Authenticity versus tradition

Words: Mandy Yin   Branding by @MSTRgringo

Authenticity versus tradition

by the owner of Sambal Shiok


It’s been six months now since the restaurant opened and I’ve been biting my tongue since then, trying to see how things went. But recently, I really couldn’t take it anymore when I saw one particular review come in on Google, which completely, and unfairly, trashed the restaurant.


And so, I decided to release a series of videos on Instagram in response to the bad reviews the restaurant has been receiving online on Google, TripAdvisor and Facebook, trying to explain what we’re trying to do at Sambal Shiok LaksaBar.


So, our laksa. Our laksa is not trying to be like every other laksa that you may find in London or, in fact, many other laksa that you may find in Malaysia. My laksa is my recipe, and is based on a campur laksa that I’ve had a lot in my father’s hometown of Malacca. A campur laksa is a mix between a curry laksa and an assam laksa, from Penang. I really like my food spicy, I like my laksa spicy, and therefore that’s why my laksa is spicy. It’s very strong in belacan shrimp paste and dried shrimp because that’s my food heritage. The Peranakan Nyonya use a lot of shrimp paste, chillies and lemongrass. We like our flavours strong.


So, I find it really weird when people say, “Oh, your laksa is too thick, it’s too strong, it’s too spicy,” expecting me to change my laksa to suit their tastes. I’m sorry but I’m not going to weaken or change my laksa, because it is exactly how I like it.


I find it really offensive when I hear people say, ‘You’ve watered down the flavours, or changed things to appeal to Western palates’. I really haven’t. My food is what I like eating. Yes, I grew up in Malaysia and it’s based on my very strong food memories.
With regards to the toppings of our laksa, we take a lot of care to make sure that every single element is cooked really well, to the best of our ability. For example, we serve really tender, juicy chicken breast in nice large chunks because we’ve cooked it that well and we want you to experience it in its best form. We’re not going to shred it up because it won’t be the same. We serve perfectly cooked, massive king prawns. We soak all of our fried tofu puffs in our vegan laksa broth first, so that they are crazily flavourful.


We take a lot of care, and so it is really hurtful when I see people talking down how we prepare our laksa because I’m really proud of my team and of what they achieve every day.


But I have also now lived in London for most of my life, so the food that I serve at the restaurant is based on things I like eating here and also on ingredients that I have access to in London. For example, you’re not going to find the majority of the snacks menu served in the same way as we serve it in Malaysia. Our fried chicken is my creation, based on Indian vadai, it’s made with gram flour and a spice coating, in a delicious brine with lemongrass, cumin and coriander, and is served with our peanut sauce.
It’s the same for our gado gado salad – it may not look like what you would traditionally find in Malaysia but it has all the elements I remember so fondly of such a salad. Right now, we are also serving beautiful, big fat juicy seasonal Cornish mussels in a sauce based on Peranakan masak nanas, sweet, spicy with the tang of pineapples.
I want to serve as many people as I can, as best as I possibly can. That’s why a lot of my menu is vegan / vegetarian, and that’s why I’ve chosen to only use halal meat because, being Malaysian, I want to serve everyone and be welcoming to everyone.
The achar pickles traditionally in Malaysia would have shrimp paste in the spice paste but I’ve chosen to leave it out. Of course, they are still tasty! I think people confuse ‘authenticity’ with ‘traditional’. I would never describe my food as what you would traditionally find in Malaysia. But is it authentic? I think so, yes! It is authentic to me, my experiences and my food memories.

All cuisine has evolved over decades and centuries. I think I’m doing my forefathers and foremothers proud, my ancestors from China who moved over to Malaysia, and started doing their thing with the local ingredients, cuisine and mixing things up. I don’t think I’m elevating Malaysian cuisine, I’m just changing it slightly because I am now in London.


I’ve seen a lot of one-star reviews from people complaining that they couldn’t get in at the time they wanted, and didn’t bother to wait. Or conversely from people who, once they have come in, complain that the food was served too quickly and then they felt pressured to give their table back. Well, yes, sorry, we are a very small restaurant with only 40 seats. Generally, we appreciate that sometimes there is quite a long queue outside of people waiting patiently in the cold.


Even though we have heaters now, and an awning, to protect our queue. It’s another reason why we don’t serve dessert. We are proud of the delivery of our service, in terms of speed, efficiency but at the same time, warmth.


I realise that we will never please everyone but I just want a fair representation to be out there on all platforms for people new to us. It’s unfair for people to just see the negatives, and unfortunately it tends to be those that don’t understand what we’re doing or who haven’t voiced any unhappiness whilst they were with us, and who finish their food without sending anything back to the kitchen, who leave bad reviews. Our loyal customers who love us simply come back, time and time again, bringing new people to try our food each time.


To anyone new coming in to try our food for the first time, all I would ask is for you to come with an open mind and not to compare us to any other Malaysian restaurant you’ve been to before. We are Sambal Shiok Laksa Bar.