KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - As a young boy Ismail Ahmad spent most of his childhood helping his grandmother in the kitchen, learning heirloom recipes and traditional Malay-styled culinary methods, skills that have helped build his successful career in Malaysia.
Hailing from a quiet village in Negeri Sembilan state, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Kuala Lumpur, the 52-year-old Ismail set up Rebung - a restaurant known for its signature Malay dishes - after a successful spate of hosting television cooking shows and touring as the country's food ambassador.
Sprawling across three bungalow houses in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur, Rebung, which marks its 10th anniversary next year and was set up with business partner Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, welcomes diners with its cozy wooden furniture, warm lighting and live karaoke sessions at night.
Rebung's 50-odd item buffet spread, pegged between 40-50 ringgit ($13-$16), has earned Ismail fame for its Malay dishes that are hard to come by. Some of his customers are willing to take a 4-hour road trip from Singapore just for lunch.
Q: How did your grandparents nurture your love for cooking?
A: "Since I was about 5 years old, I helped my grandmother in the kitchen - plucking bean sprouts, cleaning dried anchovies, peeling onions, running off to the market to buy tamarind pieces. Later on I learned how to cook our heritage dishes.
"My grandfather taught me about ‘freshness' when choosing seafood. I would follow him to the market on Saturdays to buy fish. He didn't physically teach me, but he'll chat to the fishmonger and I would listen."
Q: How did growing up in a quiet village influence your cooking style?
A: "My daily food was simple. Most dishes had chili, turmeric, lemon grass, and coconut cream. We also used a lot of leaves and herbs gathered from the jungle. Electricity came into my village only in the 1970s, before that we used generators. We had no fridge. So my grandmother would prolong the shelf life of food either by smoking, salting or pickling it. Beef, mackerel will be smoked until it is dry. For pickles, we used a lot of bamboo shoots. These are ancient methods, but very clean. I still have the smoked beef in Rebung as a signature dish."
Q: Which are the family recipes inherited from your forefathers and how is it different compared to dishes from other Malaysian states?
A: "Negeri Sembilan food uses easy ingredients, but it is not easy to make. We mostly use chili padi (bird's eye chili or Thai chili), fresh turmeric, lemon grass, coconut cream, tapioca - with beef, duck, fish, and prawn. And it is mostly yellow. We use a lot of turmeric, which is rich in beta-carotene. We hardly use fresh chilies - we use dried chili and chili padi. If we use onions, it's mostly shallots. We don't use much garlic. We don't usually blend the ingredients - only sliced.
"Authentic Malay heritage food is mostly fermented. We add in different type of herbs and leaves. The meat in Negeri Sembilan dishes are mostly smoked because in the original recipes, all meat was smoked for preservation purposes."
Q: What are Rebung's specialty dishes?
A: "We have gulai lemak daging salai (smoked beef cooked in turmeric, fresh coconut and chili padi gravy), as well as durian pulut (durian pulp cooked with coconut and palm sugar served with sticky rice) and labu masak lemak (pumpkin with coconut cream and turmeric shoots).
"Rebung also serves ‘ikan patin tempoyak', a type of river catfish (iridescent shark, its meat is called "swai" in the United States) cooked with fermented durian pulp, mixed turmeric, chili, crushed lemon grass, then boiled with tamarind pieces and salt."
Q: How do you maintain the "home cooked" and "authentic" tastes of the dishes at Rebung?
A: "I personally train my staff how to cook the dishes the exact way I do it. I also check all the ingredients. I tell them that the journey of cooking is through experience. There's no shortcut in heritage cooking. If you have to go and find an ingredient, you do it. If you have to cook in a clay pot, you do it, because it affects the taste and texture of the dish. My grandmother used to make her own cooking oil from coconut. Everything adds value - the charcoal fire, the homemade oil.
"Everything at Rebung is homemade, except the ketchup and chili sauces. All the dips are ground and made from scratch. Less is more - less ingredients, more in taste. It's important to know the essence of the food. You shouldn't modify it at all. If you cook it nicely, you can make a man happy for a day."
Q: What ingredients inspire you?
A: "The smell of chilies. Another is mali-mali (bandicoot berry leaves), which is a kind of medicinal shrub used only in Negeri Sembilan for chicken rendang. It is really delicious and tastes nicer than tapioca shoots. You can find it in the jungle here, but people nowadays rarely recognize it."
Pahang Patin in Fermented Durian Gravy (Gulai Ikan Patin Pahang) Ingredients: 2 tbsp fermented durian (tempoyak) 3 fresh red chilies, finely pounded 6 bird's eye chilies, finely pounded 4 cm (1.5 inch) knob of fresh turmeric, peeled and finely pounded 1 stalk lemon grass, bruised 450 ml (1.9 cups) water 1.5 kg (3.3 lbs) pangasius sutchi catfish (swai) cut into 3 cm slices, washed with lime and rock salt, rinsed well. To get rid of the muddy smell, clean fish with rock salt and tamarind pulp. To garnish: 1 tomato cut into wedges 1/2 cucumber cut lengthwise and diagonally sliced 1 red chili, 1 green chili, slit lengthwise with end in tact 1 turmeric leaf, torn into pieces Salt to taste Method: Mix fermented durian pounded with chilies and turmeric, lemon grass and water in a pot. Bring to boil over medium heat. Add fish, tomatoes, cucumber, red and green chilies, turmeric leaves, and simmer until cooked. Season with salt.
Reporting By Anuradha Raghu,; Editing by Elaine Lies