Culture Trip talks to the world’s most talented chefs about the cities that inspire them and the sights, smells and sensations that drive their approach to food. Darren Teoh, head chef at the first Malaysian restaurant to appear on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, shows us the remarkable diversity of Kuala Lumpur.
Chefs chopping methodically. Pots clanging and banging. White smocks blurred in flux. Stepping into Dewakan, it’s easy to think you’ve come in through the wrong door. Instead of a stylish bar or reception area, diners are greeted by the commotion of a busy kitchen – it’s jarring, but very much intentional. “We want guests to remember that there are people cooking their food,” says head chef Darren Teoh.
Destinations Unlocked:Let our travel expert Stefano help you find your perfect Culture trip
Looking for an expert's perspective?Uncover my top 3 recommended places from each continent on the map.
1. GuatemalaAn express adventure for those with limited time off. Prepare yourself incredible experiences. You will hike a volcano, visit mayan temples and witness a ceremony and take in beautiful colonial Antigua.
2. BelizeA quick trip not too far away for those seeking a relaxing mini break. You will have plenty of free time to relax but also some awesome activities to experience the rainforest and the caribbean sea.
3. MexicoAn exciting mini trip exploring the lesser known colonial towns of central Mexico. This is hte perfect trip for someone with limited time off and still wants to turn on explorer mode and do something different.
1. EcuadorA remarkable 8 days adventure through the Andes and the Amazon rainforest. The best choice for adventure seekers wishing to visit the 2 most iconic areas of South America, in only 1 week and no flights.
2. PeruAn alternative itinerary to classic Peru, from Cusco to Arequipa. This itinerary is great combination of highlights Cusco and Machu Picchu with the lesser known Arequipa and Colca Canyon.
1. ItalyThe ultimate Italian experience from the vibrant streets of Naples to the breathtaking sceneries of the Amalfi Coast followed by Matera and down to Puglia with its golden beaches, intense flavours and fascinating destinations.
2. ScotlandEmbark on this great adventure starting from London all the way to Scotland with a true Scottish experience made of breathtaking sceneries, whisky tasting and ..lots of fun! Ideal for train lovers and explorers.
3. PortugalA wonderful train journey around Portugal, from the romantic city of Porto to the Douro Valley, to the beautiful Aveiro all the way to Lisbon and Sintra. The perfect trip to train, culinary and culture lovers.
1. South KoreaDiscover incredible temples, mountains and modern cities on this 10 day adventure. This trip is perfect for those seeking immersion in the cuisine, culture and natural wonders of South Korea.
2. ThailandFrom Bankgok to Angkor Wat to Ho Chi Minh City and everything in between - adventure through the heart of South-East Asia. Taste the delights, see history brought to life and unwind on a Mekong River cruise.
3. Sri LankaA fantastic adventure that showcases Sri Lanka's fantastic landscapes, wildlife and flavours. With 3 epic rail journeys, 3 UNESCO heritage sites and time to relax, this trip has loads to offer at a great price
1. MoroccoAn epic journey across Morocco: from Casablanca to Marrakech, through the blue city of Chefchaouen to the wonders of the desert and deep to the High Atlas Mountains - this trip has it all! Ideal for true explorers!
2. EgyptFrom Cairo to Aswan, this trip brings the land of the pharaohs to life. You'll visit the Pyramids, Valley of the Kings and Luxor Temple and cruise down the Nile in style. This is the perfect way to explore Egypt.
While undoubtedly unusual, to Teoh there’s nothing strange about his restaurant’s entrance. As he was growing up in his grandmother’s house, the kitchen was the centre of the family – a place for talking and relaxing, as well as cooking. As such, it’s a space he’s always felt comfortable in; somewhere his presence feels natural. For him, “life surrounded the kitchen” – a feeling he wanted to recreate at Dewakan.
