Those in London for Hari Raya Aidilfitri can look forward to a taste of home at Malaysian and Singaporean supper clubs there, writes Zuleika Sedgley
AT Goz Lee’s apartment on the edge of Shoreditch, you are welcomed with a handshake, people noisily getting to know each other and a wonderfully pungent smell that overwhelms you. It's sambal belacan, that blissful combination of prawn paste and chilli. And it's as piquant and spicy as you remember it at home.
Lee, a lawyer from Singapore who is based in London, is also founder of +65, a supper club that offers Singaporean and Malaysian food, that has begun a movement in London. Since he opened his living room to strangers interested in sampling Southeast Asian delicacies a year ago, there’s been a mushrooming of Malaysian and Singaporean supper clubs.
These pop-up restaurants hosted in living rooms and kitchens are becoming a way for Malaysians to showcase their country’s cuisine whilst reconnecting with their heritage.
For Lee, the decision to do this came after visiting a European supper club. After seeing how easy it was to convert an apartment into a makeshift restaurant, he began his own in a bid to educate Londoners about the complexity of Singaporean food.
“I was annoyed that Thai and Vietnamese food are so popular in London but people think of Singaporean food as just fried noodles. I was irritated that people didn’t know how complex Singaporean food is. Then one day I realised it would not be difficult to teach them,” Lee says.
Out of this frustration +65 was born. Lee takes risks with dishes like fish head curry but the result has been a resounding success, with 250 mouths fed in the past year and events selling out in a matter of hours.
Lee’s assault on misrepresented ideas of Southeast Asian cuisine sparked solidarity among other foodies, all of whom were tired of mass marketed and toned down versions of local cuisine that London has to offer.
“When you go to a restaurant in London, it is not authentic. It is commercialised for the mass market. The sambal belacan isn’t even spicy!” says Jason Ng, who has started collaborating with Lee at +65.
Ng is a keen blogger who describes the burst of Southeast Asian supper clubs as a “movement”. “You can see new things constantly popping up on the Edible Experiences website,” he says.
This website is, for most people, the first point of contact with the scene. It is dedicated to supper clubs and other quirky food experiences in London and it was through this portal that Ng bought a seat at Wild Serai, a supper club specialising in traditional Malay food.
“I fell in love with the experience,” Ng says, “I loved that a sarong was used as a table cloth and I loved the giant keropok on the table. It was a comforting and
He sees supper clubs as a way of teaching people about the Peranakan food he grew up with in Malaysia. He wants to introduce people to the joys of popiah and laksa that have not been toned down to pander to the British palate.
“Southeast Asian food is home cooking-based. You cannot recreate it for the mass market,” he says. “It must be done mamak style.”
Ng believes the similarity between supper clubs and mamak stalls goes beyond the serving of home cooked meals. It is the social aspect too that is often lost in Malaysian restaurants in London.
“When you go to the mamak stall, you talk to the people at the next table. In a supper club you are seated in tables of eight. You have to share food with strangers and you have to mingle. People who eat at mamak stalls are often from the same village or area, so they have lots in common. It’s the same with supper clubs. When I go to a Southeast Asian supper club, I see a lot of other Southeast Asians who go there for comfort food. We make great friends because we all love food.”
Ng says being part of the supper club scene allows him to introduce people to his passion, Peranakan food, and to reconnect him with his home. After spending 13 years in London, cooking the food that his grandmother made when he was a child makes him extremely proud of his heritage.
For many of these underground restaurateurs, a longing for the food culture of home and the desire to share it is what drives them.
“It does make me feel very connected to home,” says Lai-Lyn Fong. “Preparing traditional cookies, making roti jala and steaming fish in ginger sauce is not just for myself but also for others to taste flavours as I remember them.”
Fong comes from Petaling Jaya and works for the Malaysian Timber Council in London. She recently began a supper club with her Filipino friend Barrio Walterio, called Budaya Kusina.
The exponential growth and popularity of Southeast Asian supper clubs was proved when Fong’s first supper club on Aug 4 sold out, resulting in the partners planning an additional evening on Aug 19 to accommodate demand.
While Ng and Fong are nostalgic foodies, Shuwen Tan and Leigh Koh-Peart use their supper club as a space to show off their innovative fusion cuisine.
Tan and Koh-Peart are from Malaysia and Singapore respectively and are the minds behind Two Hungry Girls, a supper club that aims to show guests lesser-known Chinese food and desserts that marry eastern flavours with western techniques.
Tan’s idea for starting a supper club came during a recent trip to China where she discovered the range of food that the country has to offer.
“We try to introduce Mainland Chinese food, like Hunan cuisine. We serve unusual Chinese dishes like beef with cumin, a spice that is associated with India and the Middle East, or lemongrass skewers from Yunnan (which borders Vietnam and Laos). Even Malaysians and Singaporeans are surprised at some of the dishes.”
While Two Hungry Girls are at their most creative in sweet offerings, professional dessert chef Koh-Peart puts her unique spin on Southeast Asian staples.
“Our food is fusion,” says Koh-Peart. “That’s the way in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. In London, when they try to mix up different Asian cuisines, it is often misrepresented.”
She is especially proud of her kopi tart — made with condensed milk, coffee jelly and whipped up with 3-in-1 coffee — and her homemade soya bean panna cotta.
The infamous Southeast Asian sweet tooth can also be indulged at Treats and Teases, a dessert-only supper club run by Malaysian Cordon Bleu pastry student Kay Shon. Each event is based on a theme, for example an English breakfast, and desserts created to fit.
The popularity of Southeast Asian supper clubs is spreading to the mainstream with the appearances of Two Hungry Girls, Wild Serai and +65 at the Supper Club Summit this August. The summit is the world's largest collection of supper clubs and runs till Aug 25, giving Londoners and Olympic visitors the chance to sample the culinary revolution that has been taking the city’s living rooms by storm.
Check it out!
• Goz Lee’s Singaporean delicacies can be found at plusixfive.wordpress.com/
• Jason Ng’s musings are at www.feasttotheworld.com/
• Lai-Lyn Fong’s collection of recipes is available at www.donnowhat2cook.blogspot.co.uk/
• Two Hungry Girls share their thoughts at twitter.com/twohungrygirls
• Kay Shon’s dessert obsession can be sampled at www.treatsandteases.co.uk/
• Details of the Supper Club summit at www.supperclubsummit.com/
• Details on Malaysian supper clubs at www.edibleexperiences.com/