KUALA LUMPUR, March 15 — Kepong is a food lover’s paradise, especially if you enjoy affordable, uncomplicated fare. Highly accessible via major highways and roads such as the LDP and Jalan Kuching, the town makes for a great weekend makan destination. From a lusty bowl of rich, herbal bak kut teh to the best loh mee outside of Ulu Yam, there’s no danger of adventurous foodies going hungry here.
Bak kut teh for breakfast
Malaysians take the most important meal of the day seriously and, quite often, substantially too. Hefty fare such as nasi lemak and char kway teow is the rule rather than exception. No one is on a diet during breakfast.
If there’s one morning dish that reigns as the breakfast of champions, bak kut teh (literally “meat bone tea” in Hokkien) takes first place. The hearty broth made typically from pork ribs stewed in herbs and spices may strike some as a tad too heavy but enthusiasts will disagree.
Kepong may well rival Klang for the number of bak kut teh restaurants. One of the best places to try a bowl is Heng Bak Kut Teh Delights in Taman Kepong. The open space means you don’t have to sweat over bubbling claypots. It’s so rustic you may find little chicks running around under your table.
The broth here is a soothing, pleasant balance of meaty flavour and herbal fragrance. Those who prefer intensely herbal bak kut teh soups may be disappointed.
Despite its lighter body, the broth still requires over 20 types of Chinese herbs in its preparation. Chinese wine and cilantro are added to remove any strong, porky odour. Usually leaner cuts of pork are used; there’s just enough fat to make every bite a springy affair.
An alternative is dry bak kut teh, which is actually a version where the broth is reduced down to a rich gravy with the addition of dried chillies, wolfberries and sometimes dates too. The dry rendition here is closer to braised pork knuckles and chicken feet, with extremely tender and lip-smacking tendons.
The side dishes are worth celebrating too. Besides crunchy crullers (yao char kwai), do try a bowl of tofu pouches (tau pok) that have gone through a salt wash. This must-order treat isn’t overly salty, merely irresistibly moreish.
Don’t miss out on their signature yam rice. Some bak kut teh purists argue that the dish should only be eaten with plain white rice but I beg to differ. Who can resist a bowl of aromatic yam rice, generously topped with fried shallots? Pumpkin rice is also available but only on Mondays.
Loh mee for lunch
There’s loh mee and there’s Ulu Yam loh mee (or simply Ulu Yam mee). The original is nothing more than a hearty concoction of thick yellow noodles cooked in a starchy sauce. The Ulu Yam version features a darker gravy thanks to the addition of black vinegar, which also lends an appetite-whetting sourness to the dish.
Fans of the latter no longer have to trek all the way to Ulu Yam to enjoy a bowl. Instead, make a beeline for Ulu Yam Mee House in Kepong Baru. Here the wheat noodles are handmade which ensures there is no unpleasant lye aftertaste typical of factory-produced yellow noodles.
Every bowl of loh mee is made to order with the requisite greens, slices of pork and ginger. Breaking eggs into the mixture at the very last minute ensures silky strands of gold threading through the dark, vinegary gravy. The noodles are smooth and slightly chewy; the dark sauce luscious without being gloppy.
Other popular dishes include their claypot yam noodles (imagine melt-in-your mouth chunks of yam and nuggets of roast pork hiding in the flavoursome gravy) and stir-fried vermicelli with braised pork belly. You’ll never even miss your customary bowl of rice with these oodles of goodness!
For some extra protein, order a platter of their nam yue fried pork. The nam yue (fermented red bean curd) imparts a characteristic pinkish-red colour and an almost cheese-like aroma to the meat. You may discover you can’t stop at just one or two pieces so be prepared to order a second platter as soon as the first arrives.
Try their deep-fried fish cake and meat-and-vegetable spring rolls (chun kuen) too. These crispy yet bouncy (what the Taiwanese call “QQ”) treats are delectable dipped in some of their homemade chili sauce.
Dim sum for dinner
Dim sum places are typically packed for breakfast so a useful (if seemingly counterintuitive) suggestion is to have it for dinner or supper instead. Indeed, there really is nothing like a smörgåsbord of tiny morsels after an evening out pub-crawling.
(Also, after a couple drinks too many, the last thing you want to do is hover over other diners to “persuade” them to finish eating so you may have their table.)
Head to Ful Lai Dim Sum Restaurant in Bandar Sri Manjalara. Instead of trolley ladies pushing dim sum carts with careening towers of bamboo steamers and calling out the names of the dim sum at the top of their lungs, you are offered an order sheet. While less of a spectacle, this certainly allows for a more serene dining environment, not to mention more time to make up your mind.
Signature dishes here include their lor mai fun, an upturned mound of savoury glutinous rice generously filled with chicken meat. Their chee cheong fun is a sight for sore eyes – steamed rice rolls with pork and prawn filling doused in soy sauce and topped with fried shallots, spring onion and chili paste.
Next is an open bamboo steamer of their trademark steamed dim sum. Choose from the popular siew mai (dense and chewy pork dumplings) and har gow (dainty steamed prawn dumplings).
There are fishcake dumplings wrapped in bacon for those seeking a twist. A more traditional option is the steamed spareribs, colourfully garnished with dao si (black beans), red chillies and pickled green chillies.
Be careful not to burn your fingers as you tear into a fluffy, hot char siew bao (barbecued pork bun). Deliciously meaty, it has a not overly-cloying sweetness that comes from caramelised onions. For more of a nibble, go for their dai bao (literally “big bun”), a treasure trove of marinated pork and hard-boiled egg.
They have an assortment of fried and baked dim sum too, naturally, from wu kok (yam pastry with pork mince) to flaky egg tarts, but perhaps these aren’t recommended right before bedtime.
Wash it all down with copious cups of Chinese tea, which is supposed to help wash away all the extra oils. Whether that’s true or not, it certainly doesn’t hurt and will probably calm your spirits (and belly) in readiness for a good night’s sleep.
Heng Bak Kut Teh Delights
No 622, Jalan 20, Off Jalan Kuang, Gunung, Taman Kepong, 52100 Kuala Lumpur
Open daily (except Wed) 7am – 3pm
Kedai Makanan Ulu Yam Mee House
38 Jalan Ambong 4, Kepong Baru, 52100 Kuala Lumpur
Open Mon – Sat 10am – 9pm; Sun 9:30am – 9pm
Ful Lai Dim Sum Restaurant
No 47 & 49, Jalan 3/62A, Bandar Sri Manjalara, Off Jalan Kepong, 55200 Kuala Lumpur
Open daily 6:30am – 2am
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on March 14, 2014.