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Sunday October 17, 2010

Tracking down fine Malay food

Something extraordinary has happened to the normally humble cuisine.

THERE are many nuances to Malay food, shaped by diverse ethnic influences that were geographically and culturally driven. Indeed, it is such a wide-ranging subject that chef, writer and cooking instructor Rohani Jelani describes it as “impossible to talk about in one sitting.” Certainly, different states in Malaysia are all known for their unique or signature dishes – Terengganu and Kelantan for their nasi dagang; Seremban for its lemak-based dishes, Kedah for its northern-style assam laksa and so on.

Chef Ismail, founder and owner of Rebung Restaurant in Bangsar, KL, estimates that the Malay culinary traditions probably took shape around the 15th century, during the reign of Parameswara in Malacca.

“Our earliest record of a culinary tradition is from that era,” he says. “We can’t be certain what was happening prior to that, but that was the time when food became more presentable and people started to make use of plates and dining utensils.”

Celebrity Chef Ismail is a self-professed ‘heritage man’ who prefers all ingredients to be local.

The availability of local ingredients also made a huge difference: For example, Chef Ismail notes that things such as tamarind, assam jawa, and citrus are widely used because these are so easy to grow. “It’s a very organic way of life and what you see is what you cook.”

Native (asli) influences, too, played a huge part. For this, he cites ketupat as an example: “From the weave, it is quite obvious that the tradition is native because these leafy weaves are also used to make their head gear, skirts and so on.” Another example is lemang, which is cooked inside bamboo stems.

Apart from that, there’s also a need to keep food for a longer period of time. According to Chef Ismail, this is why rendang and fried fishes are dry and how the custom of making perkasam (salted meats) and pickled foods evolved.

However, having said all that, the key and most important characteristic in Malay cuisine is undoubtedly the use of spices. “This is Malay food,” Chef Ismail says. “It is made of roots (such as turmeric and galangal), seeds (such as coriander, star anise, and cumin), barks, shoots and stems.”

So, Malay food has remained for many years unchanged and has taken an unassuming status among Malaysians who regard the cuisine as something pretty ordinary.

It is, after all, something that one could get at the stall down the road.

But it seems that in recent times, a new option has cropped up. Several restaurants have opened their doors claiming to be a “Malay fine dining” venue.

What exactly is Malay fine dining and what are these restaurants offering? And is it really necessary to pay many times more for something that goes for much less at a roadside stall?

Sunday Metro surveys three restaurants to find out what the real deal is.

“The perception that we’re overcharging for an ordinary dish was something that we had to overcome when we first opened,” laughs Selena Mak, marketing manager of Bijan restaurant at Jalan Bukit Ceylon, KL.

Tempting morsels: The Nobat set menu at Ibunda comprises 18 dishes, weighing a total of 380g.

“But we’ve done it; people realise that using top quality ingredients in the preparation of our dishes really makes a difference,” she says.

Adding that the ambience is also nicer and more comfortable, Mak stresses that this has filled a niche in the market. “This is a place where corporate clients can host their associates and provide them with a taste of authentic Malay food.”

What then is fine Malay food and have any of the original recipes been tampered with? Mak says no, explaining that initially, they even hired Rohani Jelani as a consultant to ensure that everything is truly Malay. They also gleaned whatever recipes they could from their mothers and grandmothers to see if there was anything worth incorporating in the menu.

“Truth is, there’s a lot of potential for Malay food. In its original form, it is already very attractive to foreigners who really enjoy the cuisine,” she says. “There’s really no need to perform any type of ‘fusion’ for them!”

One speciality at Bijan is the traditional daging bungkus which, according to Mak, is foreign even to most Malays. It is a steamed banana leaf parcel comprising minced meat and six kinds of chopped herbs wrapped in a flour sheet.

“Some of our Malay patrons have this and are very pleasantly surprised by it because they’ve never seen it before.” She surmises that this is because many from the younger generation and across cultures have already lost touch with traditional cuisine.

Apart from the ambience, what else justifies the label “fine Malay”?

According to Bijan sous chef Zamri Jemintan, one of the key considerations at the restaurant is freshness and quality of ingredients. “The beef that is used for our rendang is chilled and air-flown from Australia,” he says.

Furthermore, he adds, they only buy seafood that are fished from the sea, not the farmed ones, (which Zamri estimates is about 50% cheaper).

