KUALA LUMPUR, June 22 — Tired of trying to get a table at a posh, reservations-only Japanese restaurant? Well, instead of heading to high-end sushi bars, why not hunt down some izakayas or shops serving street food in tiny back alleys?
Taman Desa is probably the izakaya heartland of Kuala Lumpur, with four popular izakayas run by 44-year-old Seiji Fujimoto, a resident here. From slurp-worthy udon noodles to expertly grilled pieces of pork belly, his shops offer inexpensive, hearty and delicious fare for those seeking a real taste of the Land of the Rising Sun.
Start your izakaya experience with Sanuki Udon, Fujimoto’s first outlet. First opened in 2009, Sanuki Udon has amassed a devoted following of regulars seeking affordable bowls of simply flavoured thick wheat-flour noodles.
Prior to Fujimoto’s introduction of Sanuki-style udon (first brought to Japan by the venerated monk Kobo Daishi from almost 2000 years ago), udon meant something quite different to KL-ites. Our exposure was mostly limited to fried udon with black pepper, the sort we get in Hong Kong-style char chan teng restaurants. Now you find folks slurping up Sanuki udon even in shopping malls, all thanks to Fujimoto’s passion for this dish.
At Sanuki Udon, the noodles are served either in a bowl of hot dashi-flavoured broth or cold without the broth, which is perfect for our hot weather. I like the noodles prepared cold as every strand is al dente; the texture is not unlike the chewy bite of the best pan mee done right.
Toppings such as a soft-boiled egg, kakiage (mixed vegetable tempura) and kitsune (deep-fried sweet tofu pouches) add substance to each bowl. My favourite topping is wakame (seaweed), slippery-smooth and highly nutritious.
This is belly-filling, unpretentious fare that won’t burn a hole in your wallet. Fujimoto says, “My intention is to reach out to the young customers — students and those who just started working and are on a tight budget. Good food shouldn’t cost a bomb.”
Next, head to Taishu Yakiniku, an open-air Japanese BBQ joint where you can grill your own dinner beneath the stars. Fujimoto calls his second outlet in Taman Desa a gerai makanan (Malay for food stall), thereby lending it some local flavour and earning brownie points in the process. He recommends kicking off with the ferociously-named Genghis Khan (or Jingisukan), which is a Japanese version of the Mongolian lamb delicacy. Here the use of a sizzling hotplate ensures that the well-marinated pieces of lamb remain moist and flavourful.
The real work starts when the platter of thinly sliced raw meat arrives. Must-haves include the pork belly (butabara), beef brisket (katabara), short ribs (baraniku) and shoulder loin (kata). Once cooked to your desired level of doneness, dip the pieces into an assortment of sauces or simply enjoy the grilled meat on its own.
“Those who are more adventurous can try the baby intestine (kobukuro) or the pork throat (nankotsu), which is edible soft bone. I find some Malaysians, like the Japanese, also appreciate the taste of organ meats,” says Fujimoto. Also try motsu nikomi, which is a pork offal stew, and ojiya, which is akin to a “Japanese risotto” of stewed rice with egg.
If you are too lazy to grill your own meat (I certainly am guilty of this), then Maruhi Sakaba is perfect for you. A professional yakitori chef is on hand here to grill skewers of chicken and pork for you. You can’t go wrong with perfectly barbecued sticks of kampong chicken thigh, chicken skin, pork belly, and even vegetarian options such as okra and shiitake mushrooms.
My favourites include the crispy, char-grilled chicken wings and skewers of meat-wrapped cherry tomatoes. Every bite is a burst of juicy flavours. Besides the yakitori, you can also try non-skewer items such as their signature Maruhi Don, a homey bowl of rice topped with minced pork and egg. Forgo the egg, and even a simple bowl of rice with minced meat and seaweed can nourish the soul.
One little-known highlight of Maruhi Sakaba is the pair of sauces they offer you to accompany the grilled meats. The addictive green sauce is surprisingly spicy, with its heat coming from minced chilli and garlic and a healthy dose of lime juice. Its crimson partner has a deep, salty flavour; this sauce tastes like part miso, part fermented Chinese bean paste, and is absolutely moreish.
The final stop on this izakaya tour is Lao Jiu Lou which means “Old Restaurant” in Chinese. Fujimoto hails from Yokohama, home to Japan’s largest Chinatown, so he wanted a place where diners can enjoy the fusion Chinese-Japanese dishes he grew up with.
There is a simple tonkotsu ramen (pork bone broth noodle) topped with shredded cabbage, julienned carrot, a slice of chasu (roast pork) and half a seasoned egg. Not quite the 24-hour pork bone broth one expects from specialised ramen-yas (Japanese noodle shops) but satisfying all the same, in a pinch.
The Chinese flavours really come to play in dishes like the spiced roast pork (Fujimoto’s take on our local siew yoke, served with a side of potato, carrot sticks and long beans) and steamed chicken (a whole chicken leg with generous portions of cabbage, noodles and broth).
For something a bit more Japanese, you can try Lao Jiu Lou’s gyoza, plump dumplings filled with either pork or lamb and accompanied with a dip of ginger strips, soy sauce and vinegar. If there’s one dish you can’t miss, it’s the mysteriously named Special Rice, which turns out to be a bowl of rice, minced meat, waxed sausage, carrot and long beans. Sounds ordinary? Wait till you taste it.
There’s nothing like comfort food, served efficiently and with smiles that fast food outlets can’t hope to match. These may well be a Japanese expatriate’s rendition of casual dining from his homeland, but for the rest of us (even if we aren’t Japanese) it’s simply the taste of home.
No. 9, Jalan Bukit Desa 5, Taman Bukit Desa, Kuala Lumpur
Open Tue-Sun 12pm-3pm and 6pm-9:30pm
Taishu Yakiniku Japanese BBQ
Center Court, Plaza Faber, Jalan Desa Jaya, Taman Desa, Kuala Lumpur
Open Tue-Sun 6pm till late
Maruhi Sakaba Yakitori
6A, Plaza Faber, Jalan Desa Jaya, Taman Desa, Kuala Lumpur
Open Tue-Sun 6pm till late
Lao Jiu Lou
25, Jalan Bukit Desa 5, Taman Bukit Desa, KL
Open Tue-Sun 11:30am-9:30pm
All shops closed on Mondays