Home Away from Home

26 January 2018

From Japanese and Indian cuisines to Spanish, French and more, Kuala Lumpur is a kaleidoscope of international fare. We speak to a few foreign chefs about bringing a taste of their respective homes to Malaysia. 

Kuala Lumpur’s restaurant scene is fiercely competitive thanks in part to a diverse range of cuisines and talents from all over the world. Despite being thousands of miles away from home, these chefs have managed to successfully build their respective nests in Malaysia. They may have begun with small twigs, but now run full-fledged operations, thereon elevating KL's status as a dining haven.

Marta Alonso Garcia, Marta’s Kitchen

Hailing from Salamanca in Spain, Marta Alonso Garcia’s foray into Kuala Lumpur’s dining scene was entirely inadvertent. When her husband transferred here for work in 2011 from Holland, she found herself bored at home when the kids were at school.

Capitalising on formal culinary lessons she took back in Europe, she decided to initiate cooking lessons at her home. Ladies would pop into her home to learn how to make Spanish favourites including paella. Soon, she was attending to client requests for corporate events.

“I was going to different places cooking this huge paella in front of the clients and people found that fantastic. So I started to grow,” Marta said. “Two years in Malaysia became four, and when we were going to leave, the owner [of Marta’s Kitchen’s current plot] asked me, ‘Why you don’t start a restaurant?’”

She resisted the idea at the beginning, but after much convincing from her husband, caved in. Two and a half years later, Marta’s Kitchen continually buzzes on the weekends with tables booked out and no less than 20 waiting staff weaving in and out of tables, balancing platters of Spanish omelette and ham croquettes.

Even if Spanish cuisine is sometimes still a novelty in the city, customers return time and time again to her restaurant for the homey quality of the food. “[My customers] try the real potato and real eggs with the caramelised onions and olive oil [the Spanish omelette], and they reconcile with the flavours. It’s very easy to like because [Spanish cuisine] is not spicy, we are not extreme in our flavours,” she said.

Address: Marta’s Kitchen, The Signature, 3 Jalan Sri Hartamas 22, Desa Sri Hartamas, 50480 Kuala Lumpur (03 6411 0832). Open daily, 11.30am-11.30pm. 

Hideaki Oritsuki, Sushi Oribe

The art of making high-quality sushi spans generations in Japan, and the man most qualified to practise its tradition of precision in KL is Hideaki Oritsuki (Ori) of Sushi Oribe. The 55-year-old Japanese from Nagoya is wonderfully deft when armed with his knife, a block of seasoned rice, and a slab of fish.

His journey to Malaysia began five years ago when he was transferred from Nagoya to spread the gospel of sushi, and thereon, he’s felt right at home. “I choose Malaysia, because Malaysian people are very kind. My regular customers are very kind,” he said.

However, he finds that many of his Malaysian customers are not yet exposed to the ways of consuming and appreciating high-level sushi. For instance, customers used to chain-style conveyer belt sushi would pick up their nigiri rolls with chopsticks and dip them liberally in soy sauce and wasabi.

In Ori’s eyes, high-level sushi should be made at optimum temperature where the fish and rice are moist and only lightly seasoned. And each roll should be eaten by hand as soon as it’s set on the table. “I teach a little bit, now my customers know,” he said.

But it’s not all tuna belly and tamago (Japanese omelette) for Ori. On his days off, he prefers to venture to KL’s alleys for a bit of laksa or bak kut teh. “Sometimes when I go back to Japan, I miss Malaysian food,” he said. “All very cheap. Very amazing. Very oishii.” 

Address: Sushi Oribe, Ground Floor, Block C-1, Vipod Residences, 6 Jalan Kia Peng, 50450 Kuala Lumpur (03 2181 4099). Open Mon-Sat, 12pm-3pm & 6pm-11pm.

Meeta Sheth, The Ganga Café

The story of how Meeta Sheth moved to Malaysia from Mumbai is plucked right out of a network Hindi TV series. In the ’80s, a Malaysian by the name of Prabodh had trouble looking for a match for himself, and his parents insisted he go to India in search for his perfect woman.

A family convoy followed him to Mumbai and he put out a newspaper ad to inform locals of his “search”. Meeta’s distant relative got hold of the ad and soon, Meeta found herself dressed in a sari and large earrings, serving tea to her prospective husband in her parents’ living room. Months later, they married and she migrated to Malaysia with her newfound husband.

Twenty-six years of marriage later, the power couple still giggle like teenagers when one of them makes a joke. And more importantly for the rest of us, they joined heads to operate The Ganga Café in Bangsar, an Indian vegetarian restaurant with hints of Gujarati influence.

“I wanted to introduce Gujarati cuisine to local Malaysians to give them new items which they don’t know about,” Meeta said. “I make things like khandvi and dhokla, and locally, they’ve not been exposed on a big scale.”

Her food also draws in the health-conscious as Meeta holds back on masala powders, colouring, oil, and heavy doses of dairy featured in many Indian restaurants. “We don’t overdo with our powders, we just put a stick of cinnamon here and there so that the food doesn’t give out more flavour than it should,” she said.

Address: The Ganga Café, 19 Lorong Kurau, Bangsar, 59100 Kuala Lumpur (03 2284 2119). Open Mon-Sat, 8am-10pm; Sun, 8am-3pm.

Florian Nigen, Rendez-Vous

In 2009, Florian Nigen was working as a chef in an Irish castle when he was lured by a Malay colleague to move to Malaysia – what he knew then as a land far, far away with plenty of sunshine. “When you come from Ireland, the weather is good here,” he laughed.

Originally hailing from Brittany, a quaint coastal region in the northwest of France, Florian and his business partner Arnaud Chappert set out to open a restaurant in Bangsar with the aim of introducing classic French bistro food to Malaysians.

“It was a bit challenging at first. In a lot of people’s minds, a French restaurant has to be expensive so it was hard to get people to come at first,” he said. “For French food, they would imagine small portions like fine dining. But I don’t actually do that. I do it the traditional way, so portions are big.”

Other times, Florian cops the occasional complaint of his food being too salty. Because of Brittany’s proximity to the coast, much of the cuisine relies on salted butters and naturally salty seafood. “[People in Brittany] tend to use too much salt, even for French standards. For me, I like it when it’s well seasoned but some people say ‘Oh it’s a bit too salty’,” he said.

However, a smidgen less of salt later, he finds that Malaysian diners are slowly getting used to the idea of classic French bistro food, something his and Arnaud’s quaint Bangsar corner can take full credit for.

Address: Rendez-Vous, 100 Lorong Maarof, Bangsar Park, 59000 Kuala Lumpur (03 2202 0206). Open Tue-Sun, 12pm-3pm & 6pm-12am. 

By Surekha Ragavan
Photos by Wong Yok Teng

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