Walk one block north of Tun HS Lee and you're in another world. This stretch of Lebuh Ampang is one of Kuala Lumpur/Klang Valley's 'Little Indias' (Brickfields is another and, further afield, still another can be found in Klang), where Malaysians of Indian descent and immigrant workers from the subcontinent come to read the news, meet, eat, do a spot of shopping,
and, if need be, borrow money.
Many of the buses that ply this route would be at home on the streets of Chennai or Mumbai.
Lebuh Ampang is especially lively on weekends. Crowds are thicker and the sidewalks, throbbing with Bollywood hits pumped at ear-splitting volume from the stereos and TVs of competing DVD and CD dealers, are host to a variety of itinerant vendors selling everything from jewelry to told fortunes to homemade vadai.
Never being ones to stop at a single meal, we wandered this way in search of sweet treats after our lunch at Hong Ngek. The Indian sweets piled high in the window of Bakti Woodlands beckoned, and the friendly wave of a waiter drew us in.
We loaded up on a bag of creamy barfi and crumbly chickpea balls,
caramely, sugar syrup-soaked vadai,
and shaved almond-topped, layered pastries of red and gold soaked in honey.
There's no doubt that we went overboard, ending up with more sweets than we could possibly eat in two days. After we'd paid for our purchases the proprietor placed two small bowls on a table at the front of the restaurant and motioned for us to sit down. We slurped up dainty spoonfuls of semiya payasam, a dessert based on the fresh milk that's delivered to the Woodlands's door daily.
Payasam, a warm 'liquid pudding' of thickened, boiled milk, varies according to the region of India in which its made. This heavenly version was packed with slippery vermicelli, cashews, almonds, golden raisins, and plenty of cardamom. We'd never tasted anything like it, and decided then and there to return the next day to mine the Woodlands' menu.
There's lots of unusual dishes on offer here - some, such as idli, are served only until 11am, and many of the restaurant's more substantial dishes, such as their daily specials (eg. keerai adai - pancakes of rice and fenugreek leaves) are only available after 5pm. The friendly staff at this year-old establishment is happy to help southern Indian vegetarian food novices, like us, wade through the choices.
The Madras thali, so-named for the round metal plate on which it's served, allows for maximum sampling.
Bakti Woodlands' proprietor and all its staff (and, we learned, most of the customers) hail from Tamil Nadu, a state on Indian's southeast coast. 'Very, very southern [Indian]' according to noted cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey, are
the highly aromatic mixture of coriander seeds, roasted red chilies, and roasted fenugreek, the startling use of urad dal, a pulse (legume), as a spice, and its combination with fresh curry leaves and mustard seeds to perk up the simplest of vegetables, ... the use of fresh coconut to give body and a slight sweetness to sauces and the use of yoghurt, almost as a dressing... (p. 175, Flavors of India)
Many of the these characteristic traits of Tamil Nadu cuisine could be found in one or more of the ten bowls that comprised our thali. Two types of yogurt - one plain and one thickened slightly and pepped up with cumin and other fragrant savory spices, complemented diced okra fried with mustard seeds and curry leaves; a thin eggplant curry, spicy and sour from tamarind; boiled turnip sauced with turmeric-infused yogurt; and a thick daal of pureed spinach and onion, among other delights.
Our paper dosai, a two-foot-long, almost translucent roll of griddled, crisped dough made from fermented rice batter, was served with additional examples of Tamil flavor: (from top left) a creamy coconut sauce flavored with cumin and mustard seeds; a surprisingly rich (given the absence of meat) sourish curry of mixed vegetables; a chunky and smooth potato 'half-mash' flavored with mustard seeds, curry leaves, and turmeric; a cooked tomato and onion chutney flavored with fennel seeds, very sweet and then, after a few seconds, numbingly chile-hot; and a chutney of fresh chilies blended with coconut, mustard seeds, and other spices.
Amazingly the repetetive use of a few spices (mustard seeds, curry leaves, turmeric) didn't translate to repetetive flavors; every one of the fifteen dishes on our thali and accompanying our dosai was unique.
'Only with Indian food can you taste so many flavors in one bite,' our waiter said proudly, and we had to agree. It's impossible to convey in words the many layers of taste we found in each one of these bowls.
There's much care taken in the Woodlands kitchen. The restaurant's proprietor, known to his staff as 'Captain' (he's the one serving our dosai, above), proudly pointed out the thali dishes and dosai accompaniments that he'd made himself. Many of the daily specials are his doing as well. The extra effort comes through in the food, which is the best Indian we've had yet in Malaysia.
'Does it taste like home?' I asked a Tamil Nadu native queuing at the cash register. 'Oh yes, like my mother makes it,' he replied with a grin.
Disappointed to find that our beloved semiya payasam is not a Sunday item, we finished our meal instead with a poli, a feather-light chickpea flour crepe stuffed with mashed yellow lentils. Cardamom, possibly cinammon (Dave and I are in disagreement on this), and a bit of sugar flavored both the dryish, crumbly filling and the top of the pancake itself. This exquisite, almost sin-free sweet (legumes are good for you) can also be had, on other days, stuffed with dates.
A steady stream of customers passed through Bakti Woodlands' doors throughout our long, drawn-out meal. Like us and the folks at our neighboring table, above, they left happy.
Bakti Woodlands Vegetarian Food Cafe, 55 Leboh Ampang, Kuala Lumpur. Tel. 03-2034-2399. Breakfast 730-11am, lunch 1130am-4pm, snacks/dinner 4-930pm. Open everyday.