THE FINE TASTES OF HOME

It’s no se­cret – Malaysians love food. While lo­cal hawker fare and ma­mak restau­rants are flour­ish­ing, fine din­ing is still a nov­elty to many. All hope is not lost, though, as The Peak shares a meal with lo­cal culi­nary tal­ents who are shap­ing haute cuisin

The Peak (Malaysia) - - Contents - TEXT KIRAT KAUR & CHRISTY YOONG ART DI­REC­TION PENNY CHEW PHO­TOG­RA­PHY ED­MUND LEE & YONG KEEN KEONG nadodikl.com

It’s no se­cret – Malaysians love food. While lo­cal hawker fare and ma­mak restau­rants are flour­ish­ing, fine din­ing is still a nov­elty to many. All hope is not lost, though, as ThePeak shares a meal with lo­cal culi­nary tal­ents who are shap­ing haute cui­sine in Malaysia with an em­pha­sis on fa­mil­iar flavours and in­gre­di­ents.

THE SPICE TRAIL Chef John­son Ebenezer & Chef Sricha­ran Venkatesh, Nadodi

Heart-warm­ing, com­fort­ing and oh-so sat­is­fy­ing: that’s what South In­dian cui­sine means to Malaysians. A flavour­ful med­ley of idlis, tho­sais, samb­hars and the dar­ling of Malaysian palates, banana leaf rice, it’s hard to imag­ine them any­where else but at home or your favourite ma­mak and banana leaf restau­rants. How­ever, this is where Nadodi steps in and turns the beloved cui­sine on its head.

“We’re com­pletely de­stroy­ing the tra­di­tional way of look­ing at South In­dian food,” ex­claims Chef de Cui­sine Sricha­ran Venkatesh with a mis­chievous grin. An in­con­spic­u­ous white puff served on a flat stone is placed in front of me. My eyes widen with sur­prise as the airy Pol Puff rapidly dis­solves on the tongue to re­veal a burst of cin­na­mon and co­conut flavours. It’s clear that I’m about to em­bark on quite an ad­ven­ture.

The word ‘ nadodi’ it­self means ‘wan­derer’ or ‘no­mad’ in both Tamil and Malay­alam. Be­fore the 15th cen­tury, it is be­lieved that there was fre­quent travel be­tween the re­gions of Ker­ala, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka along a route known as Adam’s Bridge. The lime­stone bridge is thought to have been a for­mer land con­nec­tion be­tween the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent and is­land of Sri Lanka be­fore it was re­claimed by the sea.

It’s the epic voy­age of th­ese olden day trav­ellers, the ex­change of cul­tures and ideas that have in­spired the restau­rant’s in­ven­tive menu. “Nadodi is all about the jour­ney be­tween th­ese three re­gions. With ev­ery dish, guests em­bark on this jour­ney of shared his­tory, flavours and cul­tural res­o­nance of South In­dia,” ex­plains Ex­ec­u­tive Chef John­son Ebenezer.

The chefs ad­mit to be­ing nadodi them­selves. Both born and raised in Chen­nai, they even­tu­ally found them­selves wan­der­ing into the bustling city of Kuala Lumpur, de­ter­mined to cham­pion the food they grew up with. “Malaysia is one of the few coun­tries out­side of In­dia that truly un­der­stand South­ern In­dian flavours; which is why the cui­sine can truly blos­som here,” ob­serves Chef Ebenezer. Chef Sricha­ran nods in agree­ment: “Nadodi brings a sense of play­ful­ness and youth­ful fun to an oth­er­wise tra­di­tional cui­sine – some­thing that was miss­ing in the lo­cal culi­nary scene.”

The gas­tro­nomic odyssey be­gins with an in­tro­duc­tion to each re­gion, such as the afore­men­tioned Pol Puff that rep­re­sents Sri Lanka’s pen­chant for ro­bust spices such as cin­na­mon and lemon­grass. Pro­gress­ing fur­ther down the menu, the chefs ex­pertly blend the spirit of each re­gion’s cui­sine. “We show how dif­fer­ent th­ese re­gions are, yet how well they blend to­gether,” elab­o­rates Chef Sricha­ran. Ba Ba Black Sheep show­cases the fiery spirit of Tamil Nadu, where a beau­ti­fully cooked lamb is coated with the pep­pery black­stone flower. The ubiq­ui­tous pres­ence of ba­nanas in th­ese parts is ac­knowl­edged though Tales of Musa, where the stem, flower and fruit of the plant are re­assem­bled on a plate. Go­ing back to Chef Sricha­ran’s procla­ma­tion of de­stroy­ing the tra­di­tional dishes of South In­dia, you can’t help but to no­tice that the flavours re­main com­fort­ingly fa­mil­iar de­spite the de­light­fully bizarre pre­sen­ta­tions. The Dutch Colombo is one such ex­am­ple, re­sem­bling a tho­sai in minia­ture form and fash­ioned from moong dal crepe filled with light wata­lap­pam co­conut cus­tard.

