My first visit to the famed Pudu market certainly left an impression. More familiar with smaller night markets in Petaling Jaya, exploring the incredible array of produce in the heart of Kuala Lumpur was an adventure for many reasons. Ordinarily, you would not find me grocery shopping anytime before 5pm and, yet, here I was at 8am taking in the vibrant assortment of fruit and vegetables, foreign-looking herbs, elbow-pushing hagglers and more caged chickens than I have ever seen in my life.
What brings us here is Nobu Kuala Lumpur’s chef’s challenge, held in conjunction with the visit of Nobu’s corporate chef for the European Union and the Middle East, Hervé Courtot. To test the indisputable skill of executive chef Philip Leong, head sushi chef Micheole ‘Chico’ Anung Dator and Courtot, our media group had to pick an ingredient each for the chefs to create a memorable meal, and we had the entire Pudu market to choose from.
All three chefs were certainly in their element at the market, chatting up vendors and quickly purchasing the ingredients they wanted. I asked Courtot what he would choose and he said, “I would pick something I have never tried.” Quick to smile and full of energy, Courtot was curious about anything unfamiliar and stuck close to Leong, who translated what the vendors were saying and explained ingredients to him. Courtot quickly grabbed water chestnuts and green daikon to experiment with and he perked up when we saw live frogs. With a loud smack, the aunty behind the counter made easy work of breaking down a frog as our party of 10 gawked with a mix of horror and fascination, unable to peel our eyes away. It is a memory that is forever seared in my brain.
Slowly, each of us began picking mystery ingredients for the chef’s challenge. Local crab, parrot fish and catfish were the first few proteins chosen. The sheer range of ingredients was hard to wrap one’s head around; there were snails, squirmy eels and we even saw a fish head that was almost as large as my torso sat neatly on a chopping board. Still, with all the unusual visual treats around, I was determined to pick something very Malaysian. Kacang botol (four angled beans) caught my eye, and so did the juicy morsels of petai. Seeing my indecision, Leong said, “We can do both.” I even got Courtot to try some raw petai, which he described as a “juicy almond — a bit bitter but nice”.
Ingredients chosen — tiger prawns, purple beans, mud crab and more were added to the list — we headed to ICC Pudu for a light breakfast of onigiri and lobster tacos prepared and packed by the Nobu kitchen. Sipping on Hainanese coffee, the chefs seem completely unfazed by the unusual list of ingredients they had to work with. They were calm and quite excited.
We returned to work only to reconvene for dinner. At 6pm, we sipped on Nobu’s refreshing cocktail of the month, the Jinzesuto, eagerly waiting to begin dinner. The anticipation was akin to one of those cooking competitions on TV, Chopped or Iron Chef. However, we felt more invested as we had actually chosen the secret ingredients. I was curious how the chefs would incorporate local ingredients to suit Nobu’s Peruvian-Japanese style.
The first dish included one of my picks — petai with fresh corn in a chili garlic sauce. The sweetness of the corn balanced the fresh and bitter petai and the smoky, charred flavour really made it delicious. I would have been content to have a large bowl of this dish and be on my way.
One of the standout dishes was definitely Chef Chico’s sushi bar moriawase, which had catfish two ways. Chico readily admitted that he had never had catfish and so cooking with it was a gamble. He explained that he treated the catfish the same way he would unagi (freshwater eel), as they are both bottom feeders. The first of the moriawase was baked mountain potato with spicy tuna, the second a crisp catfish with avocado and the third was a catfish sushi. I was a little hesitant as I am not a fan of unagi, but the catfish had a beautiful texture, especially with the crisp exterior, and it was brought together with the creamy avocado. The catfish sushi had a very delicate sweet sauce that paired really well with the fish. Chico’s risk certainly paid off.
Next came a refreshing salad of local green daikon with dried miso, garnished with water chestnut. It was a surprising combination, considering Courtot’s unfamiliarity with both the daikon and water chestnuts, but it was beautifully light with a good textural balance. The next dish of crab bisque cappuccino was creamy with a nice foam and light spicy kick, followed by beautiful parrot fish steamed with saké, ginger and black bean paste, making it an incredibly flavourful bite with hints of sesame shining through.
The grilled tiger prawns came in an anticucho sauce, usually used on chicken and beef, and made with two different chillies from Peru. This peppery preparation encapsulates what Nobu’s cooking is all about — local ingredients with a Peruvian-Japanese twist. Other dishes included purple beans toban yaki, steamed crab meat, lamb chops with eggplant puree, tuna poke Nobu style and local asparagus with shiso salsa. Finally, the kacang botol came in a dish with steamed chinese lettuce and yuzu kosho kombu dashi (chilli paste kelp stock). Very light and fresh, it was also salty and peppery with a nice bite from the vegetables.
Our meal concluded with a lychee panna cotta and lychee sorbet that was reminiscent of a good tong sui, warm with a nice chill from the ice cream. With the competition over, the incredible skill of the chefs was apparent and we agreed it was a three-way win. The chefs even came over after the meal looking as if they had not even broken a sweat.
This article first appeared on Nov 11, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.