By Robyn Eckhardt
Show me a Malaysian and I’ll show you someone who lives to eat. Nowhere is this more in evidence than at our wet markets, where the pickiest locals head to buy food to cook at home and to be fed in situ by an army of skilled hawkers. Kuala Lumpur is dotted with these temples to culinary commerce. Imbi, a gem of a market situated a mere stone’s throw from Bukit Bintang, is among the best.
Offering an array of fresh products and prepared foods, Imbi Market is small enough to navigate in a morning yet large enough to vividly illustrate the extent of Malaysia’s gastronomic riches. It’s the perfect place to get a bead on what the local food scene has to offer, but don’t expect to pop in and pop out. Here’s how a visit to Imbi goes: you head over thinking you’ll have a quick look and a small bite. Two hours later you stumble out, stomach bulging and arms loaded with bags of treats you know you haven’t room for but that looked too delectable to pass up.
‘Temporary for over 25 years,’ is how a roast duck seller in Imbi’s fresh foods section describes the place. The market’s real name, Pasar Bukit Bintang, is a nod to its original site on Kuala Lumpur’s high-end shopping street, before it was relocated to make way for Lot 10. Imbi Market, as it’s known to the people who work, shop, and eat there, is still, in Kuala Lumpur City Hall officialese, ‘temporary’, and KL’s nilly-willy development, combined with the market’s situation on prime real estate, fairly assures its eventual demise. But for now at least, it’s is a nostalgic remnant of traditional ways of shopping and eating in a part of the city that’s otherwise been engulfed by twenty-first century shopping mall mania.
Comprising three linked pitch-roofed, open-air structures, Imbi packs a lot of action into a relatively diminutive space. In the slick-floored (it’s a wet market, after all), cavernous fresh foods section you’ll find just about everything one would need to concoct a Malaysian meal. Along one wall, dry goods stores specializing in sauces and cooking oils, tinned biscuits and crackers, and dry noodles front rows of permanent tile-topped cement counters displaying quivering cubes of bean curd, heaped bundles of sprightly Chinese greens, and piles of fresh rice noodles and yellow mee. ‘My fish is fresh,’ cries one vendor, and one look at the clear eyes and shiny, taut skin of the red snapper he’s touting leaves no doubt.
Perpendicular is a line of poultry stalls displaying the city’s freshest birds. This isn’t the spot to find Styrofoam and plastic-packaged chicken of anonymous origin; the birds on the counters here come from cages not ten feet away. Within sight of anyone who cares to see (and it’s easy enough to avoid doing so), they’re dispatched, denuded of feathers, washed, and parsed - to order, for especially choosy customers. Just around a corner and out of site is a mainstay of the Malaysian market: the pork section, hidden to avoid offense to Muslim customers. Because of Imbi Market’s primarily Chinese customer base, it’s one of the largest in town.
At the end of the week Imbi’s regular, fixed-stall vendors are supplemented by occasional sellers. Thursday and Saturday finds a slight woman with a sunny smile seated behind a folding table in the small courtyard behind the fresh foods section. She sells heavy-yolked kampung (village) eggs, barely bigger than a golf ball and laid by her own chickens, and unusual savory and sweet treats, such as bite-sized crisped brown rice cakes drizzled with sweet-smoky gula Melaka (coconut palm sugar). She also takes advance orders for an intriguing alcoholic beverage: red dragon fruit wine, made by her family in Johor state. Back inside, on the other side of the fruit section, a Petaling Jaya homemaker offer handmade fresh egg noodles (taglietelle thick to spaghetti skinny) so highly regarded by regulars that she is usually sold out by mid-morning.
But Imbi Market isn’t just for locals in search of prime ingredients. It’s a visiting glutton’s paradise as well. ‘Take your choice! There’s a lot of foods!’ a regular shouts to a befuddled foreigner trying to choose between noodles and rice and snacks and sweets and more. Talk about understatement.The beating heart of Imbi’s prepared food selection is a ‘food court’ in the first of the market’s roofed structures. This hawker food heaven lies just beyond the market’s main entrance on Jalan Melati, but to reach it you’ve got to negotiate a narrow aisle lined with all manner of tempting treats. Rare is the market patron who doesn’t give in and make a few stops along the way.
