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Having left a career in in corporate law to start street-food stall Sambal Shiok, Mandy's business rapidly evolved inot a laksa restaurantthat has had Lononders queuing – and critics purring – since day one.
‘Malaysians love to eat,’ says Mandy Yin, with a laugh. ‘We live to eat. It’s a mind-boggling food culture. We can eat at least five or six times a day, starting with breakfast, then brunch, lunch, some sort of teatime snack, dinner around 6pm and then, about eight or nine, we go out for what is known as siu yeh, a meal that’s roughly like supper, filling the gap between dinner and going to sleep!
‘Great food is so available any time of the day,’ she says. ‘It’s literally at the end of your street or at the bottom of your building; the night market is full of food and snacks, and the fruit is so abundant and different… You can literally eat the whole day, every day, and still find different foods every day for a good year. And we eat out regularly because it’s so cheap. By the time you’ve collected the ingredients to cook, you might as well have eaten out. At hawker centres or coffee shops you can get a full-blown, freshly cooked meal for the equivalent price of a fancy sandwich here in London. It’s a no-brainer.’
Mandy acknowledges that Malaysia’s climate plays a part. ‘It’s extremely hot so you want to be outside, unlike London. I’ve done street-food here when it’s cold and wet and clearly nobody’s wanted to go out.’
Her family moved from Kuala Lumpur to London in 1993, when she was 11. ‘My parents studied and worked in London in the Seventies, went back to Malaysia to have my brother and me, then came back to the UK. My dad is a chartered accountant, and he was born in [the Malaysian state of] Malacca while the British were still in situ. That gave him entitlement to work and live in the UK.’
While her parents were attracted by the quality of British education and free health care, Mandy recalls school lunches, rather than language, were her biggest culture shock. ‘English is the second language in
Malaysia,’ she says, ‘so I spoke English when we came to London – but the lunches..?’ she laughs. ‘Perhaps, here, I should explain hawker centres. They’re a usually enclosed area where several hawkers, or tradespeople, each sell more-or-less one item, one food product, that they specialise in. They may have been doing this one item for decades – sometimes even 50, 60 years, it’s just nuts – so people come to them for that one thing. And Malaysian school canteens are like a mini version of that, with so many different choices of freshly cooked hot food. At primary school I’d have laksa every day (it’s no surprise my first restaurant specialises in laksa) but I could have chosen nasi lemak, coconut rice served with a sambal, lots of different accoutrements – peanuts, eggs, different dishes – or I could have chosen freshly made curries or stir-fried vegetables and noodle dishes, fried rice…
‘Now compare that to the stark reality of British secondary schools’ canteens 30 years ago.’ Remarkably in the circumstances, there’s no trace of bitterness in her laughter. ‘Tomato “cuppa soups” from a vending machine that added the hot water. Chicken nuggets and chips… I mean, I do like a good chicken nugget but it was nothing compared with what I’d had in Malaysia. And those dried-up pizzas. I think they’re why I hate pizza – the trauma of those when I was young!
‘Thankfully, my mum is a wonderful cook. She worked part-time but most of my formative years she was there, and we always had a good Malaysian meal prepared for us at the end of every day.’
It’s not surprising, then, that Malaysia still plays such an important part in Mandy’s life, in the dishes and flavours that sit front and centre at her restaurant and in her desire to return as frequently as being an entrepreneur, and new first-time mother, allow. ‘I get back typically around every two-tofour years, although I was there in June 2022 and will be back there again soon [Mandy is due to fly out as we go to print] as my brother’s marrying a Malaysian, so we’re having lots of engagement dinners and things. It’s really nice that it’s around Chinese New Year as I haven’t been there at that time for nearly 10 years.
‘I have strong visuals of being at my grandparents’ house every Chinese New Year. There was a big gathering of the entire family and so much food that my grandmothers would have prepared, and if it fell
on weddings or birthdays or things like that, we’d go out for
massive banquets at Chinese restaurants, like a 10-course banquet, with amazing soups, snacks and desserts.
