Malaysia on a plate

Their outdoor activities curtailed by rain, Katie Derham and her family signed up for a cookery lesson. But learning to make spicy chicken noodles was only the beginning of what was to become a gastronomic tour.

Malaysia on a plate

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The Cameron Highlands

A hotel shows its character when the weather turns nasty. An unseasonably late and heavy monsoon in north-east Malaysia wasn’t just threatening the sense of humour of the guests, it was causing chaos locally, with considerable flooding and storm damage.

But at Tanjong Jara, what I like to call the Kellerman spirit – in homage to the film Dirty Dancing – kicked in with grace and speed, and we were offered activities as diverse as batik painting and playing chong ka (a kind of hybrid of marbles and backgammon). For us, though, the choice was easy. We’d learn to cook.

Tanjong Jara was the start of a gastronomic journey around Malaysia that took in both east and west coasts of the peninsula, as well as the capital, Kuala Lumpur. Before I went, I’m afraid my knowledge of the country was shamefully limited to geography lessons about the rubber industry. But as a family, we’re crazy for Asian food, and the prospect of being taught how to wield a wok by the pros – with the added lure of time on the beach – was too good to pass up.

Malaysia is a perfect foodie destination. The cuisine of neighbouring Thailand may be better known in the UK, but Malaysian cuisine is more complicated – and richer for it. The country was firmly on the spice route, and the original Malays were a seafaring bunch, so the food, as well as the culture, has long been influenced by the traders – and invaders – of the region.

For hundreds of years there were strong links with India. More recently thousands of Indian workers were brought in to work on the rubber plantations. There’s a large Chinese population, too, so, in the west and in the capital in particular, your menu will include as many curries as
Thai-style stir-fries and Chinese noodles.

Beef rendang, a delicious spicy, tender but dry stew of beef with coconut is virtually the Malay national dish, and has to be tried, but what tickled us most was the discovery that Malaysia invented satay, the classic meat-on-a-stick snack. It’s cooked on every street corner, on a charcoal griddle, with ladles of freshly made peanut sauce and bamboo skewers.

Our culinary education started with a trip to the local market. In the care of the talented, eccentric and hilarious chef Ann, we made our way, through sheets of rain, along the neat, palm-lined coastal road, to the covered market in the town of Dungun. It seemed a crime to leave the comfort of Tanjong Jara. But any hankering for the resort was soon forgotten as we wandered, wide-eyed, past stalls piled high with unfamiliar herbs and vegetables (twisty runner beans, anyone?), and past fish vendors determined to make the children jump by waving enormous mackerel and ugly monkfish at them.

Ann told me which spices she couldn’t live without. Garlic and chilli came as no surprise. But galangal? It looks like a ginger root but is citrusy, and is a staple of her noodle dishes. Then there’s a kind of fermented shrimp paste called belacan, which smells like nothing on earth before it’s cooked, but adds a non-fishy sweetness and intensity to meat.

“I’m tired, let’s have a cappuccino,” announced Ann, and we looked blankly for a coffee shop in the heaving market where we were most definitely the only foreign visitors. Cappuccino, it transpired, meant a stall where instant coffee and warm condensed milk was poured – or pulled, as they say – back and forth between two mugs until it developed a good froth. Like cappuccino. Not bad, actually.

Two hours later we’d cooked much of what we’d bought. Buttermilk prawns, with the most indulgent cream and chilli sauce, topped with crispy deep fried egg yolk (very fiddly). Spicy chicken noodles, mamak style. Beef with lemongrass and coconut milk. It all looked a bit haphazard, and I’m still not sure we should have let five-year-old Eleanor chop chillies with an eight-inch blade, but the pride and effort involved made it the best lunch we’d eaten.

To the west coast. With more time, we could travel slowly, through the tea plantations and nature reserves of the Cameron Highlands, where the Empire still lingers in the names of the bungalows, and the air is cool. We drove along surprisingly good roads (driving on the left – the British departed in 1957 – and you don’t need electrical plug adaptors, either – who knew?), passing through mile after mile of precisely planted plantation. Palm oil has mostly replaced rubber these days.

Fascinating to see the freshly painted gates and signs with the names of international conglomerates, cheek by jowl with traditional wooden homes on stilts. Slightly worrying to realise, after the first hour or so, that all this used to be virgin jungle. Still, onto the ferry, relishing the fact that the monsoon on this side of the peninsula had finished a month previously, and we were off to the island of Pangkor Laut.

A British colonel, Freddy Spencer Chapman, was rescued from the island by submarine during the war after spending many months living rough in the jungle, fighting the Japanese. For us, by contrast, Pangkor Laut had been a resort mentioned in hushed tones by ritzy friends booking their honeymoons.

It has the perfect palm-fringed beach; picturesque cabins on stilts in the sea, with terraces from which you gaze at the glorious sunset or deep into each other’s eyes. It also has a fine spa, restaurants, activities should you desire, and gorgeous views of ancient rainforest to feast upon if you’d rather lie very still in a hammock.

Just to add to the package, a chef can come to your cabin and cook just about anything. We were on a mission to eat our way around Malaysia, and now we discovered we could do so without moving a muscle. I have handwritten recipes of some of the dozens of dishes we worked our way through – all for research, of course. Some we were allowed to watch being prepared – the pad Thai, the black-bean beef, the sweet and sour grouper. All were delicious.

There was also a Chinese cookery class where we made spring rolls and chilli sauce from scratch, learnt how to steam sea bass perfectly (easier when you have an industrial-size bamboo steamer) and make “chilled honey dew with tapioca pearl”, which the children found delicious once they’d stopped saying “urgh, it looks like frogspawn”.

