Wednesday, March 05, 2008

In a Swirl of Spices: Cursory Dining in Kuala Lumpur

Food, especially the ones with strong, heady spices, can jolt the travel-weary senses. For some first-time visitors among a group of Filipinos who arrived near midnight in Kuala Lumpur, the food during a late dinner at the Lotus Restaurant proved to be a sharp introduction to Malaysia. That and the shining Petronas Towers, of course.
The rich and piquant flavors were an assault to the somnolent senses of some, but they were delightful overall. The dishes were laid out buffet-style in trays much like those in cafeterias. The colors were an indication—bright red, deep yellow, shimmering orange. The choices were so numerous and varied I was at a loss where to start and what to get. My knowledge of Malaysian food was meager. Thrust into Lotus Restaurant, I was giddy, wanting to taste them all.
Located on Binjai Street, Lotus Restaurant is just next to the Hotel Nikko Kuala Lumpur, where we were to stay, and a few blocks away from the Petronas Towers. Open for 24 hours, the restaurant is a convenient stop for anyone craving food and local flavor. At midnight, the restaurant, a down-to-earth affair, is abuzz with people, mostly young ones who might have come from nearby bars. There is an al-fresco strip where people watch television. Nearby are the tandoori and noodle stations. Inside, the restaurant is divided into the dining area and the buffet area. There is also an a la carte menu. The overhead menu indicates the variety on offer: Malay, Indian, Thai, Chinese and Western dishes.
They may well sum up Malaysian food, which is a confluence of influences of the different races that have come to this Southeast Asian nation, plus its own indigenous cooking and recent additions. The Chinese, always prevalent in Asia, is a significant influence. There are noodle dishes and recognizable Chinese dishes.
Another distinctive influence is the Indian. Malaysia has had contact with India for many centuries, but the presence of Indians here is mostly attributed to the British colonials who brought them to work plantations. Naan, puri, roti canai, thosai and idli are common breads of Indian origin. Curry is also readily available.

Beef, poultry, mutton, fish, seafood and vegetables are staples. Being a predominantly Muslim country, pork is rare except in Chinese restaurants. The meats and vegetables are cooked in curry, coconut milk or chili sauce, with an intoxicating array of spices. Lemon grass, screw pine (pandan) leaves, kaffir lime leaves, daun kemangi (a type of basil), daun kesum (polygonum or laksa leaf), nutmeg, turmeric and wild ginger buds (bunga kantan) go into the cooking of Malay dishes. Cumin and coriander are of Indian influence. From the Chinese, they have pepper, cardamom, star anise and fenugreek.

For food lovers going to Malaysia, the resort island of Penang is recommended. Here, Chinese and Malay intercultural marriages produced the Peranakan and an interesting cuisine. But Kuala Lumpur itself, being the county’s capital, is always a convenient start and offers ample dining options.

At Lotus, which appears to be more Indian, I started with biryani rice of Indian origin. It is a tasty mixture of spices, basmati rice, meat, vegetables and yogurt. I chose shrimps in sambal sauce to go with it. I also got hardboiled eggs swimming in coconut-milk sauce flavored with curry and turmeric. I had naan bread to be dipped in three spicy sauces. One was lentil, I presumed.

The buffet spread had section where one may assemble the popular Malaysian dish nasi lemak. It is rice cooked in coconut milk and accompanied by crisp anchovies, peanuts, cucumber slices, chili paste and a meat dish, usually beef rendang or chicken curry.
I could have dined in Lotus the whole time I was in Kuala Lumpur. The prices were reasonable and the array ample. But we were on the move, and we dined at different places around the city and beyond.

We tried a Chinese seafood restaurant, a tad upscale, in the new administrative capital Putrajaya. The Putaraya Seafood Restaurant sits by an artificial lake inside the Putraraya Botanical Garden with a view of the lake and the beautiful pink-domed Putra Mosque. The dishes were quite familiar: sweet and sour fish, mixed vegetables, tofu and chicken curry.

At the Nelayan Restaurant in Titiwangsa, near the Eye on Malaysia, we savored more Malay dishes. Nelayan is a sprawling restaurant with a pond in the middle. Apparently, the restaurant aims to host big occasions. The day we were there, there was a birthday party.
The Nelayan buffet spread reminded me of Lotus: ayam masak Bali, kari kambing, ikan pari asam pedas, sotong cili karing, among others. As expected, most were hot and spicy. I discovered nasi minyak and some native sweets.
Nasi minyak is also called Malaysian festive rice. It is long-grain rice cooked with evaporate milk, pandan, ghee, ginger, shallot, cardamom, clove and star anise. Truly delicious! On the other hand, the items on the dessert table resembled Filipino sweets, although subtler. Most are made from rice and coconut. I had lopes, bubur kacang huair, bubur pulut hitam and sri muka.
At a mall near the Batu Caves, we had Kentucky Fried Chicken, a concession to some Filipinos who by the time had had their fill of Malaysian cuisine. We also had Western food before attending the grand Chinese New Year celebration. Izzi is a trendy restaurant that serves surprisingly delicious pasta, pizza and selected Asian fares on Sultan Ismail Street in the posh Bukit Bintang area. Nearby is the Bintang Walk where there is a concentration chic cafes, bars, hotels and boutiques.
Izzi actually is an Indonesian-owned restaurant. It opened in 2002 in Jakarta and now has seven outlets in the Indonesian capital. The Kuala Lumpur branch opened in July 2006, its first outside Indonesia.
Izzi served spaghetti carbonara, which was one of the best I ever had; chicken wings basted in a special sauce; Vietnamese spring rolls; mee goreng, local sautéed noodles; and pizzas. For dessert, there was a pyramid of cream puffs, in plain and mocha-flavored fillings. The puffs were the best I ever had.

