I’ve been anticipating the publication of Mandy Yin’s Sambal Shiok cookbook for many months, and now the book’s in my hands, it doesn’t disappoint! As Yin explains, Malaysian food reflects the diversity of the Malaysian people and encompasses a glorious range of ingredients, flavours and techniques from the Malay, Chinese, Peranakan, South Indian and indigenous peoples (such as the tribal Iban) that make up the country’s population. In addition, there are influences from the neighbouring cuisines of Thailand and Indonesia, not to mention the marks left by European colonisation and trade. As you can imagine, this has created a rich and enormously diverse cuisine.
Note the difference, btw in Malaysian versus Malay; the former refers to the people and culture of the whole country whereas the latter describes an Austronesian ethnic group native to an area that encompasses East Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula, and coastal Borneo.
Lawyer turned street food vendor turned restaurant owner, Yin’s path into food is one that’s become increasingly common – passionate food lovers burned out by demanding careers switch instead to the food industry, often with no formal training but harbouring a burning need to find careers that feed their souls rather than their bank balances. The diversity, determination, lateral thinking and business acumen such individuals bring to the table enriches the hospitality sector.
It’s through her street stall and then restaurant that I came to know Yin online, though I didn’t manage to eat her food until pandemic lockdowns saw food vendors neatly pivot to an online model – her signature curry laksa was a true thing of beauty! You can order Sambal Shiok pastes, sauces, sambals and curry powder blends via their presence on Pezu.
In Sambal Shiok the book, Yin showcases a wide range of Malaysian-inspired recipes covering everything from snacks, pickles and salads to noodle soups, rice dishes, curries and sweets. She shares both family stalwarts and recipes developed for her restaurant, providing inspiration for weekday meals, weekend feasts, dinner parties and celebrations.
The book’s introduction starts with Yin’s reminder of the manifold origins of Malaysian cuisine and her intention to celebrate the diversity of the country and its people. The recipes shared are through the lens of Yin’s own experiences and food memories, and whilst not all of them are exactly what you might traditionally find in Malaysia, all are firmly rooted in Malaysian flavours. Like the many generations before her, Yin rejoices in bringing together the flavours and foods of her land of birth with the ingredients and ideas of the UK.
‘Origins of Malaysia’s Food Culture’ shares the historic timeline and influences of different waves of immigration (and colonisation) in more detail, filling in some of the key characteristics and ingredients of food from the different ethnic groups. For anyone with an interest in the evolution and background of a cuisine and culture, this succinct chapter is so helpful.
This leads into Yin’s personal ‘Memories of Malaysia’, from childhood meals at home to celebratory feasts and banquets. She was instilled with an openness to try anything once, recalling that it was easy because she found everything so good. Everyone around her loved food, and conversations were often focused on what the next meal would be. She tells us of daily visits to food markets to buy supper, weekend jaunts to the seaside for fresh seafood, and holidays to Ipoh where the family would “stuff ourselves silly” – her family were always willing to travel for good food! It’s in this section that Yin describes the vibrant and industrious hawker stall culture, wherein street food vendors set up shop along roadsides, in some cases simply setting up table right outside their homes, or selling from carts that can be easily relocated. Dedicated hawker centres of stalls and kopi tiam (coffee shops that sell coffee and food) can be found everywhere, often little more than a grouping of sellers around a collection of foldaway tables and plastic chairs. Reading along, I can picture a young Yin being taken to the markets and hawker centres, learning enthusiastically about all the different ingredients and dishes, how to spot the best quality, excitedly helping to choose what to buy…
The latter part of Yin’s passage on memories talks about her experiences after moving to London when she was eleven years old. Fluent in English already, the biggest culture shock was the food – us Brits being far less food-focused (obsessed?) than Malaysians. Yin felt this loss most strongly when it came to school lunches, and the lack of hawker centres of an evening. Luckily, as Yin’s mother is an amazing cook, the family continued to enjoy family meals rooted in their heritage.
