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Jan 17, 2012 03:46 PM

London - Best Singaporean-Malaysian Ever at Sedap, Old Street

What happens when perhaps the most talented and famous Penang-Nyonya chef in Singapore moves quietly to London, and opens her own little restaurant? She who has cooked for Presidents and Prime Ministers back in Singapore – all yearning for her delicious renditions of Nyonya dishes from Penang, Malaysia’s food mecca. That’s the extraordinarily talented Mary Yeoh of Sedap in Old Street.

Mary Yeoh and her husband, Yeoh Teng Chye, first became famous because of their legendary Penang buffet at the Princess Terrace restaurant, Copthorne Kings Hotel in Singapore – it’s still going strong after nearly 30 years, where legions of Penang-born chefs still churned out the best Penang-Nyonya cuisine by following Mary Yeoh’s recipes to a “T”. Her Penang Fried Koay teow, Singapore-style Curry Laksa, Belachan Fried Chicken, Roti Prata with Nyonya Chicken Curry, and many other dishes were the stuff of legend. Singaporeans could never get enough of it.
Kwek Leng Beng (one of Singapore’s richest men & owner of the Millennium & Copthorne Group) sent Mary Yeoh and her husband to London as consultant-chefs to the HK-born Chef de Cuisine of Bugis Street restaurant at the Gloucester Hotel back in 1993/4 then. I’d posted about Bugis Street recently – it’s still packing in Malaysian & Singaporean diners in the droves today – though the standard of food there is nowhere near what Mary Yeoh can conjure up if she runs the kitchens herself.

In early 2000, a rival Singaporean billionaire-hotelier, Ong Beng Seng, poached the Yeohs from under the nose of the Millennium & Copthorne Group, and set them up at Nyonya restaurant in Notting Hill. For the next 5-6 years, lines of Singaporeans and Malaysians made their pilgrimage to Nyonya for authentic Singaporean/Malaysian chow.

Anyway, Mary Yeoh & her husband soon decided to finally strike out on their own – thus, Sedap was born. For decades, I’d looked for good Oriental food in London, specifically good, authentic Singaporean food. In the 1960/70s, it was Mr Chow’s – expensive, pretentious, snooty, filled with A-listers and, unless you are Alec Guinness or Michael Caine, you’re likely to be ignored by the waiters. In the 1980s, Ken Lo’s Memories of China set the benchmark. To get gritty Cantonese, you go to Fung Shing or New Mayflower or to the despicable Wong Kei, where you take your chance with rude, obnoxious waiters. For authentic Malay (not Malaysian), you trudge over to Malaysia Hall (then in Bryanston Square, now on Queensborough Terrace) for authentic beef rendang & sayur masak lemak churned out by “makciks” (“aunties”) cooks sent over by the Malaysian government to provide sustenance to the hordes of Malaysian students studying/living in London.

But nowhere was I able to find a really, really authentic & good Singaporean restaurant. Not even the definitive Singapore Garden in Swiss Cottage, although it did come close.
All that changed when Sedap came into being. It was mind-boggling – in cold, wintry London, I can find Singaporean/Malaysian cuisine which, in some instances, surpassed even the versions I found back in Singapore or Malaysia! Such is the sheer talent of Mary Yeoh. What we had this evening:
- Singapore-style Curry Laksa: spicy, aromatic, coconut-rich curried noodles, topped with poached chicken, fresh crunchy shrimps, tofu puffs, fish-cake slices and a hard-boiled egg. It was the perfect comfort food for any Singaporean foodie who wanted to look for something familiar from home, after a diet of Michelin-starred restaurants in London’s rich, cosmopolitan culinary scene.
- Sesame encrusted Prawn Toasts & Crisp Vegetarian Spring Rolls: both very tasty and greaseless, despite the deep-frying involved;
- Roti Prata with Nyonya Chicken Curry: this dish was incredible – the crisp Singaporean pancakes served with perhaps the best Nyonya-style curry in this part of the world. Even back in Singapore, Mary Yeoh’s curry was legendary – amongst hundreds of her peers. Here in London, it was both unique and extraordinary – it made the curries I had in Chinatown and Bayswater seemed plain & practically amateurish;
- Sayur Lodeh: a rich, fragrant vegetable curry with aubergines, long beans, cabbage, tofu and fresh bamboo shoots – a veritable vegetarian’s dream;
- Malaysian fried rice, with eggs & shrimps: delicious, spicy, perfectly-textured;
- Belachan-fried chicken: slightly sweetish chicken, flavored with fermented shrimp paste, fried till crispy on the outside, deliciously moist inside. Mary Yeoh’s Belachan Chicken was much talked-about back in Singapore, and still features prominently in the Princess Terrace’s famous buffet.
- Penang Char Koay Teow: fried flat rice noodles with shrimps, eggs, beansprouts. Nice “wok hei” fragrance treasured by Chinese diners.
- Desserts were an unforgettable “Kueh Bengkang” (pan-roasted tapioca cake) and “Kueh Talam” (Nyonya-style pandan-flavored custard pudding, topped with coconut crème). Both items were better than any similar items I’d tasted back in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore in the past 1 year!!

