Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Like the Middle East

Arabian whiffs and northern Indian aromas are competing with the other flavours at the Golden Mile in Kuala Lumpur.

THE next time you think of having a meal at Jalan Bukit Bintang, prep your palate for a gastronomic adventure by checking out the Middle Eastern and north Indian restaurants there.

Conveniently located among the shops of Malaysia’s most famous shopping street are eateries offering some of these unique flavours at very affordable prices.

The Egypt Café, which serves a mixture of Arabian, Western and local fare, in Jalan Bulan 1, is first on the list. Here, you can find the typical Arab staples such as hummus (RM8) or mashed chickpeas with sesame, squeezes of lime juice and olive oil; and foul foul (RM10) or fava beans fried with garlic, onions and tomatoes. Both are served with bidara bread.

Also worthy of mention is the shawarma, which never fails to tempt as the aroma of the fragrant meats can easily make the mouth water. This is a delicious bidara wrap with grilled chicken (RM8) or lamb (RM9), shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, halved olives and lime pickles.

Unique flavours: Mohamed Mahmood Aly of Egypt Café sits down to a typical Arabian breakfast of scrambled eggs with tomatoes and onions, salata, fava beans, cheese, pickles and bidara bread.

For lunch and dinner, there is the kabsah rice cooked with tomato paste, cinnamon and shallots. It comes with either lamb, chicken or salmon fillet (starting from RM25).

Most Arab tourists come here for breakfast, the most popular of which is the tomato and onion egg omelette (RM10) with white cheese made of buffalo’s milk, and a generous helping of bidara bread.

Cross the street, walk further down, and you’ll find UK Asia. Here is where you’ll see a buffet offering of typical northern Indian fare like achar gosht, lamb karai, mutton tripe (from RM5 for a single portion each) and the indispensable chicken briyani (RM10 per plate) authentically served in a degh, a traditional, specially insulated pot which the owner had brought in all the way from Pakistan.

UK Asia also serves the fluffiest chapatti (RM1.50); and girls, take note that stepping into this place is like walking onto a Bollywood set! The place is a mad house, especially on Fridays at lunchtime.

Next door is Paradise Restaurant, which is a little quieter. This is where the diner will actually get an unhindered whiff of lamb kebab and chicken tikka (both RM8) from the charcoal grill served with freshly baked naan hot off the tandoori. Do watch out for the chicken kofta too, as this is the restaurant’s speciality.

Interestingly, how did a once predominantly Chinese area become an exotic Eastern food stop?

Yeok Ah Yong, 62, the owner of Bukit Bintang’s famous Chee Meng Hainan chicken rice, offers an answer.

“It is my guess that after the terrorist attack of the World Trade Centre on 9/11 (2001), the cold treatment towards Middle Easterners by the West most likely made them look towards Asia as a tourist destination of choice.

Beanie goodness: Foul foul (pronounced ful ful) is a dish of fava beans cooked with onions, tomato and garlic.

“Still, the major wave which also brought in Pakistani and Bangladeshi influences to the Golden Mile came about in 2002. That was when our tourism ministry was promoting Malaysia as a holiday destination of choice and, at one point, the whole area was so inundated with Middle Eastern and Indian tourists that I sometimes had to remind myself that I was in Malaysia and not Dubai,” says Yeok who has been in Bukit Bintang for the past 23 years.

Ala Salih, 52, the Iraqi owner of Sahara Tent, an upmarket Middle Eastern restaurant in Jalan Berangan, which has seen the patronage of three Malaysian Prime Ministers, claims to be one of the very first to see the viability of setting up business on the Golden Mile. He says he made the decision to extend his restaurant chain in Malaysia in 2000. “There were three places that I had in mind – Bangsar, KLCC and Bukit Bintang. Bukit Bintang became the obvious choice when I saw the number of hotels and shopping complexes in the area.”

Nevertheless, the early days for the Middle Eastern restaurateur were far from easy. Ala, now married to a local Chinese and a proud father of a nine-month-old-boy, remembers a time when his diners constantly complained of unscrupulous taxi drivers who charged their passengers no less than RM20 to get from the Marriott Hotel to Sahara Tent, which is less than 1½ km away!

Even worse was the presence of child beggars who waited outside his restaurant to beg. The last straw for him was the presence of corrupt officials who constantly harassed his workers for identification papers. Disgruntled, he called the very people he could rely on for help – his regular clientele which boasted of big names from the government departments.

“When I had their attention, I said that the only way to ensure the success of the Visit Malaysia campaign to the Middle Eastern market was to make the environment safe for the tourists. I also said that adequate facilities, such as transport, food and other services must be easily available to make them feel welcome. After that, things became much better,” says Ala.

Of course, each restaurateur has his own story to tell on why they decided to set up shop on the Golden Mile, and stay.

“I found my heart here,” says Mohamed Mahmood Aly, 50, the loud, jovial and rotund owner of Egypt Café who came to Kuala Lumpur in 2001 from Cairo.

Describing himself as a cook with a travelling spirit, he says he has worked in Malta, Italy, Damascus and Thailand, and that he came to Bukit Bintang as a penniless foreigner.

Luck was on his side when Cupid’s arrow struck and he fell for and married a local, Zaleha Hashim, 44. The couple now have a son, Abdul Rahman. Life has been good to Mohamed and with 23 workers under him, he is due to open his third outlet in Cheras with the help of his brother-in-law.

Tempting: The aroma of chicken tikka and fresh naan wafting from Paradise Restaurant is a beacon for hungry food seekers.

Pakistani Adelel Qaisei, 32, of UK Asia, goes back to his tumultuous teenage years in Pakistan to relate how he ended up in the food business. His younger brother got burnt by acid and had to be sent to Britain for treatment, he says. His father had to go with him, leaving Adelel, then 17, in charge of the family’s fabric dyeing business. The business eventually went bankrupt and Adelel ended up working as a waiter in an uncle’s restaurant.

Adelel came to Malaysia two years ago, having gone first to the United Arab Emirates and then Singapore.

For those who have vocally opined that Northern Indian fare is no different from what we are used to at the mamak shops, Adelel is quick to point out that nothing can be further from the truth.

“Northern Indian food is not as hot as the food served in mamak shops. One reason why we have such a good crowd of Bangladeshis and Pakistanis here is they find the food in the mamak stalls too spicy for their liking,” he says.

The UK Asia chef, Feroz Din, 47, who hails from Kashmir, says that they use a special spice mix from Pakistan with freshly ground ingredients like tomatoes, garlic, ginger, red chillies and onions. Spices like saffron and fenugreek leaves are also used. The result is very close to a gravy that is slightly creamy and spicy with a slight sour tinge.

On the local front, acceptance of the Middle Eastern and Indian eateries and their patrons took a bit of time. Yeok himself confesses to feeling a bit unnerved at seeing veiled female diners slipping spoonfuls of food under their face coverings to eat. But, he says, they got used to it and now every one is relaxed.

Published in The Star 28, Feb 2010.

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