Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > China & Southeast Asia >
Jan 24, 2014 06:23 AM

Penang and KL with mustard allergy - will i survive?

Will be visiting Penang and KL for 10 days, for the first time, from coming monday on. I love food and eat everything, but have since about 1,5 years a lethal mustard allergy. This includes not only the spice itself, but all related vegetables - basically the whole brassica family (broccoli, cauliflower, rabe, morning glory, etc). If i eat a little piece of the vegetables in question i will react but can control it with pills, where as mustard itself (in spice mixes, curries, gravies, etc) will send me immediately to anaphylactic shock. In europe i can usually test new/unknown foods by putting them to my lips, but overall spicyness in most asian cuisines tends to cover up my reaction and therefor render the test method unreliable.
I have been researching the food in my two destinations and am aware there are many things that are no-goes for me :( I would love to hear from chowhounders on two points:

* Are there any dishes that are typical and/or great in Penang/KL that i can eat with no concerns (with no modifications)?
* Will communication be possible (in food stalls and also in restaurants) in English to ask specific ingredients of dishes? Unfortunately i do not speak any of the local languages.

I am not worried about starving, i always find something to eat (worst case breads, rices, pancakes, noodles without any sauces), i am rather worried about if i will be able to taste typical dishes, the good food, without killing myself :)

Any and all comments to the two above points are welcome!

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Hi

    Welcome to Malaysia. I have followed your pointers for Rome in the past and would be glad to help out. A variety of spices go into local delicacies so I am unsure if mustard or a derivative of it is a constituent. For Penang, I would avoid Nyonya food as curries play a large part and you can never be too sure what goes into the complex tastes. Ditto for street food like laksa, all curry, lemak and assam variants. I think it is safe for you to have street food like Char Kway Teow, Loh Bak, Oyster Omelette, Kway Teow Tng (or soup). Hainanese cuisine is also possible if you stay away from the curry dishes (there are less of them than in Nyonya cuisine).

    For KL, you can do more Chinese meals and you should be fine although the Chinese food is more localised and not as good as in Hong Kong. The popular street food is more Chinese in nature and should also be OK for you.

    In both cities avoid Kangkung Sambal Belacan which is Morning Glory stir fried with a spicy shrimp paste.

    Communication will vary but most Malaysians speak English although it may be patchy.

    If you have any ideas about particular dishes you would like to try or have compiled a list of where you plan to go, feel free to post them here and I'll give you my 2 cents for what it's worth.

    4 Replies
    1. re: mikey8811

      So awesome! Thanks for the pointers, already very helpful. I do have a list on another device, will post here for comments! Thank you!

      1. re: mikey8811

        Loh bak (aka daikon or white radish) is a brassica, not safe.

        1. re: Melanie Wong

          I think mikey may mean the Nyonya deep-fried 5-spice pork rolls (lor bak in Hokkien/ Fujianese), not the vegetables (lobak putih in Malay). The pork rolls should be safe.

          Good catch on the lurking presence of preserved mustard greens though.

          1. re: shakti2

            Thanks for the correction. Easy to tell that I'm not in your part of the world!

      2. The Malay word for mustard seeds is 'biji sawi' but my recommendation would be to carry some in a small zip-loc baggie which you can show when asking your question and which a clueless waiter can take back to the kitchen if the question has to get repeated there (and I would recommend checking each time you order a spicy dish).

        In its oil form, mustard is not common in Malay/ Chinese dishes but may be encountered in an Indian kitchen, so that's where I would exercise the most caution.

        For vegetables, you might want to carry pics of the problematic ones, perhaps on your phone, because there is no single word for brassicas in either Malay or Chinese. Or just use your eyeballs when the finished dish arrives at the table.

        'Dishes which are typical and/ or great'
        There are many. Best if you post a specific list if what you are interested in. I agree with micky 8811 that Chinese cuisine is the safest for you but not that you'll get a representative sampling of popular street food this way.

        Actually, your bigger problem in your quest for good food which you can eat may be that the lunar new year holidays start this coming Friday. Traffic on roads and at transit points will get progressively worse up to Friday and in Penang, stay bad until after the weekend. Offices, banks, shopping malls and the like will be back in business by Monday but many smaller Chinese-owned businesses will stay shut all week, including food stalls, restaurants and suppliers. Penang will be worse than KL for closures.

        1. There are many, many kinds of Asian brassicas that are served fresh. Here's a google page for some images,

          In salted and pickled form, they're also minced finely as seasoning, in many Chinese dishes. So you'll need to watch out for those too. Dried mustard green leaves are used to make some Chinese soup stocks, be sure to ask.

          Does canola oil, made from rapeseed, present a problem too?