“We want guests to have an ex­pe­ri­ence, a jour­ney be­cause that’s what fine din­ing is all about,” says Chef Ebenezer. How­ever, he does ad­mit that it was not easy to el­e­vate the cui­sine that’s been so deeply em­bed­ded into the psy­che as com­fort food. “We un­der­stand that and that’s why we’ve come up with a story told through th­ese cre­ative con­coc­tions,” he adds. Chef Sricha­ran is quite con­fi­dent, though: “With­out a doubt, South In­dian cui­sine trumps ev­ery other with its in­cred­i­ble flavours. The spice trail started in South In­dia and the cui­sine re­flects the mas­tery of th­ese spices through­out the cen­turies. Be­sides, if we don’t do it, who will?”

THE MOD­ERNIST Chef Chris­tian Re­comio, Sitka Stu­dio

Chef Chris­tian Re­comio is no stranger to the com­plex caveats of the culi­nary world. From es­tab­lish­ing Moon­fish Café in Aberdeen to hon­ing his skills in the pris­tine kitchens of Noma in Copen­hagen, he knows good food. So, how did a suc­cess­ful restau­ra­teur and chef find him­self cham­pi­oning lo­cally sourced in­gre­di­ents in this equa­to­rial sunspot?

While on hol­i­day in Kuala Lumpur, fate brought him to an un­der­ground sup­per club where he met his fu­ture busi­ness part­ner, Jenifer Kuah. The two re­alised they shared an un­der­stand­ing that good food sim­ply comes from pre­sent­ing each in­gre­di­ent at their best. Thus, Sitka Restau­rant was es­tab­lished as a mod­ern ca­sual eatery, while Sitka Stu­dio is the re­fined mod­ern con­tem­po­rary restau­rant serv­ing tast­ing menus and or­ganic wines twice a month.

Lo­cated in the chic en­clave of Plaza Batai in Da­mansara Heights, Sitka Stu­dio opened with the aim of chang­ing the way peo­ple think of lo­cal pro­duce by el­e­vat­ing fresh in­gre­di­ents into ex­cit­ing, mod­ern cui­sine. The menu is crafted around lo­cally and re­gion­ally sourced in­gre­di­ents and nearly ev­ery condi­ment is made from scratch in its own kitchen, from but­ter, miso and vine­gar to Ja­panese pickles, and flavoured hon­eys and oils. “We ini­tially wanted to fo­cus on 100 per cent Malaysian in­gre­di­ents, but with the lo­cal fas­ci­na­tion for im­ported in­gre­di­ents and the in­creas­ing num­ber of events ren­dered it near im­pos­si­ble. The menu is still fo­cused on us­ing fresh lo­cal pro­duce, but we in­clude fan­tas­tic in­gre­di­ents from around the re­gion.” ex­plains the Scot­tish chef.

A well-stocked pantry, fresh in­gre­di­ents and a broad reper­toire of recipes and tech­niques have al­lowed him to play around in the kitchen, lead­ing to some of the most amaz­ing mod­ern dishes served in Kuala Lumpur. “The food is thought­ful and, some­times, sim­ple with flavours that are fa­mil­iar and not so fa­mil­iar. If it works and tastes good, then it gen­er­ally gets a spot on the menu,” he clar­i­fies as he presents a tan­ta­lis­ing plate of aged duck glazed with a mix of sherry and nat­u­ral rambu­tan honey from Viet­nam. Aged for a month to two in the Stu­dio’s aging cab­i­net, the meat is sur­pris­ingly ten­der while pack­ing a flavour­ful punch. The bird’s in­tense meaty flavour is com­ple­mented with a garnish of pick­led mul­ber­ries, hi­bis­cus and baby kalian.

