A feast for the senses at The Datai Langkawi

For The Datai Langkawi's Chef Series, chef Azli Ahmad prepared a main course which included udang asam jawa, a recipe gleaned from the first Prime Minister’s household as well as the rare ikan semilang and kambing masak buah ara. photos: The Datai Langkawi

There was a frisson of anticipation reverberating throughout laidback eatery The Gulai House in five-star luxury resort The Datai Langkawi. It was evident that nearly every single diner there had come to savour the food of one of Malaysia’s best heritage revivalists.

In the open kitchen, chef Azli Ahmad’s face was a rictus of concentration as he added the final touches to a menu that had been painstakingly prepared for a special two-night only five-course dinner, held on April 22 and 23 at The Datai.

Azli is the chef behind redoubtable Malay fine-dining haunt OpenHouse, and is renowned for trawling through Malaysia for traditional Malaysian recipes and ingredients that hark back to the halcyon days when indigenous local produce was scattered throughout many a meal.

Azli represents a growing breed of Malaysian chefs that both value local ingredients and are turning it into culinary gold. — Photos: The Datai LangkawiAzli represents a growing breed of Malaysian chefs that both value local ingredients and are turning it into culinary gold. — Photos: The Datai Langkawi

His commitment to going back to his roots and utilising forgotten, hard-to-source ingredients is exactly the spirit of culinary sangfroid that The Datai aims to embrace and celebrate with its iconic Chef Series.

The evolution of The Chef Series

Sequestered on the island of Langkawi amidst verdant rainforests and sandy beaches with views of the turquoise beauty of the Andaman Sea in the distance, The Datai is a paradisiacal slice of nirvana that exudes charm in spades.

It’s the sort of place where nature is treated like a holistic partner (slugs, frogs and other critters abound throughout the resort), where a dip in the tranquil stream nearby can make your spirit feel renewed, where service always comes with a smile and where every guest is made to feel very, very special.

Azli’s kerabu umbut kelapa features coconut pith, which is difficult to source as it requires an entire coconut tree to be felled.Azli’s kerabu umbut kelapa features coconut pith, which is difficult to source as it requires an entire coconut tree to be felled.

A place as magical as this naturally needs equally magical dining experiences. In this regard, The Datai’s general manager Arnaud Girodon has been instrumental in bringing together the hotel’s now celebrated Chef Series, which has hosted the likes of star-studded culinary mavens like father-and-son team Michel and Sebastian Bras, Michel Roux and other legendary Michelin-starred chefs from across the globe.

“My background is in food and beverage and I have always had the pleasure of working with chefs and I really love this. So this was kind of a natural thing to do,” said Girodon, whose connections with Michelin-starred chefs knows no bounds.

Girodon’s original interpretation of the Chef Series gave diners in Malaysia the opportunity to get up close and personal with a broad spectrum of international chefs and indulge in meals that were literally one-of-a-kind.

But then the Covid-19 pandemic hit and that naturally put a dampener on the continued evolution of the Chef Series in terms of sourcing and bringing in chefs from across the globe. But there was a silver lining to this in that The Datai started to really pay attention to what was available locally.

“When I arrived here eight years ago, the dining scene in KL was just developing but eight years later, it’s a different story! Now you’ve got some really amazing restaurants and I think the restaurant scene in KL has improved so dramatically that we could give Singapore a run for their money.

“And Malaysia has got more interesting restaurants and breadth. That is why we thought it was time to invite Malaysian chefs and international chefs working in Malaysia for the Chef Series,” said Girodon.

And Girodon is right on the money, because the Malaysian dining scene has developed into quite the creative ecosystem over the past three years or so, one that hasn’t gone unnoticed by international observers.

In the past, The Datai’s Chef Series has featured chefs like renowned Michelin-starred father-and-son duo Sebastian and Michel Bras.In the past, The Datai’s Chef Series has featured chefs like renowned Michelin-starred father-and-son duo Sebastian and Michel Bras.

