Pebble may only be a six-month-old brand, but it seems to be growing at such supersonic speed that even Vin Diesel would be impressed.
Still in its infancy (were it a baby, it would still only be crawling at this stage), the brand now has three outlets to its name – its first in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, a sophomore outlet in Xiamen University in Sepang and a newly-minted third incarnation in Bangsar’s Telawi stretch.
“We have three outlets, we are going to have five by the end of the year. Next year, we really want to control everything that we produce so we’re going to have a central kitchen to really fully control the taste and everything,” says Tan Kai Young, CEO of Woodpeckers Group Sdn Bhd and founder of Pebble.
Tan’s company is also behind popular Spanish frozen yoghurt drink LlaoLlao (pronounced ‘yaoyao’) as well as famed tapas restaurant The Tapas Club in Pavilion KL. Pebble marks Tan’s third F&B venture and his first homegrown one.
Interestingly, the formation of Pebble was inspired by LlaoLlao.
Tan is behind the formation of Pebble.
“We started off the first LlaoLlao outlet in January in TTDI, because we wanted to create something else to share the space. And the team and I – decided that a burger would really go well, because it’s hot, greasy, very rich in flavour, and after you have a burger, you can get a frozen yoghurt to cut off all the grease.
“And in terms of business, it works very well, because this will attract people during lunch and dinner because LlaoLlao is very quiet during these times because it’s a dessert place,” says Tan.
Tan is also an avid traveller who has lived and worked in Singapore and Australia for years and has a family business in Japan. Through all that globe-trotting, he discovered versions of burgers that imbibed the flavours of particular countries and regions.
“As a burger lover, I would like to try more and no one has done it yet. So what we’re trying to do is combine different flavours that would highlight a country’s cuisine. So all the flavours are from different cuisines and stand out very, very differently,” he says.
You could opt to start your international burger discovery tour with the aptly named mala burger (RM16.85) which is deeply influenced by China’s Szechuan province’s spicy peppercorns. Here crispy chicken thigh is paired with a spicy mala sauce in what proves to be an explosive flavour experience. While the sauce probably has a fraction of the toe-curling, combustible experience of the authentic mala (which literally means ‘tongue-numbing’), it still has a potent kick to it and is extremely easy to enjoy.
Up next, try a home-hewn creation that pays homage to a now famous oxymoron: crispy rendang. In this iteration, the crispy quotient of the meal comes in the form of the fried chicken which is slathered in a rendang gravy and topped with a fried egg and cucumbers (RM16.85). This is a burger that is difficult to nail simply because Malaysians are fussy to the point of being pedantic about what constitutes a good rendang.
“It’s difficult to get right, because some people say they want it spicier while others think it is just spicy enough. In our burger line-up, this one generates the most feedback,” admits Tan.
In this instance, the rendang itself is pretty good, but the entire concoction is a little befuddling because having eaten rendang with ketupat or rice before, it is difficult to reconfigure your brain to the realities of eating a rendang burger. Also the crispy chicken somehow doesn’t fit in well in this configuration, proving yet again that perhaps the words “crispy” and “rendang” just don’t belong together.
- The crispy chicken rendang burger isn’t quite there yet.
- The salmon sushi burger is akin to a poke bowl and is delicious through and through.
The salmon sushi burger (RM18.55) marks a return to form and is essentially the equivalent of a poke sandwich. Here, a seaweed wrap encases premium raw salmon and sriracha aioli in what proves to be a pleasurable odyssey of fat, voluptuous salmon propped against a backdrop of fluffy, sticky rice with a hint of fire from the sriracha aioli completing this all-star cast.
The falafel burger (RM19.60) is a vegetarian offering made up of a chickpea-stuffed falafel patty, ranch sauce and sauteed bell peppers. The falafel is corpulent, thick and redolent of spices. The dense nature of the falafel is cut through by the freshness of the bell peppers, in what proves to be a case of a supporting actor adding shine and lustre to the lead star.
The Korean burger is a tad too sweet.
