Unleashing the plant-powered Tapir

Chef Hein and Makissa worked on the menu together.

For my maiden trip to Hungry Tapir, I dined alone as it was a mammoth task trying to convince people to come along. Many can be ignorant and misinformed about vegan cuisine and it’s not surprising, given how the market is flooded with unhealthy fake meats, which are poor tofu substitute choices, often cooked with excessive MSG and oil.

Hungry Tapir reaches out to a surprisingly large non-vegan market as well, offering tasty food in a gorgeous setting.

When dining in, you’ll notice the surprised looks on customers, many of whom I suspect are meat-eaters. Their sighs of satisfaction convince me that it’s possible to take that first step towards a plant-based diet.

With the demand for tasty and nutrient-dense vegan cuisine on the rise, Makissa Smeeton and her mother, Cynthia Rodrigo, formerly a fitness instructor, recognised a niche in the market and set out to cater to those who love their food, drinks and music along with an eye on health.

Located in an original pre-war building in the heart of Chinatown, Hungry Tapir presents vegan fare in a whole new different light.

“We chose this part of Kuala Lumpur as it was filled with untold historical stories. The row was reserved and intended for nurturing local independent restaurants, and this was reason enough for us to open our first venture on Petaling Street,” says Makissa, 29, a graphic designer-turned-marketing consultant and interior designer, and now restaurateur.

The restaurant setting is cozy and welcoming.The restaurant setting is cozy and welcoming.

She recalls the premises being initially dark and dingy, an eerie place.

“It was originally a brothel and later, a backpackers’ hostel. But we didn’t think twice as we loved the old beams and wooden structure. We took over and proceeded to do the impossible.”

It was during her time in London where she studied graphic design that nudged her towards embracing a plant-based diet. She made the shift from a pescatarian diet to becoming a full-fledged vegan in 2015. When she returned to Malaysia, Makissa and her family’s love of food gave birth to the idea of merging an exciting vegan restaurant with a fun-vibing bar.

“There were lots of similar vegetarian places in Bristol that inspired me. When we first broached the idea, everyone here said it couldn’t be done. But we’ve proven that being different can pay off,” she says.

Tapir was named as such as they wanted a brand in line with their monochrome interior. Splashes of colour in shades of pink, yellow and turquoise lift the mood while potted plants and exposed brick walls lent a raw edge to their sustainable theme, capitalising on second-hand furniture, rattan chairs and reclaimed wood. The family drew inspiration from their love of design, music and heritage preservation.

The gorgeous interior of LaGula spreads over two levels.The gorgeous interior of LaGula spreads over two levels.

Their dedication to using fresh, locally sourced ingredients extends beyond the food that they serve. Part of the restaurant’s décor is sourced from local artisans in the region, giving it an authentic, welcoming ambience.

One can sense Makissa’s determination when she talks about how they pushed through to launch during the Covid-19 pandemic in mid-2020. Together with her brother Tristan, 27, who has a background in music, and their mother, they faced immense challenges from recruiting team members to preparing vegan-centric dishes. But they took a leap of faith by inviting guests for the launch. Fortunately, their supportive friends and passionate network showed up.

“I worked with Chef Hein Ktet Shein to come up with the menu. We make all our own breads and pastries using olive oil and other vegetarian alternatives. For example, we use cashew for our cream cheese. Nobody in the kitchen is vegetarian, but everyone is brimming with ideas and chef is so creative in bringing these concepts to life,” says Makissa who comes from a rich lineage with Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, Sri Lankan and Indian heritage.

Hungry Tapir follows a sustainable theme.Hungry Tapir follows a sustainable theme.

“I have my family recipes and hope to incorporate more of what we love into the menu,” she adds.

In the 1980s, her grandparents used to own a Portuguese restaurant called El Rodrigo in Damansara Kim, Petaling Jaya. The Chilli and Soy Eggplant at Hungry Tapir was inspired by a Kristang dish known as Soy Limang Terung, a salty, tangy, sweet eggplant dish.

The family also takes pride in supporting their community and creating beautiful spaces that reflect Eurasian family values. This is reflected by fun parties such as Sunday Soul Train hosted at the restaurant for the community – a concept inspired by tea-dance weekends in the 1960s to ’70s accompanied by Motown music.

With a long-term purpose of sharing wholesome and sustainable food, the trio has expanded their vision to include their latest venture, LaGula by The Hungry Tapir, the first-ever Malaysian vegan brekkie bar, just a few doors away from the restaurant. A gorgeous two-levelled café with pink accents, the cafe is a spacious and airy space, and the sidewalk dining is pet-friendly as well.

The menu is much like any other all-day breakfast joints, serving cakes and pastries, except that it’s fully vegan.

“Our aim is to change perceptions and encourage people to consume fewer animal products,” says Makissa.

Judging by how some 80% of her diners are not vegan, the Hungry Tapir is definitely not heading for extinction any time soon.

Related stories:

Wholesome vegan menu

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