I saw a little note attached to the old wooden window at one of the heritage houses in the old part of Kuala Lumpur with the quote like this:
Demolishing Jalan Sultan;
Destroying Petaling Street;
Sadly, that is what going to happen to Kuala Lumpur some time this year. Shophouses and heritage sites are threatened to be demolished, to make ways for the new MRT line. So next time when you are in Malaysia, the old part of Kuala Lumpur known to many as the Chinatown, might not look the same anymore, or in worst scenario, might not even be there anymore.
During my recent trip back to Malaysia, I was invited on a heritage walking tour and was very lucky to be able to see this part of the town that I didn’t even know it existed. It is disheartening to think that it could be my first and also the last time I walk through these old laneways before it all disappearing. I urge you to do the same.
Sin Seng Nam restaurant – Jalan Sultan
The tour was led by tour guide Lee Choo Sim, who is also a member of Heritage of Malaysia Trust. I seriously don’t think anyone can lead the tour better than Lee, as he knows this part of town from inside out. We started the tour with a morning breakfast at Sin Seng Nam restaurant, which is one of the oldest and remaining kopitiams (coffee house) in Kuala Lumpur.
First thing you will notice these old shophouses are much lower than the street level, is because the road had been resurfaced with bitumen layers upon layers over decades. We followed a short flight of steps down to the coffee shop, there is no surprise that the place is full. It is a local haunt where the regulars lepak (hang out) and also grab a cheap bite before heading to work.
We were ushered upstairs which is lot more spacious and quieter. Here you really get a sense of what old traditional kopitiam was like, high ceiling, barred wooden windows, marble table tops with black ornate wooden legs which I’ve been told that they were actually replicas, as old ones were already been sold as antiques.
Kopi O (black sweetened coffee), Cham (mix of coffee and tea), Kopi Ais (Iced Coffee), Teh ‘Gao’ (milk tea but thick/intense) were ordered around the table. My kopi ais was a little weak, but it was a saviour in the almost 30C heat and was only 9am!
Hainanese food is what you’ll get here but very limited choices. We ordered a few plates of Chee Cheong Fun (thick flat rice noodle), stir-fried noodles and a platter of fried fishcakes and stuffed vegetables to share. The thick flat rice noodle is steamed and rolled, then cut into mini scrolls, served with a simple KL style of dark sweet sauce and a smidgen of sesame seeds. And the stir-fried noodle was a quick toss together of vermicelli and hokkien noodle, chicken meat and choy sum in light and dark soy sauce. The simplicity of the Cheong Fun and stir fried noodle might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the accompaniments of fried fish cakes and stuff vegetables gave them a new life.
But I was more looking forward to the classic combo, soft boiled eggs and kaya toasts. Thick charcoal fire-toasted white bread with a spread of kaya custard jam and two tiles of butter, it was as good as it gets. Then washed it down with the softest egg that just slipped straight down my throat effortlessly. Mr Lee told us that the eggs used for soft boiled are usually free range farm eggs, and the superstitious restauranteurs will only buy eggs that have dark reddish shells as they symbolise good fortune, white shells usually will be rejected. Check your eggs next time when you dine in a kopitiam.
Dataran Merdeka (Independance Square)
After breakfast, our walking tour began at the bridge where the two rivers meet, also where the name ‘Kuala Lumpuh’ derived from, the muddy rivermouth. Across the bridge is Dataran Merdeka, the independence square. It is embarrassing to admit that it was actually my very first time visited the most significant site of Malaysia’s independence from Britain. But I am sure I am not alone, as many younger generations in Malaysia these days rather hanging out at the shopping district in Bukit Bintang.
Mr Lee covered stories and facts from tin mining, to architecture of the buildings, to a famous court case of a love-triangle relationship that was filled with love, hate, jealousy and murder.
Sze Ya Temple
Kuala Lumpur was developed because of the booming in tin mining and pewter was the most popular metal alloy made with 85-99% tin that had been widely used to make homeware. Royal Selangor‘s founder, Yong Koon was the very first man who made pewter wares and sold them commercially in Malaya back in 1885.
Our next stop of the tour was to visit the oldest Chinese Temple in Kuala Lumpur, Sze Ya Temple, built in 1882. The temple is still frequented by local worshipers and Mr Lee told us that sometimes even Hong Kong celebrities including Anita Mui and Aaron Kwok would come to this temple to pray.
This temple was full of history at every corner, but one of the most interesting artifacts in this temple that brought us here were a set of pewter ware that sits right in front of one of the shrines. The set includes a vase, incense stick holders and an ash burner, Mr Lee lifted the vase and show us the hallmark inside, it was Yong Koon’s old business logo hallmark, ‘Jade Peace Tin Pewter‘, way before Royal Selangor was born.
The pewter ware was discovered and identified only few years back and gradually Mr Lee were informed about these precious. None of the inheritors of Royal Selangor aware of its existence until Mr Lee brought them here and shown it to them. Royal Selangor was humble about the discovery and have no intentions to claim them back and the pewter ware will stay where they belong.
