It was my first time in KL and I was excited to finally try "real" Malaysian food. I had always enjoyed Malaysian dishes in Singapore and now, I would be able to enjoy it right where it came from.
My Malaysian friend brought our group to a place that he said served authentic Malay dishes but in a very upscale and expat/tourist friendly setting.
This raised my foodie hackles a bit. I have this pre-conceived notion that when dining abroad, one should look for the simple places that attract the locals -- not the expats or the tourists. The more rustic it is, the more traditional and authentic it should be.
But now, here we were, about to enter Bijan -- a sophisticated and snazzy looking place along Jalan Ceylon Street -- kind of like KL's Timog Ave. -- with rows and rows of restaurants and bars and yes, expats galore! Right above Bijan, you could see the lights of Kuala Lumpur Tower. It certainly didn't look like it served Malaysian food -- more like western or at best, some kind of fusion cuisine.
I was even more skeptical when we entered Bijan -- it was softly lit, there were beautiful starched white tablecloths, elegant place settings and artistically folded napkins, fresh orchids in small crystal vases, and an attractive orange and black menu.
Most of the tables were full -- and yes, they were occupied by Caucasians -- tourists and expats alike.
My spirits sank -- how could I ever hope to experience the "real" Malaysian cuisine in this place?
However, our friend swore that this was indeed the real thing. Then he proceeded to order practically one of everything from the menu. Our waitress was certainly amused.
We started off with a sampler of all kinds of crunchy keropok -- salty crackers, made from shrimps, fish, squid, puffed rice, cassava and accompanied by a sweet, spicy chili dipping sauce. Hmmm, not bad at all! If I closed my eyes, I could actually imagine myself eating this from some ambulant vendor!
Not content with all those appetizers, we also had a platter of popiah goreng or assorted fried spring rolls. Malaysia is a Muslim country and Bijan does not serve any pork, just beef, lamb and chicken. So, no pork at all in any of these fried lumpia.
We had a kerabu mangga salad -- lots of lily buds tossed with chili, ginger, coriander, ground peanuts and spicy green mango. Very refreshing, despite its heat.
Pako or fiddlehead fern is something I truly enjoy -- cooked with river shrimp and coconut milk. When I saw pucuk paku goreng tahi minyak, I figured that it would be one and the same and true enough, it was. Thanks to the many similarities between Malay and Tagalog!
The malaysian version of pako or paku was stir fried with lots of chili and shrimp.
We had ayam goreng berempah which was very crisp fried chicken, lots of onions, red chilies and garnished with basil leaves.
Not yet content with that, we also ordered tiger prawns. Udang galah panggang was chargrilled prawns served with a tamarind chutney and belacan or the malay version of our very own bagoong.
Of course we had to have chicken curry or ayam kampung limau purut. You could taste the kaffir leaves which cut through the richness of the coconut cream.
My Indonesian friend, Amelia was with us and she cooks the best ever beef rendang I have ever tried. Beef rendang is actually Indonesian in origin and is a slow cooked beef dish in a spicy and almost dry coconut cream sauce. It's fork-tender and very delicious. Amelia has given me beef rendang to take home from her kitchen in Jakarta and I have been known to hoard it and dole it out in small spoonfuls.
Would Bijan's Rendang Daging or dry beef curry live up to her (and my) expectations?
Hmmm, it did not. But it was well seasoned and tender nonetheless. However, how can a restaurant compete with a home cook, working from a recipe handed down by her mother?
In the Beef Rendang Battle, it was Amelia - 1, Bijan - 0.
It's rice cooked in coconut milk and comes with a side of hot sambal sauce, salted peanuts and ikan bilis or dilis to you and me. Nasi lemak went very well with all the spicy and rich dishes.
No one had room for dessert except for me as I have what my Japanese colleagues call a betsubara or a second stomach specifically for sweets. I ordered the classic Malay dessert, sago gula melaka which is chilled tapioca doused with sweet palm syrup and lying on a puddle of cold coconut milk. What a great ending to a great meal!
After enjoying the meal at Bijan, this is what I learned.
I really should be more open when traveling and sampling local cuisine -- sometimes, you can find authenticity and rusticity even in the most sophisticated places.