Did you know?
Just one Malaysian rubber tree survives of the original batch sent from Kew Gardens in 1877

Then to Kuala Lumpur, a city trying so hard to catch up with the international hubs of Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai that you might worry that local food would be subsumed by – at best – trendy fusion places, and, at worst, by global fast-food chains. Happily, street food’s very much alive and well, and though it might seem a bit counterintuitive, there are some wonderful restaurants tucked into the ubiquitous shopping malls.

We found a kind of fantasy food court called Feast in the basement of the newest and shiniest of the malls, Starhill, next door to the Ritz-Carlton hotel. The imagination of its décor is only matched by the variety and quality of the food on offer. So good in fact, that it seemed churlish to try our new-found cooking skills. Sometimes you’re much better off leaving it to the experts.

Getting there

The Roving Ambassador ( is a concierge service that can tailor-make trips to a portfolio of exclusive and privately owned properties worldwide, including Pangkor Laut and Tanjong Jara; or you can book a package through Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 2144 ; – 10 nights cost from £1,495 per person, including economy flights, five nights at Pangkor Laut and five nights at Tanjong Jara on a b & b basis.

Audley Travel (01993 838130 ; can also tailor-make a Malaysia trip to include some or all of the hotels featured in Katie Derham’s article. A 14-day package, including seven nights at Pangkor Laut, two nights at the Ritz-Carlton in Kuala Lumpur and four nights at Tanjong costs from £2,130 per person. This includes international flights from Heathrow, domestic flights in Malaysia and all applicable taxes. Also included are private transfers between the resorts and some excursions. Accommodation is on a b & b basis.

The inside track

Sip a Selangor Sling cocktail at the award-winning SkyBar and soak up the unbeatable views of Kuala Lumpur’s cityscape from the 33rd-floor venue (Traders Hotel; 0060 3 2332 9888 ).

Enak KL is a contemporary restaurant serving traditional, yet “fine-dining” Malay cuisine in Kuala Lumpur. Sample classic regional dishes such as Padang rendang and sambal prawns here, but remember that reservations are essential (LG2, Feast Floor, Starhill Gallery; 3 2141 8973).

Tenggol Island, part of the Terengganu Marine Park, is celebrated for its untouched coral gardens and rare species of marine life; it is located about 45 minutes’ speedboat-ride from Tanjong Jara. Experienced dive instructors will accompany resort guests to Tenggol to explore some of the 20 dive spots around the island.

Kuala Lumpur boasts several impressive parks, which provide welcome breaks from the city’s skyscrapers. However, to make a complete escape from KL’s urban clamour, take a train to nearby Putrajaya and explore the extensive Floral Gardens.

The Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur will keep adults and children enthralled for hours, with fascinating exhibitions that bring the multicultural heritage of Malaysia alive and chronicle the history and evolution of its indigenous and other peoples (Jalan Lembah Perdana, 50480 Kuala Lumpur;

The best hotels

Tiger Rock, Pangkor Island ££
Located in 12.5 acres of jungle on Pangkor Island, far from the backpacker hostels, Tiger Rock is a “culturally and environmentally sustainable” boutique destination. The welcoming Mohan and his wife Bavanni (Tiger Rock’s talented cook) manage the property’s eight rooms, located in three buildings dotted around landscaped gardens, with a pool that overlooks the jungle (0060 4264 3580 ;; full board from £130 per person per night, including transfers and an island tour).

Ritz-Carlton, Kuala Lumpur ££
When swimming in the Ritz-Carlton’s outdoor pool, flanked by lush vegetation, it’s hard to imagine you’re in the heart of Kuala Lumpur’s busy Golden Triangle district. With four restaurants, a spa and spacious guest rooms, the hotel makes an ideal base from which to explore the Malaysian capital (0800 234 0000 ;; doubles from £175 for the “Discover with You” package, including breakfast, $50/£32 hotel credit per day and a sightseeing tour).

Tanjong Jara Resort £££
Situated on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, Tanjong Jara is an indulgent 99-room resort. Built to echo the breezy grandeur of 17th-century Malay palaces, rooms and suites are dotted around extensive grounds shaded by palm trees and looking out to the South China Sea (0800 9899 9999;; from £190 per double room per night for the “All-Inclusive Getaway” package, including airport transfers, half board and a spa treatment for two guests).

The best restaurants

Chapman’s Bar, Emerald Bay, Pulau Pangkor £
Named after the British colonel who sought refuge at Emerald Bay during the Second World War, Chapman’s Bar sits on a glittering bay, with tables set on the white-sand beach and shaded by palms. Open from noon until 5pm, it’s ideal for languorous lunches of freshly caught fish, traditional satay dishes and duck noodles (no phone so reservations aren’t possible).

Hakka Republic, Kuala Lumpur ££
Popular with locals, Hakka Republic is a slick restaurant and bar whose interiors and cuisine are a well-executed fusion of Western and Japanese influences. Warm corn breads precede miso foie gras, and Australian Wagyu rib-eye steak is served with truffle polenta and Japanese pickled vegetables (Level 2, Menara Hap Seng, Jalan P Ramlee; 3 2078 8908).

Di Atas Sungei, Tanjong Jara £££
The name of Tanjong Jara’s signature restaurant, Di Atas Sungei, reflects its picturesque location “Above the River”, the river in question flowing below the open-air building into the South China Sea. The restaurant’s “Menu Masters” guide guests through the dining options (there is no menu), which include authentic Malay dishes created using fresh, locally sourced produce (Batu 8, 23000 Dungun, Terengganu; 3 2783 1000).

  • Malaysia essentials by Gabriella Le Breyton

For further information contact:

Shanaaz Solomons


Tel: 021 426 0991