Kesum Art Restaurant in George Town has the famous Laksa Johor and authentic Johorean celebratory dishes found at state banquets on the menu. The restaurant’s bold approach in introducing Johorean cuisine must be applauded. Johorean cuisine is not atypical of Malay food found else in Malaysia. The regional cuisine has Middle Eastern influence and resembles the culture of great trading in spices, herbs, and foods. Due to its complexity and often difficult and complicated recipes, the best authentic Johorean favourite recipes like Laksa Johor is often homemade.
A MARKED DIFFERENCE
As a whole, the Johorean dishes may have similar names to the food of the Northern states. However the ingredients, preparation, presentations differ. The marked difference is the rich complexity of taste that can only be savoured and harder to describe.
I tried two familiar dishes in Kesum Art Restaurant. Both has fresh fish as its main ingredient.
Growing up in family of Nyonyas, I am familiar with the complexity of dishes and its tedious preparation.
For me, the proof was literally in the eating. Johorean cuisine bowled me over.
CNN may rank Penang Assam Laksa as No.7 in the World’s 50 best foods. Decisively pungent, Penang’s version of laksa is a spicy-sour fish broth made with poached, flaked mackerel. This readily available Penang street food has a bright citrusy garnish of pineapple, onion, chili, mint and torch ginger and that dollop of “hare koh”.
However it is a commoner’s meal.
The state’s favourite dish, Laksa Johor was created by Sultan Abu Bakar in the 1800s. . The Sultan acquired a love for the pasta during his travels to Italy. Upon his return, he ordered his royal chefs to make Laksa Johor with spaghetti instead of rice noodle.
Laksa Johor is not a dish that you can find in a restaurant. Basically, if you want to eat it, you have to make it yourself.
Making the laksa is a wonderful tradition that bonds the womenfolk of the family as they make this labour intensive dish together. Most Johoreans women have fond childhood memories of helping to peel, pluck, chop, and shred the numerous fresh ingredients.
The laksa gravy is made with choice ingredients with prawns, dried prawns, fresh ikan parang (wolf herring), and ikan kurau (threadfin).
The fragrant spice mixture includes fenugreek, mustard seed, fennel, cumin, belacan. The secret is the toasty kerisik that makes the broth sing!
The garnishing for laksa Johor are cucumber, bean sprouts, long beans, daun kesum (polygonum), daun selasih (Thai basil). An interesting optional topping is a sprinkling of Chinese pickled radish (chye poh).
The preparation is labour intensive as it includes condiments are sambal belacan and calamansi limes. Many Johoreans typically eat their laksa Johor with their fingers, rather than using fork and spoon or chopsticks!
Due to the high cost of the ingredients, the best laksa Johor is to be had in homes and it is served during festive occasions such as Hari Raya.
My first Laksa Johor experience is one that is a memory piece that completes my jigsaw puzzle of what laksa would taste.
Kesum Art Restaurant’s Laksa Johor is fragrant, spicy with a robust delicious taste of rich santan and kerisik. The broth like gravy thick and even though it’s usually eaten with hands by the Johorean, I prefer using a spoon to scrape the bowl dry.
For me the sambal belacan must be spicy hot. The sort that makes you break a thin film of sweat on the temples, forehead, and cheeks and around the lips.
I sniffle a little.
The sensory play on my taste buds from the rich taste makes me linger at the table. I want to savour it.
NATIVE BOTOK BOTOK (fish wrapped in leaves)
Johoreans Botok-Botok is not to be confused with the Nyonya’s Otak-Otak steamed fish custard). The only similarities are both dishes are wrapped with banana leaves and steamed.
Johor version has a total of 13 herbs which is finely julienned, mixed with shredded coconut flesh and spices.
The most authentic taste of Botok-Botok is made using herbs found widely in Malaysia’s rainforest. Kesum Art Restaurant uses 8 types of herbs which are grown commercially for the Botok Botok dish.
The herbs are written in their Malay name as English translation may not be accurate. Pucuk mengkudu, pucuk ubi, pucuk daun cukur, pucuk daun selasih, pucuk daun berbuas, pucuk daun kunyit, daun kesum, daun limau parut and daun pisang (banana leaf) as the wrapper.
The beautiful aroma of the steamed Botok-botok perfumes the dining room even as it is taken to the table.
When you open the oblong banana leaf-encased parcel, there are more tender leaves encircling the whole piece of sweet, firm-fleshed ikan tenggiri (mackerel). The spice mix for the fish is heavy on lemongrass, galangal, garlic which is mixed with fresh grated coconut. The herbs are to be eaten with the fish. The taste is a refreshing start of sweet, medicinal and slight bitter.
After we lifted the fish , separated the centre bone and some side bones, the bottom layer of greens are scrapped off to be eaten, The herbal leaves are full of the fish juices and spices and tastes delicious.
We had the Chicken/Beef satay and Gado-Gado as starters.
Our mains are Laksa Johor and Botok-Botok. We ended the meal on a sweet note with Pulut Hitam and Pengat as desserts.
Kesum Art Restaurant’s owners take pride to ensure authenticity of traditional flavour of Johorean cuisine.
It’s simple, cosy environment, quiet ambiance and attentive service makes this a top Malay cuisine restaurant in George Town.
The restaurant doubles up as an art gallery featuring local Malay artists’ work prominently on the walls. There is a small gallery on the first floor.
Location wise, Kesum Art Restaurant is perfect for business lunch in the heart of Georgetown UNESCO World Heritage Core Zone.
I had several meals, sampling the menu and returned to my favourites a few times. Several of my friends have visited and they are pleased with the delicious meals.
Kesum Art Restaurant| Facebook | TripAdvisor
57, Stewart Lane, 10400 George Town, Penang
Call: 04-262 5757
Business hours: 11.30am to 6pm Saturday to Thursday. Close on Friday.