The in­gre­di­ents used in craft­ing this savoury dish are al­most wholly de­rived from sur­round­ing farms as Chef Re­comio works with hand-picked lo­cal pro­duc­ers, fish­er­men and small farms to en­cour­age and sup­port sus­tain­able food prac­tices. “It’s just about do­ing what’s right. Why on earth would I buy an English broc­coli when they are grown just up the road in Cameron High­lands?” Also sourced from the high­lands are toma­toes – the chef’s cur­rent favourite – that shine in a re­fined ‘pizza’ as­sem­bled with grade nine mar­bling Aus­tralian wagyu, parme­san gel, Thai basil and sea­weed oil. De­spite the abun­dance of meat on the plate, the dish is light and the toma­toes’ re­fresh­ing acidic notes truly shine as the star of the dish.

He’s not alone in his quest in mak­ing good food for peo­ple to have a good time, though. The tal­ented team at Sitka also in­cludes Chef Chen Kim Leun, who was a semi­fi­nal­ist in the pres­ti­gious San Pel­le­grino Young Chef 2017.

More­over, Sitka Stu­dio reg­u­larly welcomes guest chefs from all over South-East Asia, who take over the Stu­dio’s kitchens to cre­ate a be­spoke menu in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Chef Re­comio. Suc­cess­ful ex­ploits in the past in­clude team­ing up with Chef Rishi Naleen­dra of the Miche­lin­starred Cheek by Jowl restau­rant in Sin­ga­pore and, most re­cently, Chefs Ben Cross and Stephen Moore from Me­jekawi by KU DE TA.

While Chef Re­comio isn’t hold­ing back in his cre­ations at Sitka Stu­dio, he does think that Malaysia’s gas­tro­nomic scene has a long way to go. “I’m not sure if Malaysia is truly ready for fine din­ing. Look­ing at our neigh­bours, Sin­ga­pore or Bangkok, it’s clear that the much-ma­ligned lo­cal scene is a good decade be­hind,” he laments. “There needs to be a space for restau­rants like this – one that fo­cuses on lo­cal pro­duce, not lo­cal dishes – and there needs to be pol­icy changes in agri­cul­ture for that to hap­pen.” The sit­u­a­tion may seem bleak but with ex­cit­ing es­tab­lish­ments like Sitka Stu­dio in­ject­ing some much-needed en­thu­si­asm into the scene, there’s still hope for the fu­ture!

MADE IN MALAYSIA Chef Isadora Chai, An­tara Restau­rant

Although it may, at first glance, seem a par­tic­u­larly odd choice for Chef Isadora Chai, the open­ing of An­tara Restau­rant, her ex­quis­ite space in a cen­tury-old build­ing in Jalan Raja Chu­lan, Kuala Lumpur, is, at heart, an ex­ten­sion of her multi-award win­ning French fine-din­ing restau­rant in Petaling Jaya, Bistro à Ta­ble. The val­ues she’s al­ways main­tained at the lat­ter – in­clud­ing ob­ses­sive at­ten­tion to de­tail, pas­sion, and qual­ity of ser­vice and in­gre­di­ents – have tran­sited to the new space, but the idea be­hind An­tara is more than just the ex­e­cu­tion of it.

“When you think about it, there’s no real Malaysian fine-din­ing restau­rant here. There’re one or two that fo­cus on Malay fine-din­ing, but what I wanted was a real fine-din­ing Malaysian ex­pe­ri­ence, some­thing that truly re­flects Malaysia,” she ex­plains. An­tara, for Chai, is the dis­til­la­tion of all that is best about Malaysia’s mul­ti­cul­tural culi­nary her­itage, but taken to another, higher level. “Any­one – lo­cal or for­eign – can come here and taste a bit of the cul­tures that make up Malaysia. I wanted to make lo­cal food that’s el­e­vated with the best in­gre­di­ents, in a nice

and com­fort­able en­vi­ron­ment, with ex­cel­lent ser­vice and where you can match it with wines and cock­tails.”

