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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Imbi Market, Yut Kee and Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur

Forget the museum, the art gallery, the church or the zoo. Wet markets are one of my favourite plates to visit when aboard, the culinary underbelly of a city with its maze of makeshift stalls, occasional puddles, and smiling locals determined to feed the people with good fresh produce, poultry and seafood.

Our second day in Malaysia would take us to Imbi Market, one of the last surviving wet markets in Kuala Lumpur, but first - breakfast.

Mr Roti Maker - we meet again

I suspect I was the only person who slipped downstairs for breakfast that morning in the hotel. Everyone else exercised restraint in anticipation of the fooding ahead, but the novelty of freshly made roti tisu for breakfast was too much for me to resist.

Roti tisu pyramid

It took only a few hand gestures with the roti maker to let him know a roti tisu made in a pyramid -- not folded in a crepe like the day before -- made all the difference. He smiled obligingly and used asbestos-like fingers to shape the hot crispy shell into a party hat for one.

Roti tisu for breakfast

Imbi Market

Delivering newspapers at Imbi Market

* Warning: Graphic images of animal slaughter are included in this section

Robyn Eckhardt from EatingAsia was our tour guide for the morning. A freelance food and travel journalist, Robyn and her husband, photographer David Hagerman, have been based in southeast Asia for the past 14 years. She knows her food, and we trail behind her as she picks up jicama, okra and  tropical fruits to explain their consumption and use in local Malaysian cuisine.

Robyn Eckhardt from EatingAsia

Shoppers in Imbi Market

I could have happily wandered around for hours in Imbi Market, drinking in the sights, sounds and smells. I love how shopping at wet markets isn't just a chore but a social activity, and one that involves seeking out the freshest and best produce at the lowest possible price.

Stallholder carving out the eyes from a pineapple

Frying yu tiao bread sticks

Yu tiao fried bread sticks

We breakfasted on yu tiao fried bread sticks, the soft pillowy dough resting beneath a tea towel at the stall. The old man at the counter was calm but quick with his movements, rolling the dough out into even lengths and then flattening two together before sliding them into a simmering pool of oil to deep-fry.

These bread sticks are often sliced thinly and served with congee rice porridge, but here we greedily ate them on their own, crunching on the golden shell until we hit the fluffy donut insides.

Making coffee

Serving noodles for breakfast

Peanuts and pulses

Black garlic

Fresh tofu

Chopping chickens

The wettest parts of the market are where the poultry and seafood are sold. As we stomped our way along the wet tiles, we noticed a commotion of activity toward the back of the market. It was here, we realised, where trays of live chickens were stacked seven-foot-high, would meet their inevitable demise.

* Warning: graphic images of animal slaughter ahead - click here to skip

Slaughtering the chickens by severing the jugular vein

I could hear someone gasp in horror behind me as the meaning of the scene in front of us slowly sank in. Death was happening as we watched, a sharp knife silently severing the jugular vein of each chicken. The men worked together: methodically, patiently, almost rhythmically, as the life of each chicken was extinguished.

Of course death was here. It was already around us. In the chicken carcasses being jointed by butchers. In the lifeless fish covered in cubes of ice. In the slabs of pork belly next door. But to see each chicken dying, sucking their last gasp of breath, was a sobering reminder about the necessity of death whenever we eat meat. I didn't know whether to look away as a sign of respect, or if I had to keep watching as a form of carnivorous punishment.

Tossing the washed chickens into the drum to be de-feathered

The entire process of preparing a chicken for consumption continued without ceremony in a macabre production line. After the chickens are killed, they are washed and transferred to a rolling drum to be de-feathered. The chickens are washed again, gutted and then are presumably ready to sell.

Washing the chickens

Gutting the chickens

The secret pork butchery

We had to step past the chicken slaughter area to reach the secret pork butchery. Although the majority of customers at this market are pork-consuming Chinese, the pork section is kept in a separate discreet area out of respect for local Muslims. It almost feels like an underground club. We step through the narrow doorway to find a large room filled with pork. Hanging from hooks are trotters, tails, ribs and flanks. Business is brisk.

Trimming pork

Roast pork stall (tucked between two pork butcheries)

Porcine bonanza

Local butcher

Fresh eggs

Sticky rice dumplings

Draining rice noodles

All that shopping is guaranteed to make you hungry. The food stalls at Imbi Market are said to offer some of Kuala Lumpur's best hawker food.