How I wished Mary Yeoh would come back to Singapore once again, where her cooking prowess are well-known and acknowledged by foodies & discerning diners. No superlatives are enough to describe how I felt about Mary Yeoh's cooking. Until then, many Singaporeans like myself will just have to make a 14,000km food pilgrimage to Old Street to pay homage to Mary Yeoh’s food :-D

102 Old St, Islington, Greater London EC1V 9, GB

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  1. Seriously enticing write up of Sedap! I haven't been here in over a year (probably over 2 even) but now I feel like I need to get there this weekend.

    1 Reply
    1. re: JFores

      I trust your trek there will be shorter than mine, JFores :-)

      1. re: greedygirl

        LOL! Well noted.

        BTW, I spoke to Mary Yeoh and she's very happily settled in here.

        Senior management executives from the Millennium & Copthorne Group Singapore still drop by for her food whenever they are in London. And her own favorite cuisine here? "Indian!", she exclaimed. Yep - you do get some awesome Indian here - Londoners are some of the luckiest diners in the world :-)

      2. Looks very nice. No veggies? ;-)

        From your recounting of the Yeohs' storyline Sedap was opened around 2006? Googlemaps street view must predate that, then, as it shows the address to be occupied by an "Authentic Cantonese & Peking Cuisine" place called Yat San 111. :-)

        BTW here's one diner who had a contrary view of the place: Perhaps everybody in BOH was off-kilter that day...

        5 Replies
        1. re: huiray

          Oh yes - I do believe there can be off-days for some chefs, but I seriously don't think Mary Yeoh could be *that* bad. Perhaps a review by a business rival? ;-)

            1. re: huiray

              Hey, it's a dog eat dog world out there, huiray :-D

              1. re: klyeoh

                I'd guess that review was written by the chef/manager of Awana -- he was all over the internet writing fake positive reviews for Awana (which has closed -- worst restaurant in London).

                1. re: brokentelephone

                  Nasty. But that's the problem with some high-profle Malaysian restaurant openings (used to be Awana, now Rasa Malaysia) in London - pluck some random chefs out of nowhere, and expect the local diners here to swallow whatever they churn out.

        2. Mary Yeoh: now that name's a blast from the past! She made the best assam laksa I ever tasted in Singapore. I first met her when she came to cook in King's Hotel when the hotel GM Yeoh Cheng Kung who's also originally from Penang enticed her and her husband to come to cook in Singapore.
          Yes, she is one talented lady, about my age too now, if I remember correctly - 65 (now keep this a secret between us Chowhounds okay?)
          My mahjong kaki friends and I still made it a point to go to Princess Terrace for the Penang buffet at least once a month or every two months these days. Mary should take credit for the Penang Hokkien prawn mee noodles soup, assam laksa, too-thor (pigs stomach) soup, Penang Nonya achar, nasi kerabu, kerabu bee hoon, char moy (fried porridge), delicious satay, the superb Nonya kueh-kueh especially the pulot tay-tay. Her chicken curry is so shiok! Lemak and pedas!
          I still like to buy the Nyonya kaya back home. Thank you, Mary Yeoh, if you are reading this, for making our lives so much richer with your wonderful food! We all miss you!!!

          1. My friends and I tried Sedap a few evenings ago after having high hopes from reading this post. We found the food to be not bad but nothing more than ordinary. Perhaps they were having an off day, or has something changed, I wonder?

            9 Replies
            1. re: politicfool

              Which dishes did you order? I sometimes find issue with Singaporean/Malaysian restaurateurs who tweaked their recipes to "suit Londoners' tastes". But it's a common practice, from what I hear.

              Have you tried "Laut", the Michelin-starred Malaysian restaurant in Manhattan (owned by Malaccan-born Michael Bong - all its dishes were changed to suit New Yorkers' tastes as well, as my Malaysian friends visiting NY found out when they dined there.

              Whilst at Sedap, I'll usually get authentically-prepared dishes, but mainly because I'd request for that whilst ordering.

