Culture

Why the Kita Food Festival Has Us Hungry to Get Back to Malaysia ASAP

Whether wine aficionado, locavore, seasoned or starter gourmand, if you’re in George Town, Penang, or in Kuala Lumpur from December 3 -12, you’re in for a treat with the Kita Food Festival.

kita food festival; malaysian food

Ember restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, which will be featured in an eight-hands plant-forward dinner on Dec 8, during the Kita Food Festival

By David Ngo

Nov 29, 2021

IF YOU THOUGHT Malaysian cuisine was only about street food, think again. It’s also home to some of the most cutting-edge restaurants, mixologists and food producers in Asia. The Kita Food Festival, on December 3 through 12 in Penang and Kuala Lumpur, is setting out to showcase them all. (See entire schedule of events below.)

Meaning “we” or “us” in Malay, the Kita Food Festival serves as a celebration of the thriving Malaysian food scene. Initially scheduled for August 2020 and involving a number of regional and international chefs, the ongoing pandemic and closed borders have resulted in the inaugural Kita focusing on Malaysian talent only.

In October, founders Leisa Tyler (formerly of the {Re} Food Forum and Asia’s 50 Best), Darren Teoh (founder and chef of Kuala Lumpur top restaurant, Dewakan), and Adrian Yap (owner of event company Freeform), decided that the pandemic would slow them no more, and Kita would come to fruition.

And oh, what fruit it has borne! The gustatory delights range from kitchen takeovers to collaborations between some of the country’s hottest chefs and restaurants, and masterclasses where experts share tips in intimate sessions on subjects such as natural wines, zero-proof cocktails, and growing vegetables. 

Beyond ‘hot’ chefs, Kita is also shining the spotlight on lesser-known talents, such as Ember Kuala Lumpur’s Gary Anwar, who will be taking over the kitchen at Penang’s heritage-chic ChinaHouse on December 3. 

“With Kita, we want to cement Malaysia as a fine dining culinary destination. We want to showcase Malaysia’s burgeoning culinary scene- the chefs exploring terroir and culinary heritage and coterie of growers and producers- in a whole new light. We want to bring the culinary community together, share ideas and skills, unite the community and set off some fireworks,” Tyler says.

In the hawker food island heaven of Penang, chef Shaun Ng and Johnson Wong are shaking things up on December 4 — Wong’s restaurant Gen is known for reinterpreting heritage recipes, while Shaun’s 10-seater gem, Hide, serves up indulgent, multi-course menus. 

Meanwhile, Dewakan’s plant-forward dinner is a collaboration of four chefs from four very different restaurants, in a fine-dining caper like no other. Akar Dining’s Aidan Low, Char Line’s Hun Yan, Ember’s Gary Anwar, and Dewakan’s own Darren Teoh have put together 11-courses.

“Vegetables, because of the vast variety, coupled with the unique ingredients indigenous to Malaysia, posed greater unrealized possibilities for the development of flavor and interesting dishes,” Teoh says. “The over consumption of meat and their products is taking its strain on the environment and on our health. And while it is a complex discussion that shouldn’t be over simplified, we hope that this menu will be able to shift the gaze of our community to consider plant-forward dishes as exciting and fulfilling as carnivorous ones.”

We’re especially liking the sound of this group’s grilled jicama skewered on pine (with the side of rose and torch ginger beer).

Sponsored by Patina Maldives

Speaking of drinks, Nadodi & JungleBird are on the cards for December 9. Both on the Asia’s 50 Best list, Nadodi for its ‘progressive nomadic cuisine’ and JungleBird for its truly delicious, rum-laced concoctions, the pairing is a little bit mysterious, but all the more intriguing — organizers say more will be revealed soon. 

JungleBird does another Kita Food Festival shift on December 12, this time in a masterclass called Cocktail to Kitchen Crossovers, demonstrating how by-products from their cocktails make it into dishes coming out of the kitchen in a supercool bid to eliminate food waste.

In suburban Paramount Gardens, chef Jack Weldie has been making quiet waves with his unique brand of omakase at Chipta 11a. Think perfectly seared mackerel with bak kut teh broth sounds a bit weird? In the hands of Jack, the pairing is perfect. He cooks with Jun Wong at her modern Japanese restaurant, Kikubari, and we can expect Jack and Jun to tease and tantalize palates, adding local nuance from ingredients such as tamarind and tempe to their menu.

Coming in hot is the culturally compelling masterclass with Native Discovery. Take a deep dive into Malaysian cuisine through the eyes of the Orang Asli, an indigenous minority and the oldest inhabitants of the Malaysian peninsula. The class explores traditional culinary styles using sustainable endemic ingredients found in and around the everyday kitchen, interspersed with unique storytelling.

Topping off the week-long gastro affair is a great big Sunday barbecue when a coterie of Malaysia’s hottest chefs descend on Tiffin at the Yard, an old depot in the city recently given a new breath of life. Imagined as the best food party of the year, this casual lunch affair throws the best of Malaysian produce onto the grill with a zero-waste approach. Think ugly-delicious offcuts of meat made delectably beautiful, local seafood and heirloom vegetables flame grilled to perfection to continue the festival’s sustainable approach.

The act of coming together to savor the flavors of the land is a celebration at the very heart of the Kita Food Festival. And where the notion of community is so deeply entrenched within Malaysian culture, it tells the story of Kita.

“Kita originally began with a need to find representation in the global food service world for Malaysia,” Darren Teoh says. “While this is still the main objective, these two years struggling with the impacts of the pandemic, we also felt that now, it is important to continue building community. Connecting the dots between chefs and restauranteurs, farmers, producers, purveyors and customers and tightening these strings that bind us. A celebration and a reminder that we need each other if we are in this for the long haul.”

Here’s the line-up for Kita Food Festival, this year’s celebration of Malaysian dining and drinking:

For more information, visit kitafoodfestival.com

All photos courtesy of Kita Food Festival.

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