But the high point of our gustatory venture was dining at Restoran Rebung Chef Ismail, tucked in the quiet residential area of Bangsar Park. The restaurant has a homey feel. It may actually be a home converted into a restaurant. The alfresco dining and the buffet area looks like a former garage. At one end is a little stage, where weekend performances are mounted. The small restaurant is tastefully decorated, painted in deep colors.
But the most interesting thing about the restaurant is the owner himself, the celebrity chef Ismail Ahmad. He personally welcomed us when we dined there and gave us a crash course on Malay food by cursorily going through the offerings of the buffet spread. It was a very colorful and interesting spread. Aside from the curious dishes laid out on trays, there were a laksa station, where one could concoct his own laksa; a popiah station, where a staff member prepared freshly-rolled popiah; a gado-gado station; and an ais kacang station. The stations were made of bamboo and dried grass for the roofing.
The restaurant offers about 35 dishes, most said to be authentic Malay food. Chef Ismail said that authentic Malay is “poor man’s food,” that is, food prepared and eaten by farmers and fishers, made from produce and catches, using simple ingredients and spices.
Chef Ismail said that many of the dishes here are home-style, which he learned from his grandmother while growing up in the small village of Chengkau Hulu, Rembau in the state of Negeri Sembilan.

“Like all kampung boys, I played in the paddy fields, fished in the river, plucked fruits from our neighbours’ trees and scampered like all village imps would when chased by the owners of the plucked trees,” he wrote of his childhood in the restaurant’s Web site. “This is where it all began. Like the taste of the forbidden fruit, my passion in the fresh produce of the orchards and the paddy fields, and my efforts in trying out the herbs and spices growing in such abundance around me has led me to cook, cook and cook.”
He eventually left his hometown and studied to be chef. After stints in hotels and restaurant, he hosted several television cooking shows. He also traveled the world to promote Malaysian cooking. In October of 2004, he opened Restoran Rebung in partnership with Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor Al-Masri, a handsome orthopedic surgeon who became the country’s first and only astronaut.

Sheikh Muszaphar’s images adorn the restaurant. He is attired in astronaut suit in many of them, flashing a winsome smile. He could have been a movie star. More pictures and magazine covers bedeck the cigar room, where there is a fine selection of Cuban cigars. At the cashier, Chef Ismail’s cookbook is displayed. Aside from running the restaurant and catering to different functions, Chef Ismail holds Malay cooking classes in a building next door.

After the introduction, Chef Ismail left us to attend to a private dinner with friends in a small private room. And we explored the gastronomic wonderland, delving into different flavors that represent the paddies, the sea and the neighbor’s orchard of Malaysia.

“The food served in this restaurant is a tribute to the wonderfully varied tastes in food that I inherited from our forefathers,” Chef Ismail relates. “I vouch for the food and its traditional origins and the comforting taste of kampung fare from past memories.”

We found little kinship with the food, having different food traditions and flavors. But I was not looking for familiarity and commonality with our childhood only. I reveled in the newness of it all, something that made me a curious child again. On that plane, we met. Perhaps, one must be a child again to play on a new field drawn from others’ childhood.

On our last night in Kuala Lumpur, I revisited Lotus. I ordered laksa, the popular Malaysian and Singaporean noodle soup. The restaurant offers Assam laksa, a Nyonya variety with thick white rice noodles swimming in a broth heavily flavored with shrimp paste and tamarind. It was different from the laksas I had before, which were rich and spicy. In my soup, I found fish meat, basil and slices of cucumber and pineapple. It was a gustatory riot—sweet, spicy and sour—a confluence of Asian flavors in a bowl, much like most Malaysian food.

Contact Information
The Lotus Restaurant is on 2 Jalan Binjai, Kuala Lumpur with telephone number 03 2164-5181, fax number 03 2164-2181 and email
Restoran Rebung Chef Ismail is on No. 4-2 Lorong Maarof, Bangsar Park, Kuala Lumpur, with telephone number 03 2283-2119, email and Web site
Putaraya Seafood Restaurant is in Taman Botani Putrajaya, Presin 1, Putrajaya, Wilayah Persekutuan, with telephone number 03 8889-1188, fax number 03 8889-1189 and Web site
Nelayan Titiwangsa Restaurant is on Jalan Temerloh, Off Jalan Tun Razak, Kuala Lumpur, with telephone numbers 03 4022-8400, 4022-0748, 4022 0749 and 4022 0756; fax number 03 4021-3070 and Web site
Izzi is located at 44-2A, 44-3A and 44-4A, Jalan Sultan Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, with telephone numbers 1-300-88-5555 (delivery), 03-2141-5808 (reservation), 03 2141-4111 (head office); fax number 03 2145-4002; and email Log on to Web site