From here the Introduction becomes more practical. In ‘My Kitchen and Using this Book’; Yin explains that Malaysian recipes are very adaptable, and indeed she includes substitutions in many of her recipes, to make a meat dish vegetarian, for example. Where you are missing just one or two ingredients from a spice paste, it’s okay to miss them out – of course the result will be a little different, but it should still be very tasty. And tinkering with her recipes to make them your own is also much encouraged! Additional tips such as frying till the oil separates, freezing chillis, and a few common substitutions are also shared here. Likewise, while traditional methods call for laborious chopping and pounding, Yin is a firm proponent of food processors and blenders.
Five pages of ‘Store Cupboard Staples’ introduce the core ingredients that appear in many of the recipes. Most can be readily found in supermarkets, with the rest available via online specialists. The chapter closes with a single page list of ‘My Essential Home-Kitchen Equipment’, including basics such as cooking pans and woks, knives, bowls, spatulas and that essential food processor.
Recipes are divided into chapters covering ‘Satay and My Street-Food Journey’, ‘Hawker-Centre Favourites’, ‘Home-Style Dishes’ (which is split into Soups, Meat, Seafood and Vegetarian), and ‘Snacks’ (which is divided by Savoury and Sweet).
Recipe layout is straightforward with ingredients in a separate column and recipe summary and instructions below the heading. Where a recipe has multiple elements, these are clearly divided by subheadings, both in ingredients and method. A big gap for me is the lack of dual language recipe names, especially for dishes that are already reasonably well known in the UK such as roti canai, Nonya achar and nasi lemak – though these are provided in the summary text in many cases.
Although there are plenty of bright, colourful and appealing food photographs, there are quite a few recipes without an illustrative photo; I’m less drawn to and confident about making those not knowing what I’m aiming for. My preference is to have pictures for all recipes, even if they are grouped to show a few dishes together in one image.
In ‘Satay and My Street-Food Journey’ Yin tells us how unsustainably long hours working as a lawyer were behind her change of career, inspired by the excellent food and long queues she saw at street food markets for East Asian food. Street food would allow her to start her journey at relatively low cost, and without the complexity and expense of launching and running a restaurant – and of course, launching her own stall tied in to her love for the street food hawkers of Malaysia. Noting that the burger stalls often had the longest queues at most street food markets, Yin cannily created a chicken satay burger, combining the portability, ease of eating and customer appeal of a burger with the popular flavours of chicken satay. Reading Yin’s acknowledgement of a mutual friend’s role in securing her first pitch bought a lump to my throat; imagining how excited and supportive he would be were he still with us to witness the launch of her restaurant, and now her first book. These little nods to the inspiration and help of others is one of the many small details that draw me so strongly to this title.
In this first chapter comes the Chicken Satay recipe on which Yin based her iconic Satay Burgers, along with a selection of other dishes also originating with the chicken satay: Malaysian fried cauliflower, Malaysian fried chicken and Peanut Gado Gado Salad, all of which have been on the menu at both the Sambal Shiok pop-up laksa bar and permanent restaurant. Don’t miss the simple Cucumber Pickles sub-recipe included in the Satay Burger – the addition of ginger and anise to the pickling liquid adds extra flavour to this classic overnight pickle.
‘Hawker-Centre Favourites’ is where Yin drums home the Malaysian obsession with food, reminding us that Malaysians eat at least five times a day at breakfast, lunch, tea-time, dinner, supper not to mention many snacks in between! Food is also a great equaliser, with superb food readily affordable at the lowest budgets. Malaysians favour a hot lunch, most commonly bought from a hawker centre, kopi tiam or street food stall. Each hawker specialises in one or two dishes, in some cases a vendor has been selling the same thing for decades! Queues for favourite sellers can be long, but people wait patiently and eagerly for their favourites.
