Written by David J Constable
Photos courtesy of Chef Darren Teoh
As chefs make a conscious effort to move away from the importing of luxury items, turning their attention towards the sourcing of more regional, “local” ingredients, it seems almost inescapable nowadays to find a restaurant that isn’t pushing, poking and promoting the local label. At a time when competitive chefs are striving for our attention, bombarding us with Instagram photos and popping up on our television screens, they continue to implement what they can for their fifteen minutes of fame. Others, however, in this time of overwhelming media deluge have chosen a different pathway; choosing instead to visit the exact source and revert to the student; open and accessible to new knowledge. More importantly, they appear to have given themselves over to education from those who know far more than they do.
In Malaysia, food has long had a convoluted appearance, influenced by the country’s multiethnic cluster of people whose pallets dance between the traditions and practices of the indigenous Sabah and Sarawak people to the Peranakan and Eurasian creole communities, as well as a significant number of foreign workers and expatriates. In fact, what one would perhaps call “modern Malay” cuisine, can be boiled down to a melange of traditions from its Malay, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian and ethnic Bornean citizens, ineffable and impossible to categorise. This has made Malaysian food challenging to define, which is precisely why Chef Darren Teoh of Dewakan in Kuala Lumpur seeks to put endemic produce – or ingredients which are either native or naturalised to the land – on the dining table.
The menu at Dewakan is a geographical journey through the biodiverse layers of the Malaysian habitats, a culinary run through of all that is good from the land, the sea, and the verdant jungles of Peninsular and East Malaysia. As a country split into two regions – separated by the South China Sea – it means an ultra-diverse ecosystem thrives, supported by both land and sea. Peninsular Malaysia shares a common history with Singapore, therefore, it is not uncommon to find the same version of dishes, such as chicken rice and laksa; however, because of its proximity and historical migrations with Indonesia, expect also to see the likes of rendang and sambal. Where Darren comes in, is somewhere more panoptic, bringing his experience from the kitchens of Les Amis in Singapore and his education in haute cuisine-style cooking and presentation, to incorporate a catalogue of ingredients from in and around his Malaysian home.
“The restaurant began with a simple idea,” Darren explains, “to use local ingredients. But then, just stopping with the ingredients revealed a missing piece of the vocabulary. We needed to apply local technique, as well, and, because I was trained in the European style, it occurred to me that I needed to step back and look at how I could use native produce to their full potential”. By visiting communities in all corners of the country, Darren and his team have re-energised many lost or forgotten ingredients, such as ulam raja microgreens, buah kampung, and chocolate made from foraged cocoa beans by the Temuan orang asli community, who are indigenous to western parts of Peninsular Malaysia.
“It’s no longer a novelty to source these types of ingredients, but necessary to support these communities and utilise local produce”, says Darren. “If using these new ingredients means re-training our palates, then so be it, a lot of cooking and being creative is about challenging yourself.” Challenging indeed, not merely in the procurement of such items – the research, field-trip visits and driving over an hour and a half to collect ingredients – but when diners have certain expectations and require convincing that these rare ingredients are worth paying for. “Sure, that can be difficult, but my team and I are there to educate and transfer that message of humanism”.
Darren continues, “The previous government suppressed the lives of many people, especially those Malaysians in the countryside and forests. They were robbed of their ancestral lands, forced to live in poverty. We can’t talk about sourcing these products from such places for a fancy restaurant, without talking about these people. Dewakan is a celebration of the people and everything that’s great about our land”.
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