Mixing classical Indian dance with traditional Malaysian cuisine prepared with a modern twist, the upcoming culinary and artistic collaboration between dance legend Datuk Ramli Ibrahim and chef Adu Amran is so much more than the sum of its parts. In a special one-night-only dinner and performances in conjunction with Sutra Dance Theatre’s multicultural celebration Rentak Bumi, Adu will present a special plant-based menu titled “Anugerah Bumi” on Dec 3.
“One can expect cooking that is meticulously prepared without cutting corners, still rooted in tradition but with a modern twist,” says the renowned judge of MasterChef Malaysia and talent behind popular Bangsar restaurant Adu Sugar. “It is just for one night and I will be closing my restaurant that evening, dedicating my team and myself to the occasion.”
To those lucky enough to have secured a seat for Dec 3, performances by three renowned companies — Di Dance and Dua Space, in addition to Sutra Dance Theatre — will be served alongside Adu’s plant-based menu. “Even at Adu Sugar, my menu has always consisted of 30% to 40% vegetarian and vegan options for as long as I have been cooking, which is some 30 years already,” he says. “I am working towards making it 50% plant-based now. I have practised plant-based eating twice a week for the past 25 years.”
On the unusual collaboration between a cultural icon and a celebrity chef, Adu shares that it was the former who actually sent him down the culinary path. “Ramli was the catalyst. He has been my idol since forever and [we became friends] after I braved myself to invite him over for one of my dinner parties. He loved my food and then suggested I become a chef. I have been to most of Sutra’s performances since then and have always wanted to be part of it somehow. So, I am very excited.”
Many might not know that the chef had once nurtured dreams of dancing on stage himself. “It was my original ambition,” he laughs, “Yes, I wanted to dance and be in the limelight too,” adding that he actually started his career as a dancer with Petroliam Nasional Bhd. “But when I was in between jobs and not knowing where my path was headed, cooking was just a means to save money. Now it’s a dream job that comes true every day.”
Musing on his long career in food spanning various destinations, from his first, Champor-Champor in Langkawi in 1994, before taking it to London in 2000, Adu says, “Without realising it, Malaysian food is in itself multicultural, a fusion of many cultures. Cooking is a passion that moves me … and pays my wages. Of course, there have been ups and downs. But I have realised people in the UK are much more adventurous than my guests here in Malaysia.”
Adu Sugar, his present restaurant, opened in 2019, in Lucky Garden, Bangsar. On the unusual addition of the word “sugar”, he explains how it was his father’s nickname. “He got the name after an accident involving boiling hot sugar that left a scar on his chest. So, naming the restaurant is, in a way, my dedication to him, as usually I would highlight my mother whenever I am interviewed about food and cooking. My father can’t even prepare instant noodles, but is the fussiest eater. Not in terms of fancy ingredients, but for his specification of taste. You know, being Malaysian, he doesn’t even eat belacan!”
A Johor boy, Adu describes his growing-up days as humble but memorable. “We pretty much grew up by ourselves, as both parents worked in a factory. We siblings always had to entertain ourselves. We were called the gypsies of the village for rummaging in skips — not to find food, but toys or anything we could get creative with.”
Adu’s creative streak was already apparent then and he says he would make his own lamps or use bits of broken glass to fashion a collage. “Dinner was always exciting as it was the only time we could see our parents because we ate together. Though we were poor, we always had food: rice, protein and a vegetable dish — it was always a complete meal.”
Those who have dined at Adu’s establishments cannot help but notice their vibrant décor, from artworks to artfully arranged flowers. “My restaurants have always been maximalist in their décor, ambience and music. Running a restaurant and cooking give me freedom of creativity, and it helps that I paint as well. In fact, when I moved to the UK in 1997, my first oil painting was chosen among 10 other works to be exhibited in a newly opened gallery in Chiswick,” he says. “I was so fired up to be a painter, but cooking got the better of me and I worked hard to save up to open my own restaurant in 2000. I resumed painting with a vengeance in Malaysia two years ago. Now I passionately indulge in both cooking and painting. This year, I have done 12 commissioned works and sold a few too.”
While he admits that the pandemic has been “unkind to small businesses and creative industries”, his experience managing restaurants has taught him some invaluable lessons. “Managing Champor-Champor taught me that I can never please everyone. You might have to compromise your art a little bit at times but, when you do it passionately, people will always appreciate your efforts.” For the next generation wanting to tread a similar path, the chef advises, “Be passionate and truthful. Fasten your seatbelt, as it can be a rollercoaster ride at times. Travel as much as you can, too; this helps shape inner creativity. And, most of all, turn up for work! Young people seem to change jobs as if they are changing clothes. I can attest to having inherited my work ethic from Mr Sugar.”
When he is not busy working in the demanding business of food and beverage or serving up delicacies, the easygoing chef says he eats “literally anything. Off-duty, my food is simple — a lot of miso soup, steamed fish or soft-boiled eggs. When I eat out, I go for things not served in my restaurant.”
On what is next for the chef, artist and author of two cookery books, both containing stories and anecdotes of Malaysian cuisine and titled using Malay phrases, he smiles, saying, “Malaysia is the most interesting country in the world when it comes to food. It has so many layers. My second book, titled Kemana Tumpahnya Kuah, carries a similar meaning to ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’. It won the National Book Awards in the culinary division. It is for all the people who inspire my cooking — family, my late grandparents and close friends. It is a book about the celebration of love. For my next book, I am hoping to combine food with pantun.”
'Rentak Bumi' takes place from Dec 2 to 4, at Amphi-Sutra in Kuala Lumpur, while the special collaboration between Chef Adu Amran and Sutra Dance Theatre on Dec 3 is limited to 40 pax. To secure a seat or to obtain more information, call 03 4021 1092.
This article first appeared on Nov 29, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.