The abundance of produce found in tropical Malaysia is staggering. Not only does the country have plenty of space for farming, but its geography and climate lend themselves to growing a wealth and variety of fruits, herbs and vegetables. The chilly climate of the Cameron Highlands, where tea has flourished since colonial times, makes it a perfect spot for temperate crops like strawberries, tomatoes and cabbages, while the optimal rainfall found in Sungai Pelek has led to its status as Malaysia’s “dragon fruit capital”.
Despite this abundance, foreign ingredients are often still favoured in the country’s higher-end restaurants and cafés. According to a 2017 USDA Global Agriculture Information Network report, Malaysia still imports about 70% of its food needs, including beef, lamb, dairy products, baking ingredients, pasta and temperate fruits and vegetables.
But of late, the tides are turning. Kuala Lumpur in particular has witnessed a growing number of chefs – inspired by a global movement towards sustainability – embrace produce from closer to home. Many of these chefs are returnees from stints abroad who questioned why Malaysia’s bountiful harvest of produce was being relegated to second best. The result? An emerging wave of restaurants now serve regional fare filled with ingredients sourced from the organic farms and urban gardens that are growing up in and around the city.
The Pioneer – Darren Teoh
The undoubted forerunner of this movement is chef Darren Teoh, previously a molecular gastronomy lecturer at Kolej Damansara Utama’s (KDU) School of Hospitality, Tourism and Culinary Arts. In 2010, Teoh, who has an impeccable pedigree staging at famous Michelin-starred restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen and Amador in Germany, wrote a book, Re-definition: Molecular Cuisine: Traditional Recipes Through a Modern Kaleidoscope. The premise was simple but groundbreaking: modern Malaysian cuisine that championed local ingredients using fine dining techniques.
However, Teoh’s approach only hit the mainstream when he opened the restaurant Dewakan in 2015. A portmanteau of two Malay words meaning “food of the gods ”, Dewakan was an oddity. In the far reaches of Klang Valley on the KDU campus, his ingredient-led menu also focused almost exclusively on local produce.
Teoh’s bold yet refined use of humble and obscure ingredients sourced from local suppliers created a real buzz among the city’s gourmands more used to supping on Western-centric haute cuisine.
The quick-witted Teoh shrugs off any association with “farm to table”, arguing that he’s just looking to eliminate the homogeneity of produce by working directly with suppliers. As evidence of this ambition, the restaurant now sources products from specialised farms like A Little Farm on the Hill in Bentong, Pahang, which supplies organic vegetables; jungle foragers like the orang asli (indigenous people of Malaysia) in Pahang who harvest cocoa; and local fishermen from Pulau Ketam. “My motivation has always been to collate and create a compendium of local ingredients and to bring these back from obscurity into the mainstream,” says the 37-year-old chef.
Whether Teoh’s ethos is considered trendy or traditional, sustainability clearly goes hand in hand with his approach. He forges close relationships with those suppliers he feels are offering the best produce. As an example, Teoh waxes lyrical about one supplier, Boden Farm, located about two hours from the capital. The goats here live in elevated enclosures, which means cleaner, waste-free pens. This makes for happier goats, which Teo says results in tastier, better quality meat. Diners can decide for themselves by ordering the dish of Milk-Fed Goat From Boden Farm With Petai-So, which features on the current Kayangan tasting menu. The goat is slow roasted over charcoal on a bed of Chinese chives before being minced and sautéed with the chives to create a wonderfully smoky, complex dish.
The Selangor native is also hopeful about a trickle-down effect. “Like in fashion where haute couture diffuses into the mass market, other restaurants [will] think, ‘If Dewakan is using it, maybe we’ll give it a go.’”
The Sentimental Gardener – Jeff Ramsey
With his Japanese-Korean-Irish-American heritage and stellar background (he has worked with Catalonian chef José Andrés, protégé of Ferrán Adriá of El Bulli ), chef Jeff Ramsey is best known for pushing boundaries and blending cultures in his dishes. The witty and upbeat 42-y ear-old – who was part of the Tapas Molecular Bar team in Tokyo when it was awarded a Michelin star – is the c o-owner of Babe Gastro, which opened in KL in 2015.
Yet, despite his molecular roots, “farm to table” is a central part of the culinary ethos at Babe, reflected in the exacting seasonal menu. At the time of writing, the menu was celebrating the end of summer with dishes like breaded hirame with tzatziki, which features summer flounder with cucumber caviar, kabocha (Japanese
squash) and ceviche of hamachi (Japanese amberjack).
This type of food demands the freshest and finest quality ingredients,
which Ramsey sources from local organic farmers like Food Forest Farm in the Cameron Highlands and, like chef Teoh, A Little Farm on the Hill.
But the passionate chef takes the locally sourced concept a stage further through a small but well-kept organic rooftop garden, on the open top floor of the building where the restaurant is located. The garden allows the kitchen team to experiment with seeds that won’t
be found in commercial farms, such as heirloom okra and shishito peppers.
“To be honest, our garden is not large enough to fully support a busy restaurant,” admits Ramsey, “But even though it doesn’t have a huge impact on the menu, it has a big impact on the team.”
This impact comes from his crew spending two to three months caring for the plants before they’re ready to harvest. At Babe Gastro, that doesn’t just mean providing enough light or water but goes as far as playing the seedlings classical music to encourage them to thrive.
“You have mixed feelings on harvest day because you’ve planned out exactly how you will prepare – insert absurd pet name – to make him so tasty that you are fully honouring his life.”
Ramsey believes that by understanding the effort required to grow the simplest ingredients, like coriander, you can gain a very different respect towards food in general.