As well as the amazing laksas that customers of Sambal Shiok restaurant can’t get enough of (Curry Laksa and Penang Laksa), this chapter includes recipes for cornerstone hawker dishes – nasi lemak (Coconut Rice with Egg and Sambal), Hainanese Chicken Rice, nasi goreng kampung Anchovy Fried Rice, village style), a variety of noodle soups and fried noodle dishes.
These first two chapters make me salivate but it’s the ‘Home-Style Dishes’ chapter – split into Soups, Meat, Seafood and Vegetarian – that garners the highest density of my little sticky bookmarks.
Like many of us first and second generation immigrants, Yin didn’t consciously learn to cook Malaysian food with her mother as a child, though she absorbed far more than she realised just by observing in the kitchen. She began to experiment as soon as she left home to attend university, quickly becoming known amongst her friends as a good cook. I identified so strongly with her story, having also missed my mum’s food when I left for university, and regularly quizzed her on the phone to learn my favourite of her Indian dishes. In my case, that lead to the creation of Mamta’s Kitchen, one of the very first recipe websites on the web, launched back in 2001. In Yin’s case, it was only some years later, when the long and tough hours burned her out and she found herself signed off her job for three months; she made a list of all her favourites from her mum’s kitchen repertoire and asked her to teach them to her, step by step. I find myself smiling when Yin recalls how she had to stop her mum from adding oil, seasoning and spices instinctively by hand to pause and measure them first – I had to do the same with my mum when she first began to write down her recipes for us , so intuitive had her cooking become that she scarcely noticed the way she adjusts as she goes!
Having bought two fat tubes of fresh egg tofu (which I love) just days before the book arrived, the first recipe we made was Soy-Braised Egg Tofu. There’s a lovely vignette in the recipe’s summary about the rustic family-style restaurant in Sarawak in which Yin tasted this dish, where three generations of women cooked and served customers, whilst the youngest member of the family slept in a baby basket to one side. Although the recipe includes pork mince and oyster sauce, it’s listed in the Vegetarian section of Home-Style Dishes, with suggestions from Yin to sub rehydrated shiitake mushrooms for the pork and mushroom sauce instead of oyster to make it vegetarian. We make the pork version and it’s fabulous; wobbly discs of egg tofu have a hint of crispness on the surfaces, with insides that are meltingly soft and silky, they are so good against the simple pork. Whilst our sauce doesn’t come out remotely as dark as that pictured, it’s wonderful mixed into the rice. We love this dish and have made it a few times already, even at the expense of trying more recipes.
Next to be made is the Nonya Chicken Curry Kapitan and gosh, this is an absolute winner too! Yin describes it as the king of Malaysian chicken curries, and on tasting, we immediately understand why. The combination of spice paste ingredients including ginger, onion, garlic, turmeric, lemongrass, chillies and shrimp paste with the flavours added during cooking (coconut milk, tamarind paste, dark brown sugar, makrut lime leaves and cinnamon) create a fantastically complex yet beautifully balanced flavour profile that is aromatic, intense and very tasty. This is another dish we’ve made twice already, and I’m already craving a rerun!
In contrast, whilst the Malay Red Chicken is also a decent chicken curry dish, it has none of the complexity of flavours of the Kapitan. Having run out of freezer peas we subbed in freezer green beans instead, which worked well.
I am only rarely in the mood for soup, and fussy about the kind of soup when I am. Not keen on soups that are one hundred percent liquid, I like to have something to chew that gives me a variation in textures. (Certainly most of the soup recipes I’ve shared here follow that rule: Nigel Slater’s Mushroom, Butternut & Soured Cream Soup, Easy Butternut Squash Soup with Bacon Brittle, Norwegian Fish Soup to name a few). Yin’s Black Pepper Lamb Soup appealed hugely, not least because we have really superb heritage-breed lamb and mutton in the freezer, bought directly from the farm. The summary explains that it’s traditionally made with goat meat which has become a little easier to source in the UK, but it works well with mutton or lamb. As we used lamb chops, we needed to fish out bones and cartilage, so next time we’ll probably use use a boned cut of meat but stick to one that benefits from overnight marinade and two hours cooking time. The finished soup had just the right amount of fat for a satisfying mouthfeel without it being an oil slick, the lamb was super tender and the spices were beautifully harmonious.
