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Fish called wonder

A trip to his Malaysian homeland saw chef Norman Musa showcasing the fish of the Asian seas, as he cooked his catch over the flames. RUPERT BATES, born in Malacca, reports.

 Rupert Bates   Winter 2022

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 #Malaysia #Bowlful #NormanMusa




You suspect not many quantity surveyors have switched careers to become leading chefs and restaurateurs, with the voyage of Norman Musa from Penang in Malaysia, via the construction industry, to the heights of Southeast Asian cuisine is a fascinating one.

Musa moved from Malaysia to the UK nearly 30 years ago to study construction management, working in the industry until switching professions in 2006.

In 2010 he joined the Formula One Lotus team as race chef, fast-tracking his culinary journey in every sense. 

His global travels sparked a desire to promote his native Malaysian cuisine to the world and he has since appeared on MasterChef Malaysia, Tom Kerridge’s Best Ever Dishes on BBC Two and Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch.

Musa has also hosted five seasons of his own cooking show for Malaysian TV, the latest being Explore the Scent: Holland. He received the UK’s Young Asian & Oriental Chef of the Year award in 2012 and in the same year became a member of the Hospitality Guild’s Young Hall of Fame. 

Both a chef and a cookery teacher, Musa was appointed a Kuala Lumpur food ambassador in 2015 to promote the gastronomic of Malaysia’s capital city to the European market and his book Amazing Malaysian, published in 2016, was described by chef Ken Hom as ‘the definitive Malaysian cookery book’.

Musa is currently based in the UK in Leeds, as executive chef at Kuala Lumpur Restaurant & Bar in the Yorkshire city, as well as leading London’s Wagamama Chef Academy, teaching apprentices pan-Asian cuisine.

Earlier this year Musa took 15 guests from around the world to his home country for a 12-day culinary tour of Malaysia, organised by UK tour operator Odyssey World, highlighting Malaysian food culture and diversity.



A highlight of the tour was a trip to the Pangkor Laut resort, an island off Malaysia’s west coast, visiting small family fisheries and cooking the catch over fire.

“Freshly caught seafood is always what Malaysians like cooking. As my late mother said, you can still taste the ocean and sweetness from the cooked seafood, with the best time to catch and eat seafood at full moon, when the tide is high,” says Musa.

With the fish caught, a grill was set up with burning coconut shells and wood gathered from the island. “The smell reminded me of my humble village upbringings in Malaysia. The coconut shells together with the husks are commonly used to smoke meat and seafood and still widely practiced in parts of Malaysia.” 

The seafood – red snapper, prawns and stingrays – were laid out on a tray, with Musa scoring the fish to allow the seasoning to be absorbed by the flesh. 

“I generously rub the fish on both sides with simple ingredients – crushed black pepper, ground turmeric and sea salt,” says Musa, with this method of seasoning featured in a sea bass recipe from his new cookbook: Bowlful, fresh and vibrant dishes from Southeast Asia. 

“I then brush the fish with vegetable oil using bruised lemongrass stalks to give extra fragrance to the fish. Banana leaf is put on top of the grill to avoid the fish from sticking, or you can use aluminium foil and pierce a few holes in it to allow the heat to char the fish. I grill the fish for six to eight minutes on each side, watching for the flesh to become flaky, which tells me it is cooked.”

Prawns are cut in half, exposing the white flesh so it absorbs the sweet chilli sauce marinade.

“Rub the sauce all over the prawns and grill for two minutes on each side, long enough to cook, but still juicy.”

Next on Musa’s menu were stingrays, cleaned and cut into small pieces.

“Grill the stingrays for five minutes on each side without any seasoning, so you get to taste the ocean. For this type of fish, I always serve with a dipping sauce made of soy sauce, diced onion, chilli slices and a squirt of lime juice.”

Curries and sauces with plain rice are the accompaniments, with the food served on banana leaves, with fingers the preferred choice of cutlery in Malaysia.

Musa’s latest book Bowlful pays homage to the great food cultures and dishes of Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines.

“Bowlful is the distillation of many years of travel and a celebration of the economical, vibrant and deliciously simple bowl food from these regions.”

Bowlful is published by Pavilion Books, an imprint of Harper Collins.

Odyssey World’s Great Culinary Escape returns to Malaysia with Norman Musa in September 2023.


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