New Culinary Conversations in SEA

Now in its third year, the Malaysia-based Kita Food Festival celebrates culinary innovation across South East Asia. It also provides a platform to discuss vital issues, such as biodiversity, carbon impact, food security and managing waste. Gary Bowerman chats with co-founders Darren Teoh and Leisa Tyler about the festival’s tastiest treats, nurturing the next generation of chefs and ambitions for the future. 

A delicate Melinjo crisp shaped like an origami frog filled with pickled Perah and caviar is not a dish found on many menus. Neither is a salad of wild leaves that are frequently treated as weeds served with Rambai fruit-infused shaved ice. 

Welcome to the culinary world of Darren Teoh, one of Malaysia’s most experimental chefs, whose restless imagination is forged from the tropical bounty of his homeland. 

Teoh founded his restaurant, Dewakan, in 2015, and has been challenging diners to rethink modern Malaysian cuisine ever since. His shape-shifting menus have garnered international acclaim. In 2019, Dewakan became Malaysia’s first restaurant selected on the Asia’s Top 50 Restaurants list. 

A sample of the cuisine at Dewakan. Image: Dewakan/Facebook

In 2023, Teoh was one of only four chefs in Malaysia to earn a Michelin star in the debut edition of the Michelin Guide Kuala Lumpur and Penang. Michelin described Dewakan’s prix fixe tasting menu as “truly Malaysian in every sense. Fermented or dry-aged items made in-house are widely used, alongside seasonal fruits and herbs.” 

Modern Malaysian is how he described the restaurant at first, but he has since reconsidered. “When I speak about the cuisine now I say it’s ingredients-based,” says Teoh. “When you consider the bio-diversity that Malaysia has and the resources we get from our jungles, there’s always something new to discover and try on the menu.”

Culinary experimentation was only part of the reason for establishing Dewakan. 

“In my career, I’ve seen the emphasis on products and ingredients flown in from miles away. Although it didn’t come from a sustainability angle at first, I was driven by why we are serving sub-standard products, when there is so much to explore in our own backyards.”

Connecting Culinary Cultures

Teoh’s passion for building new culinary conversations led him to co-found the Kita Food Festival with Malaysia-based Australian Leisa Tyler. A former food journalist, Tyler is the founder of Weeds & More, which works with smallholder farms in Cameron Highlands to supply ethically cultivated vegetables, edible flowers and herbs derived from heritage seeds to hotels and restaurants.

The pair registered the festival in 2019, although the concept was conceived a few years earlier. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, which halted progress. The Kita Food Festival debuted in 2021 with restaurant events in Kuala Lumpur and Penang. Those same two cities hosted the 2022 edition, along with the northern Malaysian island of Langkawi.

Kita is a Malay word meaning ‘us’ or ‘we’, and inclusion and connection are central to the festival’s ethos. “The idea for Kita was to build a platform to discuss the evolution of food in Malaysia. Endemic ingredients and sourcing locally have always been close to our hearts, so we decided to shine a spotlight on producers across Malaysia and give a boost to the many young chefs who are doing extraordinary things here,” says Tyler.

Six-Hands Dinner, an event from the 2022 Kita Food Festival. Image: Kita Food Festival.

“Kita came about so we could build the right kind of community with these chefs, restaurateurs, food producers and people who work in the front front-of-house. That’s why we use the word Kita, because it means us – it’s who we are” adds Teoh.

In 2023, the scale and geography are more ambitious, and presage further expansion in the future. Between 27 September and 30 October, the Kita culinary roadshow is cooking up a storm in four cities: Kuala Lumpur and Penang in peninsular Malaysia, Kuching in Malaysian Borneo and Singapore.

Chefs from 17 host restaurants in these four cities are joined by esteemed counterparts from across Asia Pacific, such as Putu Dodik Sumarjana from Indonesia, Chele Gonzalez (Philippines), Fukuyama Goh (Japan), Prateek Sadhu (India), Matt Stone (Australia) and Vaughan Mabee (New Zealand). Together, they will prepare four- and six-hand lunches and dinners and multi-chef communal cook-ups and barbecues inspired by local ingredients.

The Bounty of Borneo

Adding Kuching to the roster was a dream Teoh and Tyler harboured from the outset of the project. “Borneo has one of the richest bio-diversities on earth, and there is so much there that we don’t know about or isn’t documented. We’ve always looked at doing something there for the past two festivals, either in Kuching or Kota Kinabalu. We hope to develop more events there in future editions,” says Tyler.

The inclusion of culinary events and discussions in Singapore is more strategic. “We were approached by the Singaporean government after the 2022 festival to hold something similar there in 2023. They are interested in the dinners, but also the Conversations part of the festival, which is a platform to address issues like food security and sustainability. In 2024, the main festival will move to Singapore and we’ll have pop-ups in Malaysia,” says Tyler.

The main festival will move to Singapore in 2024. Photo by Mike Enerio on Unsplash  

For both festival founders, the one-day Conversation events in KL and Singapore are highlights. They bring together international chefs, restaurateurs and social entrepreneurs with experts in the fields of aquaponics, regenerative hospitality, food anthropology, waste management, foraging and endemic ingredients. The objective is to critically discuss the F&B industry in South East Asia “without the buzzwords that have adulterated well-meaning concepts like authenticity, farm to table and sustainability.”

Reflecting on the festival’s future direction, Teoh believes the regional focus offers plentiful food for thought.

“This is a South East Asian festival. It can be a mouthpiece for us to develop the vocabulary that surrounds South East Asian cooking, South East Asian food culture and the way moving forward for South East Asian restaurants,” he says. 

“There is so much potential, ambition and drive among this legion of young chefs emerging here. The future is in these young chefs. We want to support them, but also make sure they don’t get convoluted by the glitz and glamour which surrounds the ‘chef idol’ industry.”

- Asia Media Centre