          1. Thank you so much, everyone! This all so valuable.

            Yes, i have pics of a lot of the vegetables in question on my phone, it has proved very valuable till now.
            Having some mustard seeds to show (and have a waiter ask in the kitchen) is a great idea.
            The pointer about some of these vegetables appearing as seasonings and/or in the broth bases is very valuable and something i had not known/considered.
            Aware of the new year problem, but could not be avoided with the time available we have. We are aware we'll run into closed places and will just have to deal with it - after all we are used to Rome in August :)

            Here are some specific dishes and/or places i have questions about - i realize this is a lot, but if you can offer info/help even on one only, it will be very valuable.

            I understand choy sum is a no go for me (and can be "hidden", too).

            Gado gado will always include cabbage (hence a no go)?

            Roti - i realize they are different versions, but i think on their own they are safe for me. Does it even make sense to eat roti on its own or is it a waste of effort without the curries etc that usually accompany them?

            Same with idli - safe, but is it interesting enough to eat on its own.

            Same with chapati (have also read about a grilled version @ tek sen).

            Same for thosai.

            Is dry wonton mee without choy sum possible?

            Is hokkien mee safe? (have read contradictory descriptions)(and where best to have it?)

            Have read a lot about different versions of sweet soups - not entirely clear if they are safe for me.

            Char koay kook (carrot cake) - is it really carrot (which would be ok) or daikon (which would not be ok)?

            Opinions about international hotel coffee shop? Chow rasta market? Carnavon street (and around it)?

            Things i believe are safe for me - where best to have them?

            Nutmeg juice
            Coconut tarts (@ leong chee kee?)
            Hainan chicken rice (@ kheng pin?)
            Char koay teow & duck koay teow
            Sticky bbq pork
            Double cooked pork (@ teik seng?)

            In KL:
            Opinions on Yut kee kopitiam? Chinatown? Will bao be safe or can it have fillings that are a no go?

            Again, i realize this is a lot, but any info on any one is more than welcome!

            Thanks a lot!

            1. Answers to your list as follows:

              Gado gado - Yes, will always include cabbage. You may request they leave it out but they may ignore you. It's really an Indonesian dish and is not as good in Malaysia. You should probably try Rojak Pasembur (with a nutty sauce, fried fritters & beancurd) or Rojak Buah (with fruit and shrimp paste) - making sure you omit the jicama if you are allergic to it - instead.

              Roti - The savoury ones are pretty bland without the chutney, dhal and dipping curries - I mean it's not exactly something to eat on it's own unlike Pizza Bianca if you catch my drift. Maybe go for the sweet ones like Roti Tisu - Kayu in KL makes an iconic one which should be a Malaysian must try.

              Idli - as above. You can try apam and other Indian sweets in Little India like Jalebi

              Chapati - Ditto. I've not heard of the grilled version in Tek Sen.

              Thosai - as above

              If you want to try the above things you have listed in comfort and done quite authentically, go to J P Teres, the coffee shop at the Grand Hyatt in KL. They do variations of the above and if you tell them your allergies, they will probably accommodate you as being a hotel chain, they will probably be in great strife if you fall sick.

              Wonton mee - choy sum is an addition or garnish added that can be left out if you request.

              Hokkien mee - not sure which you mean

              1. KL style fried Hokkien Mee with dark soy sauce and lardons - usually fried with cabbage or choy sum - just say no vegetables and you should be fine. The good KL ones are probably too hard to find for you but if you go to the Lot 10 Hutong food court, there is a branch of Kim Lian Kee, an old stalwart which although not as good as the main branch in Petaling Street, is authentic. If it's your first time eating it, it's pretty good already and you won't be able to tell. The same food court has Ho Weng Kee for Wonton Mee and a good Penang style Fried Kway Teow, although if you are heading for Penang it's not as good as. The other street food stalls are decent too (Fish Head Vermicelli from Woo Pin, Campbell Rd Popiah if it's still there)

              2. Penang style Hokkien Prawn Mee - it should be safe. Has a prawn based bisque type soup but they use morning glory (kangkung) as a garnish vegetable. Ask them to leave it out and you should be fine.

              Sweet soups - red bean, mung bean, tofu, shaved ices, peanut cream - sound pretty safe.

              Char koay kook (carrot cake) - it's really radish

              Carnavon street (and around it) - serach the Penang threads. I think Penang Rojak & Peter Yeoh have written a lot about the go to stalls there in the past. There is a lot that is good. The Oyster Omelette at Seng Thor is a must have but is cholesterol laden and with long queues. The Lor Bak and Koay Teow Tng is also among the best. Nearby Kimberley Rd also has some famous stalls.

