Here’s the thing about Southeast Asia: most tourists don’t come for the Michelin stars. They want street food vendors, sizzling skewers and plastic chairs. They want to be in the thick of it, perched next to locals and swapping fine dining for a cheap, cheerful and ultimately delicious meal.
This is why visitors to Malaysia are obliged to try a banana leaf lunch. Served at most mamaks (street side restaurants with typically outdoor seating), these lunches are (as in their namesake) served on a large, green banana leaf. While each banana leaf is different, punters can expect raitas, poppadoms and a big serving of rice as a compulsory standard. It’s hearty, full of flavour, and will get you to grips with the local fare.
Come to Kuala Lumpur and you’ll find a mamak on every street corner, packed to the brim with hungry people from all walks of life; families breaking Ramadan fast, office workers on lunch and tourists squinting confusedly at the Malay menus.
One of the more well-known mamaks is Sri Nirwana Maju Bangsar, located at the heart of KL’s trendy Bangsar district. A little pricier than the national standard (22 ringgit, £3.70), Nirwana more than makes up for it in portion size and flavour, leaving customers to this often busy restaurant with their bellies full and hearts content.
Between 11am and 3pm the banana leaf lunch buzz is in full swing, with uniformed waiters swiftly attending crowds at the stainless steel tables. The decor is simple, white walls dotted with a few calendars and decorative images that highlight the food and drinks counters.
The ambiance here is created by the simple things; the chatter of customers, shouting of orders, clinking of plates. Strangers sit across from each other, fork and spoons engaged in a ravenous tussle with their banana leaf lunch. You come here for the food, plain and simple.
The process of serving banana leaf is almost as exciting as the eating itself. First, the waiter sits you down takes your drink order (Ice Lemon Tea is highly recommended – a refreshing calamansi ice tea blend). A flat green banana leaf is then placed in front of you, acting as a plate. Then, with a fanfare of serving flourish, come the meal components.
Huge, steaming portions of fresh rice are piled onto your leaf, and will keep on being piled until you tell them to stop. Carrying three cylindrical metal pails, the waiter then offers you the choice of three curries to sauce your rice – lentil dahl, chicken curry sauce or fish curry sauce. Opting for the latter, I was treated to a rich, zesty accompaniment.
Then come the rest – a tub of light sambal (soup), a fiery chili pickle, a subtle yet sweet potato curry, milky and cooling raita, and then the star – bright red bitter gourd pakora, an absolute treat to the very last crunch. And all this before the main has even arrived.
To go with the banana leaf, customers are invited to choose from a flusteringly large range of main options. These include chicken tandoori, curry and fried fish. To go with my fish curry sauce, I ordered a hefty (albeit dry) portion of fried fish. Rounded off with the grand bazaar of meal components, it solidified an altogether waist-busting and highly memorable dining experience.
“Nirvana is pure, detachment from all material things and existence,” says Nriwana Maju owner Amutha Devi. “That’s why we chose the name. You eat food at Nirwana, you feel pure.”
If purity can be defined as a full belly and happy smile, then seek enlightenment at Nirwana Maju.