SHAH ALAM, July 29 — Welcome to Dewakan… where local ingredients are celebrated in a fine dining landscape. Where else can the humble choy sum be reincarnated as a nori snack?
The obligatory green takes centre stage as the first bite with a budu (fermented fish sauce) laced dip dusted with seaweed powder. Delicious and addictive, it sets the stage for the rest of your meal in Dewakan.
Started about three years ago, Dewakan brings forth modern Malaysian cuisine, placing an emphasis on the bounty of our local land.
In the beginning, some pegged it as experimental fare. Others griped that it was too far off the beaten path (in Shah Alam) for a fine dining restaurant.
It survived. In fact, its reputation has grown by leaps and bounds. Not only in Malaysia but it is drawing the eyeballs of diners from afar. That’s why, one Saturday night, I’m dining at Dewakan with a table of Singaporeans who flew in specially flew for dinner. That’s the power of Chef Darren Teoh.
Teoh may have a reputation for impatience and a no nonsense approach but get him talking about local, indigenous ingredients and you can see his eyes sparkle with passion. He tells us, “It’s all about the ingredients.” Rightly so, since they inspire the best out of him and his team, to produce “food of the gods” in Dewakan.
It’s a lofty ambition to bring forth these amazing ingredients. Realistically, it’s no easy mission. Teoh adds, “We realise after three years of cooking that one of the biggest hurdles is re-introducing the ingredients that we use in the restaurant and some of the processes.”
There’s a bigger picture to Teoh’s ambition to showcase these local produce. “We think we’re the first and probably the only restaurant doing it this way. And that’s not a great thing as we want it duplicated. We want it trickled down to the market so that our farmers, producers and land gets appreciated a lot more.”
Each plate served in Dewakan looks simple. It’s not. Details and much thought goes into it. Layers of experimentation. Some ideas come to fruition. Others don’t.
There’s also the foraging of ingredients. It’s not a romantic walk in the park but achieved via a web of inter-linked relationships, like their Temuan chocolate from Chocolate Concierge.
It’s made from cacao pods collected from the Orang Asli in Raub and cold fermented for 16 days. Teoh has an arrangement with them. “We have a deal where all his experiments come to us first as we try to support him to push the boundary.”
Each dish also takes a lot of time. Some ingredients need more work than others before it can make its debut at Dewakan’s tables. Like the fermented pisang tanduk, where six months can turn it into a dark brown paste that tastes like prunes!
Another example is the kulim or jungle garlic — a formidable ingredient with its pungency; it is an uphill challenge to harness that flavour into their dishes.
Recently, Dewakan unveiled two new menus — the Kayangan and Nusantara. The latter is a smaller, sub-set with nine courses, as compared to Nusantara’s 17-courses. These menus also see about 60 to 70 per cent changes from before — a huge leap for Teoh.
He admits, “I don’t change my dishes just because I wake up today and say let’s do a Friday dish. It has a sense of meaning towards what we do to those dishes.”
With each menu change, Teoh is steadfast that it’s all about the ingredients. “That’s where Dewakan is different from others. We don’t rely on culture as it’s a lens.”
If you’re feeling sentimental about some of the old menu items, don’t be. Teoh is not.
Teoh explained that there are no plans to bring back his duck dish (roast duck breast, duck rillettes, beetroot and “blood” sauce) or his iconic gula Melaka dessert. “The anticipation of moving forward is greater than looking back.”
He likens the pursuit for new ingredients to chasing a rolling piece of cheese…. “you’re just running down the hill, knocking yourself down.”
Regular diners will notice that one item, their mango curry, remains a mainstay. Teoh explained that it holds a significant meaning to what he does in Dewakan.
“It tastes damn good and it’s a dish that I take with me, whenever I travel.” He also feels there’s a potential to evolve it hence, “It means a lot to me to show progress on where we were and what we become.”
Hence we move forward, hitting up one of the new creations — an Instagram-worthy item of prawns warmed in starfruit juice and topped with a delicate, beautiful green bouquet of local herbs.
We guarantee instant social media success with this one but most importantly, the dish is delicious! Mix it all together for the prawns to get the slight tartness from the fruit juice laced with fragrant kaffir lime leaf oil.
Teoh explains that the sliced crustaceans are cooked at a low temperature. On its underside, it is brushed with a paste concocted from coriander stems and skin from their own-made salted limes, which lends it a subtle, savoury taste.
In most restaurants, your dish is usually garnished with dill, rosemary, thyme or more Euro-centric herbs. At Dewakan, this starter is topped with an assortment of ulam of pucuk gajus, daun selom, ulam raja and tenggek burung.
