King prawn Nyonya curry laksa

Sambal Shiok: a taste of Kuala Lumpur in London

by Pete Dreyer 20 February 2019

Mandy Yin dropped a career in corporate law to follow her passion for food. Today, she is showcasing Malaysian cuisine in all its glory at London laksa bar Sambal Shiok.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs and trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London. Although there’s very little he won’t eat, his real passion is health and nutrition, and showing people that healthy food can be delicious too. When he’s not writing or cooking, you’ll probably find him engrossed in a bowl of pho.

There are few cities around the world that can boast the multicultural food scene of London. The beauty of the city lies in how readily it has accepted people from so many different cultures and backgrounds – those people are not just guests in London; they are London, and London is them. As a result, anyone who lives in or near the capital is blessed with the opportunity to eat almost anything they like, from hyper-specific regional delicacies of India and China to far-flung cuisines of South America, Africa and Australasia. It’s quite incredible when you think about it – people from every corner of the world have settled in this one place, and brought hundreds – sometimes thousands – of years of culinary history with them.

If you’ve scoured London for good Malaysian food in the past, you can hardly have missed Sambal Shiok. Founder Mandy Yin and her team have been serving beef rendang and chicken satay burgers, sensational crunchy Malaysian fried chicken and rich, fiery, rust-coloured bowls of laksa – the sort that induce a hearty sweat and leave you with very clear pores – for years now. Now permanently ensconced on Holloway Road, Mandy’s food doesn’t pull any punches to accommodate a western palate. As I read down the laksa section of the menu, I see that every single option has three chillies next to it. Generally in menu-speak, one chilli is an advisory nudge that you might encounter a bit of heat. Three might as well be ten – it’s a skull-on-a-stick at the cave entrance. In case you didn’t get the message, a note underneath reads, ‘Choose hot or medium chilli heat. We don’t do mild, sorry.’

Mandy was born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, moving to London when she was eleven years old. Credit: Katherine Leedale
At Sambal Shiok today, she cooks Malaysian food with her own personal twist

I’m sure there are plenty of visitors who hear the hype and come like moths to flame, only to find the laksa too hot to touch. It raises a number of interesting questions around the value of authenticity in London and how far a restaurateur should go in order to sell exotic cuisine to a new crowd. Mandy refuses to describe her food as 'authentic' – ‘there are thousands of different recipes for laksa,’ she explains – but her recipes stay true to her heritage. Born to Peranakan Chinese parents and raised in Kuala Lumpur, her laksa incorporates telltale signs of both. 'My focus is on taste,’ says Mandy. ‘Does it taste good? That’s all that matters to me. My laksa is sort of based on Penampang laksa, from Malacca (where most Peranakan Chinese have lived for generations). It’s very spicy – lots of heat and tamarind, but it also has lots of shrimp paste, which is typical of Kuala Lumpur.

‘If you go to Malaysia, every family will have a different recipe for laksa,’ she continues. ‘This is my laksa, and it’s my restaurant, so…’ She tails off – the audible equivalent of a shrug emoji. It’s a difficult choice that many restaurateurs in Mandy’s position face – do you compromise your own vision in order to satisfy more of your potential customers? In sticking to her guns, Mandy has made London’s culinary landscape richer, even if that means some of us need to order several glasses of rose milk from the menu.

Growing up in Kuala Lumpur, Mandy’s childhood memories are dominated by food. ‘We would eat five times a day!’ she says. ‘Any time when you’re not eating, you’re thinking about what you’re going to eat next.’ Malaysia is a multicultural, multiracial melting pot with an incredibly diverse food scene, but one thing stuck with her long after she had left the country – her mother’s cooking. ‘She’s really the one that I watched growing up,’ says Mandy. ‘I absorbed a lot of her techniques without even realising it.’

Mandy moved to London at eleven years old, and a few years later ended up doing a law degree at university. ‘It’s such an Asian cliche,’ she sighs. ‘I did reasonably well at school, so it was just assumed that I would do law. It was either medicine, law or accountancy,’ she adds, ‘but I faint at the sight of blood and I’m crap at maths, so I had no choice!’ Just a few years into her career – working crazy hours as a corporate lawyer – Mandy realised she had taken a wrong turn. ‘I needed to do something I really cared about,’ she says. Having always loved food, she turned back to the inspirations of her childhood – the sights, smells and sounds of her mother’s kitchen – and set out on a new path. ‘That’s when I really galvanised myself,’ she says, ‘and really pressed my mum to teach me all her recipes.’

With London in the midst of a street food revolution, Mandy threw caution to the wind. The seed of an idea was planted in 2012, and by 2013 she had already set up Sambal Shiok, selling chicken satay and beef rendang burgers at lunchtime markets around London. Surrounded by barbecue pulled pork stalls, she figured she’d beat them at their own game. ‘Rendang is kind of similar, but better,’ she shrugs. The food went down a storm, and Sambal Shiok gathered momentum, appearing at residencies all over London and often selling out venues. The idea to refocus as a laksa bar came a little later, courtesy of friends Matt Chatfield and wine consultant Zeren Wilson. They were lamenting the absence of good laksa in London, and encouraged Mandy to fill the gap in the market. ‘I owe them a lot for pointing me in that direction!’ she admits. The trio partnered up to throw a week of laksa nights – Matt provided the venue, Zeren brought the wine and Mandy rustled up the food. It was a complete smash – a sell out. ‘It cemented how much people wanted laksa in London,’ says Mandy. Sambal Shiok Laksa Bar, as it is now, was born.

Malaysian fried chicken comes heaped on a small platter, with a bowl of rich peanut sauce
You can have almost anything in your laksa, from prawn to chicken to tofu, but they all come packing a serious punch

More pop-ups followed – notably at The Sun and 13 Cantons in Soho, Blend in North Harringay and Sourced Market in Marylebone – which allowed Mandy to hit the ground running when she arrived at her current permanent site on Holloway Road. Since then, Sambal Shiok has ascended London’s tricky food ladder, becoming the poster child for Malaysian food in London along the way. Influential critics like Grace Dent and Jay Rayner have given the restaurant an indelible seal of approval, and the queue snakes out of the door on most evenings as people wait patiently for a steaming bowl of laksa and a precariously piled heap of fried chicken. Mandy – now more comfortable with the intricacies of running a restaurant – is starting to spread her wings, and is introducing more of her own food and heritage onto the menu. ‘I have ‘nyonya chicken pongteh’ (Peranakan chicken and potato stew) on the menu at the moment’ she says. ‘That’s a Peranakan dish that my mum cooks all the time at home, but I’ve never seen it once in this country.’

Ultimately, Mandy’s food at Sambal Shiok is not so much a representation of Malaysia as a representation of her. After all, how do you represent an authentic vision of something as diverse as Malaysian cuisine? The best you can do is show an authentic vision of yourself. ‘My food is, really, a natural evolution of me,’ she says. ‘I grew up in Malaysia, but I also grew up here, and there are lots of things I love eating here that have influenced my cooking now.

‘Ultimately, I want to be as inclusive and loving to everyone as I can,’ she says in closing. ‘We only serve halal meat at the restaurant – the majority of the people in Malaysia are Muslim, so we want them to be able to eat here. We have a big focus on vegetarian and vegan food on our menu. It’s all about including people, and showcasing Malaysian food in all its glory.’ Just don’t ask them to hold the chilli.