One evening back in January, I was sitting quietly writing in my room when Jen came in:
“Dude, I think we went to school with one of the guys on The Taste”
“No way. Seriously? Are you sure?”
I went downstairs to find the TV paused on a guy’s face I definitely recognised – Guan’s. I (obviously) tweeted this, he saw and got in touch to say he remembered me too. I watched the rest of the series in support of him, but, despite enjoying it in parts, I remain unconvinced by the format. The reason, I think, why people enjoy watching talent shows is that they like judging people for themselves. My flatmates and I watch Masterchef, with our bowls of uninspired pasta, and pass judgement on the contestant’s efforts: ‘oh that is clearly overcooked’. The Taste, by reducing everything to a spoon which the viewer can’t see, denies people that pleasure. We have to rely solely on what the judges say, and that just isn’t as much fun.
Guan run’s Malaysian Nyona supper clubs, which since his TV stint have been very popular, so it took me a couple of attempts before I managed to get some seats, and I invited Seán to join me. Guan holds the dinners at his flat, only catering for eight people at a time, so it felt just like a dinner party except you didn’t know any of the other guests, and there were no last minute panics, botched jobs or frustrated swearing coming from his kitchen.The guests included two other The Taste contestants – Barry and Claire – so we got a lot of gossip about what happened behind the scenes, which sadly I can’t share with you here! We were also fortunate that Guan’s mother and aunt were currently visiting from Kuala Lumpa that week, so one of the starters on the menu was made by his mum!
It began, as all good evenings do, with a welcome cocktail. This one was made of gin, elderflower and cucumber, the perfect refresher for a hot evening, or would have been if it hadn’t been rainy, windy and rather chilly. Guan then spoke to us briefly about the history of Malaysian food. It is widely acknowledged to be the first fusion food, although he hates that label as fusion is rarely done successfully. His strand of Malaysian food, Nyona, is named after the descendants of 15th and 16th century immigrants, who moved to Malaya from Southern China. They took their inherited style of cooking and incorporated the new ingredients that were making their way along the Spice Trail, such as chillies, lemongrass, coconut milk and fermented shrimp paste. This combination of ingredients gives a very complex flavour profile to Malaysian food, with savoury, sweet, hot and sour tastes often in play at the same time.
The first dish up was kuith pai tee, or ‘top hats’ as this signature Malaysian dish is commonly referred to. Molds are dipped into light batter, which are then fried until crisp, filled with a mixture of turnips, shrimp and chilli (all cooked in stock for sweetness) and then topped with thin slivers of omelette. Straight away I could see (or rather taste) what Guan said about complex flavours- there was so much going on, but rather than vying for attention, the individual flavours all came together in harmony. Our second starter was the guest entry from his mum. It was an example of the food she cooked for Guan when he was growing up, and was another sort of fusion food, but this time Malaysian and British. The deep fried spring rolls were packed with chicken, mushrooms and potatoes, and served with a dip which included Worcester sauce and mustard. They were like Cornish pasties, or empanadas, but with an Asian twist, odd, but rather delicious. Our final starter was lobak, deep-fried five spice pork rolls. The mixture of pork, water chestnuts, five spice and sugar had been wrapped in an incredible light bean curd, and the rolls were served with a sweet chilli sauce, spiked with lightly toasted sesame seeds.
The mains were all served at the same time and with plenty of rice. Tau Yew Bak, was a slow cooked piece of pork belly caramelized in muscavado sugar, and then soaked in three different types of soy sauce to balance out the sweetness. It was mixed with pieces of tofu, which absorbed the liquid (and spurted it back into your mouth when bitten into), pieces of chewy deep-fried garlic, and soft quails eggs. There was also a 4-angle bean salad, kerabu. The green beans had been blanched and then refreshed, so they still had bite, before being coated in a fermented shrimp paste dressing, lightly sweetened with palm sugar. However my favourite dish of the night was the sambal prawns. It’s the dish that Guan cooked to get himself into Anthony’s team on The Taste, and I can see why the food critic snapped him up! The large, fresh prawns were cooked with galangal, chilli paste, lemongrass, and candlenuts, which add the creaminess rather than coconut milk. It was at the top end of my heat tolerance, was like a more citrusy, fresher tasting version of South Indian curries, and I loved every single mouthful.
With very little room left we just about manged to fit dessert in, another dish from his time on The Taste, banana salted caramel tarte tatin, sprinkled with nuts and oreo crumbs, and served with a dollop of palm sugar cream. Guan had taken inspiration from Malaysian desserts, which are often quite savoury (they’re normally rice based, although why anyone would want more rice after a main course full of it I don’t understand). It was delicious, but my Western palette would have preferred a touch more sweetness.
Finally Guan bought over batches of perfectly baked pandan madeleines. Known as poor man’s vanilla, pandan has a mild coconutty flavour to it. I have no idea how many I ate, they were light and fluffy, and exceptionally morish. They were so delicious that I bought a load home for my flatmates to try, only to end up wolfing them down pre-run on Saturday morning. Whoops.
Guan’s supper club was genuinely one of the best I have been to. The food was stunning, a brilliant introduction to a cuisine I know very little about, and I loved the relaxed, intimate, atmosphere. So if you only go to one supper club in London… make it this one.
You can find out more about Guan’s supperclubs on his blog, The Boy Who Ate The World, and you can follow him on Twitter, @guan_chua.