A bit of old Malaya in the heart of modern Kuala Lumpur
By Brian Calvert
Wall Street Journal Asia
October 16, 2009
Kuala Lumpur – From the Sky Bridge that connects the Petronas Twin Towers 170 meters up, the neighborhood of Kampung Baru (“new village”) is notable only as a break in Kuala Lumpur’s skyline, its squat wooden houses a concavity in a cityscape dominated by high-rises of concrete and stainless steel. Seen through the light smog of Malaysia’s capital, the 100-hectare neighborhood seems a far distance from the polished, air-conditioned restaurants and shopping malls of the city and its modern residents in their mix of hijab (traditional Muslim head coverings) and jeans, stilettos and hip-huggers, ponytails, suits and cowboy boots.
While some apartment buildings have sprung up, the neighborhood remains an area of wooden houses and lush greenery, running loose in gardens or neatly confined in pots.
In fact, for the curious, Kampung Baru is just one rail stop away from the towers — a matter of one ringgit (about 30 U.S. cents) and less than 10 minutes. It’s a small effort to visit one of the few places left in the city that offers a glimpse of an older style of Malay life (along with a rendition of the national dish, nasi lemak, that’s reputedly hard to beat). There’s even some urgency, as city developers try to find ways to modernize the area, though first they would have to untangle the titles to the land — as generation has succeeded generation, some plots have ended up with dozens of owners. (Under Kuala Lumpur’s 2020 Draft Plan, which is remaking the capital, Kampung Baru would see commercial, medical and residential developments, according to the official Bernama news agency. “Jalan Raja Abdullah,” for example, “would be turned into a street known as Corporate Street.”)
With this in mind, I left the Sky Bridge via its gleaming, high-speed elevator, exited onto the humid streets and ducked into the underground rail link for my one-stop journey.
On the meandering streets of Kampung Baru, named after rajas — chiefs — Uda, Mahmud, Alang and Muda Musa, the urban clamor was muted, the way lined with white and scarlet frangipani, bougainvillea, coconut and date palms and banana trees thick with fruit, bent under heavy purple blossoms.
Mynas whooped from their perches, black-naped orioles flitted from tree to tree, and, on one jalan (street), two roosters faced off in an afternoon crowing duel as nearby hens pecked and scratched at the asphalt.
While some apartment buildings have sprung up, it’s still mainly an area of wooden houses, many standing on short stilts, village style, some with their gables carved in swirling patterns, others of dark wood, unpainted, reminiscent of British Malaya, back when Kuala Lumpur was being built on tin mining and rubber tapping.
It’s not just to the visitor that Kampung Baru seems like a slice of the past. When I asked Sani Abdul Hamid, a Malay I met on Jalan Daud, what had changed in the neighborhood in his 27 years, he was hard pressed to answer.
“The difference?” he responded, slowly. “Mmmmm. Not too much.” For Mr. Hamid, who had been living in the same one-story house with his family for 20 years, it seems the city’s globalized Golden Triangle business district — with its bright department stores and dim galleries, its Emporio Armani, Diamonds for Men, Hermès, Levi’s and Gucci, and Moredo’s Argentina Steakhouse — is indeed a far distance. His own family’s business, the Boutique Sutra Jingga, sells traditional Malay wedding suits and dresses of the sparkly fabric called songket. Might he move out of the kampung when he’s older, or gets married? Once again he pondered his answer, then said he thought he might stay — “because everything is in here.”
Eventually, I wound my way — no map necessary in this small village — to the focal point of the neighborhood, Kampung Baru Mosque. Built of clay around the time the village was founded, more than 100 years ago, belted with blue tiling, and with two ablution pools, each in the shape of an eight-pointed star, the Islamic design principle underpinning the Petronas towers, the mosque is the home of worship for 10,000 residents.
There I met Hajji Kamaruddin Bin Mohamed Tahir, a local who volunteers at the mosque. “It’s a village in the city,” he said of the neighborhood, adding that it’s now also “recognized as a food paradise.”
“Every lane has a stall selling food,” he said, from Thai-style Tom Yam soup to fried pancakes to satay, curries and grilled fish, though nasi lemak, rice in coconut cream, is its most renowned specialty. The mosque itself also has a notable dish: During Ramadan, the month of daylight fasting, it cooks up giant cauldrons of bubur lambok, a savory, cinnamony rice porridge.
As it was out of season, I went to a restaurant next to the mosque, the Bujong Lapok Cafe, for my bubur lambok. With the milky, frothy sweet tea called teh tarik, “pulled tea,” it made a nice afternoon pick-me-up.
For nasi lemak, I brought in an aficionado, Malaysian food blogger Meena Periasamy Johnson, whose love of food is complemented by her distinct mixture of Malaysian ancestry: a mother from the Baba-Nyonya, descendants of 15th-century Fujianese traders who took local Malays as wives, and a father from the Indian Tamils, brought over to work in colonial times.
“They always say Malaysians eat just one meal,” she told me. “You start in the morning and you finish at night.” Nasi lemak had started as a breakfast dish wrapped in banana leaf but was now served in the evening, and, in Kampung Baru especially, to the late-night clubbing crowd making a last stop before bedtime. “It’s the one dish that’s truly a Malaysian dish,” she said.
Table with a view
We chose a well-known neighborhood standby, a restaurant on Jalan Raja Muda Musa called Nasi Lemak Antarabangsa. The restaurant was more like a bolstered street stall, with tables spread onto the sidewalks, offering a wide-open view of the Twin Towers, twinkling in the night.
As we stood in line behind four or five other diners, Mrs. Johnson explained that the foundations of the dish — the rice, peanuts, cucumber, anchovies and sambal — support curried beef or chicken, called rendang, fried chicken, or fried or hard-boiled egg. Best served also with teh tarik (no beer is served in the village), to cool the spice, the dish made a nice, light dinner, and I could have ended the evening there.
Mrs. Johnson had a better idea. “Do you like durian?” she asked. She suggested we make one last stop, leaving behind Kampung Baru and entering again modern Kuala Lumpur.
She took me to a restaurant called Bijan, one of the few high-end Malay food restaurants in the city. Decorated in a village style, with dark wood, languid fans and lush plants, the restaurant would serve well those whose sense of dining doesn’t include street stalls, sidewalks or prohibition. “You get Malay food,” Mrs. Johnson said, “plus wine.”
So I ended my Kampung Baru adventure outside the village, with a double dessert: chocolate cake sandwiching layers of durian, all coated with chocolate ganache, and durian cheesecake on a chocolate biscuit base. And — why not? — I topped it off with a chilled glass of the house Chardonnay.