              1. re: klyeoh

                Yeah, we didn't state explicitly that we wanted the food to be "authentic". That may have been why the kitchen sent us dishes that I would think of as rather bland and ordinary.

                1. re: politicfool

                  I prefer the Nyona curry dishes there over the more hawker-styled items, so having different dishes could also be another cause for difference. The sauces there tend to be appropriately rich and complex in my experience. When in doubt, order sambal belachan to perk things up.

                  1. re: limster

                    There's a program called "Singapore Flavours" currently screening on the AFC channel in Singapore: each episode featured a popular Singapore dish and how it's perceived overseas. The show's hosts (comedian Mark Lee, actor Chen Han Wei, actress Fiona Xie and radio DJ Dennis Chew) each traveled to a different city to try out the food.

                    In the episode on fish-head curry, Chen Han Wei visited London (the other hosts went to Adelaide, San Francisco and Tokyo). Chen Han Wei chose Malaysia Kopitiam on Charing Cross Road, where the version looked authentic. The owner of Malaysia Kopitiam did say that only Malaysian/Singaporean customers would order that dish, so they did not tweak the recipe.

                    In another episode featuring Hainanese chicken rice, Chen Han Wei went to Rasa Sayang on Macclesfield Street. There, he tasted authentic Hainanese chicken rice. Interestingly, Rasa Sayang's proprietress did tell him that they'd serve 2 different versions: one to Singaporean/Malaysian/Oriental customers, and another version to others who'd not be able to appreciate the actual Singaporean version.

                    The best part of the episode was when Chen Han Wei asked a Russian lady customer in there to try the authentic version (which he really liked) ... and she hated the very taste of it :-D

                    1. re: klyeoh

                      "The best part of the episode was when Chen Han Wei asked a Russian lady customer in there to try the authentic version (which he really liked) ... and she hated the very taste of it :-D"
                      ...and that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is another illustration of why servers and chef-proprietors in a great many Chinese (& related) restaurants throughout the Occident say "You No Like" to their general Western clientele who ask for "authentic dishes". At least at one time. ;-)

                      A recent thread on a facet of this phenomenon from across the Pond:

                2. re: klyeoh

                  Klyeoh - how do you precisely ask for something to be "authentic" if you don't speak the language?

                  1. re: Will125

                    It's difficult - unless you have a Malaysian or Singaporean amongst your dining party. Restaurateurs here tend to be *very* resistant to serving food which they think won't be appreciated by the locals, no matter what you say to them.

                    Camellia Panjabi (who owned Masala Zone) experienced that, too - she wrote about how she wanted to introduce "real" Indian food here, but no one wanted to order what she offered. So, you now have Masala Zone outlets which serve watered down versions of the real stuff - but, they suit local tastes!

                    1. re: klyeoh

                      So even a request for something to be more authentic will likely not suffice? Oh well, I guess I need to make some Malaysian friends!

                      1. re: Will125

                        I was back at Sedap last night with Limster and Deansa. The owner-chef, Yeoh Teng Chye, spoke to us and explained how he couldn't provide 100% authentic renditions for all dishes - firstly, local diners had thought that his "Curry Kapitan", a Penang-style spicy chicken stew, had been sent back by some customers who mistook the sourish taste as "the curry's gone bad". He's since removed the item (plus others which proved unpopular with local diners) from the menu.

                        What we had last night:

                        - Kerabu prawns: a very (and I do mean *very*) spicy prawn-and cucumber salad. Very fresh prawns used here.

                        - Deep-fried spring rolls. A bit too small for me, but seemed okay for the others.

                        - Roti canai and chicken curry. The roti was crisp and flaky, though a bit greasy last night. The chicken curry was *incredible* - only Sedap has been able to produce Chinese-Nyonya-style chicken curry with the requisite flavours. The other versions I'd had in other Malaysian spots like Rasa Sayang (Macclesfield St), New Fook Lam Moon (Gerrard St) or Malaysian Kopitiam (Charing Cross Rd) tasted closer to Indian curries: probably catering to the average Londoner's taste, who're also more familiar with Indian curries than a Nyonya one.

                        - Hainanese chicken rice - much better than the version I had at Singapore Garden (Swiss Cottage) or Rasa Sayang (yuk!). It's hard to find great Hainanese chicken rice in London.

                        - Penang fried koay teow: perfectly respectable version here, with a smoky, delicious aroma.

                        - A variety of Nyonya kuehs (cakes) which included kueh talam, kueh serimuka, kueh bingka, and kueh lapis. They were 100% authentic and better than those I get in 99% of Nyonya stalls back in Singapore or KL! Quite a feat indeed to produce these here in London.