Sometimes we try to see Kuala Lumpur as we imagine first-time visitors (most of whom probably don't make it far beyond the Golden Triangle and Merdeka Square) do. The view isn't particularly inspiring. Beyond the majestic Petronas Towers (even folks like us who are saddened by the pellmell highrise-ization of Asian cities must admit that those twin towers are spectacular), KL is a mish-mash of uncharacterful buildings populating a poorly planned, stridently pedestrian unfriendly urban landscape.
One could spend days in the city and come away with no clear sense of what Malaysia is and what it's about. That's because much of KL has been developed at the expense of neighborhoods. Shopping malls and 'entertainment districts' are all well and good but they don't lend much to the feel of an area. Only the people who inhabit a section of a city - who eat and sleep and play and shop and live there - can do that.
We've been asked why we seem to prefer spending time in what might be called KL's 'seedier' sections. The answer is simple: it's primarily the parts of Kuala Lumpur that haven't yet been targeted for planned 'modernization' that still exude character and soul. In these areas, there's a there there, and it's usually pretty interesting.
Take Sentul, a district about 15 minutes from the Golden Triangle. Googling brings up pages of crime reports; a tour by car turns up lots of Indian temples, a few Tamil schools, churches and mosques, tumbledown houses and concrete tenements, weedy vacant lots and more than a few cows grazing on medians. Sentul is a bit rough around the edges. On the surface it would seem to hold no attraction for anyone who doesn't live there. But it's got good eats. And it's got a lively little market that's probably one of our favorites in KL.
Pasar Sentul is a true neighborhood market; we reckon few shoppers treck from other parts of Kuala Lumpur to troll its stalls. Part of the market is housed in an old building with maybe 3 or 4 short aisles. The rest covers an adjoining conreted outdoor space. Decidedly urban - it sits astride busy Jalan Sentul, not far from a shopping center - it nonetheless has a kampung (village) feel. And it's mixed, vendors and their produce almost evenly divided between Malaysia's three main races and cuisines - a little microcosm of the country.
Nyonya, Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese, Malay, Sumatran, Tamil, Punjabi - name a cuisine found in Malaysia and you will come across ingredients for it at Pasar Sentul. There's cincaluk, a fermented shrimp product that figures prominently in Melakan Nyonya food, and mangga telur ('egg' mangoes), dimunitive, tart green mangoes to slice and dip into a spicy sambal or shred for a refreshing Malay salad.
Long branches of curry leaves perfume the air,
as do flowers to be strung for offerings at Indian temples and petals and leaves for the mandi.
A couple stalls sell whole banana plants - dissected: trunk for adding to soups and curries, bananas for deep-frying, blossoms for tossing in a salad.
On a Sunday at about 10am, Indians arrive after services at a nearby church. Dressed in gorgeous saris and shalwar kameez,
they pick up ingredients for the family's day of rest meal: seasonings for a curry
and homemade lime pickles (these are, by the way, exquisite - fresh and limey, bitter from the peel, with a good hit of heat).
At the end of it all, of course, is a snack or two to be had.
Next to the nasi lemak stall, across from the halal char kuey teow, and kitty corner to the freshly fried chickpea flour vadai and chewy-crispy appam, a sweet lady of a certain age, known by most every shopper who passes her establishment on the way into Pasar Sentul's outdoor section, serves Malay mee.
Mee sup, yellow noodles swimming in a rich, beefy broth, is plain and simply satisfying.
Mee bandung, more yellow noodles in a thickish sauce that's more tomato-ey and less sweet potato-ey than that cloaking other versions we've had around town, is spiked with plenty of chopped fresh chilies, cilantro, and fragrant fried shallots, a perfect pick-me-up after a spot of marketing.
Pasar Sentul, Jalan Sentul. Daily from about 6am. Things seem to wind down by 10:30am or so. Mee vendor can be found to the left of the market building (if you're facing it), in the 'courtyard' leading to the market's outdoor section.