What to order at Kantan

Published on 29 July 2021

Photo: Fish curry rice and seared barramundi at Kantan

Six years ago, Hisham Albakri left a cushy corporate job to begin his tentative foray into food, spurred by an abiding passion and the realisation that Malaysian cuisine in Australia was starting to fall into a niche he felt it shouldn’t belong to – “primarily a lazy Susan of char koay teow, nasi lemak and rendang”.

Wanting to change this, he tucked away his marketing degree and buckled down to pursue the hobby he loved full-time. Soon, a clandestine supper club offering five-course meals from his tiny Carlton apartment evolved into a successful catering business, then into Kantan, which opened in September 2020. Though “Kantan” is often assumed to be a play on “canteen”, the restaurant is actually named for torch ginger, a versatile and aromatic plant which grows abundantly in Malaysia and is used in dishes like laksa, kerabu, sambal, drinks and desserts. The scent of its flower, Albakri says, takes him right back to his childhood.

His mother’s fearless attempts to cook whatever she set her mind to taught him a tenacity that helped him navigate the “uncertainty, endless research and labyrinthine council rules” that made his journey to bring Kantan to life “particularly memorable”. Albakri says a commitment to a seasonal, slow food approach and a stress-free working environment ground the way he runs things – which he is fairly sure has helped him expand his catering portfolio to include the likes of the Commonwealth Bank, NAB, PwC, BMW, the Islamic Council of Victoria and the Consulate General of Malaysia.

Melbourne’s bottomless appetite for richly varied cuisine has helped Kantan develop something of a local cult following in the months since its launch, and the restaurant offers a mixture of both staples and less familiar dishes that demonstrate the breadth and depth of Malaysian cuisine.

To get an idea of where to start at Kantan, let’s walk through the menu with Albakri.

How about a drink?
A hot cup of teh tarik is unbeatable. Black tea leaves are left to brew for a minimum of an hour, resulting in fragrant, punchy flavour which we temper with sweetened milk. It can be served frothy and hot, harking back to its roadside WWII roots, or chilled like the other favourites – iced tea and iced citrus tea. Kantan is also BYO if you prefer something a bit stronger.

I’m here for a good time, not a long time.
If that’s the vibe, go with curry puffs (we’d recommend the sardine flavour), keropok lekor (our fried fish sausages – a classic teatime staple among the north-eastern coastal villagers), our Kantan fried chicken, or roti canai with either peanut sauce or chicken curry.

Got anything light and fresh?
Big flavour is a mainstay in Malaysian cuisine, so I’d have to go with the spicy stir-fry of mussels and prawns. Yes, it packs a solid umami punch with tauchu (fermented bean paste) and oyster sauce but it’s beautifully balanced out with mild crushed red chillies, lemongrass, coriander and a squeeze of lemon juice for that burst of freshness. There’s no better way to experience the sauce than mopped up with mantou buns; then you’re in heaven. Or something pretty close.

I like tasty food but I don’t eat animals
Then it’s the house laksa, hands down. It’s made from about 20 different plant-based ingredients, including fresh coriander roots, vegan belacan, and pulverised fried shallots  – and that’s just the soup! Vermicelli and wheat noodles are topped off with tofu puffs, seared eggplant, pea shoots and seared vegan char siu (our mock barbecued pork). I created this especially for Fitzroy’s vegan community. If you want something a little smaller, we have a festive little gado-gado, the salad of steamed crunchy vegetable with a peanut sauce made to my mum’s recipe.

Name the dish that is quintessentially Kantan.
The Kantan fried chicken. It’s an absolute flavour bomb. Marinated in oyster sauce and egg, twice deep-fried, coated in a silky sauce made with aromatics such as kantan, the torch ginger that is our namesake, plus lemongrass and lime leaves. Crunchy, juicy, savoury, sweet, tangy and fragrant all in one. It’s also gluten-free.

Let’s go big, let’s go crazy. What have you got for me?
If you want to go big, go with the curries. Kick off with a serve of roti jala, savoury turmeric latticed crêpes eaten with a side of chicken curry – a favourite with Melbourne’s Malaysian crowd. Follow up with the generously sized fish curry rice and crisp barramundi main course, inspired by the nasi dagang of my coastal hometown of Terengganu. The fillet sits over a bed of steamed coconut rice mixed with fenugreek seeds, fresh shallots and ginger, surrounded by a pool of aromatic curry, complemented by a light palm sugar dressing which lends a freshness to its depth. Finish it off with a hearty cup of teh tarik, a swig of riesling or some lightly oaked chardonnay.

And to close?
A serve of seri muka, a sweet kueh – Malaysia’s small sweet or savoury cakes. I’ve spent a year trying to get as close to perfect as possible. There are two layers – on top, a pandan custard of soft but firm texture, and on the bottom, a slightly savoury, soft and chewy glutinous rice steamed in coconut milk, served warm. One bite, and it’s a party in your mouth.

Kantan is open for lunch and dinner 11.30am-3pm, 5pm-9pm Wed-Sun, 256 Johnston St,  Fitzroy, 0473 638 421, kantan.com.au@kantan.catering

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