Victoria Tait speaks with Josh Emett and Fleur Caulton abou their passion for food, travel and how Malaysia has captured their taste buds.
Josh Emett and Fleur Caulton are the creators of Queenstown’s famous restaurant Rata, as well as Madam Woo – the Malaysian hawker restaurant with dining establishments in Queenstown, Auckland, Dunedin, Hamilton, and, as of last month, Christchurch. Of all cuisines in the world, I was interested to know, what it was about Malaysian food that has inspired the pair and how do Josh and Fleur go about creating the flavours on their menu.
Why did you choose Malaysian Food?
I’ve always had a love of Malaysian food. The difference with Madam Woo is we try to focus on traditional dishes. We don’t try to westernise versions of fusion or mixed Asian cuisine. [Those at Madam Woo] are the best possible versions of Malaysian dishes. The way the team do this is by travelling over to Malaysia and experiencing as much of the culture and food as possible. Jane Leon, who is Malaysian born, has been with us since the beginning and travelled over with us. When we get there we eat as much food as possible! We have a trip coming up soon with 10 of our chefs going.
What is one of your most favourite dishes?
Nasi lemak. This is a very traditional dish; Malaysia’s national dish. There are a lot of variations, but most include coconut rice, sambal, peanuts, egg, cucumber. The best way to eat it is to mix it all together. It’s absolutely delicious. It’s a dish you can eat any time of day. If you turn up at someone’s house, they probably will have nasi lemak ready. At hawker stalls, you’ll find it wrapped in banana leaf. Once I stopped at a truck stop on the way to Penang, we stood in line, and there were only four left – I was absolutely devastated that I missed out.
What do you love most about travelling to Malaysia?
It’s all about the food. Life in Malaysia is based around the food, it’s so well celebrated. They are so fanatical about certain dishes they will travel from place to place to get certain dishes.
How do you define the flavours you use?
We’ll go and try the same dish in about five different places and really try to knuckle down what they do differently – is it the temperature of the wok? We are pretty organised; we have a big list of places to go and people on the ground who will take us to exactly where we need to go.
What is your favourite dish on the menu, and why?
Char kway teow is my favourite dish on the menu with prawns, rice noodles and lap cheong (traditional Chinese pork sausage). It is such a tasty, satisfying dish and something I always love eating on the street when in Malaysia. Madam Woo does an amazing version of this dish.
Why have you chosen Malaysian food? What was it about the flavours?
I simply love Asian food of any sort. Malaysian cuisine is such a varied cuisine with Chinese, Indian and Nonya all in the same place. It is a very interesting cuisine, influenced by its neighbouring countries.
What are your favourite places to eat, shop and experience in Malaysia?
Every time we go to Malaysia I find something new to like. I prefer to be in the villages rather than big cities. Every place has a different version of a national dish, so we are always discovering new flavours. To be honest, when I am there I don’t shop I just eat, which is a great job to have.
What do you think we could learn from Malaysian culture?
We can learn a lot from Malaysian culture and especially their cuisine. They love to combine textures and contrast savoury with sweet in a range of their traditional dishes. Some of these flavours and pairings are just delicious, and I think they resonate well with New Zealand palates.
How is Madam Woo a different experience from a traditional Malaysian restaurant?
Madam Woo food is very authentic and traditional. Most of the food we serve can be found anywhere in Malaysia; we just serve it in a more modern, funky environment with fun, fast service to create a whole experience.