For how long can you admire the Petronas Towers? Following tourist trap tradition in Kuala Lumpur, we have a drink at the chic Sky Bar on the 33rd floor of the Traders Hotel, dutifully gasping at the startlingly pretty towers while sipping on over-priced cocktails.
Then, we rebel. Hop into a cab and head to Jennifer's Underground Supper Club. We're determined to make the most of our ‘city break' by exploring layers of Kuala Lumpur independently. There has to be more to Malaysia than the staid KL-Cameron Highlands-Batu Caves-package advertised mindlessly by hordes of over-enthusiastic travel agents.
We drive away from the city's sparkling skyscrapers into quiet residential areas filled with sprawling bungalows. Jennifer Palencia aka ‘Jen' is part of the first wave of cooks in Asia opening its homes to guests. Underground restaurants such as this allow people to experience unconventional settings and unexpected food. I found Jen on Facebook, and booked the dinner online. Even as we draw up to the house, I'm not quite sure about what to expect.
Natasha, Jennifer's eldest daughter, is standing at the door in a stripy apron welcoming guests with smiles and hugs. Featuring three fat tabby cats, who stalk around like stern food inspectors, the setting manages to be both formal and welcoming. We walk into a living room draped in golden light from chandeliers twisted with flowers. Every surface is covered with quirky knick knacks ranging from polka-dotted porcelain gumboots to a big pot flashing with tiny golden fish. As we're assigned our places on a long tables set with professional precision, featuring gleaming wine glasses and a regiment of cutlery, the room fills with soft jazz music. The artist is Mia Palencia, Jen's second daughter and a popular jazz singer.
Everyone's dressed up in pretty dresses and stiff shirts. Jen's youngest daughter is sitting on my right, along with a group of her friends discussing the best places to grab a snack after a night of clubbing. They open a bottle of wine for everyone. The generosity is as unexpected as it is endearing. It quickly feels like we're having dinner with friends and family. An astonishing feeling in a city where we know nobody.
On my left is a charismatic young man who works for Facebook. “And don't even think of telling me you hate the new timeline,” he groans, mock rolling his eyes, before enthusiastically helping me plot my next few meals in Kuala Lumpur. His charming housemate pulls out her iPhone to give directions.
In the meantime, Natasha arrives holding up and explaining the first course: mushroom tartlets, with buttery pastry. The evening unfolds like theatre. There are risotto balls, savoury madeleines topped with plump caviar and moreish truffles of chevre and cream cheese rolled in crunchy crushed almonds then wrapped around juicy grapes. And these are just the highlights.
By the time we hit the entrée, luscious Portobello mushrooms filled with a blend of ricotta cheese and sundried tomatoes, we're on a food high. While we eat the main course, roast beef served with billowy Yorkshire pudding, Natasha introduces her teenage brother Christian Palencia (So that's four children in all) who strums on his guitar, and performs a couple of original songs. He's cutting his first record this month (I've been listening to him on SoundCloud ever since I got back).
Despite protests on being stuffed, we manage dessert (And some of us manage two). Apple pecan buttercrisp pie scented with cinnamon and served with ice cream. And flaky French pastry topped with vanilla bean flecked Chantilly cream and berries.
I've been plotting another first on this holiday — signing up for a cooking class. Jen's tourist cooking classes are fairly recent, but have enthusiastic reviews on Trip Advisor.
I'm back at her house bright and early the next morning. My classmate today is a hunky young Californian backpacker who's travelling the world. Over cups of strong coffee in Jen's living room, he tells me about his adventures in Beijing involving encounters with fried scorpions (Backpackers always have the best conversation openers). We're learning how to make Malaysia's staple dish: Nasi Lemak. The kitchen is bright and airy, mercifully air-conditioned and we cook in time to a peppy playlist courtesy a laptop in the corner.
Colourful family history
The class is deceptively laidback, with lots of banter and laughing, between cooking tips and history lessons. Later, I realise I inadvertently learnt a lot about Malaysia in the process. Jen's husband Brabon opens by showing us how to make his ‘Fast and furious salad', a crafty mix of tinned pineapples and cucumbers spiked with chillies, shallots, vinegar and lime. By mid-morning, there's turmeric chicken roasting in the oven, coconut rice bubbling quietly on a stove, and we're knee deep in colourful family history. Like much of Malaysia, Jen's family is a mix of various influences. Her grandfather was Australian, sent to Sabah to manage a plantation. He married a local girl. Her Eurasian father fell in love with a woman of Filipino and Spanish decent.
When he was captured as a prisoner of war, Jen tells us, her mother would swim underwater to set up fishing nets so she could feed her children. Brabon's grandfather was a Belgian soldier who married a girl from Sabah. Their daughter in turn married a Filipino man and had nine children, the youngest of whom was Brabon.
As we settle for lunch, Christian comes downstairs and teaches us how to tie a batik sarong, while Natasha mixes us rose milk, made with ruby-coloured syrup, thick evaporated milk and lots of ice. They tell us, with unconcealed pride, how Jen was Sabah's first woman DJ. “We lived so dangerously,” sighs Jen. “We would leave the club at 3 a.m., then take a boat to an island to swim in pitch darkness.” The children grew up running on the beaches and swimming in the sea. “We're a real Malaysian family,” smiles Jennifer. “We're American, European, Asian. And we cannot live without our Indian roti-dosais !”
(Find Jen's Supper Club on Facebook or call them on +60 377287909)