Lessons Learnt: A Round Trip Home

A belated happy new year to all!

Apologies for the radio silence over the last month. It’s all been a little bit crazy…

This time last week I was in the thick of preparation for my first supper club of the year.

Extra pressure was on as it was the first event I have held since leaving my apartment last October. In the process, losing the venue that had served me so well.

Instead it was held at DIYKL, a DIY workshop run by a friend of mine, usually reserved for teaching groups to make fashionable handmade leather goods. With an increased capacity of 20 guests, it represented a welcome new challenge. The heat was on, quite literally, due to the not-insignificant walk to and from the kitchen (with no aircon!)

Hot and bothered... but enjoying every second!

It was also a re-baptism of fire. Just 4 days ago I’d been home in the UK, eating left-over Christmas cake and working off the inevitable hangover from catching up with friends and family after more than a year away.

Though I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody, I discovered jet-lag was actually pretty useful in ensuring I got to the market at the crack of dawn. A timely reminder I should try get accustomed to the semi-insomniac existence of a cook…

The event went really well but this, and the 3 previous weeks spent in the UK, have somewhat obstructed efforts to write. Apologies.

In all honesty I also thought I wouldn’t have a huge amount to write about, what with being so far from my beloved Malaysian cuisine…

But I was wrong.

So, here are 3 things I learnt over the Christmas break.

Malaysian food is taking off in London!

The state of Malaysian cuisine in the capital is excellent.

Prior to emigrating I don’t think I’d ever actually had Malaysian food. It was great to see that during my exile it was experiencing somewhat of a “moment” on the London food scene.

It was therefore only reasonable that, in the name of research, I try eat at as much of it as possible…

That said, after such a long break all I wanted to do was eat bacon sandwiches, cheese on toast and packets of dark chocolate digestives (of course).

In-fact it felt like somewhat of a sick joke that I would return, only to gorge myself on the same food I’ve had for breakfast, lunch and dinner but at nearly 10x the cost!

That said, I was really impressed by the quality, and “authenticity” on offer. If you have been reading this blog and ruing your inability to fly to Malaysia due to lack of time and/or money, then I highly recommend you visit any of the below:

  • Roti King – an incredibly good value (and popular) roti canai spot in Euston, that also does other great mamak options including curries, nasi goreng, nasi lemak and laksa (top left).

  • Eat Lah – a market stall at various Kerb markets, selling a really good Nasi Kerabu (herb & blue rice) with satay and ayam percik (top middle).

  • Normah’s – a cafe in Queensway, run by a Malay aunty making great homemade Rendang, Nasi Lemak and Curry Laksa (top right).

  • Mei Mei – technically Singaporean, but it’s very similar (sorry Malaysians!), selling good Nasi Lemak, Chicken Rice and excellent authentic Kopitiam coffee (bottom left).

  • Sambal Shiok – for my money this restaurant on Holloway Road is the best Malaysian in London. Excellent Nyonya and Assam Laksa, up there with the best I’ve eaten in Malaysia… (bottom middle & left)

There is somewhat of an argument to wanting to get started early within a trend to avoid competition, however equally it’s great to see that lots of the work is being done to popularise the cuisine already.

In fact, doing this research made me re-evaluate the concept of “competition” within the restaurant industry. Speaking to chefs and owners at these spots I was offered so much encouragement and advice, support that seems unusual coming from the corporate world. However, I suppose businesses in that space aren’t really competing against each other, but rather Netflix, M&S ready meals and a night on the sofa with a £5 bottle of wine.

There is plenty of room in this city for plenty more Malaysian restaurants!

It is possible to cook “authentic” Malaysian food in the UK

Evidently my restaurant research confirmed that it was possible to cook great Malaysian food in London, but London is barely the UK.

I went further, hosting what was certainly first ever Malaysian supper club in the village I grew up in. Bolney, West Sussex.

On New Year’s Eve I hosted 22 for an almost fully traditional Malaysian feast. The only variation being the desserts, which were a greatest hits of previous supper club Malaysian/European fusion dishes.

It’s worth pointing out that I smuggled in a few essentials (somewhat illicitly) in my baggage, but by and large all the fresh ingredients I needed were available in the local town’s Indian supermarket.

The only exception being fresh herbs such as Thai basil, daum kesam (Vietnamese coriander) and fresh curry leaves, which led to a minor last-minute menu redesign. The did, however, seem to be available in London.

All in all, the night as a great success, I was very happy with the accuracy with which I was able to replicated the flavours, and Malaysian food was successfully introduced to 22 happy (and paying) customers!

Nasi Lemak in Bolney!

I have a lot of work to do!

State the bloody obvious… yes.

But I don’t actually mean this in terms of food being a labour heavy business, though it is, but rather that right now I need to put the effort in.

I’m at a stage where I have literally dozens of ideas, however I need to whittle this down to a plan. It’s decision time.

There are many questions that need answering, but the 3 that are keeping me up at night:

  • Where am I going to operate? Should I move around to different markets or find a fixed kiosk at a permanent street-food market?

  • What should my business be called? I like my current name (So La!) but it’s a bit of a pain having to explain every time. Is there a simpler solution?

  • What should I bloody cook?! I originally had my heart set on Laksa, however is a hot bowl of soup really the best product for a market? Should I carve out a new niche or jump on a bandwagon?

I’ll save you the details, however in the next couple of weeks I need to come up with a satisfactory answer to these questions.

That said, don’t feel too sorry for me! I just landed in Penang and will be wracking my brains over many a delicious meal.

My primary concern is, and always will be, that the food tastes great and is as authentic as I can possibly be.

The research goes on!

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