By Sandra Leong
The first thing you need to know about good Malaysian and Singaporean food in London is that you’re unlikely to find it in a Chinese takeaway. No matter what the menu says, Singapore fried noodles are as Singaporean as ‘spag bol’ is Bolognese.
So what makes food Malaysian or Singaporean? It's hard to come up with a single definition that sums up the flavours of nasi lemak (coconut rice served with fried anchovies and sambal belacan), laksa (yellow egg noodles in a tangy curry soup) or beef rendang (dark, caramelised beef stew). After all they're influenced by almost every major Asian cuisine — Malay, Chinese (and also the Straits Chinese), Indian, Indonesian, a sprinkling of Thai even.
Geography has a lot to do with this gastronomic confluence. In their early days, the British developed both countries as a trading crossroads in the East and early immigrants who flocked to the states of Malaya brought with them all manner of foods and spices. Perhaps what comes closest to describing the culinary culture of the region is the Malay word rojak, which means mixture (and interestingly also lends its name to a hodgepodge dish of fruit and vegetables coated in a thick peanut sauce).
Intrigued? Here are some places to get your fill of Malaysian and Singaporean food in London.
Rasa Sayang, Chinatown
This Chinatown stalwart does all the staples solidly — nasi lemak, beef rendang and char kway teow (wok-fried flat noodles in a dark soy sauce). If you’re feeling adventurous, have a go at the Singapore chilli crab: that’s juicy crab meat covered in a sweet, savoury, eggy sauce. And don’t be put off by the name — it’s not that spicy.
C&R Cafe, Chinatown
To find this cramped, cafe-style joint you’ll have to make your way down the narrow Rupert Court alley (on a busy day, you’ll spot the queues first). Guardian food critic Jay Rayner has given a ringing endorsement to the seafood laksa here, while Singaporean and Malaysian visitors tend to go for the humbler but equally satisfying Hainanese chicken rice (tender poached chicken served on a bed of pandan-flavoured rice).
Roti King, Euston
Roti canai is a type of Indian flatbread that’s served with a dipping bowl of curry. Making it is an art in itself — a ball of dough is spun into a thin, elastic disc that’s crisped up on a hot plate. If you’re lucky, the folks at this Malaysian-style greasy spoon will make your roti fresh in front of you.
You can get your roti plain, or stuffed with lamb or chicken. Or just for the sake of it, in the shape of a cone that's drizzled with chocolate sauce. (Yes, that’s actually a thing.)
Makan, Notting Hill
More a pit-stop than a restaurant, here you choose from a selection of rice and curry dishes from the bar. Try the curry puffs (curried chicken and potatoes in pastry) or ayam goreng (fried chicken).
Satay House, Paddington
A popular haunt amongst Malaysian and Singaporean students, Satay House has a big menu of traditional dishes, from its speciality satay to mee goreng. Nasi campur, an all-in-one dish of lamb, chicken or fish curry with steamed rice, salted fish and vegetables is another crowd pleaser. (Also close by is Pak Awie, which does similarly reliable comfort food.)
Malaysian Deli, Brockley
If you’re venturing south of the river, this hole-in-the-wall eatery does good nasi lemak and beef rendang, plus a very reasonable buffet.
Three other tips...
If you fancy a bit of heat, ask for sambal belacan, a spicy chilli condiment made from shrimp paste, to go with your food.
Teh tarik, a sweet and frothy tea made with condensed or evaporated milk, is another must-have.
And if you have Malaysian friends, get them to take you to Malaysia Hall, a canteen at the Malaysian High Commission that’s (sadly) only for Malaysian citizens.