The rise of modern Malaysian cuisine: What is it and who is driving it?


One of the core tenets of modern Malaysian cuisine is the idea of embracing and working with local produce, whether that is caviar or even local spices, greens and vegetables. — AKAR DINING

Just 10 years ago, there was no such thing as modern Malaysian cuisine. There was Malaysian food – the delicious, everyday stuff we all grew up with – from nasi lemak to roti canai to laksa – but there was nothing cutting-edge or innovative that was otherwise happening with local food.

The status quo remained, and most Malaysian consumers – and perhaps more importantly – Malaysian chefs – hadn’t really considered the prospect of dramatically altering or reconfiguring local meals.

That all changed in 2015 with the advent of ground-breaking chef Darren Teoh’s intrepid restaurant Dewakan. That landmark restaurant seismically shifted what Malaysians imagined within the confines of local ingredients and local food and challenged the notion that local food couldn’t be elevated or refined to the strata of fine-dining.

In 2023, Dewakan became the first restaurant in Malaysia to be awarded two Michelin stars, which shows just how far Teoh was able to take modern Malaysian cuisine to an international scale.

Teoh is often considered the godfather of modern Malaysian cuisine because he introduced the idea of reinventing Malaysian ingredients with his restaurant  Dewakan nearly 10 years ago. — FILEPICTeoh is often considered the godfather of modern Malaysian cuisine because he introduced the idea of reinventing Malaysian ingredients with his restaurant Dewakan nearly 10 years ago. — FILEPIC

Thankfully, the seeds of change that Teoh planted years ago have already shown buds and blooms in the form of a rising number of young chefs inspired by what he started.

As a consequence, a growing legion of young chefs have themselves embarked on modern Malaysian restaurants of their own, creating a nascent ecosystem bursting with talent – all founded on the principle that Malaysian ingredients and traditional Malaysian dishes can form the platform for pedestal-worthy top-tier meals.

“I think Darren Teoh is the godfather of modern Malaysian cuisine – that is undisputed. And I guess he is probably the most forward-thinking, avant-garde chef, and he went through that hardship of convincing Malaysians to take a chance to pay for Malaysian food – and faced a lot of resistance.

YC (centre) opened modern Malaysian restaurant Terra Dining because he believed that there was room for growth and the opportunity to wade into unchartered waters. — TERRA DININGYC (centre) opened modern Malaysian restaurant Terra Dining because he believed that there was room for growth and the opportunity to wade into unchartered waters. — TERRA DINING

“A lot of Malaysians don’t understand or kind of find it difficult to relate, but having someone there as a vanguard, creates this huge safe space that other chefs can experiment and play around with while still being relatively conventional and approachable to diners, so I would say all modern Malaysian chefs have him to thank,” says Chong Yu Cheng, who recently opened modern Malaysian restaurant Terra Dining in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur.

What is modern Malaysian cuisine?

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what modern Malaysian food is, largely because it is a very new category of Malaysian food that didn’t even exist a decade ago. But in its simplest form, it is often considered more high-brow food crafted by enthusiastic chefs looking to challenge the norms, either by redefining classic Malaysian dishes or elevating local produce.

Many of these restaurants also fuse modern cooking techniques or infuse science in their creations, creating brand new configurations altogether.

Highlighting the ingredients and cooking styles of the indigenous Orang Asli in Malaysia is one of the key things that many progressive Malaysian restaurants try to highlight in their cuisine. — FILEPICHighlighting the ingredients and cooking styles of the indigenous Orang Asli in Malaysia is one of the key things that many progressive Malaysian restaurants try to highlight in their cuisine. — FILEPIC

“I think modern Malaysian food is about exploring ingredients that are indigenous or have fallen out of style or are being forgotten – like ulam or what the Orang Asli have been eating – that Malaysians in general don’t know about. So these sort of ingredients are slowly being brought back into mainstream dining.

“And the second part is updating Malaysian cuisine to modern cooking methods, because the cuisine has stopped evolving. People might say they were once using a pestle and mortar and now they are using a blender, but by and large, there are scientific approaches to cooking that haven’t been applied to Malaysian cooking which modern Malaysian cooking is doing now.

“So it is utilising food that has a cultural significance and improving processes or updating it to modern times,” says the eloquent Chong, who is better known as YC.

