Malaysian soul food

Malaysian soul food

A social enterprise, Agak-Agak has its roots firmly planted in the local community. Priya Kulasagaran checks out the food outlet’s wholesome and hearty fare, as well its plan to give opportunities to marginalised youth.

Tucked away in the trendy Art Printing Works (APW) space at Jalan Riong, Bangsar, is a curiously unpretentious little eatery with an even curiouser name – Agak-Agak (roughly translating to ‘more or less’). While the restaurant’s co-founder, Basira Yeusuff jokingly says the name was their designer’s idea, the Malaysian expression of cooking by ‘feel’ accurately describes the outlet’s approach to food.

“I’m very emotion-centric when it comes to my menus,” says the 31-year-old. “Every item has to have a story for me. If there’s no story, then I have no interest in it, and if I’m not interested in it, there’s no way I’m going to serve it to my customers.”

By way of example, is the story of their most popular dish, the Chilli Pate Mee — a twist on the traditional Malaysian-styled pan mee. The dish comprises handmade ryu noodles, playing off a ramen recipe; a Malaysian style onsen egg that uses kicap manis instead of soy sauce; and a dollop of chicken liver pate that ties everything into a rich, creamy delight. Adding to the flavour is Basira’s vegetarian spin of the Japanese dashi soup, which utilises our very own local seaweed (or rumpai). The result is an elevated version of a comforting and lovingly prepared homecooked meal; innovative while staying true to the Asian flavour we have grown up with.

This theme of incorporating the Malaysian identity can be seen throughout the menu. Take for instance the Kacang Pol, a Johorean favourite, topped with sliced green chilli, fresh onions, crispy golden-fried shallots, crumbled feta and a runny fried egg, served with toasted milk bread. Or the Mangkuk Tongkol, where our very own local tuna is pan-seared and served with rice, pickled vegetables, tempe and eggplant, with a drizzle of tamarind and chilli shoyu sauce. Being a big fan of ulam myself, the Ulam and Quinoa salad  (served with a sweet-potato begedil) is definitely a lot more relatable than the usual mix of lettuce leaves that tends to pass off as a salad in many contemporary dining outlets in the city.

Even the sampling of desserts available are infused with local ingredients, although one may not notice it at first. Two memorable standouts are the Limau Nipis Bundt Cake, which leaves a pleasant sweet-tangy aftertaste, and the Pulut Hitam Cheese Tart.

Basira explains that she started thinking about the variety of produce, and the under-utilisation of them in contemporary dining, when she was working at a 2-Michelin star restaurant in Bradenburgen Hof hotel. “I was working under a chef who was putting his own twist on German cuisine, without sacrificing the locals’ comfort level. It was kind of mind-blowing. And then I was looking at what was happening back home; it was the whole red velvet and cupcake craze – that was really surreal. I realised my knowledge of local produce was quite shallow, so I started learning more about what we have in our own backyard; and there’s still a lot more for me to learn.”

In Basira’s world, this knowledge tends to be immediately translated into more unexpected concoctions – their recent Raya special was a bunga kantan shortbread. “Instead of sugar, I used gula melaka, so it’s more dense, and threw in chopped up bunga kantan and lime. If it works, why not?”

Staying true to a culinary voice

Basira is no stranger to the local food scene; after operating the now-closed Crumbs Cafe for a year, she turned her attention to a more guerrilla-style of serving her customers. This started with an artisanal sandwich pop-up called Yay Sammich! and the decidedly underground initiative Fancy Breakfast Club, before she started up Root Cellar KL. What led her to Agak-Agak was an invitation from co-founder Ili Sulaiman (noted for her tiffin-style delivery service Dishes by Ili and winner of the Asian Food Channel’s 2015 Food Hero Asia award) to start up a training programme for underprivileged youth.

“It just made sense to me — I needed something new to move on to, and this is my medium to contribute back,” says Basira. “It’s something I’ve been doing anyway; one of the guys who has been with me for five years is borderline autistic. He had no experience at all, but he shows up on time, is a really hard worker, and just a good person. That’s all that I, or even my peers, look for when hiring someone — just be a good person.”

Open to Malaysians aged 17 to 32, with at least a PMR qualification, the year-long programme trains participants in kitchen and service skills, as well as leadership. Participants also get a monthly pay, as well as EPF and SOCSO benefits. “They work five days a week like the rest of us. The only extra thing I ask is for six hours on your off days to come and learn some theory with me. We also provide them with personal coaches that we pay for, so it’s a holistic thing,” says Basira.

Having started with their first cohort of two last year, Basira adds that they plan to admit four for their second cohort in the middle of the year. “We’re looking at grants so we can open it up to more people. Currently, I’m the only one doing the culinary training, and I know my limitations; I don’t want 100 people coming in, and we give them half-baked training,” she says.

However, this was not the route she had in mind after leaving culinary school in her early twenties. “It’s just the mindset that you’re sold: to be a good chef, you have to open your own restaurant, have a slew of people under you, get really expensive cutlery, serve 13 to 21 small courses on tiny plates, use the weirdest ingredients, and that only the elite few can try your food. So in the beginning, that’s what I was chasing – the creativity, the knowledge, the accolades. Then you realise, you can’t continue that way; your back always hurts, you don’t know how to sleep like a normal person, or what it’s like to see the sun.”

She adds that a conscious shift in direction was going back to the roots of why she wanted to cook in the first place. “I like the work; the process of physically using your hands and making something tangible, and watching people enjoy what you just made. I want to use things like ulam, the things that are my voice. I’m really happy being the kind of chef that serves people, normal, everyday people.”

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