Mandy Yin, Owner Of Sambal Shiok Laksa Bar In London Releases Cookbook With Over 90 Classic Malaysian Recipes
Mandy Yin is the chef-owner of beloved Malaysian restaurant, Sambal Shiok Laksa Bar on Holloway Road, London. Like most Malaysians, she grew up on a diet of hot noodle soups and fragrant rice dishes. "I have so many happy memories of eating laksa everyday at the school canteen and going to hawker centres near my house," she recalls with fondness during our video interview. So when she moved to the UK with her family at age 11, it was quite a culture shock that school dinners consisted of beans on toast, sandwiches and pizzas.
"It was very strange at first but my mother was a housewife until my mid-teens. She was an excellent cook and I got to eat home-cooked meals until I went off to university," she says. Her undergraduate years were spent studying hard for law exams but she always took the time to cook herself a filling meal, whether it was a simple curry or stir-fry. "I was by no means an expert cook at the time. But I picked up a reasonable amount watching my mother over the years."
In fact, it was around her early 30s when she began to pay more attention to food. "I was practising law and working silly hours in corporate London. I burned out and took three months off to recover and reassess what I was doing with my life," she explains. Yin found herself back in her mother's kitchen but this time, determined to learn how to cook all the things she ate growing up.
"I'm sure you know how Malaysians are all about agak-agak cooking," she laughs. "So when she would pour or sprinkle something into the pot, I would physically stop her hand to figure out the measurements!"
From there, Yin's passion for Malaysian food and her journey as an F&B entrepreneur grew. In 2013, she ventured into London's growing street food scene, introducing Londoners to her chicken satay burger. "People really enjoyed it, especially the sambal. They were always asking for laksa but it was hard to do that as street food because there's so much liquid involved. That's when I began the laksa bar as a pop-up concept, where we would set up in different establishments all around the city," she says.
The experience in these restaurants proved to be formative and slowly gave Yin the confidence to transition from street food to restaurant. In 2018, she opened her flagship store in Highbury and has built a loyal fanbase for her signature laksa dish and crispy fried chicken with peanut sauce. This year, she is taking the Sambal Shiok brand to new level by publishing a cookbook of the same name with over 90 recipes to classic Malaysian dishes.
When and why did you decide to write a cookbook?
Over the last decade, I've been quite active on social media and it has allowed me to reach a lot of the people. They would always share how much they love our food and ask for the recipe. A cookbook became more of a goal in recent years because I wanted a way to record all the recipes in a nice tidy package. I had started around Christmas in 2019 but when I got the book deal in the middle of last year, I decided that I also wanted to make the book beautiful.
I wanted it to be a coffee table book as much as a cookbook because we can't travel during the global pandemic and I wanted to bring Malaysia to my readers through beautiful images.
How long has it been since your last visit?
September 2019. A friend organised for us to visit Sarawak and spend up some time with the Iban tribe, just upriver from Sibu. Before then, I had never been to Borneo. It was a memorable trip. There was a lot of travelling so we didn't make it down to KL. Maybe I should've but I didn’t realise that would be the last time I would be able to visit for a while.
What is the first dish you usually eat upon returning to Malaysia and where do you go for it?
I usually split my time between KL and Penang when I come back. I always try to spend a couple of nights at my old stomping grounds in SS2. The assam laksa from the trucks at the pasar malam was my favourite! And you know, the usual pasar malam food: ais kacang, putu piring, sugarcane juice, apam balik and lo bak go (fried carrot cake). I don't have much of a sweet tooth but I always have room for Malaysian kuih-muih.
In Penang, I always go for the island specialty: char kuay teow. But to be honest, I'm not fussy about where I get it from because I know that as long as it's in Malaysia, it's usually going to be quite good. Unless I cook it myself, it's very difficult to find good char kuay teow in London because it's so labour intensive.
I also love KFC in Malaysia! I remember I was back for Chinese New Year in 2018 and I tried their salted egg fried chicken.
Do you ever stock up on Malaysian ingredients before returning home?
Ikan bilis. You can find the big rough ones in London but I love the really small ones. I also always get the Maggi ikan bilis stock cubes.
Is it difficult getting the right ingredients to make Malaysian food in London?
Thankfully, it’s been okay. I would’ve found it difficult ten or twenty years ago but it's not too bad these days. Things like belacan, lemongrass, tamarind and santan (coconut milk) are now available in supermarkets.
Has Sambal Shiok, both the restaurant and cookbook, brought you closer to your family?
Definitely. A lot of the recipes I use are from my mother that I've learned over the years.
One of the recipes that I'm most pleased about in the cookbook is roti canai. A lot of recipes online suggested egg or condensed milk and I was so sure that the mamak stores in Malaysia would never use them for plain roti canai. So my husband and I sat down eating roti for a whole week and I finally cracked it. The secret is hot water with plain flour. It activates the gluten and cover it with oil for six hours. And don't be afraid of the oil, because that's makes it stretchy.
Looking back, when I told my parents that I needed to stop being a lawyer and try something else, they were so worried—as any parent would be. But they've seen the success of the store and the positive feedback about my projects. They're definitely proud.
Do you have any future plans for Sambal Shiok?
Frankly, the pandemic lockdowns were horrendous. I had to put a pause on the business. As the UK comes out of lockdown, I'm focussing on helping the store recover and maybe one day expanding the restaurant and opening more branches around London. But I learned that I needed to diversify Sambal Shiok, such as the cookbook. I hope to write another book or two and get more involved in TV and media.
I really admire David Chang being the face of Korean-American food. He is the voice of his subculture and cuisine and I’d like to emulate that for Malaysian food. One of the reasons I started the business and wrote this book is to make Malaysian food accessible. In particular, I'm on a mission to educate the people about the reality of making Asian food. It has a reputation for being cheap but it shouldn't be—it's actually very labour-intensive and requires a lot of skill.