Kuala Lumpur Big Kitchen - picnic, food court, festival

  • Food News
  • Saturday, 13 Jun 2015

Nasi Lemuni, a Muslim Peranakan dish similar to Nasi Lemak, can be served with curry chicken.

The Kuala Lumpur Big Kitchen festival was created to put KL on the food map. Curator Norman Musa, the London-based Malaysian food ambassador of Ning restaurant and cooking school fame, and festival director Noraza Yusof wanted an interactive event where visitors don’t just come to eat, but take part in the cooking process.

The recently concluded three-day food festival was organised by the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) in partnership with the Tourism and Culture Ministry, and supported by various corporations, such as Malaysia Airlines, Gas Petronas, Electrolux, Sam’s Groceria, and Hotel Majestic.

For the festival, KL’s Dataran Merdeka was transformed into a fairground with big white tops and tents spread out along its entire length. Tables and chairs spilt out of the tents onto the grass lawn for people to enjoy their food and drinks out in the open.

It was almost one big picnic surrounded by the iconic buildings of the capital, giving the event a great sense of place. It was nice, except that it was too darn hot to be having a picnic in the park.

A traditional Malaysian kitchen where it all started, recreated here at the Warisan pavilion.
A traditional Malaysian kitchen where it all started, recreated here at the Warisan pavilion.

It rained on the first day – business was dampened but it being a Friday and a workday was a contributing factor too. To make it more attractive, the RM10 entrance fee was lowered to RM1. Thank goodness the original idea of using “kupang” tokens to buy food vaporised or that would have added another layer of inconvenience to the festival.

The tents housed eight food villages with more than 100 vendors. There was a stage for musical performances and air-conditioned tents for hands-on cooking classes and competitions, and cooking demos and talks.

Heritage cuisine

Arriving with an empty belly on Day 2, I trawled the stalls in search of something good to eat. First stop was the Negeri pavilion, for it is not often that one finds foods of the different states (negeri) housed under one roof. While it was well represented, each “state” offered just a handful of typical dishes. The rich diversity of the regional cuisines was largely missing.

Despite the lean pickings, I found something to get me excited: the rare Nasi Lemuni at the Penang stall operated by Jawi House Café. The café serves Peranakan Muslim or Jawi Peranakan cuisine and Nasi Lemuni was like its version of nasi lemak.

Nasi Lemuni, a Muslim Peranakan dish similar to Nasi Lemak, is served with curry chicken.
Nasi Lemuni, a Muslim Peranakan dish similar to Nasi Lemak, is served with curry chicken.

The rice was cooked with coconut milk and purple lemuni leaves, with the butterfly pea flower lending it specks of blue, and served with a mild and creamy curry chicken, hard boiled egg and fried ikan bilis. The rice had a rich, earthy and savoury taste that reminded me of buah keluak or black olives. It was interesting and I would have it again.

To wash it down I had a bottle of That Iced Coffee – from the Warung pavilion – a great, frozen local coffee mix made with Malaysian beans.

I don’t remember how much I paid for the meal as it wasn’t important; what was important was the chance to discover something new – which should be one of the reasons for the existence of food festivals.

Not just street food but restaurant fare such as dim sum – one of the few Chinese cuisine offerings at the festival – and Moghul cuisine lined the Warung “village”.

Curiously, Chinese cuisine, a significant part of the Malaysian gastronomic landscape, was not well represented.

Giant squid fritters on skewers make a tempting new street food offering.
Giant squid fritters on skewers make a tempting new street food offering.

Pisang goreng, karipap, keropok, nasi lemak, briyani, flat breads, fried sushi, and even churros were on offer.

It was like a food court, minus the atmospheric ambience of dining at a real food street, which can be found not far away in Chinatown and Jalan Alor.

I wouldn’t say that the best of Malaysian street food was here, although there was the famous Nasi Lemak Mak Wanjor – Norman’s fave.

Samplings was an air-conditioned tent for “branded” dining, with gigantic over-the-top floral chandeliers and menus from the city’s five-star hotels and restaurants, such as the Coliseum Cafe. Eh, mixed seafood platter on ice or Hainanese chicken chop, anyone?

I didn’t fancy sitting down to a big, heavy meal in the middle of the afternoon and gave the Dulang tent a miss, but it sounded interesting: “dulang” is a large bamboo tray from which Nasi Ambeng is traditionally served.

Typically, people eat with their hands and dine together from the dulang, which serves four to five diners. It makes for a great communal heritage dining experience, of which, in different circumstances, I would have loved to partake.

The Dulang kitchen was run by Datuk Chef Ismail Ahmad of Rebung restaurant, who also ran three of the stalls in the Negeri tent.

Then there was the Mayor’s Courtyard, which was supposed to give visitors bite-sized samplings of the city’s top-end restaurants, such as Nobu and Bistro

Table, at affordable prices.

Now that could have been a major draw for the festival, but for some reason, it did not materialise and the space was taken over by a hotel kitchen.

The Warisan tent offered welcome relief from the mostly typical menus of the other tents. The praise goes to the Department of National Heritage for creating awareness about the Malaysian dishes that are disappearing from our culinary scene.

Fish Baked in Clay (Ikan Tanah Liat), a forgotten dish, was showcased at the Warisan pavilion.
Fish Baked in Clay (Ikan Tanah Liat), a forgotten dish, was showcased at the Warisan pavilion.

Kebebe, a lost recipe for a pounded salad of fruits, shoots and spices.

I had a fascinating time learning about Fish Baked in Clay (Ikan Tanah Liat) from the northern Perak region; Kebebe, a coarsely-ground salad of indigenous fruits, shoots, and spices; a Herbal Rice Salad made with 44 herbs (Nasi Ulam 44); Rambai Leaf Pancake (Apam Daun Rambai), and even a Bee Larvae Porridge (Bubur Anak Lebah). The name turned out to be more alarming than the dish – it was not really bee’s eggs but something that looked like it, made with rice flour and coconut milk. But the sweet dish wasn’t the bee’s knees for me.

Some of the dishes were also available for tasting; I loved the Black Sambal (Sambal Hitam) from Pahang that is made from the tree carambola fruit (belimbing buluh) and slow-boiled until it turns black and dry. The sambal had a deep, smokey flavour and tart taste, and surely has great culinary potential.

The air-conditioned Manisan tent devoted to sweets, desserts, and snacks was rather crowded – an indication that we have a sweet tooth or perhaps everyone was talking shelter from the heat outside?

There were some promising treats in here from indie home bakers, like some really good kuih, and coconut ice cream served in its shell – truly a local original.

But the surprising find was an old-fashioned snack of yam bean (sengkuang) slices topped with a choice of savoury red bean paste (kuah sos merah) or rojak sauce, and crushed, roasted peanuts. That brought back a wave of nostalgia. This dish should be included in the Heritage Department’s list of “near extinct” food, but here it has been reengineered by the young entrepreneurs of Old Time Sengkuang, served from a retro-style mobile cart.

So here’s how obscure heritage foods can be rescued from being swallowed up by the sands of time: Nasi lemak or grilled beef ribs with sambal hitam, anyone?

NEXT: Creating a revolution and KL's mocktail

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