In fact, at this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards 2022, one Malaysian restaurant – Dewakan – placed in the top 50. But perhaps more encouragingly, three other restaurants in Malaysia are now ranked 51 to 100, which augurs well for the future of the industry, and for a dining event like The Chef Series.

In keeping with this, the 2022 edition of The Chef Series – themed “Eclectic Malaysia” has harnessed the best that Malaysia has to offer – from chefs to ingredients.

Already, some incredible talents have put their best foot forward – from Johnson Wong of Penang’s famed Gen to Raymond Tham, the maverick behind Kuala Lumpur’s Beta and Skillet.

Celebrating what’s in Malaysia

There is a combination of modernity and tradition in this year’s installation of The Chef Series – but equally a celebration of all things Malaysian.

Azli for instance works with a wide network of local villagers, fishermen, farmers and Orang Asli communities across the country who help him source or forage for ingredients that have become anachronistic in modern times. At OpenHouse, he has also cultivated a partnership with the National Heritage Department, in an attempt to revive ancient Malay recipes that are in danger of being completely phased out.

For the curated dinner he prepared at The Datai, the Kedah-born Azli pulled out all the stops to impress, going out of his way to include ingredients from Kedah (since Langkawi is in Kedah) in a menu that spanned all sorts of delicious local offerings like kambing masak buah ara.

Buah ara is a wild fig that is incredibly hard to find, according to Azli as it grows along riverbanks.

“I grew up eating this dish with pickled buah salak (another traditional fruit) but I discovered that the original recipe for this dish requires buah ara. So I managed to find someone in Perlis who got me buah ara and it has such a different taste,” he said.

All the hard work paid off as the final dish combined tenderly yielding lamb against the lightly nuanced fruitiness of the figs, a contrast that elevated the overall meal.

Azli also managed to find ikan semilang, a rare wild catfish that unlike many other catfish in Malaysia, cannot be farmed.

“The fish is from the catfish family, but it has a different texture. It is a wild river fish and is very hard to find. I only know of one restaurant in Kuala Kedah that cooks this dish, but I haven’t been able to find it anywhere else. It is very, very rare now,” he said.

After finding a villager who could source the fish, Azli used it to make gulai kering semilang, a dish enhanced by daun kesum and daun kunyit (sourced from The Datai’s garden). The meal was moulded around the sublime qualities of the fish, which had a silky texture and was oh-so incredibly fresh.

The indomitable chef also spent almost a year trying to secure enough umbut kelapa (coconut pith) to serve diners a meal of kerabu umbut kelapa, eventually finding it in Pulau Tuba in Langkawi.

Umbut kelapa was once a kampung staple, but has since fallen out of favour with younger generations. Additionally, making a dish using umbut kelapa requires an entire coconut tree to be felled, which is why securing large volumes of it can be quite tricky.

Azli’s kerabu umbut kelapa celebrated the preciousness of the umbut, which had a soft unctuousness that interspersed incredibly well with the tropical undertone of the coconut, the citrus elements of the lime and the pungency of the shrimp paste in this mixture.

Having seen the level of talent and commitment that Malaysian chefs and international chefs based in Malaysia are capable of, Girodon is now paving the way for future editions of the Chef Series to include both local and international chefs.

For next year’s edition, he is already in talks with a number of high-profile chefs and there are whispers that celebrated Michelin-starred stalwarts like British chef Tom Aikens and French culinary queen Anne-Sophie Pic will be making their way to The Datai. But equally, local culinary wunderkinds will remain a recurring feature – Dewakan’s Darren Teoh for instance, is slated for next year too.

“The next Chef Series, I will continue to promote chefs in Malaysia, so I will have international chefs for sure but also local chefs because I think they deserve the same spot,” he says.

*The next Chef Series at The Datai Langkawi will feature Masashi Horiuchi of Entier, from Aug 18 to 19, 2022. For more information or to book, head to www.thedatai.com.

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