Fundamentally, when you think about an ingredient, what is it that determines its worth? Price is, of course, dictated by the economy of demand and supply; but what it’s worth is measured in less tangible factors. Logically, it is the flavours it brings to the dish and, of course, the level of difficulty in obtaining said ingredient that should be the only things to consider. In Malaysia, however, there is yet another element that contributes to what makes an ingredient ‘desirable’ and that, unfortunately, is whether or not it is imported.
Take fish, for example: there is undoubtedly a bias for salmon and cod that has been air-flown into the country as compared to the local varieties of fish. Darren Teoh of Dewakan puts it this way: “Salmon takes about four days to reach our shores but, somehow, when you’re at a Chinese restaurant and the fish they used hasn’t just died 30 seconds ago, you get upset. That’s double standards!” He continues: “I don’t deny that there is good salmon or cod that comes from abroad but what I want to challenge is that why don’t the masses invest in, believe in or pay (a premium) for something that is local?”
Never has this partiality for imported goods been more apparent than when you look at chocolates. Ong Ning Geng, the founder of Chocolate Concierge, asks: “Why do most people think that for chocolate to be good, it has to be made in European countries when, in fact, they have no access to cocoa in their lands?” In 1990, Malaysia was the third largest producer of cocoa in the world; today, we are still in the top 10. What this means is that, unlike imported fish or grains (quinoa, we’re looking at you), for chocolate, the consumer is actually “paying for a round-trip; paying for the cocoa to be imported from the tropics to Europe, and then back to our shores.”
Through this photo series, The Peak aims to highlight what it means to champion local ingredients as demonstrated by Teoh and Ong. We follow one ingredient – the cocoa bean – as it makes its way, quite literally, from farm to table, and how it transforms from a fruit of the earth into a product of human ingenuity. And the best part of it all is, it is entirely homegrown.
In a fine dining landscape consisting predominantly of foreign fare, Teoh’s choice of focusing solely on local Malaysian ingredients for Dewakan is something that has sparked curiosity and, indeed, set the restaurant apart from others in its category. The epiphany for Dewakan’s concept came to Teoh when he was working at Au Jardin in the Singapore Botanics Garden. “Our head chef at the time got tired of using monkfish that had to be flown in twice a week, and was only of mediocre quality. And at the time, they had just started farming tiger groupers in Singapore and, so, we switched to using live fish.”
To Teoh, there just was something mindboggling about filleting and tasting a fresh piece of fish that has just died: “You start to wonder why the hell have you been using anything else?” And, so, Dewakan’s philosophy focuses on “connecting the ingredients from our seas, farms, mountains and jungles to a canvas that is our plate.”
The partnership between Ong and Teoh came from a chance meeting a while ago. “I wasn’t even there for chocolate; I went to him for pistachios and ended up having a conversation that led to this collaboration.” At the time, Ong had a batch of experimental chocolates and, after Teoh tasted it, they ended up talking until quite late. “It even made me late for service,” Teoh remembers. They talked until all the other lights (in that chocolate lab Ong owned) were switched off but it was there, in the semidarkened room, that Teoh became the first backer of this experimental chocolate.
The first batch of chocolate that Dewakan used in its dessert was made from underfermented cocoa beans, to show off the chocolate’s origins without it being so refined. Then came an over-fermented batch, followed by one where the cocoa beans were aged in a humus of mulched cocoa leaves. The dessert remained the same each time, with the only variable being the chocolate.
When asked why he chose to do this, Teoh’s answer was simple: “The mass is not investing (in something locally produced). Ning invests his time to do this and, if I have the avenue to champion his effort, then why not? It is a very small community of people doing very unique things and if we don’t invest in each other, who will?”