We made a quick visa run to Kuala Lumpur in the first week of January. This was our second time in the city, and we quickly fell under its spell again. Based on our memories from our 2010 trip to Malaysia, we remembered a place of cheap and impossibly delicious food, friendly people at every turn, and impressive shopping mega malls. Kuala Lumpur is a shopping destination, and although shopping isn’t our forte, the malls are worth a visit for the food courts alone. On our second visit, the city lived up to our expectations and left us scheming for a third visit.
While we were in town, we made sure to eat copious amounts of spicy, delightfully rich South Indian food. If you’ve been watching on Instagram (@elizaq and @zevowitz), you know we started most days with milky tea and Roti Canai, a breakfast dish of flaky flatbread served with a dish of soupy and spicy, yet delicately sweet curried lentils as a dipping sauce.
We also managed to take an ‘Authentic Malay’ cooking class at LaZat, located in the suburbs of KL and run by Ana Abdullah, a delightfully chatty woman whose personal mission is to spread the art of Malay cuisine to one and all! A rare avid home cook in a bustling modern city, Ana found herself with a constant stream of requests from non-cooking friends to cater events and gatherings. Acutely aware of the perils of opening a restaurant, and genuinely concerned by the loss of traditional recipes and cooking skills she saw among her friends, Ana decided to open an cooking school. She still caters for friends, conditioned only on their children attending her classes to keep traditional Malay cooking alive. Since opening Lazat, Ana has trained and collaborated with countless chefs opening Malaysian restaurants around the globe and diners around the world are eating her family’s recipes.
The most noteworthy element of her class is her insistence on cooking technique and the secret steps that make home-recipes so special. In Ana’s cooking class, it really felt like you were learning how to cook, not just how to make a particular dish. She and her co-instructor Sue are prototypical mother-feeder personalities and the class was a welcome experience for two travelers longing for some home cooking.
The main event of the cooking class was Beef Rendang, a sweet and spicy coconut milk stew traditionally prepared for large ceremonies and events in villages. Like many Southeast Asian stews and curries, Rendang starts with a paste of chilies, garlic, shallots, and other aromatics, which you sauté before adding the meat and liquid. Think Southeast Asian mirepoix or soffrito.
The trick to cooking with Rendang or curry pastes is to cook them until they begin to release oil. Depending on how much you’re making, and the heat of the pan, this can take varying amounts of time. If you don’t cook the paste long enough, you won’t get its full flavor in the dish. Ana explained that you know you’ve done it right when, after you add the meat and water, oil floats to the top of the pot. We all got it right, so I couldn’t tell you what to do if oil doesn’t float to the top though…
Rendang gets reduced twice, once after the addition of water and the second after the addition of coconut milk, and is traditionally served when it has reached a dry, oily paste that is intensely aromatic, sweet, and mildly hot. Mixing it in with steamed rice opens up its tremendously complex bouquet of lemongrass, coconut, garlic, and chilies. The beef is beyond tender and I can only imagine how much better it would have been after a day in the fridge, had we been able to keep ourselves from eating it all.
For dessert, we got to play with a whole bunch of new ingredients and techniques, the end result of which was a rice ball filled with coconut and palm sugar and covered in coconut cream. I’ve never worked with rice-flour before, but have always loved the clean taste and glutinous consistency. Now that I know how easy it is to use, a homemade Mochi is definitely on my recipe to-do list once we have a real kitchen again.
Our instructor, Sue, was as sweet as can be. She took us around the local market and introduced us to all of the local vendors. We were particularly taken by Rose, a real character who ran the local spice shop. She implored us to come back to KL and import a nice American man for Sue to date :).
The atmosphere of the market and the cooking school was so welcoming and friendly that Zev and I began plotting ways to get back to Kuala Lumpur for longer than just a weekend.