A growing number of restaurants

Over the years – and since Teoh first led the way – there has emerged a growing locavore movement and alongside it, increasing efforts to champion modern Malaysian cuisine.

Mui Kai Quan for instance is the group chef of Chocha Foodstore in Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur. When it first started a few years ago, the restaurant was already an avid supporter of local produce and featured these ingredients in multiple ways.

But as the years have progressed, Mui and his team have narrowed their focus even more to produce from Borneo, carving out a niche in the modern Malaysian space with a singular look at how east Malaysian ingredients like ambuyat, tuhau, bambangan and even salted fish can be advanced on the table.

Chocha Foodstore has decided to focus on ingredients from Borneo and actively features products like ambuyat, which is a starch extracted from sago palms, alongside tempoyak, cured snapper and sambal tuhau sinsilog. — CHOCHA FOODSTOREChocha Foodstore has decided to focus on ingredients from Borneo and actively features products like ambuyat, which is a starch extracted from sago palms, alongside tempoyak, cured snapper and sambal tuhau sinsilog. — CHOCHA FOODSTORE

“We are now focused on showcasing the diversity of Malaysia and food that has the potential to put Malaysia on the world map. So we are using ingredients from Borneo like ambuyat – which is a starch from sago palm. We also have tuhau, which is a wild ginger which we turn into a tuhau sambal. And we have ingredients like salted sinsilog, which is a fantastic salted river eel,” says Mui.

Low thinks modern Malaysian cuisine can become one of the great cuisines of the world if it is approached and treated correctly. — AKAR DININGLow thinks modern Malaysian cuisine can become one of the great cuisines of the world if it is approached and treated correctly. — AKAR DINING

For Aidan Low of modern Malaysian restaurant Akar Dining, the road to modern Malaysian cuisine happened inadvertently, as opposed to intentionally.

“When we first opened, we were not the locally driven restaurant that we are now. It was actually supposed to be a laidback eatery with a French-Italian twist. Then the Covid-19 pandemic happened and I had a lot of time to do research on what I really wanted to achieve.

“So the team and I decided to put our country and land first and foremost and that led the way and bled into the food and became the main objective. It’s really about discovering the flavours here – that gives us the push in the right direction,” explains Low.

At his restaurant, Low says they are not trying to rework traditional, much-loved flavours; instead he is attempting to highlight ingredients used in Malaysian cuisine in a different format and showcase them to their fullest. For example, on his current menu, he uses watermelon in multiple ways – in a tea, as part of a ceviche and as a vessel for a salad.

At Terra Dining, YC aims to elevate and reconfigure local ingredients using science and modern cooking techniques. Pictured here is a local duck breast with duck liver and duck jus. — TERRA DININGAt Terra Dining, YC aims to elevate and reconfigure local ingredients using science and modern cooking techniques. Pictured here is a local duck breast with duck liver and duck jus. — TERRA DINING

YC meanwhile was inspired to open Terra Dining because he strongly believed that there was plenty of room for growth and opportunity in the modern Malaysian restaurant scene.

“There are only a handful of modern Malaysian restaurants, so the space needs to be filled by younger chefs who are more forward-thinking to bring Malaysian cuisine to the global stage. We are known for cheap food, but we can also produce meals that are finessed and thoughtful, so there is still a huge space for that.

“It is funny that there are more modern Japanese restaurants in the Klang Valley than there are modern Malaysian restaurants. And given the biodiversity of the country and the bounty of ingredients for us to work with, there is a huge upward space for chefs to play with local ingredients and go into uncharted waters because for instance, we cannot refer to French cooking if we are using something like pekasam in our dishes. That makes it more fun, because there are no restrictions,” says YC.

At Terra Dining, YC uses a panoply of local ingredients from Penang oysters to caviar from Perak and bambangan from Borneo. He then infuses modern cooking techniques and science to bring familiar flavours and ingredients into slightly unfamiliar realms.

Response from diners

In the past, most Malaysian diners would have balked fairly instantly at forking out large sums of money for local fare like tilapia or watermelon, no matter how inventive or experimental the food. But with the passage of time, this stance has softened and there has emerged a newfound appreciation for the work and effort that goes into putting these refined meals together.

