A day in Kuala Lumpur's Petaling Jaya suburb

A day in Kuala Lumpur's Petaling Jaya suburb

Spend a day eating and drinking in Kuala Lumpur's most authentic suburb

The best suburb to visit in Kuala Lumpur is Petaling Jaya, known to locals simply as PJ.

Established in the 1950s on the hacked-away remains of rubber plantations, it now has a population of more than 500,000 people, with each of Malaysia’s three main ethnicities -- Malay, Chinese and Indian -- well represented. 

It’s worth exploring the way most Malaysians do: by the stomach.

There’s a reason most tourists leave Kuala Lumpur after just a couple of days: it isn’t an easy place to visit. Confronted with a sprawling collection of neighborhoods linked by busy roads and inadequate public transit, most visitors escape town as soon as they can.

They’re missing out.

To get a real sense of Kuala Lumpur as it’s meant to be experienced, venture into the suburbs, where the sprawl of low-slung bungalows is punctuated by the everyday stuff that makes Malaysia such a beguiling place: thriving markets and delicious food.

Here’s how we spent a day eating and drinking our way through Kuala Lumpur at its most authentic.

Breakfast

Kopi kosongKopi kosong.First stop, coffee. Malaysia is famous for its black brew, but getting your hands on a cup involves learning a whole new vocabulary.

Ordering kopi cham will result in hot coffee mixed with sugar and condensed milk. Kopi O comes without the milk. Kopi kosong is straight black. And kopi peng is served on ice.

Grabbing a morning coffee is a perfect excuse to check out PJ’s Old Town, in Section 1 to see plenty of kopi tiams -- coffee shops -- and one of the city’s liveliest morning markets.

More info: Petaling Jaya’s Old Town Market is known officially as Pasan Besar Jalan Othman. It is located near the corner of Jalan Othman and Jalan Selangor.

A Mamak stall Lunch

Mamak stallMamak stall.mamak dishTasty grub from a mamak stall.As the morning wears on and your stomach begins to growl, it’s time to hit up a mamak stall, one of Malaysia’s cheapest and most satisfying ways to fill your stomach.

The food served by these Tamil Muslim restaurants, including roti, fried noodles, and tandoori chicken, is hardly haute cuisine, but it sure tastes good.

More info: Mamak stalls are found throughout PJ’s commercial areas. Many are open 24 hours.

Night market snacks

PJ marketA lively PJ market.pandan-flavoured egg tartsPandan-flavored egg tarts.Every Monday evening, one of Kuala Lumpur’s biggest pasar malam -- night markets -- sets up in the streets of SS2, one of PJ’s oldest districts.

While it’s not a bad spot to find pirated DVDs, homewear and random knickknacks, this is a food market first and foremost.

Some of Malaysia’s market specialties are not to be missed: fishballs, assam laksa, homemade kaya jam, Chinese herbal tea, pandan-flavored egg tarts and much, much more.

More info: SS2 night market, between Jalan SS2/61 and SS2/63. Open 5 p.m.-12 a.m.

Coffee shop dinner

Sun Hin Loong.Malaysia’s coffee shops aren’t just for coffee -- in fact, they’re more like food courts. Usually, the shop’s owner is responsible for the drinks while hawkers serving their own special dishes sublet the space.

Chicken skewersChicken skewers.Coffee shop seafoodCoffee shop seafood.At Sun Hin Loong, in the midst of the SS2 night market, the beer towers are cheap, the seafood is fresh and all the Malaysian staples are represented, from fried kuey teow to curry puffs and laksa.

More info: Sun Hing Loong, 65 Jalan SS2/64. Open 24 hours.

Durian dessert

DurianDurian.Too many people react to durian as if they were being forced to eat a pudding made of drain cleaner and rotten onions. But that’s just because they’ve never had a good durian.

Durians in Malaysia are sweet, creamy and decadent, with a huge variety of flavors that come from eating the fruit when it’s fresh and local.

At the peak of durian season, which runs from June to August, roadside durian stalls set up near the SS2 night market. Entire families pop in for a bite while watching Hong Kong soap operas on the stall’s TV.

For those new to durian-eating, ask the stall employees to recommend a good one for beginners. Customers will pay by weight and a free cup of water comes with the fruit.

Roadside durian stalls can be found near the corner of Jalan SS2/24 and SS2/75, two blocks from the night market.

A pint or three

pints of beerOr maybe a pint or four.Given that a large chunk of its population doesn’t drink alcohol, it shouldn’t be surprising that Kuala Lumpur isn’t a good place for beer. But that doesn’t mean it can’t try.

Craft BrewsCraft Brews.Craft Brews’ on-tap selection includes beer from Singapore’s Red Dot craft brewery, including a hefeweizen, an English ale, a pilsener and a bright green lager made with spirulina, a type of protein-rich alga. There’s also bottled beer from the renowned U.S. microbreweries Flying Dog and Rogue.

The strip mall location doesn’t have much atmosphere, but the interior’s high ceilings and minimalist brewhouse decor make up for that. 

More info: Craft Brews, Ground Floor, Menara Batu Kawan 1, Jalan PJU7/6, Mutiara Damansara. Across the street from the Tesco hypermarket; two blocks north of IKEA. Open daily 12:30-2:30 p.m., 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Tel: +60 03 7722 3000

Late-night munchies

Rasta @ TTDIRasta @ TTDI.Rasta @ TTDIMore rasta. Everybody loves more rasta.Midnight is approaching and the night market is winding down, but the evening’s not over yet. Get a taxi to Rasta @ TTDI, an outdoor food court where PJ’s 20-somethings go to drink tea, surf the Internet (there’s free Wi-Fi) and smoke shisha, which is a mix of tobacco, syrup and flavoring that is smoked through a hookah, or water pipe. The burgers at Azim’s Burger Shack are defintely worth trying.

More info: Rasta @ TTDI, Jalan Datuk Sulaiman, Taman Tun Dr Ismail. Between Kiara Park Condominiums and Penchala Link.

How to get around

After escaping the KL airport and getting to PJ, explorers will find that PJ is a confusing place to navigate. It’s spread out, disjointed, and the streets are numbered according to district, which have cryptic names like Section 17 and SS2. 

While travelers can get to PJ by taking the LRT’s Putra Line, once there, one must rely on taxis. Since they can sometimes be thin on the ground, jotting down the numbers of Kuala Lumpur’s taxi companies is a good idea. 

Explore more

Most guidebooks give Kuala Lumpur short shift. Thank goodness there’s the Internet. Eating Asia, KLue and Food Point of Interest all have good coverage of Petaling Jaya’s best eats and places to explore.

Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.
Read more about Christopher DeWolf