“You realise how much work goes into making the food you eat every day,” says the affable chef. “You get an amazing level of respect for the farmers and their sacrifice. I wish everyone on the planet could experience this.”
The Green Crusader – Sce Hwai Phang
Garden to Table
For horticulturist, food stylist and cookbook writer Sce Hwai Phang (CY to friends and clients), the idea for Garden to Table germinated with the community in mind. This cosy café is located in Phang’s rented suburban home whose garden blossoms with over 200 herbs, vegetables and fruits. Phang started slowly, only opening one day a week back in 2015, but since May this year, she opens her doors every Friday and Saturday. Phang reckons that 95% of the elements in the food she cooks and serves in the café come from the garden.
“I wanted to show people it is possible to create a sustainable cycle in your own home – that you can grow your own produce, eat well from what you grow and have a compost in the garden where food waste returns to,” she explains.
The earnest 45-year-old looks to demonstrate this through hosting regular classes and workshops where attendees can learn about skills like home composting and how to make sustainable tempeh (fermented soybeans) from scratch. Money raised from these educational events and from the café days are ploughed back into the upkeep of the garden.
At Garden to Table, Phang prepares what she calls comfort food: familiar local dishes like nasi kerabu (herbed rice), Chinese dumplings and ang ku kueh (a Chinese pastry made with glutinous
rice flour wrapped around a sweet filling) that are all the more delicious because Phang can tell you exactly what went into every one of them.
The Honest Chef – Marcus Low
Table & Apron
Having grown up in a family of cooks, it was perhaps inevitable that trained engineer-turned-chef Marcus Low would have a restaurant of his own. The self-taught chef, who worked in Toronto and London restaurants before moving home, opened Table & Apron to celebrate everyday hospitality in an unassuming neighbourhood restaurant. Low’s goal was to cook food honestly, thoughtfully and simply.
Low sees the restaurant as a catalyst in the behaviour of consumers and is a vocal supporter of the symbiotic relationship that occurs between restaurants and suppliers. As he argues, if restaurants buy quality and sustainable local produce, this results in better food for guests; in turn, those guests will seek better produce for themselves, creating a greater demand for quality purveyors.
“We try to cook underrated ingredients sourced from suppliers with as much passion for their ingredients as we have in our cooking,” explains the cheerful Low. “That’s always been our philosophy, farm-to-table is merely a result of that.”
The restaurant’s suppliers include Sanbanto, a small-scale pork producer in Johor, to a guy who tours kampungs (villages) in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, to source jungle herbs from foraging villagers.
Today, Table & Apron has flourished beyond Low’s expectations, with regulars returning for dishes that offer familiar flavour profiles but with unexpected twists like their herbed rice ulam (Malay salad) with crab. The restaurant’s take on a rice-salad was inspired by the classic Kelantanese dish nasi kerabu (raw herb rice) and lei cha, a Hakka meal where rice, peanuts and chopped vegetables are doused in a tea broth. Topped with crab meat, the chiffonade of herbs and garlic rice are finished with a drizzle of kicap manis (sweet soy sauce).
“Our cookery is merely celebrating the everyday around us, with a refreshed perspective that is still true to our guests’ palate memories,” says Low.
The Inventor – Christian Recomio
Sitka Studio actually evolved from a “test kitchen” that Scottish-born chef Christian Recomio and Malaysian restaurateur Jenifer Kuah ran every Friday night from their existing restaurant, Sitka Eatinghouse & Wine Bar, which opened in 2014.
However, the duo wanted to create a separate destination for more experimental dishes, so when the space above the original restaurant became available, they created an eatery to complement the dishes. With a menu that champions local produce and meticulous techniques minus the starched tablecloths, the interiors of Sitka Studio are dark, moody and feature an open kitchen with minimalist Scandinavian aesthetics.
Open every Friday night since March 2018, Sitka Studio serves up a five-course tasting menu of contemporary European cuisine with Asian inflections. That menu changes periodically, allowing Recomio to experiment with local produce.
“There is an expectation that any thing local should be cheap and has no business being on the plate in a high-end restaurant,” says 46-year-old Kuah. “To them, local does not equate best.”
The 41-year-old Recomio is on a mission to change that perspective by focusing on simple techniques and an ingredient-led menu. His current obsession is fresh homemade cheese, which he learnt to make from Milky Whey Cheese, run by the Indonesia-born Annisa Iwan, who makes artisan cheese from local cows’ milk. The fruits of this obsession can already be seen on the current tasting menu in the form of a dish comprising salt roasted carrots, house ricotta, black bean and buckwheat.
Another chef to have worked at Noma, Recomio hails from Scotland and originally came to Malaysia to visit his sisters. He ended up staying and joined forces with Kuah to establish the original Sitka. He remains the owner of Moonfish, a Michelin- starred restaurant in northeast Scotland that focuses on simple fish dishes and the best seasonal produce on offer. Seasonality is a tenet that Recomio hopes to continue at Sitka Studio.
“Malaysia and the Southeast Asia region are blessed with amazing seafood and local vegetables grown in and around KL and the Cameron Highlands,” says Recomio, “This is what we focus on in our r estaurant.”
Bars with a local twist
Where to go if you fancy some local flavour in your tipple
Botak Liquor – With a “farm-to-glass” concept, expect botanical infusions made from local flowers, herbs and fruit.
Jungle Bird – The cocktail Closed on Mondays sees tequila mixed with local salted egg, curry leaves and chilli syrup and coconut cream.
Coley – Find local flavours on the ‘Koktel’ menu, inspired by Malay drinks like coconut water and the tropical fruit, kedondong (ambarella).
SEE ALSO: Review: Alila Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur
This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine