#TravelTuesday: Reimagining street food with chef Will Meyrick at The Datai Langkawi
When in paradise
Venture to the Amazon of Asia to rediscover nature and culinary delights as the luxury resort rolls out a new series of celebrity chef experiences not to be missed
"We always say haggis is a three-legged animal and it runs around the hill. That's why two legs are always shorter," jokes celebrity chef Will Meyrick as he uses both hands to animatedly gesture the pseudo bow-legged strides of the dish masquerading as a cryptid.
For those who're mystified as to how this conversational tangent came about, I take full culpability as the nosy media who went rooting around in Meyrick's Scottish ethnicity — although the chef himself was only too delighted to regale. Seated with a view overlooking a verdant rainforest canopy as far as the eye can see and backdropped by the vast pristine blue of the Datai Bay, I'm taking afternoon tea with the culinary maestro that's currently occupying The Datai Langkawi's celebrity chef hotseat.
That's right; the celebrated name in street food dining is in the house — specifically, the Gulai House — where he showcased his aptitude for wholesome fine dining with a specially curated menu, dubbed Eagles & Hawkers, for the Datai. And apparently, while you can take a Scotsman out of Scotland, you can't take Scotland out of the Scotsman as the pride Meyrick displays in describing the bounty of his homeland was infectious despite his admission that he couldn't do Scottish dishes justice (he still got the kilt, though). Hence haggis, the national dish of the Land of the Brave, made from sheep offal and touted as a novel experience for tourist tastebuds.
"I've been home three times in the last fifteen years. I'm more Asian than Western. That's what everyone thinks anyhow," he laughs.
Indeed, with an award-winning career that spans the wide landscape of Southeast Asian street food over two decades, Will Meyrick's affinity for our regional flavours is without par. Having extensively travelled cross-country around Indonesia and to neighbouring nations, his passion has seen classic Asian dishes given a personal innovative flair to become popular signatures at his dining establishments in Bali, Hong Kong, and Kuala Lumpur.
A more perfect fit you'd be hard-pressed to find, as chef Meyrick's culinary aesthetic clicks right into place at the nature-inspired Datai where he served up a symphony of flavours in a four-course spread at the Gulai House. Renowned as the resort's traditional kampong house-designed locale — replete with rustic charms — where you can get your fix of authentic Malay and Indian cuisine, dining at the Gulai House is an elevated sensory experience as the restaurant sits within the au naturel beauty of Langkawi's ten-million-year-old rainforest.
In homage to the gastronomical dynamism of Malaysia, Meyrick's Eagles & Hawkers menu is a collaboration of local and Indonesian flavours with dishes such as lemongrass chicken on betel leaf covered in a chilli capsicum relish, a spicy and tangy soft shell crab rojak salad and to-die-for Kandar beef cheek rendang simmered in a hearty meat masala (a Meyrick specialty recipe as well as the chef's personal comfort food). It goes without saying that we dined like kings that night — with strategic sharing of plates to get the most mileage out of the whopping choices available for the seconds and mains, before wrapping up the evening with dessert.
Needless to say, dessert included the equally lauded and dreaded durian fruit. No Asian dining experience, it seems, is complete without the King of Fruit making an appearance at the table. But fear not, as the infamous pungent intensity is mellowed out in the smooth textures of a durian panna cotta pudding, accompanied by sticky white rice. Hear ye, durian-fearing folks; I say there's no better way to conquer this indomitable flavour than to sample chef Will's creamy confection.
Stuffed and utterly sated, we had all deemed dinner a roaring success; a fact I gladly told chef Meyrick, who then proceeded to disclose how he'd switched certain elements of the menu on the fly to incorporate some local produce — farmed by the Datai's resident culinary team straight from the surrounding jungle, no less. Talk about Mother Nature's way. And on that topic, it's at this point that a mischievous macaque gatecrashes our interview in an attempt to nab a peanut cracker off the table (twice) but was chased off, though not for the lack of trying. Monkey sightings are as common as the trees are plenty here at the Datai. Every brochure had meant it when they claimed the 750-hectares of rainforest is so entwined with the resort, you sleep and wake to the forest — a fact compounded by a highly recommended morning nature walk with the Datai's resident naturalist, Irshad Mobarak.
But I digress. After that fun little interlude, we put aside the monkeying around (pun intended) and went back to dissecting the intricacies of the menu, which was surprisingly, not as convoluted as you'd think. "For me, food should be fun and easy, and not taken too seriously," chef Will elaborates.
Notion seconded, as the Eagles & Hawkers lineup had us exclaiming how the Kandar crab curry or the duck korma — or everything, really — on our palate evoked the sensation of home, bringing to mind the food we ate growing up. It was reminiscent of comfort food, but layered with a new twist of eclectic flavours that brought out an entirely different facet to the familiar dishes. As Meyrick eloquently puts it: "I'm not just a white guy cooking Asian food. I'm not that stereotype as I've spent the energy to actually understand the region's cuisine rather than taking a recipe out of a cookbook and saying, 'there we go'. I went to interview the local people; I've spoken and listened to them, and often worked with them as well. Hopefully that comes out in the dishes."
Well, I already know I'm raring to have another go round. And if you're a true foodie at heart, you'll be booking up reservations at The Datai Langkawi five paragraphs ago for their next celebrity chef dining experience that's already in the works (and prepping to get your Zen on amongst the tranquil of the rainforest). But in the meantime, chef Will Meyrick will gladly host you if you're ever in his neck of the woods, so drop by if it's innovative Asian street food fare you're hankering for.