Even in the concrete jungle that is the Kuala Lumpur city centre, one can find oases away from the horrors of shopping malls and multi-level parking. For those who look hard enough, there is a food paradise that is nearly hidden under a canopy of large trees in the interiors of Imbi.
From the outside it looks like any other wet market, but the Pasar Baru Bukit Bintang (the official moniker; regulars refer to it simply as Imbi Market) has more to offer than the usual fare of freshly butchered meat, iced seafood, pyramids of fruits, bouquets of leafy vegetables and dried goods.
Nestled side by side to the main market is a mini-maze of hawker stalls that open almost at the break of dawn and are usually sold out before lunch. Here’s what you shouldn’t miss.
First, start by finding a table and making it your base of operations. There are a couple of coffee shops here. Look out for the signboard proclaiming in bright yellow words ‘Ah Weng Koh Hainan Tea’. There’s no mistaking it because this is where all the regulars flock to, which may mean sharing a table. The uncle that runs the operations here may seem a tad grumpy, but rest assured he will get you your table eventually. Just be prepared to wait.
Once you are seated, ask for their signature breakfast set, which includes their Hainanese tea, two half boiled eggs and two pieces of roti kahwin. You might hear some customers ordering Hainanese ‘tea’ while others order Hainanese ‘coffee’ – it is actually the same beverage. Ah Weng Koh’s version of the classic kopitiam coffee is a blend of coffee and tea with milk, what is known as ‘cham’ at other more commercial franchise coffee shops. What sets theirs apart from the rest is the smooth, velvety taste that begins with the first sip and lasts till the last drop. It’s still a closely held secret how they manage to get a healthy froth on the top of each cup without any fancy teh tarik antics.
Next come the eggs, which is the fun part. Unlike other kopitiams, where they bring you the half-boiled eggs ready to be cracked and eaten, Ah Weng Koh believes in a bit of self-service. The eggs come in a large aluminium mug filled with hot water and neatly covered by a pair of bowls sporting the unmistakable red-and-black cockerel motif. It’s up to you to estimate how long it takes for the eggs to be ready: too quick and the eggs may be too raw; too long and they might end up overcooked. (Here’s a helpful tip: Five minutes usually do the trick for me.)
Their famous roti kahwin is actually two pieces of freshly toasted buns smeared generously with fragrant homemade kaya and thick slabs of rich SCS butter. The buns are always fluffy due to the amount of brisk business they do, with a perfect crispy crust that begs to be bitten into. Therein lies the challenge: waiting for the half-boiled eggs to be ready so that you may dunk the roti kahwin into a creamy, yolky soup (carefully seasoned with just the right amount of soy sauce and white pepper, of course).
It’s an exquisite sort of pain, the five minutes you must endure to dip and then devour. Judging by the looks of bliss on the faces at the tables around us, I’d advise you to wait.
Once you have your table and your coffee, it’s time to divide and conquer. Always bring a friend or three to Imbi Market. You will need the numbers to try a little of everything.
Begin with the ‘self-service’ stalls, i.e. the ones you have to queue for the food on your own. A must-try is the Sisters’ Crispy Popiah. You may have seen this popiah stall in various shopping malls; such is the wonder of franchising a sure-fire crowd favourite. Imbi Market regulars will tell you that nothing beats the original though. Witness the line waiting patiently as the popiah guru Ms Mei Lim deftly spreads flat circles of lightly pandan-flavoured crêpes (the popiah ‘skin’) on her work surface, before rolling them up with all the necessary ingredients.
Every bite reveals a crunchy salad of tenderly simmered jicama (or yam bean), shredded cucumber and carrots, egg and ground peanuts; the flavours are held together marvellously by a pairing of sweet sauce and chilli sauce. To make sure you don’t end up at the back of the queue again for another round (and you will want more), simply order extra rolls the first time.
If you thought the uncle at Ah Weng Koh was gruff, you haven’t met the proprietor of the chee cheong fun stall. The line is even longer than the popiah stall, if you can believe that. The draw is the freshly made nature of the yong tau foo pieces. The fish paste stuffing is inserted into the various ‘containers’ – bitter gourd, red chillies, okra, beancurd pockets – by hand on site. There’s nothing like seeing his assistant frying a massive amount of tau fu pok (crispy beancurd) in a large wok filled with hot oil only to find it almost gone by the time you get to the head of the line.
The rice noodle rolls themselves are quite average, but once your plate of chee cheong fun has been topped with all the crunchy yong tau foo pieces, generously drenched in a trinity of sweet sauce, curry and chilli sauce, and sprinkled liberally with sesame seeds, you realise the sum is indeed greater than its parts.
The curry laksa stall here has its fans too but I make a special effort to turn up on the weekends when they serve their special Hainanese assam laksa. Not unlike its more well-known northern cousin, this version is also based on a tamarind-flavoured soup made with flakes of mackerel, lemongrass, galangal, pineapple slices, chilli paste, and garnished with mint and finely sliced onion. A spoonful of molasses-thick haeko (dark prawn paste) completes the picture.
This Hainanese assam laksa is lighter compared to the Penang version, and also more balanced. Here, the savoury, sweet and spicy flavours must marry well with the sour notes of the assam. The stall owner shyly declines to confirm my suspicions that tomato ketchup is the secret ingredient added to lend a fruity tartness to the broth, so try it and make your own verdict.
Offal has an awful reputation, I know. And who can blame those of us who would rather eschew the horrors of funky-smelling (and tasting) innards dumped carelessly into a stew and served up as something remotely edible?
However, fortune favours the bold, so if you’ve been bitten before, try Sang Kee’s pork intestines porridge as your last resort. Each bowl of hot, creamy congee is topped with crunchy nuggets of deep-fried pork intestines. The porridge itself is quite flavourful thanks to a base of pork stock, making this a treat for the adventurous.
By now your belly must be fit to burst, and there are still so many more stalls you haven’t tried (although there’s always next weekend). But don’t leave the Imbi Market without taking away a box of freshly baked mini egg tarts from Bunn Choon Bakery (almost next door to Ah Weng Koh). This family-run business has been around for over a century according to the proprietor Mr Wong.
These morsels are petite bites that won’t stuff you but the flaky crust and jiggly, wobbly egg custard filling may well make you grab more than just one. And when that happens, I can’t guarantee you won’t need to loosen your belt another notch.