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March 12, 2018 | by  | in Food Opinion |
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Kampong Rising

On Boxing Day last year, I took a walk around the city. Counting the number of brandy snaps I had eaten the day before, I realised that this number strangely correlated with the number of Malaysian restaurants I had just strolled past. It must have been 18,  or maybe 19. Nevertheless, it was with great intrigue that I stumbled across the 20th Malaysian restaurant that evening. Kampong, which means “village” in Malay, is the newest offering by the Grandaddy of Malaysian cuisine in Wellington, Chef Raja Vellasamy.

Raj, as he is known to his longtime fans, opened Wellington’s first bonafide Malaysian restaurant, the then Satay Malaysia way back in 1990. Enduringly, generations of followers dutifully return once they find out where this jack-in-a-box chef emerges next.

Before we get into Kampong, it’s worth explaining Malaysian cuisine to the apathetic diner. The multicultural nature of Malaysia is extended to its cuisine. Typically, for example, if you were to enter a Malaysian eatery run by ethnic Chinese Malaysians, then the emphasis of that restaurant would be of food historically linked to the Chinese, such as a plate of char keow teow or even laksa. On other occasions, Malaysian restaurants run by ethnic Indians would showcase fresh roti and deeply spiced curries, another dimension of Malaysian cuisine. Not obvious to many is the lacuna of Malaysian restaurants run by ethnic Malays (I know of one in Taihape), the largest of the three main ethnic groups. Over here you get sweet satays, rendangs,  rich lemongrass and galangal infused coconut curries, and lots and lots of chillies, think Indonesian or Southern Thai. In Wellington, most restaurant’s attempts at covering all three distinct ethnic bases often don’t work. An exception to this would be the global behemoth in the CBD known as Paparich, which covers all ethnic canons to a notable degree.

Kampong is haphazardly located in a dim, dingy, forgotten Yum Cha restaurant with all its past fixtures still intact. Large lanterns with frills drape off the ceiling. The furniture is oddly shaped, and I have a sneaky suspicion that a well-lit fish tank with large goldfish and coral wallpaper used to be the centerpiece of this dining area… hmm, maybe that aquarium should’ve been retained.

Raj’s best dishes are of the Indian variety (colloquially referred to as mamak). However, the rendang here is noteworthy; it’s a Malay dish that CNN ranks as the best tasting dish in the world, originating from the travelling Buffalo people of West Sumatra.  Raj has maintained the integrity of this slow-cooked meat dish consisting of, among other things, fresh turmeric, galangal, ginger, chillies, and desiccated coconut. While his version is slightly more wet than you would typically expect, it is only a tiny compromise on texture to cater to a Kiwi palate.

Raj has made a reputation for himself through his rotis, flipping them fresh upon order. Flakey on the outside and moist on the inside; my personal criteria for roti excellence. However what gets me most excited about this place is that Raj is joined in the kitchen by Chef Silas. Silas is the person responsible for one of the Wellington’s cosiest and coolest BYO joints, Rasa. This dosa maestro of over twenty years offers his signature dosas (south Indian crepes) here too. Put together, these two make a Malaysian foodies’ dream team. I’ve heard that other signature dishes here include the classic nasi lemak, a fiery chicken sambal, and the heady goat curry. Kampong serves Malaysian staples decently too, like mee goreng. The inclusion of butter chicken to the menu does induce consternation, but perhaps it could be a pragmatic attempt at catering to children. While there exist vegetarian dishes on the menu, such as the dhal (lentil curry) and murtabak, a lot more effort could be made by the dynamic duo to cater to this burgeoning segment of Wellington diners. May I suggest items like a coconut-creamy jackfruit curry, which, more than being a hipster fetish, is a staple dish among villages in Malaysia and the region at large.

Since its Boxing day launch, it feels like Kampong needs more time to settle before it’s ready to take full flight. I recommend lunch time trips to Kampong, as it’s more wallet-friendly yet still packs a punch.  In the meantime, I am ready to take the awkward décor and service in my stride, push brandy snaps aside, and buckle up for the ride.

Kampong – 33 Arthur St, Te Aro

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