‘My memories are all now tied to food and family, the conviviality, more than the country. I was born and raised in Petaling Jaya, the largest suburb of Kuala Lumpur, about 20 minutes out of the centre. That’s where I usually go back, but the roads in Malaysia have changed so much and it’s developed exponentially since I emigrated. But I will often instinctively know a place as we drive past, and say to my parents, “We used to go there after church for lunch,” or, “That’s where there was a good Indian restaurant.”
We still have extended family in Malaysia – my cousins, my aunts, my uncles… And now that I’m getting older, and I have a child myself, extended family have become much more important as I would like my son to understand where I’m from. And I would like him to know all my cousins’ children, so there’s definitely more impetus to get back as much as possible.
Mandy’s trips back to Malaysia also include time in Penang, an island to the north-west of Kuala Lumpur. ‘One of the really beautiful properties is Cheong Fatt Ze The Blue Mansion, which is a hotel as well as a tourist
attraction, a stunning, fully restored house full of antiques – it’s been used in film productions. The Penang Peranakan Mansion is a
fascinating museum too, another beautiful old house where you can learn a lot about the culture, food and clothing.
‘Penang is a Peranakan hub: my father is Peranakan, the strain of people who come from the intermarriage of the first Chinese tradesmen who came into Malaysia around the 1400s and 1500s and married local Malay women.’ And, as Mandy points out, it’s how laksa originated.
‘Laksa is a true intermarriage of cultures. The Chinese obviously loved noodle soups. The local women they married probably tried to make their husbands happy by making noodle soup using local ingredients and that resulted in laksa – noodle soup but with indigenous products like chillies, coconut milk and lemongrass. You don’t get that in China at all – it’s a proper Malaysian/ Singaporean dish,’ she says.
This inventive spirit, of melding cultures, is also at the heart of Mandy’s
philosophy for her restaurant. Just don’t ever ask if it’s ‘authentic’. 'What does it mean?’ she asks. ‘Who is it authentic to? That’s why I only describe my food as being authentic to me and my experiences. I’ve been in London for the best part of my life, so I use ingredients I can source here (and that don’t bankrupt me!). And Malaysia has 14 states and every single state has its own version of laksa.
‘Penang laksa has no coconut milk, for instance. ‘It’s made with a fish stock infused with lemongrass and galangal, and loads of tamarind to make it sour; it uses a lot of fresh chillies and is extremely different from curry laksa. My laksa is a combination of these two, and based on one I had in Malacca, my dad’s hometown. It’s a Peranakan hub, and Peranakans love to mix and match. I’m just continuing in that tradition.'
ICC PUDU MARKET, KL
A massive gathering of amazing hawkers – try kaya toast with half-boiled eggs at the fresh produce market. Jalan Kijang, Pudu
JALAN ALOR NIGHT MARKET, KL
Order stir-fried butter prawns at Meng Kee, in the middle – shell off, so you don’t lose the coating. Bukit Bintang
LOT 10 HUTONG FOOD COURT, KL
A comfortable basement during the heat of the day to enjoy ais kacang – red beans with sweetcorn and condensed milk. lot10hutong.com
CECIL STREET MARKET, PENANG
For breakfast/lunch or kuih Malaysian cakes, which you can fill up on all day. Go to 888 Hokkien Mee for prawn mee, the best prawn noodle soup. Lebuh Cecil, George Town
RESTAURANT TAMAN EMAS, PENANG
The place for assam laksa. Tell the taxi driver ‘opposite the girls’ school’ and they’ll know exactly where it is. Have the laksa with crispy spring rolls – just incredible. 1 Jalan Gottlieb, George Town
CHEONG FATT TZE THE BLUE MANSION, PENANG
A beautiful example of traditional architecture, which also happens to be a comfortable boutique hotel. cheongfatttzemansion.com
EASTERN & ORIENTAL HOTEL,PENANG
A renowned George Town hotel with the most incredible breakfast buffet. eohotels.com
Words by Neil Davey.
This interview was taken from the Awards 2023 issue of Food and Travel Magazine. To subscribe today, click here.
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