I should have written this the day after it happened when the textures and flavors were still imprinted on my mind but it’s never too late to tell you about my best culinary experience in Malaysia.
He didn’t tell me where we were going, every time he looked at his phone for directions to guide the taxi driver, he was careful not to show me the name of the restaurant. It was a surprise!
He was anxious, he thought we weren’t going to make it—we had a reservation for 7 o’clock—we were only 5 minutes late, though. Did I mention he’s British? Time is important to him, five minutes late to a Peruvian is “only five minutes late”, to a Brit it’s “OMG we’re already five minutes late!”
We arrived and I walked in without reading the name of the restaurant. I found out what it was called once we were inside, “Dining in the dark”. The place was dark as advertised, “a romantic dinner with dim lights”, I thought. Little did I know…
We were greeted by our host, who explained to us what the procedures were… procedures?
While most restaurants try to overwhelm you with sensory stimulation, this one does the total opposite, it requires you to temporarily lose your sight to be able to explore your other senses.
When you go to a regular restaurant, you know pretty much what your dish is going to taste like by reading the description on the menu and looking at the photos, which help you avoid foods you don’t like.
For example, I don’t like cauliflower, so I wouldn’t order any dishes that have cauliflower in the photos, it makes sense. Why would I order cauliflower if I know I don’t like it? to see if I still don’t like it? After all, however it is cooked, it will still taste like cauliflower, right?
Well, this was no ordinary restaurant, there was no menu, food descriptions, or photos that could warn me against ordering something with cauliflower.
After a test that involved blindfolding us to try to find three paper clips in a bowl of rice, we were introduced to our “darkness expert” and led to a pitch-black room that made it impossible to make out any shapes with the naked eye. Having your eyes open and not being able to see anything triggers your imagination. You wonder what color the tables are, who is sitting next to you, what the foods look like…
Akay, our darkness expert, walked us through the procedures for the night and made sure we felt comfortable and ready to explore our sense of taste. He is a great conversationalist—I bet the job requires waiters to have good people skills to help customers reduce anxiety. He told us how a few people don’t make it to the main course and leave the room because they can’t handle the darkness.
He brought the starters, four different foods with different flavors and textures.
The dishes were four little bowls that fit in a tray like a jigsaw puzzle—to avoid accidents I suppose—so it was easy to grab them and create a tactile memory of where they were placed.
Akay told us to start clockwise and, since we weren’t allowed to know the name of the dishes, we labeled them with numbers. The first starter was kind of bland, it tasted like a pastry with a mystery herb I couldn’t recognize. Starter number two was salad-like, I could have sworn I was eating fish with onions and parsley, maybe tuna? Number three tasted like the Peruvian Jalea, fried seafood. Yes, it was seafood, I could taste the crunch of the fried squid and shrimp.
Next, we were served two soups, a cold one and a hot one. The cold one had the distinctive flavor of beetroot, it tasted like an extract my mom would make me drink as a child. It was OK, I guess, but poor beetroot soup was no match for the delicious, hot soup next to it. I’d never had anything more delicious in my life.
– No, it tastes like something else, it’s got to be a vegetable…
The main course blew up my mind. Mashed potatoes with a meat I couldn’t guess, it wasn’t chicken, it wasn’t pork, it definitely wasn’t turkey—it would have been a bit dry. It wasn’t lamb because there was a side dish with the distinctive flavor of lamb and the meat on top of the mashed potatoes didn’t taste anything like it. “Could it be rabbit?”, I thought to myself. The thought of it scared me a little, I probably have no right to feel sorry for rabbits when I eat other animals, but still…I think of the pet rabbit I had when I was a child, all I picture when I think of a rabbit is cute long-eared Daisy having alfalfa
Maybe it was goat, I’d had Curry goat once (a famous Jamaican dish) but it was hard to remember the taste of the meat when it came soaked in an overwhelming curry sauce. Maybe the meat was an animal from Malaysia I’d never heard of? I gave up and ate the meat praying to God, “please don’t be rabbit”.
I was already kind of full but there’s always room for dessert so that was next. The desserts kept me guessing for a while, Akay would laugh at our inaccurate guesses every time we told him we had finally guessed what we were eating.
