Where Chef Abby Lee of Mambow Eats on Her Day Off
Where do chefs go and, more importantly, where do they love to eat? In Resy Regulars, we ask Resy chefs to tell us where they’re regulars.
In this edition, we’re chatting with chef and restaurateur Abby Lee, whose modern interpretation of Malaysian cuisine has made Mambow, her restaurant in Peckham, one of London’s most exciting places to eat.
Lee opened the first iteration of Mambow in Spitalfields in February 2020. She opened the second in Peckham in June 2022. Between iterations one and two, there were lockdowns and, for Lee, a lightning bolt. “Having to close, having to reorganise myself, having to go home – I went home to Singapore and Malaysia – I had an epiphany. I had been away for so long. After ten years just eating the food all over again, I really reconnected with my roots and realised that these family recipes, I wanted to bring them back to the UK and not let them die out with me basically. Returning, my mission was really clear. It’s going to be Malaysian food and all the different sides to it.”
Go now to Mambow at Market Peckham and you’ll find the inspired pairing of ‘Malaysian heat and juicy wines”. And you’ll find Lee, a Bristol economics graduate with a diploma from Le Cordon Bleu and a C.V boasting Michelin star restaurants in Italy, at the kitchen counter, cooking not the food she is trained in but the food she grew up with. Hard to believe, until a couple of years ago, Lee had barely cooked it at all.
“I wasn’t familiar with Malaysian cooking at all; I’d only watched my family make it. To cook in that way for the first time was definitely really inspiring. I could feel into the way they were measuring spices and measuring by hand. I was just following almost the motions of my aunty who was guiding me, who was guided by her mum, her grandmother. It was just copying her body motions, the way she was frying off spice pastes and balancing all these big flavours.”
“The western style of food is very much more produce-led. Some dishes only take three or four ingredients and you sort of let it speak for itself. With Asian cuisine, it’s understanding one dish may have 20 ingredients and how do I balance all of this?” There are so many variables: the heat, the timings, the ingredients, the quantities and, as Lee puts it, ‘how much patience you have to just sit with it.”
Her goal is to show London the sheer wealth of Malaysian cuisine. “It’s such a limited offering [in London] at the moment. Most people know laksa or roti canai. A lot of the dishes I’m doing are Nyonya dishes [from Peranakans, the descendants of early Chinese migrants and Malays]. They’re really intricate dishes that can take a long time to prepare but are so beautiful and complex.” Perhaps the best known dish at Mambow is Lee’s wickedly ingenious Hainanese chicken sando on Toad Bakery sourdough with chicken fat chilli sauce, ginger and spring onion oil and Kewpie mayo. Lee’s aim is to preserve traditional recipes while modernising their delivery. She cites the rempah fish, a deep-fried whole sea bream: “It’s usually a very home-style dish. We’ve stuffed it with our signature sambal and dressed it up with a really great kerabu, sour green mango salad.” One more essential order: “the lor bak, five spice pork and prawn bean curd rolls that I haven’t been able to take off.”
“I like the combination of really casual setting and quite serious food. I do enjoy the open plan kitchen dining experience, having that constant interaction and feedback from guests, so I can customise it to what they like, if they like it a bit more spicy.”
Going out to eat is a priority. Such is a chef’s life, however, it has to be fitted in as and when. “I have Mondays and Tuesdays off which is when all the good restaurants are closed so I’ve now put myself off Tuesdays and Wednesdays. That’s usually when things start opening up again. For lunch, I love going by myself. Dinner is the only time I can reconnect with close friends. I’m pretty much uncontactable sometimes so it’s very precious.”
She admits to being an inveterate over-orderer. “You don’t eat when you’re on service all day so when I’m finally relaxed I’m like “OK, get it all in.” She’s also the boss at the table. “I have to control it. I don’t like someone else ordering. I feel they just order the wrong thing. I don’t think my friends even look at the menu now. I just say I’ll do it.”
Here are Lee’s favourite places to eat in London on a well deserved day off, from affordable lunch spots to gather-around-the-table feasts.