Ramadan was on when I was in Kuala Lumpur a week ago. I had read about the Ramadan bazaars located all over the city where cooked food could be bought to eat at the breaking of the fast and had put these on top of my to-see list.
But my friend and colleague Omar told me that no one really ate at the Ramadan bazaars, they just bought food from there to take home.
Omar promised he would bring me to a better option ... we would break the fast (not me, but he would as he was fasting) at a Ramadan Buffet.
Apparently during Ramadan, restaurants offer buffets where people get together to enjoy and feast and break the fast -- starting exactly at 7:30 each night during Ramadan.
Omar and his lovely wife Sitti picked me up from the hotel and brought me clear across town to Bangsar, an upscale suburb a few kilometres out of Kuala Lumpur's city center.
After driving through rush hour traffic, we finally came to a stop in front of a sprawling bungalow -- with a lighted sign that said Restoran Rebung. If I wanted a taste of local, authentic cuisine as I had assured Omar and Sitti that I did, they both felt this was the best place to go.
The entrance to the restaurant was festively lit and tables and chairs were set up right as you walked in. The buzz of hungry, expectant diners all happy and eager to break the fast with family and friends literally hummed throughout the place.
Because it is set up in a converted bungalow, Rebung is designed to look and feel like a warm and comfortable home. This is just one small section of the restaurant -- the air conditioned portion where our table was.
The eating and feasting continues outside, in wide open halls and porches where more tables are set and where there was even a stage for live band music. Dining at Rebung felt just like being a guest in one huge, casual, friendly dinner party.
There are various stations set all around the restaurant. This lady was making fresh roti on her iron skillet. She could hardly keep up with the demand as diners would get a piece or two as fast as she could make them.
Since my head was reeling from all the food that was laid out, I decided to start slow and get a small sampling of rojak, the traditional salad found all over Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.
Restoran Rebung's rojak had cut fruits like pineapples, singkamas (jicama), macopa (rose apples), cucumbers plus fried tofu and even fishcakes. Topped with crushed peanuts and a spicy sweet sauce, it was such an appetite inducing first taste of what the buffet had to offer. I had to control myself from getting a bigger second serving. You can also see that I had one piece of the roti with an accompanying bowl of fiery curry.
Done with my appetiser, it was time to forage through the buffet once again. This very popular station featured yet another version of roti, also freshly made while you waited ... and waited and waited.
Right beside the roti maker was this huge vat of a very enticing and aromatic stew called daging kulai kawah. There are a lot of similar words between Malaysia and the Philippines and in this case, kawah in Malay translates exactly to kawa in Tagalog which is a large cooking vat. This dish is rather soupy and is made with beef with lots of onions, ginger, spices like cardamom, anise, cinnamon, coconut cream and a bit of tamarind and palm sugar .
It was full speed ahead at the buffet stations! While dishes were quick to run out, there was always someone ready to run to the kitchen to replenish the supply.
I tried a lot of food I had never even seen or tasted. These are salads that Omar assured me were very local and very delicious.
Like us, Malaysians like a lot of side dishes and sauces to add more zing to their food.
Char kway teow! Two kinds of this popular noodle dish were on hand.
There were so many types of dishes on offer that I couldn't quite decide what I would spend my precious calories on -- I decided I'd go for a mix of new flavours and tried and tested favourites.
The dish on the far left is what the restaurant is named after. Rebung is actually Malay for bamboo shoots (labong in Tagalog). This dish is made with turmeric, ginger, lemongrass and lots of chili. The bamboo shoots or rebung were cut in big round pieces and had a slightly bitter but not unpleasant taste.
The beverage station at the buffet had different types of cold drinks -- fruit flavoured or made with sweet palm sugar with gelatine bits and sago balls. There was also a couple of thermos containers of hot drinks like teh tarik or milky tea.
After my initial reconnaissance of the buffet stations, this is what my dinner plate looked like. Fluffy nasi lemak or rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan, a couple of pieces of the rebung masak lemak, small snails cooked in coconut cream that I happily slurped the tasty little bits from, kari ayam or chicken curry, battered vegetables and some krupuk or fish crackers. Everything was distinctively delicious -- I couldn't choose a favourite dish if you asked me.
The beef rendang station was constantly running out of this quintessentially Malay beef stew.
I had to lie in wait by the rendang table so that I could make sure to get a portion. The lady in charge of refilling the tray said that they cooked their rendang for more than 8 hours so that all the meat turns fork tender, literally falling apart in each flavourful meltingly good mouthful.
And so, my second plate had quite a bit of beef rendang spooned over cubes of nasi impit or compressed steamed rice. I had it with homemade peanut sauce on the side, more of the crazy good krupuk and a freshly made roti canai, liberally drenched with the daging gulai kawah. A lone piece of shrimp also made it to my plate.
I cannot tell a lie -- I finished each and every morsel on this plate too.
I have always liked Malay food but this was the first time that every thing I had was all so divinely deliciously good.
I barely had room for dessert but Omar made me try this type of kuih. Kuih are small, bite sized portions of dessert and this one was made of glutinous rice, rolled in grated coconut. It looked like our pichi pichi and tasted like it too except that this kuih had a hidden nugget of palm sugar right in the centre -- which melted in your mouth as you bit into it. It was delectable and I'm glad I made room for it in my betsubara (nihongo for second stomach).
At the cashier, they had copies of the owner, Chef Ismail's cookbook for sale. I had met Chef Ismail earlier, when he so warmly welcomed us to our table and after trying his delightful, honest tasting food -- I knew he was more than just a celebrity chef, he was a true proponent and advocate of Malaysia's food culture and heritage.
I made sure I had an opportunity to have a photo taken with Chef Ismail. True to his hospitable and generous nature, we found him seated at one of the tables in front, engaged in conversation with diners -- we were after all, guests in his kitchen, his domain, his home.
I got my cookbook personally signed and he posed for this photo with me.
When I mentioned that I was flying back home the next day, he leaned over and whispered to me "I will say a prayer for your safe journey home". What a kind and thoughtful soul.
I saw this cheeky sign just as we were about to leave Rebung. I don't know how good a kisser Chef Ismail is but from the dinner that I just had, I know he is one amazing cook!