Field notes

Turning a raw deal into a hip and appetising choice

KUALA LUMPUR • When Ms Ashley Yiin began making "living food" four years ago, the young chef was frequently called upon to answer customers' curious questions about the raw dishes on the menu.

Now, her interaction with diners has become more of an exchange of ideas than a Q&A as living food catches on and spreads in the Malaysian capital. And from one small outlet, the family-owned Ashley's now has two full-fledged restaurants and a pop-up cafe.

Ms Yiin, 24, who helms the kitchen, said there has definitely been a spike in interest as more people seek out raw or living food, vegan and vegetarian fare, or regular food with a healthier twist.

She said that when she and her family opened the first restaurant in 2011, their customers were mainly those who had to keep to a vegan, gluten-free or dairy-free diet for medical reasons. But by 2014, when the second outlet opened, they found that most customers simply wanted to eat more healthily.

"There is a gradual shift in lifestyles in many parts of the world and here as well," she said.

Mr Sean Yoong, 40, founder of the Kuala Lumpur food guide Eat Drink KL, said eating natural has certainly become popular among those who want to take charge of their own well-being, and who can afford it because of its significantly higher price point.


Ms Yiin, who helms her family's eateries, says more people are seeking out raw or "living food", vegan and vegetarian fare, or regular food with a healthier twist.  ST PHOTOS: CAROLYN HONG

"They are likely looking for diets to complement their fitness regimens," he said.

This desire has begun to noticeably liven up consumer trends at the hipper end of the scale as natural living becomes aspirational rather than quirky. Where vegan food was once seen as hippy or suitable for grandma's table only, it is now seen as chic.


Ms Cheah (left) and Ms Low with some of their Made-in-Kefir range of fermented drinks. The fizzy drinks are said to be rich in probiotics. ST PHOTOS: CAROLYN HONG

From home-based kitchens to full-scale restaurants, a range of new businesses which emphasise both natural and chic have sprung up, often run by young Malaysians who keep up with global trends and travel widely.

HEALTH KICK

There is a lot more interest now in living healthily due to greater knowledge spread by the Internet.

MS LOW WAN CHIUN, who launched the Made-in-Kefir range of fermented drinks with Ms Mabel Cheah.

Thus, stylish salad bars have become a fresh hit in Kuala Lumpur, often setting up shop near office buildings to cater to those who want to replace a carb-heavy, rice-with-curry lunch with quinoa and cranberries.

Cold-pressed juices are all the rage, and food delivery services specialising in clean eating, or the eating of fresh, unprocessed foods that are in season, have sprouted. Even exotic products like water kefir have found fans in well-heeled Malaysians.

Ms Low Wan Chiun, 34, and Ms Mabel Cheah, 36, who launched the Made-in-Kefir range of fermented drinks six months ago, initially met with a slow response and blank looks. But the fizzy drinks, said to be rich in probiotics, have now earned shelf space in a supermarket and several cafes.

"There is a lot more interest now in living healthily due to greater knowledge spread by the Internet. Trends like the raw food movement, growing edible gardens... they are all part of this movement," said Ms Low.

Certainly, Malaysians are not alone in this. There is a surge of global interest in the "New Natural", a description used in a report on consumer trends, published last October by the Innovation Group, the research unit of global advertising agency J. Walter Thompson.

The report tracked a dizzying demand for "natural" products - from food to cosmetics and even detergents - driven by increasing consumer scepticism about mainstream products and a loss of faith in traditional authorities, including governments and brands.

"As consumers experience rising anxiety over a civilisation that appears increasingly toxic and driven to digital distraction, they are discovering a newfound appreciation for processes once forgotten or devalued," it said.

The report also noted that the trend is, in part, a return to traditional lifestyles and norms. And this is particularly true in the context of Malaysia, and Asia in broader terms.

None of these "new" culinary trends would be entirely unfamiliar to Malaysians of a certain generation. Many of these trends have their roots in the oldest traditions of Asian cuisine, which is rich in techniques such as fermentation and raw food preparation.

As Ms Low found out, it was actually those in their 40s and 50s who were more familiar with the concept of water kefir when she and her partner first launched the product. For they are already familiar with fermented foods and their health benefits.

"After all, we do actually have a lot of local fermented foods such as tapai, tempeh, soya products and yogurt but, perhaps, the younger people don't relate water kefir to these," she said.

Thus, in a manner of speaking, grandma's recipe book has become cool again as youngsters relearn these old techniques to create something new for demanding consumers always on the lookout for novelty and freshness and the all-important chic factor.

Living food, for instance, has a kindred spirit in the traditional South-east Asian dish of nasi ulam - steamed rice served with raw herbs and vegetables often foraged from the wild.

Now, this trend of foraging for pesticide-free wild vegetables has arrived in chic restaurants, especially in Western countries.

Ms Yiin's Ashley's restaurant also offers foraged dishes incorporating wild vegetables harvested by the indigenous peoples of her home state of Sarawak, presented stylishly, of course.

"I really like the traditional methods, and I look towards them in developing the menu," she said.

Having learnt from both her grandmothers, who were experts in traditional Chinese cuisine, she has tried to adopt their cooking philosophy and techniques, although not their recipes as Ashley's serves a different cuisine.

She uses their techniques of fermentation to make nut cheese, cucumber kimchi and pickles. And her cooking style is informed by their focus on slow cooking, and a deep knowledge of the ingredients and how they work in recipes.

To Ms Rohani Jelani, a recipe developer who ran a cooking school for 15 years, it was somewhat ironic that many people had turned up their noses at old traditions and knowledge until these came back in a new form polished to its hippest.

"Take turmeric, for instance. Kunyit. It's now seen as a wonder food but in Asian cuisine, we have been using it for ages. Our grandparents had long known of its benefits," she said.

Another example, she said, was tempeh, once seen as food for the poor because it was a cheap source of plant protein. Indeed, a lot of poorer people got their proteins from beans and pulses because animal protein was expensive. Now, plant protein is hip.

As for foraging, the latest fad, it is still widely practised by Malaysia's indigenous communities. Ms Rohani recalled how the older folk in her mother's village in Pahang would pick as many as 99 types of wild herbs and vegetables to be served raw in nasi ulam.

"My mother also fermented a type of wild vegetable with cooked rice, and the result would taste something like kimchi," she said.

And although trends such as fermentation, raw food and foraging are deeply rooted in traditional Asian cuisines, few people recognise that, Ms Rohani said. There may still be many people who have the knowledge but many more have become disconnected from the past.

Still, through these new hip products, often adapted from the West, traditional food-preparation techniques have come full circle, at the same time affording young Malaysians opportunities to turn entrepreneurs.

"Sometimes it takes others to show us the value of what we have," Ms Rohani pointed out.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2016, with the headline 'Turning a raw deal into a hip and appetising choice'. Print Edition | Subscribe