Robyn Eckhardt is a writer based in Kuala Lumpur. She publishes the food blog EatingAsia with her husband, photographer David Hagerman. In this post she walks us through the slow and delicious process of immersing herself into the landscape of a local Kuala Lumpur kitchen—Editors
I’m a tall Caucasian woman with short, prematurely gray hair. In Asia I tend to stick out like a sore thumb but somehow, in Kuala Lumpur I fit. I think it has something to do with what I put in my mouth. ‘You’re not Malaysian,’ Malaysians tell me me. ‘But you eat like one.’ The words are always uttered with an air of approval. The fact that KL feels like home is, at least in part, down to food.
So it is with my favorite restaurant in the city
Sek Yuen, a bastion of old-style Cantonese cuisine, has been around longer than Malaysia has been a nation. On a wall near its front entrance hang black and white photographs from opening day, celebrated more than fifty-eight years ago with firecrackers, a lion dance, and a visit by Kuala Lumpur’s British colonial overseer. I suspect Sek Yuen hasn’t changed a whit since. The restaurant’s three waiters, uniformed in shorts and thin white t-shirts, are sons of the original owners; the varicose veins entwining their calves are testament to the kilometers they’ve traced across its tiled floors. Bills are calculated on an abacus and, until recently, music wafted from a gramophone. Most patrons are old-timers. I once spoke with a man who’d been eating lunch at Sek Yuen with a cousin and his wife every Sunday for the last twenty-six years.
Photograph used with permission of David Hagerman
The restaurant’s kitchen is astounding: high-ceilinged, grease-coated, jammed with prep tables and sturdy, wood-fired stoves supporting blackened woks, huge bamboo steamers, and a multi-tiered stainless steel apparatus for cooking double-boiled soups. The latter is capped by a lid so heavy it’s lifted with rope and pulley. In this kitchen ingredients are chopped beneath a garland of scallion greens; in a corner by a door ducks hung by their necks dry in the heat of a wood fire. Everything that emerges from Sek Yuen’s kitchen—from humble dishes like sweet and sour fish to special-occasion, order-ahead items like eight-treasure duck (a boned fowl stuffed with its own chopped meat mixed with gingko nuts, lotus seeds, black mushrooms, yam, and cilantro and steamed for 5 hours until almost melting)—tastes emphatically homemade. Sek Yuen has no pretensions.
The first time I walked into Sek Yuen (ten months ago, accompanied by my husband) I felt like an intruder. Kitchen staff, waiters, and loyal patrons form a tight little club, and membership isn’t handed out on a whim. There’s no written menu, I speak no Cantonese, and English isn’t exactly bandied about. But I also felt inexplicably at home. The smells wafting out of the kitchen and the appetizingly homely dishes covering every table spoke to my love of old-style establishments and cooks that stubbornly hew to outmoded methods and privilege taste above all else. Over the following months I proved my mettle, happily cleaning plate after plate, meal after meal, week after week.
Last month my husband and I shared a rare weekday lunch at Sek Yuen. I wasn’t in the best of spirits. The previous days had been hectic—too many tasks and not enough time, my extended solo trip to the States looming. When we entered Sek Yuen we were embraced by smiles and familiar smells. Our regular waiter predicted half our order and recommended a wonderful new (to us) dish. As we waited for our food we sipped tea and glanced around the dining room, drinking in the place’s ambience as we always do. I’m sure I sighed with contentment. Anticipating our sweet and sour fish—not the stodgily battered, saccharine sweet, gloppy-sauced and pineapple-studded dish of my American Midwestern youth, but a whole deep-fried fish cloaked in ethereally light crust, napped with a lustrous red sauce more tart than sweet, and garnished with precisely shredded carrot and slivered scallion set in ice water to curl—I felt myself relax and let go of all worries.
A few customers sent curious looks our way as they walked through the front door. At Sek Yuen we stick out, after all, like sore thumbs. But we’re also very much at home.