The master of spices thrives on tradition
An endearingly quirky neighbourhood eatery in Kuala Lumpur is run by a flamboyant celebrity chef
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