What happens when perhaps the most talented and famous Penang-Nyonya chef in Singapore moves quietly to London, and opens her own little restaurant? She who has cooked for Presidents and Prime Ministers back in Singapore – all yearning for her delicious renditions of Nyonya dishes from Penang, Malaysia’s food mecca. That’s the extraordinarily talented Mary Yeoh of Sedap in Old Street.
Mary Yeoh and her husband, Yeoh Teng Chye, first became famous because of their legendary Penang buffet at the Princess Terrace restaurant, Copthorne Kings Hotel in Singapore – it’s still going strong after nearly 30 years, where legions of Penang-born chefs still churned out the best Penang-Nyonya cuisine by following Mary Yeoh’s recipes to a “T”. Her Penang Fried Koay teow, Singapore-style Curry Laksa, Belachan Fried Chicken, Roti Prata with Nyonya Chicken Curry, and many other dishes were the stuff of legend. Singaporeans could never get enough of it.
Kwek Leng Beng (one of Singapore’s richest men & owner of the Millennium & Copthorne Group) sent Mary Yeoh and her husband to London as consultant-chefs to the HK-born Chef de Cuisine of Bugis Street restaurant at the Gloucester Hotel back in 1993/4 then. I’d posted about Bugis Street recently – it’s still packing in Malaysian & Singaporean diners in the droves today – though the standard of food there is nowhere near what Mary Yeoh can conjure up if she runs the kitchens herself.
In early 2000, a rival Singaporean billionaire-hotelier, Ong Beng Seng, poached the Yeohs from under the nose of the Millennium & Copthorne Group, and set them up at Nyonya restaurant in Notting Hill. For the next 5-6 years, lines of Singaporeans and Malaysians made their pilgrimage to Nyonya for authentic Singaporean/Malaysian chow.
Anyway, Mary Yeoh & her husband soon decided to finally strike out on their own – thus, Sedap was born. For decades, I’d looked for good Oriental food in London, specifically good, authentic Singaporean food. In the 1960/70s, it was Mr Chow’s – expensive, pretentious, snooty, filled with A-listers and, unless you are Alec Guinness or Michael Caine, you’re likely to be ignored by the waiters. In the 1980s, Ken Lo’s Memories of China set the benchmark. To get gritty Cantonese, you go to Fung Shing or New Mayflower or to the despicable Wong Kei, where you take your chance with rude, obnoxious waiters. For authentic Malay (not Malaysian), you trudge over to Malaysia Hall (then in Bryanston Square, now on Queensborough Terrace) for authentic beef rendang & sayur masak lemak churned out by “makciks” (“aunties”) cooks sent over by the Malaysian government to provide sustenance to the hordes of Malaysian students studying/living in London.
But nowhere was I able to find a really, really authentic & good Singaporean restaurant. Not even the definitive Singapore Garden in Swiss Cottage, although it did come close.
All that changed when Sedap came into being. It was mind-boggling – in cold, wintry London, I can find Singaporean/Malaysian cuisine which, in some instances, surpassed even the versions I found back in Singapore or Malaysia! Such is the sheer talent of Mary Yeoh. What we had this evening:
- Singapore-style Curry Laksa: spicy, aromatic, coconut-rich curried noodles, topped with poached chicken, fresh crunchy shrimps, tofu puffs, fish-cake slices and a hard-boiled egg. It was the perfect comfort food for any Singaporean foodie who wanted to look for something familiar from home, after a diet of Michelin-starred restaurants in London’s rich, cosmopolitan culinary scene.
- Sesame encrusted Prawn Toasts & Crisp Vegetarian Spring Rolls: both very tasty and greaseless, despite the deep-frying involved;
- Roti Prata with Nyonya Chicken Curry: this dish was incredible – the crisp Singaporean pancakes served with perhaps the best Nyonya-style curry in this part of the world. Even back in Singapore, Mary Yeoh’s curry was legendary – amongst hundreds of her peers. Here in London, it was both unique and extraordinary – it made the curries I had in Chinatown and Bayswater seemed plain & practically amateurish;
- Sayur Lodeh: a rich, fragrant vegetable curry with aubergines, long beans, cabbage, tofu and fresh bamboo shoots – a veritable vegetarian’s dream;
- Malaysian fried rice, with eggs & shrimps: delicious, spicy, perfectly-textured;
- Belachan-fried chicken: slightly sweetish chicken, flavored with fermented shrimp paste, fried till crispy on the outside, deliciously moist inside. Mary Yeoh’s Belachan Chicken was much talked-about back in Singapore, and still features prominently in the Princess Terrace’s famous buffet.
- Penang Char Koay Teow: fried flat rice noodles with shrimps, eggs, beansprouts. Nice “wok hei” fragrance treasured by Chinese diners.
- Desserts were an unforgettable “Kueh Bengkang” (pan-roasted tapioca cake) and “Kueh Talam” (Nyonya-style pandan-flavored custard pudding, topped with coconut crème). Both items were better than any similar items I’d tasted back in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore in the past 1 year!!
How I wished Mary Yeoh would come back to Singapore once again, where her cooking prowess are well-known and acknowledged by foodies & discerning diners. No superlatives are enough to describe how I felt about Mary Yeoh's cooking. Until then, many Singaporeans like myself will just have to make a 14,000km food pilgrimage to Old Street to pay homage to Mary Yeoh’s food :-D
102 Old St, Islington, Greater London EC1V 9, GB