LEMPENG? That single word that leaps out from a long list of dishes being offered to diners at EQ Kuala Lumpur's Nipah all-day dining restaurant for their Negaraku promotion gets me strangely excited.
Not that the other items from this special spread — a veritable showcase of local regional specialties — are any less exciting, but somehow, the humble lempeng, juxtaposed against the other giants of Malaysian cuisine, seems oddly… charming.
This modest local version of the western pancake and one of Kedah's famous traditional food (they call it Pek Nga up in the north) is flatter and chewier, and can come as a coconut version or with bananas.
It can be enjoyed as it is or dipped into a spicy sambal, curry or even sugar!
My mother used to make coconut lempeng for breakfast when I was a child living in England. That special aroma of pancake batter on the pan wafting into the living room would often get my brother and me scampering into the kitchen in anticipation of our favourite Malaysian breakfast.
I'd also look forward to the sambal tumis which Mum would have made the night before to dip the lempeng in.
"I used to love eating lempeng when I was a kid," a soft-spoken voice with a discernible northern lilt slices into my reverie, bringing me back to the present where I'm seated across from Chef Muhammad Afiq Abdul Malek in the classy confines of Nipah, where a lunch-time crowd is starting to swell.
Casting my eyes furtively towards the buffet station, I can see excited diners milling around the various specialties, attentively attended to by a smattering of chefs and waiters/waitresses. There are exclamations of delight at the sight of familiar, traditional favourites.
Turning my attention back to the young chef, synonymous for his talent at taking traditional recipes and making them contemporary and cool, I nod in encouragement, signalling for him to continue.
"From young, I've always loved lempeng," continues the 27-year-old Chef de Partie, adding: "As a kid, I remember there was this Chinese apek in front of our house who used to make and sell amazing lempeng. Whenever I passed by, he'd call me over so he could give me some lempeng to bring home."
His eyes light up as memories of his childhood come flooding back. In his element now, the Penangite, who specialises in Malay cuisine, explains that a lot of people tend to confuse lempeng with pancake.
"They're two very different things," he exclaims, adding that with lempeng, you don't need to use a lot of flour.
"The flour is only used to bind, say, the bananas, if you're making banana lempeng."
Here at Nipah, the lempeng variety being served to diners is the banana lempeng.
Elaborates Afiq: "When we make the lempeng, we have to lay out the banana leaves on the flat griddle before spooning the batter onto it. Almost 80 per cent of the lempeng comprises banana and banana has sugar. So if you don't have the banana leaves, you'll find that the sugar in the banana caramelises and the batter will end up sticking on the griddle."
In Kelantan and Terengganu, they like to eat the coconut version. They'd have it for breakfast together with fish curry, coconut sticky rice or dried fish.
"We also have lempeng kelapa here and yes, we do get a lot of diners asking to have it served with sambal."
Aside from lempeng, the other signature draw of this Negaraku promotion is from the decadent dessert selection — the Puding Raja (Royal Pudding), which won't fail to catch your eye for its uniqueness and vibrant colours.
It's eaten with a lathering of custard on top and colourful candied cherries swimming around it.
"It's a royal dessert," exclaims Afiq, a chef for more than 10 years, before adding that this dish was traditionally developed and served to the royal family of Pahang.
"Our version is made of egg yolk, water and sugar. It's a challenging dessert to make because you really need to get the right balance between the egg yolk, water and sugar when you boil the ingredients, else the jala (lace) of the yolk would disintegrate."
The Puding Raja, I'm duly informed, is also well known in the other East Coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu.
"Because it's so hard to make, not a lot of people make it," shares Afiq, before confiding that he actually obtained the recipe from a fellow chef, Chef Zabidi, who'd previously worked with the famous Chef Wan.
Another eye-catching dessert from the line is the Pulut Tai Tai or Blue Glutinous Rice Cake, an exquisite creation, complete with a bright blue marbled hue, which hails from the south, or more specifically, Melaka's Nyonya kitchen.
Also known as Pulut Tekan, this Nyonya kuih is made of fluffy glutinous rice steamed in coconut milk, butterfly pea flowers (bunga telang) and eaten with a dash of kaya (aromatic caramel coconut jam).
For something that harks back to our childhood, try the Coconut Candy. I recall this being a simple childhood favourite too (along with Aiskrim Potong — ice-cream popsicle flavoured with localised ingredients like Milo, corn, red beans etc and also available to diners during this promotion), which my late grandmother used to give to us as a sweet treat.
A confection of grated coconut, sugar, condensed milk, flavouring and colouring, these coconut candies were particularly popular during festive seasons.
LURE OF THE MAINS
Tearing myself away from my favourite topic — desserts — I ask Afiq to walk me through the "Mains" offerings. And certainly there are plenty to delight even the fussiest of palates.
I'd already noted one of my favourite local dishes, the Daging Salai Masak Lemak, an iconic specialty of Negri Sembilan. Masak Lemak is a style of cooking which utilises liberal amounts of turmeric-seasoned coconut milk.
"You can get this dish in Melaka and Johor too but ours is the Negri Sembilan version," explains the chef.
"We smoke the meat in-house; we don't buy ready-made. We also pound all the ingredients together — the onions, garlic, ginger, cili padi etc — and use fresh coconut milk so it's creamier."
From the southern region, diners can also savour Laksa Johor or Mee Rebus Muar.
The promotion menu is rotated so you might not always get the same items.
On my visit, it's the Mee Rebus Muar that calls for sampling. Oh, and the Nasi Ambeng, a special rice dish, which looks absolutely glorious in terms of presentation, and is popular among the Javanese.
"The main portion of the Nasi Ambeng comprises steamed rice and the accompanying items served with it could be fried tempe, fried tofu, coconut serunding, ayam kicap (chicken in soy sauce), vermicelli noodles and so on," the chef reels off.
It's like your traditional mixed rice but with everything bunged in — including noodles!
Meanwhile, the Mee Rebus is worth savouring too. This popular local dish consists of egg noodles drenched in a spicy aromatic sauce thickened with cooked and mashed tuber vegetables. It's also known as Mee Jawa in other parts of the country.
What's from the north, I ask the Penangite, noting his eyes lighting up as I "travel" up to his part of the country.
"We have Asam Laksa Penang, Nasi Dalcha, Ayam Masak Merah and of course, the lempeng," he replies, beaming happily.
The Asam Laksa, a noodle dish using smooth rice noodles and comes with a fish and tamarind-based broth, fulfils the three vital taste criteria — sweet, sour and spicy all at the same time.
"It's an iconic dish from Penang but you can also get different versions from different parts of the country," adds Afiq.
Suffice it to say, there are so much more to explore from this Negaraku promotion at Nipah, which will run until Sept 16 — for both lunch and dinner.
Why not make the trek to EQKL to relive and indulge in a nostalgic culinary journey of some of Malaysia's best?
As Chef Afiq concludes: "The beauty of Malaysian cuisine is that every race truly enjoys it. It's the food of the people and yes, our food is what binds our people together…"
Nipah @ EQKL
Lunch: RM88 per adult (12pm to 3pm)
Dinner: RM88 per adult (6pm to 10pm)
Reservations: Call 03 27897839/7840.