Oxtail Soup served in bread skin at The 39 restaurant.

“We also try to provide a healthier meal by not using artificial food enhancers or preservatives,” he says. And as much as they can, everything is made in-house. “All our dips, sauces and curry pastes are made in our kitchen,” he beams.

“There’s definitely a difference in taste and anyone will attest that using fresh produce and high quality ingredients will affect the outcome of the dish.”

Ashar Daud, executive sous chef of The 39 Restaurant at PNB Darby Park, KL, fully agrees with Zamri. Hailing from Kelantan, Ashar says that all of his ingredients are purchased on a daily basis.

“We have a limited number of items on the menu,” reveals Ashar who has been with The 39 for three-and-a-half-years. In that time, he says, he has developed tremendous respect for Malay cuisine and chefs. “It’s my first time doing Malay cuisine. Before this, I spent 15 years in Western kitchens.”

The 38-year-old explains: “People may think differently but Malay cuisine is much harder to prepare than Western food.” He gives the example of sauteed vegetables which, according to him, are “very easy to make.” On the other hand, he finds the rendang complicated because “it is so strict in its ingredients!”

“You have to put all these various spices and ingredients together and make it work. It’s very detailed and not easy at all!” As for what Malay fine dining is, Ashar, a father-of three, says: “It’s about presentation and creativity. Ingredients, presentation, and ambience must be exceptional. That’s what we mean by fine dining. As regards the taste, it must still be authentic.”

Some of the dishes served at The 39 include Tuna Otak-Otak and Sup Ekor (Oxtail Soup) served in bread skin. Nevertheless, the bestseller is still the Ayam Golek Perchik, an east coast speciality according to Ashar, served with nasi ulam.

And while these two restaurants are a bit more conservative in their offerings, the new kid in town, Ibunda along Jalan Bukit Bintang, KL, is taking Malay cuisine to a completely different level. Here, some things that one could sample include cod fish, lamb puff and even foie gras!

However, its shareholder and chef Zabidi Ibrahim stresses that this is not fusion cuisine. “Fusion is, for example, mixing wasabi with curry and we don’t do that here,” he laughs, adding that they don’t use foreign spices or sauces and all of their marinades are derived from local ingredients.

He concedes, though, that it is necessary to introduce some premium ingredients to the menu because they want to set themselves apart from the rest. “We don’t want to copy and paste and serve food that are easily available,” Zabidi stresses, pointing out that it is unfair if they just prepared ordinary food in smaller, refined portions and charge exorbitantly for that.

It is for this reason that Ibunda doesn’t serve a single variety of curry. “We don’t want people to compare and ask us how come it’s more expensive,” he explains.

Nonetheless, Zabidi stresses that although they’ve introduced certain ingredients to the menu, the taste is still distinctly Malay. “We’ve had a lot of customers tell us that and it’s something we’re very pleased to hear.”

He explains: “Our aim is to impart a sense of nostalgia for your grandmother’s dishes and this can be achieved via the combination of spices and ingredients.” For example, lemongrass and ginger flower are spices that are immediately identifiable with traditional Malay cuisine.

Delicacy is another crucial component of the food served at Ibunda. Nobat, a set menu comprising 18 daintily prepared dishes that weigh a total of 380g, has, among other things, a trio of soups called “3 Sekawan”. The soups – crab meat, tomato and spinach – are placed in tiny individual cups on a platter.

And the daging salai here is served on a hot stone and smoked right before the patrons.

“Some people say fine dining is funny dining,” jokes Zabidi, who tells us that it is actually a tall task to put the right combination together. “When they’re not right, they become funny dining because there’s a funny taste.”

To him, Malay spices can be divided into two broad categories – land spices and ocean spices. The two cannot be mixed. For example, cinnamon belongs in the former group, and it’s a big no-no on fish because it will kill the taste of it altogether.

Zabidi, who grew up in Jitra, Kedah, says he learned these secrets from his grandmother. His grandfather was also well versed in such kitchen tricks; he was a kenduri cook.

It looks like Malay food restaurants are starting to play a bigger role in the city’s culinary landscape.

And though purists may express dismay at the incursion of foreign ingredients in Malay cuisine, these outfits may just be the sort that are able to introduce the cuisine on a global level.

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