It wasn’t easy get­ting here, of course. “The chal­lenge for me was mak­ing Malaysian food even bet­ter than it is al­ready, and the only way to do that was to use the best in­gre­di­ents,” she says. Lo­cal hawker food, al­ready one of the glo­ries Malaysian cui­sine, gets re­fined at An­tara: here you’ll find man­tao stuffed with foie gras, pai tee filled with foie gras and anago, popiah rolled with lob­ster, Sarawak laksa topped with lob­ster and hazel­nut roti jala with dulce de leche anglaise, while the sang har meen (fresh wa­ter prawn noo­dles) comes with mar­ron in­stead and the or­chien (oys­ter omelette) is fried with foie gras. Chai, how­ever, wants to do more than just add lux­u­ri­ous in­gre­di­ents to her hawker food. Her menu is pep­pered with lo­cal in­gre­di­ents and pro­duce that she be­lieves de­serve a wider au­di­ence and bet­ter ap­pre­ci­a­tion – hence, belachan and asam chicken wings, and salt-baked seabass with sam­bal durian tem­poyak, cincalok and ulam raja salad. She is par­tic­u­larly proud of the al­ter­na­tive she of­fers to the seabass: patin buah or river fruit cat­fish. “I have this fish­er­man who sup­plies us patin buah but he is not al­ways suc­cess­ful in catching them,” she says. “When he does, how­ever, I get all ex­cited as it’s a very de­li­cious fish, one that de­serves to be bet­ter known.”

As with the case for patin buah, Chai com­mits to the ex­tra mile of se­cur­ing the best of ev­ery in­gre­di­ent and pro­duce for her kitchen. “There are a lot of th­ese niche, cot­tage in­dus­tries – peo­ple who make things by hand, the tra­di­tional way – that sup­ply us with what we need,” she says. “For ex­am­ple, there this old man who makes soy sauce es­pe­cially for us that’s MSG free, while noo­dle for the sar hor fun comes from Ipoh; the tofu comes Ben­tong and the belachan is from Bin­tulu.” Even af­ter the in­gre­di­ents ar­rive, there’s still the labour that goes into mak­ing them per­fect for the plate and pal­ette. “For the Sarawak laksa, for ex­am­ple, the mas­ter stock calls for 30kg of chicken that’s fi­nally boiled down to 25 bowls of broth,” she says. “There are no short cuts when it comes to en­sur­ing the best flavours!”

En­thu­si­as­tic as she is, Chai be­lieves fine din­ing has still a way to go in Malaysia, es­pe­cially where An­tara is con­cerned. “There are still many peo­ple who mis­un­der­stand fine din­ing or aren’t keen on pay­ing that kind of prices. Here, it’s even harder – peo­ple won­der why they should pay such high prices for hawker food,” she says. “They don’t see what goes on be­hind that – all that ef­fort and work just to get ev­ery­thing right, from the sup­plier right to the kitchen staff.” There are, how­ever, oth­ers who trust in what she is do­ing, both in An­tara and Bistro à Ta­ble, and it is them who sus­tain and en­cour­age her. “It’s not easy,” she ad­mits. “But it’s some­thing I feel pas­sion­ate about – this is a niche that al­lows me to rep­re­sent Malaysia and show what we can be.”

ABOVE Chef Sricha­ran Venkatesh and Chef John­son Ebenezer feed off each other’s cre­ative en­er­gies to de­sign the menu at Nadodi.

01 Strange yet fa­mil­iar flavours found in the Dutch Colombo, Pol Puff and RedKari dishes.

02 BaBaBlack

Sheep fea­tures a beau­ti­fully cooked lamb paired with pep­pery black­stone flower from Tamil Nadu.

03 Go­ing ba­nanas with the Tale­sof Musa dish.

05 The open kitchen con­cept at Sitka Stu­dio lets you watch the chef work his magic.

04 Aged duck paired with pick­led mul­ber­ries, hi­bis­cus and baby kalian.

06 The aged duck is glazed with a mix of sherry and Viet­namese nat­u­ral rambu­tan honey.

07 Each dish is care­fully plated in a clean and mod­ern man­ner to high­light the in­gre­di­ents.

08 Chef Chris­tian Re­comio brings his knowl­edge of good food to Sitka Stu­dio.

09 A ‘pizza’ con­structed of grade 9 mar­bling Aus­tralian wagyu, parme­san gel, Thai basil and sea­weed oil.

10 Chef Isadora Chai’s An­tara fo­cuses on el­e­vat­ing the best of Malaysia’s mul­ti­cul­tural food ex­pe­ri­ence. 11 Salt-baked pat­in­buah with sam­bal­durian tem­poyak, cincalok and ulam raja salad.

12 Paitee with foie gras and anago.

13 An­tara’s or­chien is fried with foie gras.

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