Yong tau fu stall

Customers choosing their fish paste-filled favourites at the yong tau fu stall

Fried noodles

Nasi lemak

Making popiah

Popiah to go

Clockwise from top left: Fish congee rice porridge, chee cheong fun rice noodles, pan mee noodles with soup, and popiah

We commandeer a rickety table, wonky on the slanted ground, and huddle around a haphazard feast collected from around the market. The fresh popiah are the crowd favourite, stewed jicama rolled up with carrot, cucumber and peanuts. Pan mee is common throughout Kuala Lumpur, flat flour-based noodles served with minced pork, shiitake mushrooms and fried anchovies, available as a soup (wet) or doused with thick sweet soy sauce (dry).

Roast pork with crackling


A quiet bit of newspaper reading

Nap time

Yut Kee

We head to Yut Kee for an early lunch. Yut Kee is said to be one of Kuala Lumpur's oldest kopitiams or coffee shops, established in 1928 and now in its third generation of family ownership.

There's a lot of olde world charm here, from the dated decor to the happy faces of locals who have eaten here for decades.

Clockwise from top left: Chicken chop RM8.50 (AU$2.65), lamb chop RM13 (AU$4), roti babi (AU$2.50) and belacan fried rice RM6 (AU$1.85)

The menu is a curious mix of East meets West comfort food, in a style that reminds me of Hong Kong cafes. Here pork chops are drenched with gravy and served with fried onions and frozen vegetables. The roti babi combines a donut-like bread with shredded pork and Worcestershire sauce, and is said to be onf the cafe's most famous dishes.

I'm a greater fan of the belacan fried rice, the grains of chewy rice tumbled with strips of omelette, bean sprouts, spring onions and daubed generously with spicy shrimp paste.

Butter cake

Yut Kee is also famous for its butter cake and kaya roll, eaten as a snack with cups of coffee or tea.

Coffee waterfall

Adding condensed milk

Tea and coffee

Current owner Jack Lee with Adam Liaw

Kopitiam founder Yut Kee above a photo of his son Jack

Inside the Yut Kee kitchen

Current owner Jack Lee is more than happy to lead us behind the scenes and into the kitchen. The kitchen is bigger than the dining room, and filled with woks, pots and non-plussed staff.

The kaya barrel

We're most interested in the kaya, the coconut jam which they cook in a double steamer for 18 hours. Over 70 coconuts are needed to fill the drum, and the kitchen makes a new batch of kaya every 3-4 days.

Kaya coconut jam for sale

Toasting bread over charcoal

They do everything the old-fashioned way here, including toasting the bread for kaya jam over charcoal.

Cutting up the kaya toast

Runny eggs, kaya toast and iced coffee - a typical Malaysian breakfast

We slather the thick slabs of toast with butter (from New Zealand!) and generous dollops of sweet custardy kaya coconut jam.

That evening we head to Bayan Indah for a cooking class in Kampung, or home-style Malay food. It feels much like a nature retreat, especially with the thriving gardens out the front, but we're soon set to work in teams to cook a banquet of dishes.

Peppercorns, hibiscus flowers and pineapples growing in the garden

Prawn and pineapple curry

Clockwise from top left: Chicken and pineapple curry, banana flower salad, onde onde and ayam percik grilled chicken 

Nasi kerabu

Nasi kerabu is one of my new favourite dishes, a delicate but flavourful dish of rice mixed with at least seven different herbs chopped into a fine chiffonade.

Making roti jala lacy pancakes

Everyone gets a turn at making roti jala lacy pancakes, using a special five-pronged pot to create swirls on a cast iron griddle. The soft roti jalan are eaten with curries, and especially good at mopping up any leftover sauce.

Making onde onde

We also made one of my favourite kuih, or desserts, onde onde. These bite-sized balls of pandan and glutinous rice flour dough are stuffed with palm sugar and then boiled until the sugar is melted on the inside. The balls are rolled in fresh grated coconut and popping one in your mouth is an explosion of liquid palm sugar syrup bursting through a glutinous dumpling. Terribly addictive.


