Lawyer-turned-chef and business owner Mandy Yin launched Sambal Shiok laksa bar on Holloway Road back in 2018. Yin’s stated mission is to introduce as many people to Malaysian food as she can. And with several television appearances, countless articles and a hit cookbook along the way, she’s acing her own assignment.
“It’s very hard to charge what we should charge for it,” says Yin of Sambal Shiok’s signature curry laksa as she itemises the 15-odd ingredients that go into it. “Onions, ginger, garlic, turmeric, three different types of chillies, dried, powdered, fresh…at the moment the prices are sky-high, it’s just insane. And oil! We’re paying nearly £40 for 20 kilos when pre-Covid it was just £15.”
“If you’re looking at something comparable, say an Italian pasta, dish, what we’re serving would probably cost north of £30, but we just wouldn’t be able to sell it in the quantities we’d need to.” The cheapest one with tofu is £13; the most expensive with chicken and prawns is £16.50. “That’s really a bargain for everything that’s gone into it.”
Making Yin’s laksa is a laborious process, from the blitzing, frying and 24-hour resting of the spice paste (“we make it ourselves; we don’t buy it in so there are no economies of scale”); the broth, the blanching of noodles, the vegetables, peeling the Burford Brown eggs and more. Short cuts are unthinkable. “We don’t just cut the tofu puffs in half and chuck it in the laksa; we pre-soak them so they are amazingly tasty before they even reach the customers. Again, that’s another process.”
I want our laksa to be something you can afford to enjoy on a weekly basis.
The economic situation has seen them make some change to the menu. Yin used to add 20 percent to delivery prices to cover costs but has now dropped them to match eat-in prices. “I know everyone is struggling financially. I want our laksa to be something you can afford to enjoy on a weekly basis”. She’s also, having previously offered only a “default hot” broth, introduced an-inverted-commas “mild” laksa broth. “We used to give coconut milk away for free for people who couldn’t take the heat of the laksa but we did an analysis of how much the coconut milk was costing and we were giving away pounds’ [worth] per person.”
You can tot up costs on a spreadsheet, but you can’t quantify the love in the food. “For me, it’s been a very personal journey. This laksa is not something you might traditionally find everywhere in Malaysia but it’s something that comes from my father’s hometown and is a combination of the Kuala Lumpur curry laksa and the Penang assam laksa. “This is my heart on a plate.”