Malaysian diners have gradually become more receptive to paying more for high-brow modern Malaysian cuisine. — AKAR DININGMalaysian diners have gradually become more receptive to paying more for high-brow modern Malaysian cuisine. — AKAR DINING

“I definitely think diners now are more receptive for many reasons. The No 1 reason is there is only so much truffle or sea urchin or bluefin tuna people can eat before they get bored and I think with chefs promoting Malaysian produce a lot more and then sort of seeking very high-quality produce that wouldn’t lose out to something from France or Italy, I guess diners become more receptive to this.

“It is still an uphill battle because Malaysians undervalue what we have – we don’t take pride in our produce; we take pride in the final product. But when the final product is very intricate, diners will understand that a majority of what they are paying for is long hours of prep and R&D that culminates in a plate with six or seven elements. So as more of these restaurants come up, perceptions will change and diners will be more willing to pay for it,” says YC.

In tandem with the growth of modern Malaysian restaurants, there has been an increase in artisanal producers supplying high-quality local produce like these oysters from Penang. — TERRA DININGIn tandem with the growth of modern Malaysian restaurants, there has been an increase in artisanal producers supplying high-quality local produce like these oysters from Penang. — TERRA DINING

Part of the process of getting diners to understand and appreciate what modern Malaysian chefs are trying to do is the storytelling element of the dining experience. Because the cuisine is still budding and fairly latent, it is imperative that chefs weave a story about the foundational structure of each dish and what inspired them to do it, because without this point of reference, it simply becomes a meal without a tethering point.

“At the start, I focused purely on techniques and flavours, but now I think the storytelling component is as important as what you put on the plate, because it gives a better package. But finding the balance is key – it’s important to say enough but not too much, so I am learning more on that aspect of the restaurant.

“Also, we get a lot of tourists and foreign diners at the restaurant so we have to educate and train the team on how we can tell the story a little bit better, otherwise it can be too overwhelming. So we might tell diners that the east Malaysian ingredient kulim is a bit like truffles and garlic, so it’s easier for them to understand,” says Low.

Mui says that while storytelling is an important component of modern Malaysian cuisine, it is crucial that chefs take a step back and let diners just enjoy the food. — CHOCHA FOODSTOREMui says that while storytelling is an important component of modern Malaysian cuisine, it is crucial that chefs take a step back and let diners just enjoy the food. — CHOCHA FOODSTORE

Mui meanwhile says chefs have a fine line to straddle between enticing diners with appealing stories without simultaneously droning on about food to an audience that may not be interested. Discerning how much to say, when to say it and whether it is an important part of individual diners’ experience is key to ensuring patrons have a good modern Malaysian experience.

“I do think storytelling is very important but I also really, really think it is important the way we execute it. Maybe diners are here for a business dinner, or maybe they don’t want to know so much about the story, so we can also execute the story on social media or other platforms.

“So while I agree that we need to tell these stories, a restaurant should be flexible and see how people respond to it, because if you are force-feeding someone, it will go the opposite way and they might not enjoy the dinner,” says Mui.

The future

With Dewakan paving the way, the future of modern Malaysian cuisine and the talented young chefs looking to chart their own paths within this new realm, is nothing if not bright. So will more progressive Malaysian restaurants be dotting the horizon, especially given the potential prospect of earning a spot on the Michelin Guide? Oh yes, they will.

“That’s the main driving force I think for many restaurant owners and investors. Fine-dining is hardly profitable so it is never really about the money – it is the glamour of it. But regardless of the intention, the outcome is good because it creates more demand for Malaysian chefs who want to cook Malaysian food and gives them that space to grow, experiment and improve,” says YC.

Under the hands of masterful, passionate young chefs like Low, Malaysian ingredients can become refined and thoughtful, thus elevating both the ingredients and the cuisine. — AKAR DININGUnder the hands of masterful, passionate young chefs like Low, Malaysian ingredients can become refined and thoughtful, thus elevating both the ingredients and the cuisine. — AKAR DINING

Low meanwhile says that he believes more chefs will continue walking the modern Malaysian path purely out of passion because it is an opportunity to show that Malaysian food is more than just the hawker fare that is touted in mainstream tourist literature. If given its moment in the sun, it could really be one of the best top-tier cuisines in the world.

“I think modern Malaysian food has the potential to be one of the greats in the world, if we work on the right path and tick all the right boxes in treating ingredients right and telling the right story. In my lifetime, I hope to see Malaysia being one of the main destinations to travel for food – not just hawker food, but also modern Malaysian cuisine,” says Low.

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