Dosai and Thunder Tea: A Gluten Free Vegetarian Chows Down in Kuala Lumpur

Posted by Chloë Lai & filed under Food, Travel.

Masala dosai, with potatos and onions inside (8Elements)
Masala dosai, with potatos and onions inside (8Elements)

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Living in Vancouver can really spoil a girl.

Menu items are often marked with friendly ‘GF’ and ‘V’ logos, and (almost) everyone has some idea of what gluten is, or what it’s in. I can walk into most restaurants and score a delicious meal without too much fuss, forgetting just how hard I am to feed. In Malaysia, where this kind of restricted diet is less common (and where I was heading next), it’s another story. I packed a dozen Lara bars, just in case.

Instead of driving myself, my mom and the waiter crazy trying to identify ingredients and convincing them to use alternatives, I reached out for the foods that were already gluten-free. My best friends in Kuala Lumpur were a tasty duo: the area of Brickfields and lei cha, a.k.a ‘thunder tea’.

Brickfields is Kuala Lumpur’s Little India. There are myriad Indian shops and restaurants to explore, and the city’s haze-thickened air takes on a layer of fragrant incense. Not all Indian food is necessarily gluten-free, of course (butter naan!) but it’s a culinary tradition that gives a lot of options for restricted diets. There are always vegetarian options, and of course, dosai.

A dosai is made from rice flour and lentils, and has a deliciously tangy taste, like a sourdough bread. Its accompaniments vary from place to place: we got coconut chutney, some sort of roasted tomato and a half-mashed potato and onion mixture.

I love plain dosai, because I’m hooked on the crunch, but you can also get them with fillings. To eat the dosai, you can use a fork and spoon (ask for a cup of boiling hot water to sanitize them in first) or just get in there with your hands, remembering to use only your right hand for eating. (Hint: Hands are more fun.)

Masala dosai, with potatos and onions inside. (8 Elements Indian Cuisine)

Masala dosai, with potatoes and onions inside (8Elements)

There was also a buffet option. At a restaurant called Seetharam, where we ate almost every day, they had over 40 vegetarian dishes to choose from. I piled my plate with as much as I thought I could eat. The waiter came over, eyeballed at my plate and decided how much I owed. It was never more than 12 ringgit, including my fresh coconut. That’s about $4.

Best $4 I ever spent. (Chloë Lai)

Best $4 I ever spent (Chloë Lai)

After four days, we were a ready for a change. It was time for lei cha.

KL international airport is home to an incredibly delicious lei cha restaurant, which was perfect since I was flying out that night. To say that this dish is unique is an understatement: also known as thunder tea, it’s made by grinding green tea (usually with mortar and pestle) with roasted nuts and seeds.

Lei cha, with all the fixings. (Chloë Lai)

Lei cha with all the fixings (Chloë Lai)

You can use peanuts, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds – just about anything you like. There is no single recipe for lei cha, which allows for a huge variety of flavours. Once ground, the paste is mixed with hot water. It can be served as a heavy, nutrient-dense savoury beverage, or over rice and vegetables. Tipping a teapot over my food to let the bright green liquid flood my bowl was one of the most satisfying experiences I had on this trip.

Looks like my Lara bars are just going to have to sit in my suitcase until France.

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