Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown is a city unto itself: At the heart of Kuala Lumpur is an area which never sleeps, and far more colorful and bustling than its bigger and more glamourous neighbors, KLCC & Bukit Bintang. Chinatown, based in Petaling Street, is also known as ‘Chee Cheong Kai’ (Starch Factory Street), a reference to its roots as a tapioca-producing district. Deeply immersed in Oriental culture, heritage and history,
Chinatown is undoubtedly one of the most popular tourist spots in Malaysia. Chinatown is also a well-known bargain hunter’s paradise, a place where you can find all sorts of stuff from Chinese herbs to imitation goods. At night, its main market area, Petaling Street, transforms into a lively and vibrant night market, filled with hundreds of stalls offering all kinds of goods at dirt-cheap prices, and the best thing is, the prices can be brought lower still as haggling is the way of life here.
We decided to meet Angela, a dear friend of a great couple we met in the Bay Area. Tom and Sohbee were out of the country on holiday. But they arranged for Angela to take care of us in their absence. We talked on the phone, she arranged a tour guide for us, and also invited us to dinner in KL’s famous Chinatown.
So, just try to picture the scene. We are in a city, Kuala Lumpur, of merely two million (at that time) people. We have no idea of where we are, since the streets do not run north-south or east-west in any orderly fashion. We are overwhelmed by both the enormity, and confusion of one of Asia’s major cities. So, we take a cab to our meeting place, a little Chinese restaurant in Chinatown.
No sooner do we get out of the cab, that a great downpour of rain begins to assault us and everyone in its path. We run for cover, finding a little indoor strip mall, with a place to buy some cold drinks, and wait out the storm. About half an hour later, the torrent stops, and we head back to our meeting location.
Meanwhile, the streets are completely flooded, water flowing over the curbs, the street at least 2 feet under water! And nowhere in sight is Angela! We don’t even know what she looks like! What to do next?
Then, out of nowhere, across the street, a young lady is waving and trying to get our attention. We tell her who we are, but cannot get across the flooded street to reach her. She disappears into the storm’s aftermath.
Somehow, she appears next to us, having crossed the street a block or so away. We introduce ourselves, and she tells us the we are standing in front of the very restaurant where we will have our dinner! How fortuitous!
Since this is not an email about KL, I can tell you more about the meal and the ensuing evening. Angela and her friend take care of everything, from ordering our food, “sterilizing” the dinnerware, and making sure we get enough to eat. The dinner proceeded quite nicely, with great conversations and many laughs.
But suddenly, Sheri says she tasted something funny in a dish called “worms”, her niece’s favorite dish. Rather than worms, she found out it was her childhood nemesis, liver! This revelation put a short lived damper on the meal, at least for her. I did not mind, though I am hardly a liver fan myself. But let it be said that we enjoyed the rest of the meal immensely!
Since her friend had a car, she offered to drive us back to our hotel, the Mandarin Oriental in KLCC. But first, how about a little dessert? Of course, so we head to the outskirts of Chinatown, parked the car, and walked a short distance to an outdoor stand, replete with plastic tables and chairs plopped on the unpaved lot in a rather rundown part of the city.
She ordered some fruit, we sat down, and waited. Little did we know that we were headed into our very first taste of the “King of Fruit”, durian. She also ordered another fruit called rambutan. We waited anxiously, never having tasted either one of these Asian delicacies.
When the yellow, custard-like durian hit my mouth, I immediately began to gag. Seriously! I wanted to spit it out onto the ground. Sheri saw the look on my face, and everyone laughed. She tried it soon after, and had a similar reaction. But Angela and her friend were in durian heaven, as were the many other patrons of this roadside stand.
Over the years, we have tried durian a few more times. It still gags me, but Sheri has developed a strong liking for it. But a fresh durian here in the US can cost onwards of $50 each! It is a green, football shaped, and spikey fruit. It can be found in Asian markets, but usually a version that has been cleaned and frozen. The smell and taste remind me of a cross between rotten onions, and stinky sweat socks.
Needless to say, we have maintained our friendship with all the guilty parties, Angela, Tom, and Sohbee. On this trip, we will meet up with Angela, and head out to a farm to table dinner in the nearby countryside, more about that later.
I give Angela credit for showing us the real KL. It has made a lasting and somewhat amusing story. We met again some years later in Sydney, Australia’s Chinatown. Were we headed for more durian after dinner? No, we opted for a store with bird’s nest for soup, and smoked abalone, a big improvement in the culinary options, in my opinion.
I look forward to our visit to Uncle Ranni’s Chicken Farm, and introducing her to my friends, Mr. Mike, and his son, Matt.