“Here you go! This is our version of the Sarawak Laksa. Poached shrimp rolled in spiced desiccated coconut on a bed of laksa cream, served on sago-and-squid-ink puff.” The jovial voice of Raymond Tham, head chef of the newly-opened BETA Restobar Kuala Lumpur jolts me from my contemplations and brings me back to the present — in the classy confines of a restaurant bathed in natural light and a table starting to heave with some exciting culinary spread.
‘Where’s the laksa?” I couldn’t help blurting out. All I could see in front me is a compressed morsel. Labelled as Sago on the menu, it’s essentially a bite-sized inter¬pretation of the Sarawak Laksa. And therein begins my introduction into what BETA KL is all about ― a place where humble and familiar dishes are crafted in unique and surprising ways.
BETA is the brainchild of the team behind the vibrant KL-based, Malaysian-inspired modern European restaurant, Skillet@163. The name BETA simply means number ‘2’ in Greek, denoting the owners’ second excursion into the food business. Elaborating, Tham adds that BETA is also derived from the Malay royal pronoun for ‘I’ or ‘me’.
“Our concept here takes the diner to the four distinct regions of Malaysia ― north, south, east and west. Each region has its own uniqueness. By pairing together ingre¬dients and cooking techniques, we bring forth a newly-defined gastronomic experi¬ence that embodies the hallmark palates of the different regions,” explains Tham.
A GASTRONOMIC JOURNEY
The 36-year-old chef shares that the menu had been curated in such a way that it creates dualities and invites discussions. “We wanted to create a menu that represents the diverse flavours of Malaysian cuisine albeit with a twist. What you get here is not what you’d expect to find in typical Malaysian restaurants. You may think you know what you’re getting, but you don’t.”
For Tham, his emphasis here at BETA isn’t so much on being authentic to a T, but more on creating items that can reignite happy and fond memories of enjoying familiar favourites. “Growing up in Negri Sembilan, it’s a given that I’m inspired by Minang food as well as my childhood memories, such as making a bee-line for the humble warung that sold freshly-fried curry puffs after school. It’s not my intention to recreate the exact thing; I just want to bring back the flavours that I remember into the dishes that I’m creating today.”
As I enthusiastically savour the ingen¬ious creation that is the Laksa, or Sago, a waiter materialises and places two appe¬tisers — both inspired by the chef’s fond childhood memories ― on the table.
First up is the Ox Tongue, inspired by the Minangkabau Masak Lemak Kuning. I eye the razor-thin slices of ox tongue served on a piece of toast, layered with a piquant sauce and garnished with sliced pickled leatherback (belimbing buluh) and chive flowers, with barely-contained excite¬ment. “Makan-lah!” the chef urges, and I didn’t wait to be told twice.
Next up is supposed to be the Karipap (curry puff) but I don’t see the familiar pastry shell. Instead, there’s something that resembles a cannoli with a mild curry potato filling. I’m definitely not ‘braining’ this, I think to myself before looking towards the chef — again in bewilderment.
And again, he smiles before explaining: “We’ve used over three cartons of potatoes perfecting this Inverted Karipap.
The thin crispy outer shell is made of potato and we serve this with a curry cream. When you bite into it, you’ll get the clas¬sic flavours of the curry puff but one with a unique texture.”
Adding a royal touch to this signature teatime snack, Tham has placed a piece of fried curry leaf dusted in edible gold on top of the shell, serving the snack in an attrac¬tive trio arrangement on a bed of spices comprising cardamom, star anise, cloves and coriander seeds.
Barely into the Karipap, another waiter materialises, this time with a bouquet of greens. All the ingredients look fresh and familiar except for one ― a spoonful of icy granite, faint pink in colour. “The salad is served with sambal belacan and a cincalok granita,” explains Tham of the interesting flavour and texture of the fermented krill commonly found in a Peranakan kitchen as he notes my curious expression.
This time paying tribute to the flavours of the South, Tham celebrates the marriage of exotic cultures with colonial influences of the Peranakans, Portuguese, Dutch and Java. From the sweet and tangy infusion of the chilli-crab-inspired Soft Shell Crab dish to the charred and caramelised flavours of Duck Leg cooked for 17 hours a la confit, each dish tells a beautiful story of classic Malaysian cuisine.
“We source for fresh ingredients from the best purveyors in town,” shares the chef. “The Fish Collar (a barramundi) that you’re enjoying for instance comes from Port Dickson, directly from the fishermen themselves. Our spices hail from the East Coast and our other key ingredients come from local sellers that I’ve personally iden¬tified.”
HARMONY IN FOOD
Dining at BETA will always be a unique experience. Pushing the boundaries of local cuisine with creativity and innovation, familiar flavours are ‘repackaged’ into pretty representations of modern cuisines.
“Our dishes here are designed to be enjoyed together with family and friends. Food sharing is a quintessential part of our dining culture and this is exactly what we encourage here,” says Tham.
No doubt, tucking into these familiar but exciting favourites with your regular makan kakis will surely conjure up some fascinating childhood memories involving food. From the ingredients to the descrip¬tions on the menu, Tham ensures that every dish is a conversation starter.
Slurping the last spoonful of the cincalok granita (yes, it sounds quite bizarre), I’m taken back to a special place where my late grandmother, a true blue Nyonya, used to make belachan and cencalok from scratch. And me, a little boy then, would stink like dried fish helping her make them.
It has been said that a winning dish is one that makes your belly happy and the heart, warm. And if I can add to that, messes up with your mind at the same time! At BETA, you can be guaranteed of all that ― and more!
WHEREBETA KL, Fraser Place, Jalan Perak, KL
Closed on Mondays