              Putu/puthu - leave that to other people to answer as it is not something I go for.

              Nutmeg juice - in most coffee shops in Penang.

              Ketayap - Kuih stalls or probably some kiosks you can see in shopping malls. I think there is a chain called Nyonya Colours that do Kuih.

              Hainan chicken rice (@ kheng pin?) - the version there is among the best in Penang but really the rice part is better in Singapore and the poached chicken is better in KL

              Char koay teow - Lorong Selamat lady with the Red Beret. The old man on Siam Rd is also very good. Some people like the Macalister Road Sisters but I prefer the others.

              duck koay teow - not many stalls do duck koay teow any more. The one in the old Kek Seng coffeeshop is good but they use chicken instead now. The Duck Koay Chap in Kimberley Rd is good but open at night. If the expert Penang Rojak pitches in, he should be able to give you a definitive list of where to go in Penang.

              Sticky bbq pork - Oversea Restaurant in KL (preorder it or go during the day, it sells out very quickly), Soo Kee in Jalan Ampang (very good old school Malaysian Chinese food but langiage may be a problem), coffee shop on Jalan Alor open in the day opposite Wong Ah Wah Chicken Wings. These are the best in KL. Don't worry about trying it in Penang, it pales in comparison. You can try Wong Ah Wah's grilled chicken wings which are among the best I've eaten. Wong Ah Wah has been, in the past, open through Chinese New Year to do the trade and then closing for holidays after.

              Double cooked pork (@ teik seng?) - it's really roasted pork stir fried/ caramelised in sticky sweet black sauce. The version in Tek Sen is really overrated, as is the food there overall. You can get better in KL at Fai Seng coffeeshop in Jalan Pudu which also does poached chicken and congee.

              Just my 2 cents. Hope this helps.

              5 Replies
              1. re: mikey8811

                mikey, this is incredible. Thank you. I hope i can do something for you in return when you are in Rome - maybe even a meetup? And: don't say pizza bianca to me! Been away for 3 weeks now (in vietnam) and missing it almost as much as wine :)

                1. re: vinoroma

                  You are most welcome. Just giving back for clueing me in on the Burrata & Carbonara at Roscioli (the best I've had - the guanciale in the latter reminded me of the lardons in Hokkien Mee) & Il Gelato di Claudio Torce (the many different types of chocolate & the intense funky flavours, sad the outlet in that cute lil' square has closed). Would be happy to meet up with you the next time I'm in Rome or even this time in KL (when are you here?) but am quite swamped finishing off work before Chinese New Year.

                  I forgot your question about Yut Kee. Maybe go there for the kaya toast & the traditional breakfast of soft boiled eggs, roti babi (like a French toast stuffed with diced pork, onions, crab meat, shrimp), Hainanese beef brisket/ offal soup and the atmosphere.

                  Since you are here during Chinese New Year, if your allergies permit, maybe try Yee Sang, the traditional raw fish salad that's only served during the period. There's a lot in it, so be sure to check your allergy list.

                  If you need anything else or have any other questions, feel free to ask. Keep in touch!

                  PS. My family cook tells me that there is no mustard in curry spices at all but I wouldn't chance it since you are on holiday.

                2. re: mikey8811

                  "Oyster Omelette at Seng Thor" - can avoid. The old man who made this stall famous has since died. The middle-aged person who is frying oh-chien there now is not very good. I just had it last month and it's very different. Not good at all. Don't know if the new hawker was related to the old man.

                  1. re: mikey8811

                    Mikey's covered it all in his super-thorough post but :

                    'Yut Kee'
                    If you're headed for kopi tiam in Penang and your standards for roast pork are a good porchetta from Ariccia, I wouldn't bother. I can just about understand the nostalgic charm of their Anglo-Hainanese preparation for people who might have consumed these items in their youth but for the rest of us, it's bland proteins covered in flour-thickened brown gravy.

                    The old wet market in KL's Chinatown is a dank covered lane and will be very lively in the lead-up to new year, worth a walk. Action will be from early morning to 11-ish but not for the squeamish with live fish getting conked on the head, gutted pigs, blood, gore and smells. Wear covered shoes and keep an eye on your belongings, particularly if you follow up with a walk through the more touristy all-day street market on the main drag.

                    Sweet ones should be entirely safe (lotus seed, black bean, red bean and the like). Am 99% sure the standard savoury ones are fine but a good maker may have tinkered with the standard mix for interest, so best to check exactly what's in them.

                    1. re: shakti2

                      All noted, thank you! Understand the porchetta remark and no, we are not squeamish, have been to all kinds of markets in cambodia, laos, vietnam and love it.