Cooking up a pot of culture

Cooking up a pot of culture

Mama San opens this month in Kuala Lumpur, not only importing the successful Indonesian restaurant brand to the Malay capital, but also showcasing its inspired interpretations of the local melting pot of cuisines. 

After its Bali and Hong Kong successes, the Mama San restaurant brand is scheduled to open in early July in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital city. The creation of Chef Will Meyrick – culinary author, restaurateur and TV celebrity chef – and his long-established team, Mama San is highly regarded for its authentic home cooking and street-inspired Asian dishes gleaned from traditional recipes and culinary techniques across the region, especially Chinese, Indonesian, Indian, Malay, Thai and Vietnamese.

A new restaurant in Kuala Lumpur has, in fact, been on Meyrick’s radar for years. He originally planned a restaurant there after the establishment of Sarong Bali several years ago – so why the delay and why now?

“It has always been a dream of mine to set up a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur,” admits Meyrick. “The city is a melting pot of numerous cultures and diverse cuisines, making it the perfect home for Mama San. However, the timing never seemed right, not only for us, but also for Kuala Lumpur itself. Now, for various reasons, Kuala Lumpur seems ready for international-style restaurants like Mama San and others, including the world-famous Nobu and Hakkasan, to open here. ”

Kuala Lumpur is the home of exceptional street food, mirroring its vibrant multi-cultural hotpot of cuisines and culture, but even Meyrick admits it is sometimes difficult to track the good stuff down and restaurants are mainly on a local, uninspiring level. In the past couple of years, however, Kuala Lumpur has increasingly developed as a foodie magnet and a culinary destination. A “perfect storm” of contributing factors include Malays traveling abroad more and returning with discerning international-level tastes and the Malaysian government busily marketing the capital as Asia’s hot new culinary destination – Kuala Lumpur’s increasingly cosmopolitan and sophisticated dining scene is starting to reflect this.

“Kuala Lumpur now seems primed to cater to a new wave of international-style restaurants, showcasing Malaysian and Asian street food in a hip and sophisticated way – we’re hoping Mama San will lead the way.“ states Meyrick.

In readiness for any restaurant’s imminently opening, Meyrick heads out to that related country to undertake a “culinary reconnaissance;” not only finalising the restaurant’s logistics and so on, but also getting renewed inspiration for dishes to add to the developing new menus.

Despite his frantic schedule, with the looming launch of Mama San, Meyrick traveled to Kuala Lumpur and two other established tourist hubs, Penang Island and Malacca.  Although he has travelled extensively around the Southeast Asian region, Meyrick had only visited Malaysia a couple of times several years back.

First stop: along with several other celebrity chefs and gastronomic personalities, Meyrick participated in Kuala Lumpur’s inaugural Big Kitchen Festival 2015, a three-day food festival showcasing the diversity of cuisine available in Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia. Organized by Kuala Lumpur City Hall and the Ministry of Tourism and Culture for the first time, the Big Kitchen Festival is earmarked to be a major annual culinary event – all linked in with marketing Kuala Lumpur as a new gastronomic destination for Southeast Asia.

In true Meyrick style, our intrepid chef spent a few days in Penang and Malacca, two destinations rich in culinary heritage, where he was fortunate enough to get introductions to inspiring local cooks, chefs and Nonyas (sage ladies, experts in Peranakan, a blend of Chinese and Malay cuisine) who not only unearthed the best local street food, but also divulged their in-depth knowledge of traditional home-cooking, ingredients and techniques.

On the tourist island, Penang, Meyrick sampled local cuisine influenced by a hodge-podge of Mamack, (Malay-Indian), Chinese, Thai and Peranakan cuisine, while the quaint historic city of Malacca wowed Meyrick with its Portuguese, Dutch and Chinese-influenced offerings.
This brief but rewarding Malay culinary odyssey not only gave Meyrick plenty of renewed inspiration for the Mama San opening in the increasingly  dynamic Kuala Lumpur dining scene, but also a greater respect for Malaysia, the mind-blowing diversity of Malay cuisine with its amazing street food and also the Nonya’s home-cooking heritage, techniques and produce knowledge, especially their medicinal aspects. “Malaysia is truly Asian – shown no more clearly than in its diverse cuisine and street food,” declares Meyrick. Meyrick now rates Malaysian street food as some of the best, even rivaling the other exceptional offerings in the region, so enthusiastically showcased in the Mama San and Sarong restaurants.

Meyrick was also surprised by the sheer abundance of fresh, quality seasonal produce that is readily available for his kitchens and some of the region’s finest, as well as exotic Indian spices. Mama San will have its own in-house mill to make hand-crafted fresh spices – contributing to the vibrant flavours Mama San is renowned for.

Mama San’s location in Kuala Lumpur doesn’t get much better than this: at the front and street level of the Petronas Twin Towers – the world’s tallest twin structure – in the  KLCC ( Kuala Lumpur City Centre zone). It neighbours with offices, shopping malls, leisure attractions and other international-style F&B establishments.

As usual, Mama San Kuala Lumpur imports the brand template menus, with its standard favourites and classics, but paying homage to the locality, these will also be balanced out with additional new dishes reflecting the local surroundings, religions, customs and traditions. “Our new restaurants always present an element of what that particular city offers,” states Meyrick.

Thus, only halal food and no pork dishes will be served and around 30% of the menu will reflect local Malay flavours, some of these inspired by Meyrick’s recent travels: expect signature Malay-Indian and Mamack cuisine – reflecting the capital’s strong Indian community – especially southern Indian and Muslim Tamil, such as delicious banana leaf dishes and also Peranakan “Nonya” cuisine, which combines Chinese and Malay techniques and ingredients for tangy, aromatic, spicy and herbal home-cooking, with such representatives including fish-head curries and stir-fried clams.
Although Meyrick is a native Brit, having extensively worked and travelled in the Asia-Pacific, his loyalties and heart seem to be with Indonesia – his adopted home and where his flourishing culinary empire was born and has blossomed. In launching a new Mama San in Kuala Lumpur with origins in Bali and backed by a solid Indonesian kitchen team, Meyrick stresses he is helping to put Indonesian cuisine on the global map. “Others talk about putting Indonesian cuisine out there on the international stage, but few get to make this a reality; it’s great to be finally expanding the Indonesian brand in Asia,” enthuses Meyrick.