Tired of the usual suspects when it comes to banana leaf rice? We bury our fingers in rice and curry to track down some of Klang Valley’s lesser-known banana leaf restaurants, plus a few old favourites.
Banana leaf rice at Aunty Manju’s is an overwhelming experience, and we mean that in a good way. A standard banana leaf rice here is served with five vegetables instead of the common three. Furthermore, the selection of side dishes can rival some of the chap fan stalls in town. There are chicken, fish, squid, prawn, mutton and crab, available in curry, varuval, masala, kurma, deep-fried and more preparations. For the uninitiated, you’ll feel stumped by the sheer variety of options but don’t worry, the friendly staff can easily make recommendations based on the number of people in your group. But always, always have the mutton bone marrow curry.
A bit of a cultish legend in Klang, Yap Kee has been operating down the road from the Klang Railway Station for over 70 years. It’s the precious suburban darling that generations of Klang-ites have supported and loved, and present day, the space can barely contain the crowds that congregate at lunchtime.
Variety is not Yap Kee’s strongest suit, but we don’t mind too much. Each leaf is topped with rice, curry, one vegetable (if you get the cabbage stir fried in turmeric, count yourself lucky) and your choice of meat. Both the ayam rempah and fried fish wouldn’t be out of place at a mamak shop, which makes Yap Kee a more Malaysian banana leaf experience than a South Indian one. But we find a stunner in the mutton peratal, whose freshness and tenderness can only be executed with local baby goats. The fat is left to cling on to the meat, a treat for banana leaf fans who often get their goat meat too lean.
One of the best banana leaf experiences in the city hides within a dim first-floor lot along Lebuh Ampang. In 1962, the operation moved from Malacca to KL and has been a favourite of blue-collar workers in the area. They come in large groups and sit on long communal tables for (cheap) double helpings of rice and meat, a culture that’s still apparent these days.
This mess concept here goes hand in hand with the Chettinad-style food promoted by owner SS Bharathi Rajah and his team. Not for the faint-hearted, the kudal (goat intestine) and mutton head curries are something of a legend in these parts, but if you’d prefer something tamer, the dry chicken varuval and thick, aromatic crab curry are just as outstanding. Be wary of the lime pickle; it packs a fiery, sour punch that’ll hit you in the gut if you’re not equipped with a glass of chilled mooru (spiced buttermilk) on the side.
Forgive the generic name of this 20-year-old Lebuh Ampang gem but we promise you the food here is anything but. The entrance to KL City is not a conspicuous one; walk through the bare, narrow path next to a goldsmith that expands into a restaurant bustling with curry-stained customers. It’s a noisy, stuffy den with walls permeated with the aroma of frying spices.
The Chettinad-style food here doesn’t hold back – most of the meats are cooked in a heavy dose of spices and herbs, which can be a good thing if you’re booked in for a nap but not as pleasant if you’re heading to that 3pm office meeting. The homemade biryani is a speciality – unlike the Hyderabadi-style in many of our Indian restaurants, the biryani at KL City is milder, earthier, chunkier and far less fluffy. An excellent pairing with the mutton or fish curry at hand.
Part academic club, part banana leaf restaurant, UMAC runs in a bungalow that closes off half the space from the public to run the university’s club, founded in 1968 by Tunku Abdul Rahman. The other half is a six-month-old full-service restaurant overlooking the front yard.
The food here is comfortingly, delightfully home-made, by which we mean everything is made with restrain without the overwhelm of ambition. Prices start at a mere RM5 with rice (refillable), curry, rasam, papadum and five vegetables (or seven on Tuesdays and Fridays). On your first visit, order a plate of mutton peratal or fried snake gourd, both specials at UMAC. While attentive service staff is a rarity at banana leaf restaurants, the staff here do their rounds to make sure customers are well-stocked. To make you feel even more at home, tea is served in a ceramic mug and comes foam-free with an ample amount of milk for a pale finish. Banana leaf meals are only available during the day.
The stairway leading up to what could be KL’s best banana leaf restaurant is an ominous one. There are signs of abandoned life all around; large pieces of unclaimed cardboard are strewn on the cement ground below the stairway, and the paint on the walls are the garish neon hues of a parrot. One floor up, there is more hope. The 15-year-old restaurant comes to view and it’s right out of a set-up in Tamil Nadu – ’80s Tamil hits from a suspended TV, whirring fans and very little elbow room.
If you’re opting for a thick curry like crab or chicken, we suggest par-boiled rice over white (ask for puzhungal arisi if the waiter doesn’t understand you). Sides-wise, the stir-fried eggplant is cooked to a creamy mush, the chunky crab curry is the kind you can drink, the dry chicken varuval is unapologetically burnt and crisp on the skin, the mango pickle is lip-puckeringly sour and the mutton kuzhambu comes in a pale ochre shade – the way they have it in Chennai. It’s all like a dream until you step out into the searing chaos of impatient drivers along Lebuh Ampang.
Located within walking distance from the Asia Jaya LRT station, the unassuming ANZGM Club House is right opposite the Tun Hussein Onn Eye Hospital, sandwiched between the German School of Kuala Lumpur and Istara condominium. The building, which is owned by ANZGM (Australia New Zealand Graduates Malaysia), has been in disuse for 20 years. After some sprucing up, Kumaren opened up ANZGM Club House as a small restaurant offering banana leaf meals during the day and a western menu at night.
The space is homey, sparsely decorated with ANZGM relics, a map of Australia, and large windows to let in the afternoon breeze. The food arrived piping hot, and we counted no less than 13 types of vegetables and miscellaneous add-ons (poppadums, salt-dried chillies, various pickles) arranged on the banana leaf. According to Kumaren, the spread will be more varied on Fridays, while Mondays to Thursdays usually see five types of vegetables on offer. Mutton and chicken varuval are available daily, but on weekends, come for the crab, calamari and prawn additions.
Hands down the best Malayali restaurant in town, May & Mike’s Corner prides itself on laborious techniques and natural ingredients to bring out the best of Keralan flavours. The banana leaf experience is nothing without the dry mutton varuval, avial and fish puttu with rice, moistened with a ladle of coconut-laced Kerala fish curry.
Not to be confused with Vishalatchi Food & Catering down the same road, Vishal is a magnet for tourists visiting Brickfields. Actually, a magnet for locals armed with tourist friends as well. The reason for its popularity all these years is the food’s in-your-face deliciousness, propagated by the thick, heavy spice blends used in most of their dishes. The bone marrow curry, black pepper chicken and dhal rasam are all outstanding.