FOR THE LOVE OF BORNEO

Written by root. Posted in IN PERSON

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Published on January 04, 2020 with No Comments

At Borneo Restaurant & Bar, Borneo Island’s beauty is celebrated through food. Its founder, Sheela Velappan, shares how the land has inspired her passion.

Words SC CHUA
Images BORNEO RESTAURANT AND BAR

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These days, restaurants have become destinations for foodies to enjoy a memorable dining experience as they are being introduced to new cuisine and unique ingredients. Sheela Velappan’s Borneo Restaurant and Bar offers exactly this. Here, you won’t find your run-of-the-mill menu that can easily pass off as just another menu from another restaurant. That’s because Velappan’s restaurant is the first of its kind in Malaysia to offer an exclusively Bornean cuisine made from ingredients many would not have heard of like keranji, terung dayak, dabai, janggut duyung and the list goes on.

The story began when Velappan became entranced by the food of Borneo and loved how it incorporated so many herbs and spices found in abundance in the Borneo rainforest. She saw it as her mission to help people gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of Bornean food. To make this come true, Velappan collaborated with Sabahan chef Emily Chak to design a menu featuring traditional Bornean cuisine made from authentic Bornean ingredients but with a modern interpretation.

Velappan shares her vision for her restaurant and tells us how appreciating nature’s beauty has given her plenty to offer her customers.

What is the inspiration behind your restaurant?
My Bornean friends. They are the ones who have put me on this journey of discovery of the Bornean rainforest and the gifts Mother Nature has blessed us with that is unique to Borneo. Patrons get a taste of foraged, seasonal ingredients that currently aren’t available in Peninsular Malaysia in restaurants. What we serve is our take on the ingredients that are incredibly versatile and flexible, and to show that their preparation isn’t limited to traditional methods.

What is unique about Bornean cuisine?
Traditionally, ingredients are foraged, and that still continues on till today. The rainforest is the source of all the ingredients used in Bornean cuisine.
The only other place that has similar produce or ingredients would be the Amazonian rainforest.

Tell us how the restaurant concept and menu came about.
It is a culmination of ideas as well as team work with my Bornean friends. And also just a matter of timing to have it become a reality.

What would be a challenge in running a restaurant like yours?
Getting the ingredients as they can be quite seasonal and hard to procure at certain times.

What’s the secret ingredient in getting people to try your restaurant and come back for more?
The ingredients we use are unique and the food is of high quality. Today’s diner is very discerning – they are able to tell the difference when it comes to quality in the food that’s being served. Also, our take on the traditional dishes. For example, the traditional ayam pansuh is cooked in bamboo trunks. Our version is served with minced chicken and century egg dumplings with an option of bario rice or rice noodles.

Can you share some authentic Bornean ingredients that have made their way into your menu?
Engkabang butter, which is also known as butter from the rainforest. The engkabang tree bears fruit every four to five years. The dried engkabang fruit is pounded and squeezed to extract the oil for cooking in the bamboo. When it cools, it has a butter-like appearance and texture. Dabai, seasonal Bornean olive, Terengganu Dayak (Dayak eggplant), terubok roe (a scarce and prized possession from the terubok fish) and multiple foraged seasonal fruit and vegetables as well as seasonal live catch such as conch shell are some of the other ingredients we use in our menu.

What can one expect when dining at your restaurant?
It’ll be a discovery, especially for those who aren’t familiar with Bornean ingredients. Our focus is providing a modern interpretation of Bornean cuisine, presenting these beautiful ingredients in a modern restaurant setting. This applies in everything we do.

You are the first restaurant in Malaysia to focus on Bornean food. What does this mean to you being a pioneer in this area?
Showcasing local indigenous produce, to me, is on par with truffles, fresh fish in Japan, everything that the rest of the world is familiar with. Bornean cuisine and ingredients are something unfamiliar on the world cuisine platform. I don’t regard myself as a pioneer though but just someone exploring her passion and wanting to share that experience with a bigger audience.

How is this rewarding to you?
That I am able to share my personal journey of discovering the wonders of Borneo, providing a platform of education on local produce from our wondrous rainforest, which to me is like a Pandora’s box.

Check it out
Borneo Restaurant & Bar
11, Jalan Telawi 3, Bangsar Baru,
Kuala Lumpur.
Open Wednesday-Monday, 11am-1am
www.borneobangsar.com

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