If the two gray-haired sisters displaying an enticing selection of Nyonya kuih (sweets and savories such as kuih ketayap, soft rice flour pancakes tinted green with pandan leaf and rolled around a moist filling of grated coconut and palm sugar) don’t waylay you, the no-name stall decorated with a handwritten Chinese menu and a worn, wide-brimmed straw probably will.
Here, a chubby-cheeked, all-business aunty hovers over a wok precariously balanced on a leaning cook top, turning out stir-fried noodle dishes like gong fu yee min (prawns, pork, and greens in a mild eggy sauce ladled over a bed of crispy noodles) and men yee min (egg noodles, pork, Chinese mustard, and black soy sauce lightly kissed with the char of the wok).
Next door, a transplant from the market’s original location serves up creamy rice porridge flavored with rich pork stock and topped with crispy bits of deep-fried pig stomach. Increasingly hard to find in Kuala Lumpur, this comforting Chinese breakfast favorite benefits from the addition of a salty preserved egg. Doubt the allure of a mound of crunchy innards? Proceed ahead and just try to resist the popiah (soft wheat flour spring rolls) sold to your left or, at the end of the row, the smiling vendor dishing up chee cheong fun (soft, silky rice flour noodles), best with a side of deep-fried tofu skin and topped with a mix of sweet and chili sauces, sesame seeds, and pickled green chili slices.
Turn the corner and you’re in Imbi Market’s food court, busy to bordering on chaotic at weekends. The best strategy here is to find a spot to sit (expect to share a table) before ordering. Along the area’s back wall are dueling coffee shops Ah Weng Koh and Keng Swee Café. The former, fronted by a yellow banner advertising ‘Hainan Tea’, is more often recommended by regulars, but it’s hard not to love neighboring the latter’s kopi peng, a big glass mug of milk-lightened black coffee over ice. Rich and strong and sporting a Frappucino-worthy thick head of froth, it’s just the thing to clear the cobwebs before taking stock of the dining options.
It can safely be said that just about any dish found at Imbi is worth its calories, so from here on out it’s only the size of your stomach that will determine how well you eat. Will it be wonton mee from the vendor across from Ah Weng Koh’s yellow banner? If so, ready yourself for a hefty tangle of thick and thin egg noodles topped with sticky-sweet barbecued pork, shredded chicken, and stewed mushrooms, all tossed with a deeply fragrant, lightly sweet sauce of dark soy and mushroom ‘jus’ (stewed chicken feet optional). Or perhaps—if it’s Saturday or Sunday—you’ll opt for the dry chicken curry mee dished up by the shorts and wellies-wearing vendor and his wife working behind a glass display case at the noodle stall kitty corner to Keng Swee. Enriched with coconut milk, sparkling with the citrus zing of lemongrass and lime leaf, characterized by a subtle, creeping heat, and featuring large chunks of chicken and potato, this noodle dish is fantastically satisfying, though perhaps not the best choice for those intent on serial grazing.
Better, in that case, to start with toasted bread or buns sandwiching thick slabs of butter and a good-sized squidge of kaya, or coconut jam. Both Ah Weng Ko and Keng Swee offer fine versions of this classic, any-time-of-the-day Malaysian accompaniment to coffee. And you may proceed, gently, to the tong sui sold from the small shop fronted by the dry curry noodle stall, a warm Chinese sweet soup of barley and gingko nuts that’s reputed to be good for the digestion. Settle in for a bit with another glass of coffee and a newspaper bought from the roving seller (ignore the lottery ticket vendor; you haven’t a chance in the world). Now you’re ready to carry on with a bowl of curry laksa, a plate of char koay teow (stir-fried rice noodles with pork and cockles), or an order of pan meen, fresh noodles rolled out on the spot, served in a light pork broth with potato leaves and pork.
If, after mining the depths of what’s on offer in the main food court, you still have a trace of an appetite, waddle over to the nasi lemak shop buried amongst the clothing stalls in the market’s middle section for some of the best chicken rendang in town. Further towards the front, more noodles, coffee, sweets, and deep-fried Chinese crullers await.
But first you’ll have to negotiate that treacherous aisle of temptation.