A Taste of Home: Black Sheep Restaurants’ Patricia Yeo On Her Love For Malaysian Food
Patricia Yeo’s career has taken her around the world. Born in Malaysia, she studied in the UK and the US, where she also worked before taking up roles in Oman, Laos and Cambodia. Prior to jumping on board as head of culinary at Hong Kong’s Black Sheep Restaurants, she was working in Croatia.
“It was very beautiful and very idyllic, but it was very monotonous. Croatian food, unlike food in Hong Kong and food within the Black Sheep group, is so one-dimensional,” says Yeo. It’s in stark contrast to where she is now.
“Here, I start my morning at [Lebanese restaurant] Maison Libanaise tasting hummus and baba ganoush and talking about Lebanese food, and then I go to [Neapolitan pizzeria] Motorino and we play with pasta and doughs for pizza, and then I come to [Thai eatery] Soul Food Thai and there’s curries. It’s just so diverse. I never know what hat I’m going to wearing on any given day. I could be cooking Thai food one day, helping out at [modern Chinese restaurant] Ho Lee Fook the next, and making tacos the third.”
Aside from the variety, Yeo thrives on the opportunity to work with young chefs. “I think a lot of young chefs in Hong Kong view working in restaurants as a pay cheque, as a means to an end. It’s really nice to be able to take a team member who is a pay-cheque maker and have them realise that this is a really viable career. You can travel the world, and make enough money to raise family and do all these fantastic things and it’s nice to be able to pass that along.”
Yeo is also enjoying the proximity to more Asian food, of which there was a dearth in Croatia, and is excited to share some of her favourites.
What do you miss most on the food and drink front when you are away from Malaysia or don’t have access to Malaysian food?
It’s always the street food. When I go back to Malaysia, it’s all about the street food. It’s not restaurant food and definitely not high-end Western restaurant food, because why would I go back to Malaysia to have a steak or spaghetti? It’s the char kway teow, the Hokkien mee, the laksa, the nasi lemak.
What is the first dish you eat when you return and where do you go for it?
I love going to Penang, I think the street food in Penang is absolutely fantastic. It’s street food the way I remember street food being when I was younger because I think flavours have changed a lot, and there have been some short cuts taken. If you go into these little vendors in Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya, the food is not being cooked by local Malaysians. There’s not the Chinese uncle, or the Indian grandmother cooking the food anymore. They tend to be Cambodian and Burmese, so I think they don’t understand the flavour profiles of the food, because it’s not what they know. But in Penang it’s still very authentic and it’s still very much family-run and it’s fabulous. And then if you go to some of the small towns, like Ipoh, the food is still very good because it hasn’t been commercialised the way it has been in Kuala Lumpur.
If you have visitors or guests with you, where do you ensure you always go to give them a real taste of Malaysia?
I always go to Penang. Not only is it a great holiday place, but you can do street food tours. I recently travelled there with some chef friends, and we went on a char kway teow crawl and all we did was eat char kway teow at all the different little stalls.
Is there anything you always take with you when you leave Malaysia?
My mother’s sambal. She makes a fabulous sambal. It’s the time she takes in cooking it. All the components get caramelised on its own. It takes her a good five or six hours to make, partly because she’s older now, but the shallot has to be sliced just right, and the garlic has to be sliced just so, and then it’s all caramalised individually over low heat, before marrying it all together. And I think it’s the time and the love that she puts into it.
In the various places that you have lived did you find yourself seeking out Malaysian food?
There are things that I always miss, like a really good laksa, and I will seek it out or find other ways. I’ve incorporated it into restaurants that I’ve opened. In one of my restaurants, we made a laksa but we called it a Southeast Asian bouillabaisse, and right now we have a special beef rendang bahn mi on the menu at [Black Sheep’s Vietnamese restaurant] Le Petit Saigon, which is something that makes me think of home.
Is there anywhere that you have lived where you found particularly good Malaysian food?
There are some really old Malaysian restaurants in London. There’s a place called Roti King that’s very good. New York has a fairly large Malaysian community too. A Malaysian coffee shop called Kopitiam was recently opened there by two Malaysian ladies and it’s fabulous. Also, because Malaysian food is such a hodgepodge—it’s a real melting pot of cuisines—you can actually find really good Indian food that is reminiscent of Malaysia, and Chinese food reminiscent of Malaysia.
Where do you go to find authentic flavours of home where you currently live in Hong Kong?
I haven’t gone to many Malaysian restaurants, but one place I did go was a little hole in the wall noodle place called Penang Prawn Noodle Shop in Wanchai, and it’s fabulous. It’s very much the way I remember prawn noodles tasting—in a really good prawn stock with slices of pork. It’s delicious.
If I really want Malaysian food, or food that makes me think of Malaysian food I might go for Thai because it’s very much like northern Malaysian food. It’s light and fresh and has the same flavour profiles with the limes, the chillis, the coriander.