The master of spices thrives on tra­di­tion

An en­dear­ingly quirky neigh­bour­hood eatery in Kuala Lumpur is run by a flam­boy­ant celebrity chef

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Malaysia - MICHELLE ROWE

IF I weren’t in the bustling Malaysian cap­i­tal, I’d swear I’ve stum­bled into my dearly departed grand­mother’s home in sub­ur­ban Mel­bourne.

The small, air­con­di­tioned room in which I’m sip­ping sweet tea is a riot of china plates mounted on walls, pewter vases on oc­ca­sional ta­bles, mis­matched pic­tures and other kitsch col­lecta­bles. Small Per­sian rugs are scat­tered about and there’s an old­fash­ioned lounge suite re­plete with foot­stools on which home­decor mag­a­zines are piled high.

I am here to meet the equally colour­ful Is­mail Ah­mad, bet­ter known as Chef Is­mail, who hails from a small vil­lage in Negeri Sem­bi­lan, 70km south of Kuala Lumpur, and is now one of the coun­try’s high­est-pro­file chefs.

When he ar­rives, I am en­gulfed by his larger-than-life per­son­al­ity; we are at Restoran Re­bung Chef Is­mail, the eatery the Malay Mus­lim chef co-owns with Sheikh Musza­phar Shukor al-Mas­rie, the South­east Asian na­tion’s first as­tro­naut, who also lists part-time model and orthopaedic sur­geon on his CV.

In the af­flu­ent Bangsar neigh­bour­hood about 5km southwest of the city cen­tre, Re­bung has earned a loyal fol­low­ing among those seek­ing the real deal when it comes to rich and spicy Malay flavours.

There are mainly lo­cals here today but Is­mail says he has had more Aus­tralians in since his ap­pear­ance on the ABC TV se­ries Poh’s Kitchen, along­side former MasterChef Aus­tralia con­tes­tant Poh Ling Yeow (the ex­u­ber­ant Is­mail is no stranger to the small screen, hav­ing fea­tured on cook­ery shows with ti­tles such as Hey Good Cook­ing and Wok and Roll).

His restau­rant has tra­di­tion at its heart. Most of the dishes take their cues from Is­mail’s child­hood — the kam­pung, or vil­lage, fare he ate and was taught to cook by his grand­par­ents.

Af­ter a lengthy chat, Is­mail de­parts for his local mosque for prayers and I take a seat for lunch at one of the many ta­bles in the cov­ered al­fresco area at the front of the build­ing.

This ex­pan­sive space is where Re­bung’s daily lunch and din­ner buf­fets are dis­played. A la carte meals are avail­able but the boun­ti­ful smor­gas­bord is what peo­ple come for.

Bains-marie are full of cur­ries and soups; there are plat­ters of sal­ads and veg­eta­bles, rice of ev­ery de­scrip­tion and pots of spicy sam­bal rel­ish. At one sta­tion a woman is busily cook­ing fish, nearby an­other staff mem­ber shapes roti. Multi-tiered ar­range­ments of sweets have their own space in the ad­ja­cent in­door din­ing room.

I’m a lit­tle in­tim­i­dated by the di­ver­sity but take a ‘‘scoop of this, scoop of that’’ ap­proach and fill my plate with duck egg curry, grilled fish with tamarind dip, smoked beef in thick co­conut milk gravy, st­ingray in hot and sour sauce, and a side dish of gado gado.

I also take a stab at sam­pling one of the house’s most pop­u­lar dishes, snails in co­conut milk and saf­fron pow­der, but give up af­ter sev­eral unsuccessful at­tempts to coax th­ese tightly-wedged crit­ters out of their shells.

For sweets, it has to be cen­dol, a melange of shaved ice, co­conut milk, sweet red beans and green pea flour jelly strips topped with palm sugar syrup. Al­ter­na­tively, there’s sticky rice with durian sauce, sweet potato dough­nuts and even green peas in co­conut milk and palm sugar.

You would be hard-pressed to find a bet­ter place to im­merse your­self in Malaysia’s di­verse cuisine than this quirky neigh­bour­hood restau­rant. Michelle Rowe was a guest of Tourism Malaysia and AirAsia X.

The buf­fet at Restoran Re­bung is a boun­ti­ful smor­gas­bord of Malay dishes

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.