours. Soon, their guests would be able to visit the morning market too, or hop around the city by train to different food stops.
In the meantime, the team is able to cater to different preferences and appetites upon request, from halal to vegetarian, gluten-free, and beef-free versions. Whatever it is, you’re bound to savor more than just the capital city’s culinary and cultural heritage, you’ll get a slice of local life – and a satisfied, full belly.