Dewakan’s entrance, just like its food, takes an unorthodox approach to haute cuisine. It’s experimental, with a focus on fine produce, something Teoh gained an appreciation for in Singapore while working for the award-winning Les Amis Group. Upon returning to Malaysia around 2010, Teoh turned his gaze to molecular cooking during a teaching stint at KDU University College. The two would culminate in Dewakan, with Teoh and the university collaborating to open the restaurant in 2015. Finally ready to steer his own ship, Teoh looked to home for inspiration.
The menu at Dewakan is laden with obscure ingredients, sourced from Malaysia’s verdant hinterland, tropical forests and rich seas. Jungle nuts and fruits, such as kulim and nam nam, are used to craft delicate desserts; shards of compressed pumpkin garnish goat tartare; king prawns are served with kerdas (a type of wild seed) and banana blossoms. Green ceramic urns, each filled with yet more produce – fermented banana, coconut milk, soybeans – line the kitchen shelves. Leftovers, transformed by the fermentation process, are used anew in different recipes; it’s this curiosity that has led Dewakan to the top of Malaysia’s fine-dining scene. Culture Trip spoke to Teoh about Kuala Lumpur, cultural fusion and the simple nuances that make a city special.
Who are you, and how do you cook?
I’m Darren Teoh, head chef at Dewakan. From the beginning, what we’ve done is look at the ingredients that this land produces, and find the best way to serve them. That’s really the crux of what this restaurant is about. We find ways to serve ingredients that are less popular and more unknown in a way that satisfies us, and makes us think, “this is interesting”.
You could take us and put us in, say, Brazil. Sure, the ingredients would change, but the ethos to push boundaries would be the same. By doing that, we also make other people uncomfortable – we’re very comfortable with being uncomfortable.
What is the flavour of your city?
Instead of a flavour – it’s too simplistic – I would say melange. For this nation and this city, there’s just so much going on. There are so many cultures that define Kuala Lumpur, a little bit like New York or London. You have generations of people who have amalgamated themselves here. They’ve intermarried; there’s a cultural fusion of different meals and tastes brought together into something very interesting.
My dad’s Chinese, and my mum is Indian; we speak only English at home. Our meals were things like Chinese salted vegetable soups with curry and rice on the same plate. There was no rule, “We have to have it this way, we have to have it that way.”
In the way I grew up, that’s how I see the city as well. There are so many options. Just take Chinese food alone: you can have noodles today, roast pork tomorrow, dim sum at 4am. There’s always something – and I think that’s what this city is about. It’s hard to lose weight here.
What is the character of your city?
The people of KL are very joyful. Here, you can walk through the streets and have a conversation with a random stranger – they might not understand a word you’re saying, but they will make an effort, just because they value that encounter, that experience. Most people in the city are like that. They’re not too difficult to open up.
Where do you love to go in your city?
I like Lebuh Ampang. It’s quite an old part of the city, with a lot of Indian restaurants. It reminds me of an old KL, before all the towering buildings. There’s a different kind of busy-ness to it; it’s got a nice vibe. It stands for a time when things were smaller, closer together, and I kind of like that.
Where do you love to eat in your city?
Sambal Hijau in Kampung Penchala. This place has 50 dishes up on display: you get rice and you pick anything you want – it’s typical Malay cooking. You’re just overwhelmed with the assortment that they have. Whenever I have guest chefs over, I take them there. It’s best to be there by 11.30am, before the crowds start to come in, because then it’s chock-a-block. That, and Wong Mei Kee in Pudu. He does Chinese roast meats – very good stuff.
Which of your dishes best expresses the character of the city?
All of them. My understanding of Kuala Lumpur is that it is actually multiple cities. We might have a dish with 20-plus preparations in it and all of them have a unique aspect – some are big, some are small. The city is like that.
For Kuala Lumpur, there’s this overtone of the Pavilion Mall, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and KLCC [Kuala Lumpur City Centre]. But there’s also an undertone: the guy who’s been selling a particular noodle dish for the past 50 years, or the key maker who works under a tree by the side of the road. There are all of these nuances that make up the city. It’s an organism.
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.