The Korean burger alludes to the popularity of K-food and features crispy chicken thigh, a special Korean soy garlic sauce and purple slaw. The chicken is great – suitably crispy and juicy, but all the other components seem oddly sweet, with no other flavour element to counteract this saccharine quality.
Perhaps the best offering at Pebble is the signature burger (RM18.95) which makes use of Australian beef, crunchy onion rings, cheddar slices and Malaysian BBQ sauce. It’s a more traditional burger – closer to versions you are likely to have had elsewhere, but it’s also really good. The beef patty is oh-so-tender and juicy, the onion rings are breaded and fried to perfection and the barbecue sauce straddles the sweet-sour divide with aplomb.
The tater tots will prove insanely addictive.
If you’re after something else to accentuate your meal, definitely try the duck bacon and cheese tater tots (RM13.65). Slathered in smoked cheese sauce, these little potato balls offer crispy outer crusts and tender, malleable insides that will prove so addictive, you’ll have a hard time getting the message across to your wandering hands that “enough is enough”.
Ultimately, Tan says he wants to keep opening Pebble outlets in areas where there is a demand for local burgers, even though competition might be heated. “I feel that if you want to eat a burger, you go to a place where all the burgers are there, so it’s easier for you to choose,” he says.
36 Jalan Telawi 5
Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur
Open daily: 11am to 10pm
In April this year, an episode of MasterChef UK Season 14 caused tremors and shockwaves that travelled across the continent and could be felt all the way in Malaysia and its neighbouring brethren of Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei. It was probably the mightiest foodquake the region had ever experienced and its seismic aftermath was so powerful that it caused the denizens of these four South-East Asian countries to do something they had never done before: unite.
The resulting show of solidarity was a triumphant lesson in the power of food. In South-East Asia and Malaysia specifically, there may be many areas in which we are lagging behind but food is – and remains – a source of pride. So it was no great surprise that everyone in the region got behind Malaysian-born MasterChef UK Season 14 contestant Zaleha Kadir Olpin.
In case you missed the memo on the curious case of the crispy rendang, here’s what went down. Contestants on the 2018 season of MasterChef UK were tasked with cooking meals that were important to them. Zaleha walked up to the judges, gleaming with pride. She had worked hard to create the iconic Malaysian breakfast dish of nasi lemak alongside an equally iconic dish – chicken rendang.
But Zaleha’s smiles soon turned to near-tears when the judges weren’t quite as appreciative of her culinary efforts as she’d hoped. “The chicken skin isn’t crispy, it can’t be eaten,” said MasterChef judge Gregg Wallace of her chicken rendang. And with that, Zaleha was eliminated from MasterChef UK.
“I had sleepless nights thinking I was going to get brutally criticised because I had gotten eliminated making nasi lemak, one of our most iconic dishes. But I was wrong. To have four nations come together and support me was actually unexpected,” says Zaleha in a phone interview.
Zaleha was right about the criticism though. There was plenty of it; it just wasn’t directed at her. The “crispy” rendang comment ignited a hotbed of furious conversation on the online sphere, all unequivocally critical of Wallace and fellow judge John Torode who were derided for their lack of knowledge about a dish that is typically slow-cooked to elicit rich flavours and does not have a crispy skin component in its configuration.
Zaleha Olpin got on the show after going through many hoops and even though she is best remembered for the rendang episode, she says Rendangate has been a blessing in disguise for her. Photo: BBC Lifestyle
The support for Zaleha in Malaysia was both overwhelming and unanimous and quickly escalated from a national level show of patriotism to a regional affair when neighbours from Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei chimed in to lambast the judges behind the crispy skin debacle.
The backlash against the MasterChef UK judges was so vociferous that it even prompted political foes Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad – in a rare moment of concurrence – to agree on the same thing: there’s no such thing as crispy rendang.
Zaleha says her own defence of her dish was lost amidst the cuts and snips that the show had to administer to put together the episode.