Soya bean milk stall in Chinatown

And that wasn't all we did on day two. There was also a brief stopover in Chinatown in the afternoon. We weren't there for very long, and our energy was sapped from the humidity and the heat, but that didn't stop me from buying a bag of crunchy sweet potato balls, piping hot from the fryer, or snapping a few photos of the buzzing street scenes.

Making muah chee glutinous rice flour dumplings (similar to the Japanese mochi)

Clockwise from top left: Chicken soup stock for wonton mee, dishwasher hawker-style, mamak stall and roadside fruit stand

Noodle stall

Noodle stall

Blanching vegetables

Local hawker stall in Chinatown

Deep-fried sweet potato balls 20 sen each (AU$0.06)

Delivery man

Street stall

Imbi Market (Pasar Baru Bukit Bintang)
Jim Kampung, 55100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Open daily 7am-11am

Yut Kee
35 Jalan Dang Wangi, 55100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Tel: +60 (03) 2698 8108
Opening Tuesday to Sunday 8am-5pm (closed Mondays)

3343 Kampung Palimbayan Indah, Sungei Penchala, 60000 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Tel: +60 (03) 7729 0122 ‎

Grab Your Fork visited Malaysia as a guest of Malaysia Kitchen Australia and Tourism Malaysia.
>> Read the next Malaysia 2011 post (Melaka and Amy Heritage Nyonya Cuisine)
<< Go back to the first Malaysia 2011 post (food tour with Fried Chillies)

Related Grab Your Fork posts:
Malaysia 2010 - feasting with food bloggers

26 comments - Add some comment love

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posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 6/01/2011 03:46:00 am


  • At 6/01/2011 5:24 am, Blogger Gourmet Chick said…

    As always your post and photos have really brought the wet market and the rest of your trip to life for me. Another techie question - how do you split your photo frames - eg to display two or four photos in smaller sizes in blogger? Have never been able to work that one out myself!

  • At 6/01/2011 7:04 am, Blogger Michelle Chin said…

    Sigh... missing those days where i accompany my mom to imbi market to buy fruits, veg and stuff to cook for dinner. ...

  • At 6/01/2011 7:57 am, Anonymous john@heneedsfood said…

    How could anybody not love a market? I love how you started your day with a roti, and instructed the poor bloke how it should be presented. "No, you roll it into a cone! Aiyoh!"

  • At 6/01/2011 8:39 am, Anonymous chopinandmysaucepan said…

    The three best dishes at Imbi Market is the char keow teow, nasi lemak (from Malay lady and not Chinese lady)and the yong tow foo :) :) The deep fried yow tiau is also out of this world

  • At 6/01/2011 9:15 am, Anonymous Tina@foodboozeshoes said…

    Epic post that's making me oh-so hungry!

  • At 6/01/2011 9:45 am, Anonymous Nic@diningwithastud said…

    Looks like such a great trip. Anything that revolves around food is a great time for me. Such a colourful place and everyone looks pretty friendly

  • At 6/01/2011 11:33 am, Blogger Ramen Raff said…

    I would love a roti tisu pyramid for brekky!
    I want that roast pork with crackling, nasi lemak and kaya!
    What the heck, I want it all!

    Awesome post!

  • At 6/01/2011 12:38 pm, Blogger Rainie said…

    You make Malaysia look so much more interesting, I will definitely have to note these down to visit them next time. My last trip to Malaysia was a disaster with me having food poisoning after the first night. Thanks for the great insight

  • At 6/01/2011 2:08 pm, Anonymous chocolatesuze said…

    woah epic post! mmm i want to make onde onde!

  • At 6/01/2011 4:27 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hi Helen

    Nice pics.

    Hope you don't mind these comments but as a Malaysian who loves her food, I felt obliged to do so :)

    What's identified as Thai-style snacks at Imbi market (the bunches of little green pyramids) are probably mini lye water glutinous rice dummplings (gan sui joong/jianshui zhongzi) that are eaten with treacle and caramel sauce.

    Pan Meen is found a lot in KL but I don't think it's a KL specialty. It's known in Hokkien/Fujianese as Mee Hoon Kueh (Pan Meen is in Cantonese) and is a home-style comfort food that was commercialised in the late70s.

    The lacy pancakes you made at Bayan Indah are Roti Jala, not Roti Jalan. Roti means bread in Malay while Jala means net as the lacy creations look like a net.