Beef rendang is one of our favourites so we love to try new recipes and compare them with those we’ve previously cooked. Yin’s beef rendang is straightforward to make, and we like the use of coconut cream rather than the desiccated coconut that some recipes call for. Yin served this rendang at her stall in a brioche bun with sweet pickles and sambal but we had it for dinner over plain rice; comfort food in a bowl. This is also a great recipe to batch cook and freeze, and it’s just as good if not better defrosted and reheated. The taste and texture are really good – we are now planning a Rendang-Off to compare four or five recipes side by side!
Other recipes in this chapter bookmarked to try soon are Coconut and Lemongrass Roast Chicken, Chinese Sweet Sticky Ribs, Hainanese Five-Spice Pork Chops, Mussels in Pineapple Curry, Assam Fish Curry, Prawn Sambal, Greens with Garlic and Oyster Sauce, and Sambal Mapo Tofu.
‘Snacks’ comes next, divided between Savoury and Sweet. Snacks are integral to the Malaysian day, being enjoyed between breakfast and lunch, lunch and dinner, and after dinner too! Unlike European meals where certain ingredients and dishes are tied to specific times of day, most dishes in Malaysia are enjoyed whenever the diner feels like it, so a savoury plate of tofu and egg might well be eaten for breakfast, as much as sweet pancakes may be enjoyed as an afternoon snack. Malaysians like to take snacks as gifts when visiting friends, and will also ensure they are well stocked at home to serve to anyone who visits them.
Savoury pastries, fritters, biscuits and dumplings are popular, as are larger dishes to share such as fried noodles, salads, and rice dishes. On my list to try are Prawn Fritters, Sarawak Butter Prawns, Spiced Turmeric Pickle (I adore this Nonya achar, which I came to love at my friend Jason’s Perenakan Palace supper club), Stir-Fried Radish Cake, Spicy Prawn Glutinous Rice Parcels, Lap’s Lamb Wontons (made for a collaborative Lunar New Year event with Lap-fai Lee), Crispy Flaky Flatbreads (aka roti canai, which comes with very helpful step-by-step photographs), Spiral Curry Puffs, and Prosperity Toss Fish Salad (another dish I tried at Jason’s supper club).
On the sweet side are kueh (steamed and baked cakes, cookies, glutinous rice parcels, jellies), sweet soups, and shaved ice desserts. I am drawn to Coconut Pudding with Salted Banana Caramel, Rose Coconut Cookies, Taro and Sweet Potato Soup, Horlicks Pudding and Peanut Brittle, and Chocolate Cardamom Cake.
At the end, an extra chapter that definitely wins this traveller’s heart, 10 fact and suggestion-filled pages of Yin’s ‘Malaysia Travel Tips’ – I’d love to see this included in more single cuisine cookbooks, especially where the author has lived in or travelled extensively in that country. A trip to Malaysia has been on my travel wish list for a long time, and I’ll definitely be incorporating recommendations from this chapter when I finally make it there.
Shiok in Malay slang means ‘shockingly good’ and that’s exactly how I’d describe the recipes in Sambal Shiok. Yin shares a wide range of dishes from simple to a little more complex; all readily achievable at home. Alongside the helpful cultural insight, personal stories and charming anecdotes these recipes provide a solid and very delicious introduction to Malaysian cooking.
Recipes From Sambal Shiok
We are delighted to share these two recipes from the book, with permission from publisher Quadrille [first recipe posting tomorrow].
If you decide to buy this book after reading our content, please consider clicking through our affiliate link, located within the post and in the footnote below.
Kavey Eats received a review copy of Sambal Shiok by Mandy Yin from publisher Quadrille. Photography by Louise Hagger. With thanks to Mandy Yin for personal photographs.