But before we leaving the temple, Mr Lee wanted to show us how to clean one’s sin and guilt by crawling through the bottom of a shrine. He said you have to crawl as many times as your age. Tempting, but it would take me forever to crawl through my years, I politely declined the offer.
Sri Mahamariamman Temple
One last stop before lunch, we visited the oldest functioning Hindu temple in Kuala Lumpur, the Sri Mahamariamman Temple which was founded back in 1873 then relocated to the present location in 1885. Hindu temples are sacred places and usually visitors are not allowed. This is one of the temples where visitors, within strict rules, are more than welcome into the temples to spectate the afternoon praying session.
The temple gateway, known as the gopuram, is one of the most impressive tower I’ve seen. The 5-tier tower consists of 228 idols, every single pieces were hand sculpted.
It was fascinating to watch the ritual, as the worshipers followed the Hindu monks, praying from shrine to shrine, Shehnai and drums were playing in the background, echoing through the large hall was surprisingly deafening during the whole ceremony. We didn’t stay long as food was calling.
We zigzagged through laneways, locals were already gathered at the nearby hawker stands, slurping noodles away. That’s the beauty of Malaysia, you can find food anytime, anywhere. We followed the leader and eventually arrived at the restaurant, Old China Cafe.
We pushed through the saloon swinging doors and stepped into the restaurant, didn’t know what to expect but a familiar musty smell of old building welcomed us.
Old China Cafe
Old China Cafe is housed inside a heritage pre-war shophouse dated back in 1914-1918. The premise actually used to be the guild hall of the Selangor & Federal Territory Laundry Association. There weren’t many of these type of shophouses left in the area, most were either been demolished or renovated beyond recognition. But at Old China Cafe, many of the original furnishings remained in the building, including the pulley lighting, marble top tables, two large geomancy feng shui mirrors on each side of the wall and even an old refrigerator that still functions.
Wedding, family portraits and photographs of founding members are still displayed on the walls.
The restaurant serves Nyonya food, a cuisine of the Peranakan, or straits Chinese, descendants of early Chinese-Malay intermarriages, called Baba and Nyonya. The cross culture influenced the Nyonya cooking which features Malay spices as well as Chinese ingredients and cooking techniques.
We started our meal with an appetizer of itik tim, a duck soup boiled with salted vegetable and lean pork meat. It is salty yet sour that opened up your appetite immediately. Many dishes were ordered to share over blue coconut rice, yes, the steamed rice was blue, stained from using blue pea flower.
Pie tee, also known as Top Hat, is always a fun starter to eat. It is a DIY affair, a variety of fillings you can choose to fill the crispy cup with. Chilli sauce was always at arm’s length for those who liked it hot.
This is the Nyonya version of a San Choy Bao, the Jiu Hu Char was a stir fried of shredded cuttlefish with jicama, carrot and cabbage, served with butterhead lettuce leaves and sambal belachan sauce on the side. I loved this dish a lot, the thin cuttlefish strips gave the dish a nice chewy satisfaction.
When came to mains, the eating frenzy began. Pork is a no no for Muslim, but somehow it has slipped into the Peranakan’s diet. Many of these dishes were actually foreign to me. Babi Pongteh is the cousin to the chicken version, it is non-chilli base nyonya cuisine, a soy based stew of pork spareribs with potatoes. The cincalok omelette was a nice surprise, the omelette was almost pancake like, crispy edges and inside was studded with fermented shrimp which had a stuble distinctive briney flavour.
Two chicken dishes were ordered, the panang chicken was mild, creamy and rich, whereas the chicken curry kapitan was tangy, spicy but not too hot. A dish of stir-fried vegetables wrapped in bean curd sheet helped to balance with all the meaty dishes.
Deep fried calamari rings never fail to please the kids. The calamari ring was a little chewy, coated in a yellow hue batter which had been mixed with turmeric powder that had a nice subtle spice flavour to it.
We concluded our meal with a round of Asian desserts to share. The sago pudding was served in a cup of coconut cream and a jug of gula melaka on the side. I vote for anything that comes with gula melaka, I love that stuff! But I did find the syrup here was a little washed down and not thick enough.
The bubur cha cha here was good, cubes of sweet potatoes and taro were cooked nicely and soft but not mushy, served in thick coconut soup that had been sweetened with palm sugar to give it a nice caramel flavour. But my all time favourite has to be bubur pulut hitam, the black glutinous rice sweet soup always brought back childhood memories.
It had been a memorable and educational day that I’ve learned so much more about my home country. Like I said, the old Kuala Lumpur won’t last and another piece of history will be lost. If you live in Malaysia or planning a visit soon, make sure to take a day to explore and marvel the beauty of this old part of Kuala Lumpur.
You can join the Heritage Walking Tour as part of our Malaysia Culinary Tour (scheduled in Nov 2012). Please contact us for more information.
[A Table For Two was awarded 2nd runner up in Get Your Jelly On breast cancer awareness competition, and visited Malaysia courtesy of Royal Selangor]
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Restaurants I've Visited Sin Seng Nam Leboh Pasar Besar, Kuala Lumpur Old China Cafe No. 11, Jalan Balai Polis, Kuala Lumpur, 50000 50000, Malaysia P: 03-2072-5915
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