What’s the essence of Malaysian cuisine?
Malaysia is a rich melting pot of people and that’s the true magic of its food — we’re mostly Malay (around 60-70%), then Chinese like me (25-30%), then Indian and Eurasian. Lots of people brought their own cuisines to Malaysia, and then adapted their traditional recipes to use local ingredients such as lemongrass, chillies and galangal. That’s why it’s so special — it’s the original fusion food. And, of course, Malaysians are not afraid to try new things. We think ‘wow, this is tasty, we’ll run with it’.
You gave up a highly paid job to take a gamble on Malaysian food. Why?
I practiced law for seven years and then burnt out. I’ve always loved cooking, especially Malaysian food, and I thought if I was going to work this hard I wanted to do something that I’m passionate about. I knew there was a gap in the market for really good Malaysian food. I started off with street food because of the lower set-up costs. I was new to the industry and it allowed me to get my foot in the door.
What Malaysian dishes did you begin with?
Originally, I served chicken satay in burger form and people went nuts for my peanut sauce. I also sold beef rendang (a fiery stew made with coconut milk, tamarind pulp, lemongrass, galangal and chilli) in a burger bun. Over time, I added to the menu, but people kept asking me to do laksa [spicy noodle soup], which is probably my favourite Malaysian dish.
Why is laksa so important in Malaysian cuisine?
Laksa evokes so many strong memories in Malaysians. Every day at primary school, I used to have it for lunch. People eat laksa any time — breakfast, lunch or dinner. I was born in Kuala Lumpur and my father is a Peranakan from Malacca, so my laksa is the spicy version I had there. There are so many laksas; mine is a kind of mix of the Peranakan curry laksa and Assam laksa, from the north. Laksa is quite specific to Malaysia — you do get versions across Southeast Asia but, although I’m biased, I don’t think any are as good as ours. This probably owes a lot to the shrimp paste we use. Laksa is quite labour-intensive, with a long list of ingredients that aren’t cheap. People love it. My laksa bar pop-ups in London sold out and received critical acclaim.
What are your other favourite Malaysian dishes?
Beef rendang. That’s another of our standard-bearer dishes, although the Indonesians also claim it as their own. It’s not really a curry, it’s more of a spiced stew. Also chicken satay, when it’s done well, with chicken thigh and a good amount of fat, with turmeric, chillis and garlic and grilled on a massive charcoal barbecue then served with a spicy peanut sauce. I also love char kway teow, which is flat rice noodles with prawns, fishcakes, cockles and Chinese chives stir fried at a very high heat. This is called wok hei, meaning ‘breath of the wok’, and it’s so powerful you get this smoky taste and it cooks in seconds. Then there’s roti canai, a flaky flatbread made with lots of ghee, usually served with a tasty dahl on the side. For dessert, I adore cendol — pandan jelly strands served in coconut milk sweetened with palm sugar and crushed ice; it’s so cooling in the Malaysian heat.
Why is Malaysian food becoming popular in the UK?
People really want powerful Asian flavours. Their palates are more sophisticated now because they travel more, and some are discovering Malaysia. There still isn’t enough Malaysian food about, so now is the time.
Tell us about your new restaurant?
First, I need to find the site. I’m looking at lots of places. It will still be called Sambal Shiok and the highlight will be my renowned laksa. Of course, the main laksa will be my fiery one, but I’ll offer a less-spicy version. There will be dumplings with the ginger-chilli sauce that usually comes with Hainanese chicken rice. I’ll have rice bowls with dishes like rendang and my special Malaysian fried chicken with peanut sauce, which is actually inspired by Indian vadai — so just like Malaysia, I’ll be mixing it up a bit.
At the age of 11, Malaysia-born Mandy Yin came to live in the UK with her parents and little brother. In 2013, she quit her job as a corporate lawyer and began cooking Malaysian street food under the name Sambal Shiok (sambal is a traditional Malaysian chilli paste and shiok means delicious). She runs regular popular pop-up restaurants around London and is currently looking for a site for a permanent restaurant in the capital.
Mandy Yin’s Sambal Shiok Curry Laksa
Makes enough for 6
“This is my curry laksa, with a strong chilli and shrimp kick. We tend to save cooking laksa for special occasions, as it’s so time-consuming, especially if making the stock from scratch. If you can find them, laksa leaves add a distinctive fragrance to the dish and take me back to my childhood growing up in a Nyonya Chinese household. Alternatively, fresh coriander will add a beautiful depth to the broth. It’s a perfect dish for entertaining, as you can prepare everything in advance, then heat it up just before serving. Like any good curry, the broth develops in flavour if left overnight.”
* 80g oil
* 24 ready-cooked prawns
* 12 deep-fried tofu puffs, cut in half
* 120g green beans, cut into 2-inch lengths
* 120g beansprouts
* 400g fresh egg noodles
* 1.5 litres chicken stock
* 2 x 400g cans of coconut milk
* 7tbsp dark brown sugar
* 2tbsp salt
* 100g bunch of coriander leaves
* 2 lemongrass stems, pounded in a pestle and mortar to release juices
* 3tbsp tamarind paste
* 80g oil
* 1 medium onion, peeled and roughly chopped
* 3 inches ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
* 8 garlic cloves, peeled
* 3 fresh red chillies, stalks removed then roughly chopped
* 15 dried chillies, soaked in hot water for 30 minutes before using (keep the water for later use)
* 1.5tbsp cumin powder
* 1.5tbsp turmeric powder
* 3tbsp coriander powder
* 3tbsp chilli powder
* 5tbsp belacan (shrimp paste) or dried shrimp (if using the latter, soak in hot water for 30 minutes before using; keep the water for later use)
Blend all the spice mix ingredients in a food processor until a smooth paste forms.
Fill a pot with water and bring to the boil on a high heat while you get on with making the laksa broth.
In a large saucepan over a medium heat, add oil and the spice mix paste, continuously stirring for 30 minutes, until it is a rich, dark red-brown colour and the oil separates from the paste.
Add the laksa broth ingredients and soaking liquid from the dried chillies and shrimp to the saucepan with the spice mix. Bring to the boil then simmer gently for 30 minutes. After 15 minutes, remove the laksa leaves/coriander and lemongrass, and season with salt/sugar to taste. Then add the tofu puffs to the broth to soak up the flavour for 10 minutes.
While the laksa broth is simmering, blanch the following in boiling water one after the other: beansprouts for 30 seconds, green beans for 3 minutes. Refresh them in cold water to stop them cooking in residual heat and drain.
Portion everything out into bowls, ready for serving — first the egg noodles, then the beansprouts, green beans and prawns. Pour the hot laksa broth into each of the bowls with 4 halved tofu puffs per serving.
Published in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)