Hands up, who can name their favourite Malaysian dish? Odds are, most of us probably can’t. While we’ve become au fait with pad thais, jalfrezis and sweet and sour chicken, Malaysian restaurants are relatively scarce in London and the cuisine is yet to really hit the mainstream.
But not for long, I hope, because after an evening in the company of Norman Musa at one of his crowded open-kitchen supper clubs in Hackney this month, I reckon it’s about to catch on – fast.
“My approach is: make it very simple for everyone to follow and then use ingredients based on what you can get locally,” says Musa. “Prep is 15 minutes, cooking is five minutes and eating is two minutes!”
Musa ditched a decade of quantity surveying to pursue his dreams of becoming a chef and bring the food he grew up on in Penang to our tables. He set up his Ning restaurant in Manchester with manager Andy Spracklen, and another soon followed in York.
The pair are now sending out their feelers in London with a programme of supper clubs and cooking lessons to make Malaysian dishes a household name. And thank goodness, because the flavours are bright, the ingredients are fresh and colourful and frankly it all tastes fantastic.
We had ketam goreng – crunchy soft-shelled crab with sweet chilli and sambar, a sharp paste made from chilli and shrimp and loi kei bak – delicate spring rolls packed with vegetables, shrimp, peanuts and herby shredded omelettes. There were platefuls of chicken wrapped in paper-thin handmade tofu wrappers: full of flavour and over far too soon.
The main course was nasi ayam – deep fried chicken marinaded in ginger and soy sauce, dished up with a generous mound of rice flavoured with the juices of the chicken and a nice bowl full of clear broth and spring onions on the side.
For dessert we pinched our noses and scooped out the custardy flesh of durian fruit with our fingers and ate it with balls of sticky rice and mungo bean porridge. Mashed up banana balls deep fried and served with cooling mouthfuls of rose or chocolate and chilli ice cream were also excellent.
“There is demand out there for Malaysian food. Last year I went to about 50 food festivals because it’s important for me to be there and get people inspired about Malaysian food” says Musa. “One day we’ll set up a restaurant in London, but I wanted to start small.”
For more on Ning Supper Club see normanmusa.com/restaurants