Commonly found at a nasi campur spread, these herbs are selected carefully. “We have to reverse engineer how we think about it as those Euro-centric flavours don’t work in our country. The astringency from these work well with the brininess of the prawns,” explained Teoh.
Next, you have a piece of “sushi.” Actually it’s a base of banana hearts steamed with the oil extracted from kerdas (archidendron bubalinum) in a vacuum sealed bag.
Resembling dark brown pellets, the kerdas are farmed from pods. Just nibble on it, as it’s high on djenkolic acid and it has a taste similar to petai (stink beans).
The banana hearts, resembling an artichoke in texture, are also brushed with taucheo made by a small artisan soy sauce maker located in Kuala Lumpur. Building up the flavour and textures, it is topped with pucuk paku or fiddlehead ferns, kerdas chips, smoked daikon and pickled roses.
Pop it into your mouth (with your hands, like any sushi connoisseur) and a burst of flavour pops as you chew. It all comes together with a slight garlic taste, smokiness from the daikon and just a slight crunch from the ferns.
The roast eggplant with keluak paste is a knockout. Here, the fruit, often misunderstood as a vegetable, is oven roasted to a creamy mass.
The skin is peeled and the creamy flesh is brushed with the umami-laden paste from the nuts mixed with soy sauce. The keluak (pangium edule) goes through much work to extract its paste.
On top of the eggplant, tiny petai belalang are dotted to mimic the green stalk of the eggplant. “It look like an eggplant and we feel it’s worth it.”
Darren explains to us that these tiny green bits with a very faint petai (stink bean) aroma are extracted from flat, long pods. You will be surprised but these pods can be easily foraged from our highways or even residential areas.
Spoon the flavour-packed mushroom foam on the side over the eggplant and savour. A big surprise is how the foam is made… just from a broth extracted by boiling white button mushrooms with water, mixed with candlenut oil. Resembling macadamia nuts with their creamy hue, candlenuts or buah keras were previously used to make candles.
Who says we can’t have our vegetables as dessert? You can with Dewakan’s sweet leaf sorbet. The inspiration for this unusual sorbet came when Teoh started to think, what if they use a vegetable to carry the sweet flavour.
After he mused about it, one of his chefs actually took the initiative to create a sorbet from the sweet leaf. Better known as sayur manis (sauropus androgynous), it’s the vegetable we often see gracing our bowls of pan mee!
Accompanying this sorbet is the nam nam (cynometra caulifora), a fruit that grows on the trunk of a tree. Also known as buah katak puru, since its skin resembles that of a toad’s, the bitter fruit is usually eaten with salt and sambal like a pickle.
The same chef who came up with the sweet leaf sorbet managed to make the fruit work, by poaching it in a sweet syrup which made it taste like poached pear! The dessert is now served with nutmeg syrup and topped with a dehydrated piece of milk dusted with roselle powder.
This dessert also demonstrates how Dewakan’s chefs work. Teoh explained, “This is the dynamic relationship that we have in our kitchen, where everyone is switched on and everyone is geared on to making new things. It has resulted in a collective effort which is wired to produce creative things.”
Teoh is already working on numerous other ingredients. This includes maqaw, a mountain pepper that they discovered through the Langit Collective who supply their rice from Sarawak.
Also part of Dewakan’s growth has been the numerous four hand collaborations they have had in their restaurant. This includes the likes of Copenhagen’s Restaurant 108’s Kristian Baumann to the most recent session with Halaigh Whelan-McManus from Oslo’s Maaemo.
“We try to be oysters… taking in all the stuff, filtering it out and taking what we like,” explained Teoh. Sometimes, you also see Teoh visiting other people’s kitchen, like the January collaboration with Singapore’s Nouri and Ivan Brehm.
He applies what he sees from working in their kitchens. “I will take that same thought process and put it into our cooking. Sometimes it doesn’t work at all but the point is you do it, then you know.”
That constant change is much welcomed by Teoh as he feels it’s all part of growing for the restaurant. “Every time it’s like learning how to ride a bicycle again.”
Most importantly, at the end of the day, in his heart (and stomach), Darren is a true blue Malaysian. At Dewakan, he may be cooking side-by-side with Michelin-starred chefs and championing local ingredients.
But at home, he’ll be cooking up every Malaysian’s go-to meal… a mean bowl of Maggi instant noodles!
Lower Ground Floor
KDU University College
Jalan Kontraktor U1/14