Can you guess how old Chef Asri might be?” asked Rakesh Sethi, the general manager of The Raintree Hotel St Mary’s Road, as we settled down for a tasting of the first ever Malaysian food festival at their all day dining restaurant, Colony.
Asri has just arrived from Bangladesh to kick-start the festival. In between hopping into the kitchen to supervising the making of a soto ayam and chicken rendang, as the typical coconut-based Malay soups and curries are known, he has the energy of a teenager. Sethi whispers that he is 48. Nor do we have the time to ask whether it’s true that young Malay girls are not allowed to sing in the kitchen because there’s a superstition that if they do, they will marry old men. It’s however the marriage of wealthy old men, both Chinese and Indian, with the local Malay women that has created the savoury medley of tastes and textures that go into Malaysian cuisine today.
“You must try the potato and chicken cakes that we call bergedil,” urges Asri. They are served as starters. “The flavouring is already mixed into the potato cakes,” he tells us, as we look around for a dipping sauce. It’s difficult not to relate everything we are served to an Indian or Chinese dish. This is a mistake. For each of the dishes have their own character.For the second round we are served soto ayam, a bowl of chicken broth in which you can find shards of boiled chicken, shreds of coriander leaves, peanuts, glass noodles and most intriguing of all, tiny pillows of rice cakes, cut into cubes. “You cook the rice grains in a bag with holes in it. Then you flatten the cooked rice into a thick sheet that you can cut into cubes before putting it in the soup,” he explains. It is comfort food, Malay-style.
Best of the rest
Many of the dishes are served in a mix and match style. During the festival look out for curry laksa (a coconut curry soup with noodles) and asam laksa (a sour fish soup with noodles). Else, a spicy stew called rendang ayam or chicken with galangal and ginger. The dessert of sago pearls, pengat pisang, served with slices of banana in coconut milk, takes me back to my childhood. We called the shiny brown sago dessert of jaggery syrup and coconut milk ‘frog’s eggs’. Served chilled with cubes of ice you can hear the frogs sing!
From today. Rs 1,450 plus taxes per head.
— Geeta Doctor