“I did argue, I did stand up and say that’s how the rendang should be because it’s a braised dish, it’s not supposed to be crispy. I defended what I’d done and said all those things. But it was edited. So the way they’ve put the show together is as if I agreed with what the judges said, but I did not. I stood up and defended my rendang,” she says.
Zaleha said she joined the competition just to find out if her food was good or not. She ended up making a slew of dishes that impressed the judges, including this date tart. Photo: MasterChef UK Series 14
Open to criticism
And Zaleha certainly knows a lot about rendang – she grew up in Pahang surrounded by a family of good cooks and inherited her chicken rendang recipe from her mother. Growing up, Zaleha’s parents owned a Malay catering business, so her fondest memories were of her mother cooking up giant pots of food for weddings and other events.
After she got married, the trained accountant travelled all over the world (she has lived in Australia, South Korea, the Middle East and Japan) with her husband, which is when she began cooking Malaysian food in earnest, often ringing her mum up for recipes.
“When I moved to Perth 18 years ago, we didn’t have much Malaysian food there, it was very limited and being a Muslim, it was really hard to get halal food, so that’s when I started making dishes like nasi lemak and rendang,” she says.
Zaleha confesses that she has watched MasterChef in all its iterations for over a decade, but it was only after the family moved to Bristol in England that she began seriously contemplating joining the competition.
“I watched the show all the time. When I was in Australia, I watched it and in those early days of MasterChef UK, I watched it too. I did want to join the show, but I kept thinking, ‘I might not be good enough, I don’t know if I can do this.’ It took me almost 15 years before I decided, ‘I’m going to do this.’ I wanted the judges to try my food and tell me if it’s good or not, so that’s basically the reason I joined MasterChef,” she says.
After being put through the wringer to even get on the show – a phone interview, face-to-face interview, cooking audition and camera test – Zaleha made it and did herself proud with a slew of dishes that won the judges’ hearts like chicken satay (which got her onto the show) as well as murtabak, fish cakes and gulai Pahang. Then came the infamous chicken rendang episode.
Zaleha only started making Malaysian food like this ayam masak merah after she got married and lived overseas. Photo: Zaleha Olpin
“When MasterChef gave us the brief for the round, asking us to cook our family or childhood favourite, they gave us two weeks to come up with a recipe and send it to them so they could get us all the ingredients. So that’s why I cooked nasi lemak and rendang, because that’s the truth – it’s a favourite in our family. I make this rendang at least twice a week!” she says.
Given that besides Zaleha and the MasterChef judges, no one actually got to try the rendang, it’s hard to tell what it actually tasted like and if the judges’ comments had any merit or were borne out of ignorance. In any case, according to Zaleha, her cooking process went according to plan and the rendang turned out exactly the way she wanted it to.
“To be honest, it tasted like how it tastes at home. So when I got eliminated, I was fine because I cooked what I wanted to cook. I was disappointed because I didn’t get further in the competition, but I accepted the judges’ decision and I have moved on. MasterChef has been a very, very good platform for me to go further in my cooking passion and even though it was short, it was an amazing experience,” she says.
Moving forward, Zaleha is working on putting together a cookbook which will feature her family’s Pahang-influenced recipes. Photo: BBC Lifestyle
Life has certainly been interesting for Zaleha since her MasterChef episode aired. She is now hard at work on her cookbook, which will feature a collection of family recipes (slated for release by the middle of next year).
“All the recipes are from my family and a lot of them come from my home state of Pahang. You will find Pahang-style curry puffs, asam pedas Pahang, gulai Pahang and yes, there will be rendang,” she says, laughing.
In many ways, the rendang episode or Rendangate as it has come to be known, has actually worked to Zaleha’s benefit, as she has become far more known to global audiences, an irony that is not lost on her.
“Rendangate has definitely been a blessing for me, because if not for it, I would just be another forgotten contestant on MasterChef, so it’s a blessing in disguise, isn’t it?” she says.
MasterChef UK Season 14 premieres on Aug 30 at 10.20pm on BBC Lifestyle (Unifi Channel 512).