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