Desaru Coast’s signature dining programme, Gourmet Series, brings together acclaimed local and international chefs to showcase their skills and innovative platters to gastronomes around the world. Now in its second instalment, the event themed A Malaysian Journey is divided into three parts that highlight the richness and variety of local flavours and ingredients.
Series I, from May 26 to 28, was helmed by Johor-born chef Johnson Wong, who is well known for using locally produced ingredients at his fine-dining eatery gēn — listed by 50 Best as one of Asia’s Top 100 restaurants, 2021 — in George Town.
It was clear from the beginning that the epicures who attended this event — themed “Straits Food Redefined” and featuring an innovative take on Peranakan classics — were mostly close friends and family members who wanted to have a unique culinary experience together. Thus, Wong’s decision to go for a cosy and communal set-up at beachside restaurant Sea.Salt.Fire in Anantara Desaru Coast Resort & Villas could not have been more apt.
Save for the Grilled Lamb Rack, the dishes were served in a similar manner to those at Communal Table, a sister restaurant of gēn — and a Michelin Select Restaurant in this year’s guide — that champions sharing platters and underscores the joy of sustenance sharing. The food was placed at the centre of the table and guests could choose to take their own or serve one another, thereby creating a warm atmosphere.
This communal-style dining evoked feelings of home and comfort, and being able to enjoy the thoughtfully prepared platters with loved ones accompanied by the sound of waves — as well as clashing metal and ceramic utensils from the open kitchen — was certainly a pleasant experience. Even if you came to the resort alone, it would definitely be an opportunity to make new friends as you would not be able to avoid discussing the flavours and ingredients of each course with fellow diners.
Wong said the Peranakan-inspired dishes he presented were “all about the ingredients incorporated, and not my style or cooking techniques”. When he was invited to participate in this Gourmet Series, he browsed through his own menu from gēn and googled staple ingredients in Peranakan dishes to get some ideas. In the end, he made sure the nine courses he created for the event were infused with ingredients widely used in Peranakan cuisine, particularly those from Penang and Melaka.
Guests were served hors d’oeuvres of Penang oysters as soon as they arrived at Sea.Salt.Fire, which was decked out in traditional Peranakan décor such as trishaws, tiffin carriers and batik. The seafood had been sourced exclusively from a farm in Penang. The only establishment in Malaysia that cultivates oysters, the farm also produces other seafood such as mussels and abalone, and Wong said he could vouch for their quality and freshness.
Before the start of the nine-course meal, Wong conducted a cooking demonstration of snapper kerabu — a simpler version of Longan-scented Crudo, one of the dishes that night. He cleverly injected local flavours into the Italian-inspired appetizer using watery rose apple (jambu air), torch ginger flower (bunga kantan) and fish sauce to top off the raw fish.
As the sun began to set, guests took their seats and the Malaysian journey of Peranakan classics kicked off with a glass of Whispering Angel rosé. After sampling the first two dishes, Acar Nyonya and Crab and Caviar, we knew we were off to a great start.
A crowd favourite, Wong’s Acar Nyonya featured pickled carrots, cucumbers and long beans over a bed of whipped tofu. Although it was great on its own, its flavour was further enhanced by the complementary spiced bread. Meanwhile, Crab and Caviar was a hit among the younger diners. The moist and sweet taste of the fresh mud crab meat was elevated with light coconut espuma and caviar from T’lur Caviar.
Next on the menu was an advanced version of Longan-scented Crudo. A mix of temperature and texture, this dish comprised thinly sliced red snapper, fish floss and roe glacé. The crudo was distinguished by Wong’s favourite ingredient, torch ginger flower, which played throughout the degustation menu. He turned the aromatic flower bud into sorbet that added a strong, fragrant spice flavour to the combination.
The dish was followed by Nasi Ulam, served in a claypot. Wong used Sarawakian heirloom rice, cooked until it had a crispy texture, and topped it with salted duck jubes, ulam raja and daun selom. Although it would have been much nicer to mix the ingredients together (as with the traditional nasi ulam), guests were encouraged to have the rice with the grilled Indian threadfin in turmeric curry, served with sambal matah (Balinese raw sambal, a fiery chilli condiment).
The star of the night was the Grilled Lamb Rack, complemented with house jus, spiced tomato jam and the unique keluak puree, native ingredient used by Peranakan communities. The keluak tree can be found largely in the mangrove swamps of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. While its seeds contain deadly hydrocyanic acid, the poisonous properties can be removed by soaking it in water for a certain period of time.
Although a lot of work goes into preparing this ingredient, keluak is a staple in Peranakan cuisine, specifically that from Melaka and Singapore. It adds a hint of bitterness — reminiscent of the taste of dark chocolate — to any dish, be it an appetiser, a main or dessert, as it did for the medium rare Grilled Lamb Rack.
Our gustatory adventure for the night wrapped up with dreamy desserts — Red, Pink Hawthorn (a beautiful platter of yoghurt and strawberry with rose petals scattered over it) and Wong’s personal favourite, Childhood Memory. The latter seemed to be an interesting interpretation of fruit rojak, comprising pineapple sorbet, roasted pineapple, soy gelée and ice plant, but he said it was not inspired by the dish that has a hint of spice.
“I did not start cooking when I was young, so I do not have stories of helping my mother or grandmother cook. But I do remember enjoying chunks of pineapple with soy sauce and chilli. Some may say it is like rojak, but it was just what I usually had for dessert as a kid, and that’s why it was so memorable.” That explained the nostalgic name behind the dish.
If you want to explore more of Wong’s creations, he will partner chef Kim Hock Su of the Michelin-starred Restaurant Au Jardin for Series II in September at the One&Only Desaru Coast. In November, chef Raymond Tham of Beta KL, Skillet@163 and Burnt & Co will prepare an exclusive menu for Series III at the Big Easy Bar & Grill in The Els Club Desaru Coast.
This article first appeared on June 12, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.