  • At 6/01/2011 6:20 pm, Blogger Hungry Female said…

    You were, and got to, the heart of KL for eating and in your writing and photos. Thanks for doing my city proud!

  • At 6/01/2011 6:47 pm, Anonymous Min Ai said…

    Oh wow, awesome post Helen! This takes me back to my childhood.. especially the yu tiao. I used to watch the yu tiao man as a child, smacking my lips and waiting for the freshly fried golden goodies to reach my hands. Lol! Man, it's about time I head back home!!

  • At 6/01/2011 8:42 pm, Anonymous Hannah said…

    So overwhelming! So much to comment (diplomatically and non-delete-needing ;) ) on! I love how it's always the desserts I zone in on. (Or zone in onde onde? Oh ho ho!) Is that a put-it-together yourself kaya breakfast? Love it!

    Oh, and you are such a roti tisu taskmaster.
    Bet that guy knew an expert when he saw one!

  • At 6/01/2011 10:51 pm, Anonymous JasmyneTea said…

    What a marathon post! Also, what a sobering thought in regards to those chickens...
    Looks like an amazing experience though!

  • At 6/01/2011 11:16 pm, Blogger Cubie said…

    You were in imbi market... Did you try the Hainan coffee there?

  • At 6/02/2011 12:08 am, Anonymous Sara (Belly Rumbles) said…

    Gorgeous photos Helen, enjoying your Malaysia posts

  • At 6/02/2011 1:36 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Lovely photos. Stunning, in fact. What a day!

    Just a little comment though. When I clicked on the link for Bayan Indah, it did not work.

  • At 6/02/2011 7:12 am, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Gourmet Chick - The photo collages are constructed in photoshop using layers. I host my photos through Flickr so there's a fair bit of cutting and pasting of html code!

    Hi John - lol. The roti tisu on display was actually in the shape of a pyramid, so I just pointed to it. Pyramids are much more fun!

    Hi chopinandmysaucepan - The yu tiao was amazing!

    Hi Shiew - Thanks so much for the corrections. Duly noted! I remember we were chatting to the dumpling stall and they mentioned it was a Thai snack but I've changed it anyway.

    Hi Cubie - I only had an iced coffee while we were there. I'll have to get one next time!

    Hi Anon - Thanks for letting me now. I've fixed the link now!

  • At 6/02/2011 10:46 am, Blogger Peter G @ Souvlaki For The Soul said…

    Absolutely brilliant captures Helen! I love how you've captured the locals in their element! That nasi kerabu sure looks tasty!

  • At 6/03/2011 2:16 pm, Blogger sugarpuffi said…

    roti and you tiao! omg! i want/need some right now :/
    the chicken butchering was a tad too graphical for me hehe

  • At 6/04/2011 6:42 pm, Anonymous Lex said…

    oh man I wish you could even describe the smells going through the poultry/pork butchery haha - excellent imagery of the 'real' Malaysia :)

  • At 6/06/2011 1:08 am, Anonymous J2Kfm said…

    The Imbi market actually serves much better Hainanese tea and coffee (or a mix of both; named 'cham') than Yut Kee's.
    Good post, captured the essence of Malaysian street food.

  • At 6/08/2011 11:26 am, Anonymous Paula said…

    Am heading here in October for my 3rd visit.... can't wait to use your tips

  • At 6/08/2011 11:37 pm, Anonymous Agatha said…

    The roast pork reminds me of the roast pork I have eaten in one of the hawkers in Singapore. And the other pictures especially the restaurants reminds me of the hawkers in Singapore. Were you able to visit Singapore?

  • At 6/10/2011 10:45 am, Blogger Gianna@TheEmptyFridge said…

    really enjyoyed this post helen! just catching up on all my GYF reading but this especially put a smile to my face - i absolutely love visiting wet markets when i travel, its just full of so much character. and yes, you will think im a sicko - but loved the chicken photos - i had to do that process myself when i was 9 to earn a girl scout badge :)

  • At 6/14/2011 7:18 pm, Blogger mademoiselle délicieuse said…

    This may sound weird but I actually miss the sight depicted in those chicken photos! Sure, I was freaked out as a young child when I first witnessed chickens being slaughtered in Hong Kong but, for a good few years now, it is something which is no longer seen after all live chicken stalls were phased out following recurring outbreaks of chicken flu.


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