– Akay, we know what this is! It’s lemon ice cream!
– Haha it does taste like lemon, doesn’t it? Sorry, keep guessing.
It tasted like lemon—or vanilla or something white. It’s funny how even though I couldn’t see anything, I was so sure the ice cream was white. Maybe I was biased by the chocolate mousse next to it. Who eats chocolate mousse with dark-looking ice cream? It had to be white.
We left the dark room with a dozen questions about the foods we’d eaten. Our host led us to another table—this one in a well-lit room—and asked questions about our experience. We said we absolutely loved challenging our taste buds and that we couldn’t wait to see whether we were right about our guesses.
She left us with the menu. I carefully opened it and… What???
The first starter was a Mushroom quiche and the mystery herb turned out to be thyme. The second one was Salmon tartare with cucumber, celery and shallots… Wait, no onions? But I tasted onions! No, Ayleen, you did not.
I turned to the next page to see starter number three. What I thought was crunchy fried seafood was actually broccoli! Deep fried broccoli with cheddar fritter. I couldn’t believe what my eyes were reading.
It was time to see the soups. I was right about the first one, it had beetroot, yay! I finally got one right. However, it was the second soup that made me realize I had unfairly labeled a vegetable as “bland and boring”. Cauliflower cream! What! No, it couldn’t be. “You must have that wrong, I don’t like cauliflower and that soup was mouthwatering. These people are teasing me, they’re lying to me.” —I was in denial.
Or… had I been living a lie all my life and cauliflower was actually delicious? I almost felt ashamed of having advertised my hatred to cauliflower all these years. That soup was one of the tastiest I’d had in my entire life. The main ingredient, “cauliflower.”
The meat that came on top of the mashed potatoes was duck!
Time to reveal the desserts. I got the color of the ice cream right, it was white! But my taste buds failed miserably, it turned out to be Olive oil ice cream! But wait, isn’t olive oil, a kind of “oil” that you use for salad dressings? Isn’t ice cream made with fruits or nuts? Not at this restaurant.
This experience helped me realize how we categorize foods unfairly. If you ate something once and didn’t like it, if your parents made you eat it as a child and you didn’t like it, guess what! There’s a chance you could actually like that food. Having tried it once or twice is not enough to ban it from your diet forever. Maybe they were not good at the restaurants where you had them. Let’s be honest, the fact that you didn’t like it as a child only means you didn’t like the way your parents prepared it for you. I adore my mother but boiling the cauliflower did very little in her attempt to make me like it—sorry mom, no hurt feelings.
The chefs at Dining in the dark tease your senses by cooking foods in an unconventional way. For example, not many people like broccoli, so they fry it to give it a crunchy texture and make you believe you’re eating something else, a few people I know don’t consume olive oil because its flavor is too strong, but they would surely have eaten that ice cream!
Giving in your sense of sight can really make you “see” the world in a different way. If you are visiting Malaysia, I highly recommend you visit this restaurant.
- Imprinted on my mind (literary) to become fixed in your mind or memory so that you never forget
imprint something on your mind/memory/brain etc
The sight of Joe’s dead body was imprinted on his mind forever.
- Overwhelm /ˌəʊvəˈwelm $ ˌoʊvər-/ ●○○ verb [transitive]
1 EMOTION if someone is overwhelmed by an emotion, they feel it so strongly that they cannot think clearly
be overwhelmed by something
Harriet was overwhelmed by a feeling of homesickness.
- procedure /prəˈsiːdʒə-ər/ noun
[countable, uncountable] the official or accepted way of doing something, especially something that is done often
We have hired an accounting firm to evaluate our audit procedures.
- ˌpitch-ˈblack adjective completely black or dark
The lights were off and it was pitch-black.
- jigsaw puzzle /ˈdʒɪɡsɔː $ -sɒː/ ●●○ noun [countable]
a picture cut up into many pieces that you try to fit together
- boil [intransitive, transitive] to cook something in boiling water
a boiled egg
- mouth-watering adjective, food that is mouth-watering looks or smells extremely good
a mouth-watering aroma coming from the kitchen