Abby Lee: My career in Five Dishes

When the Covid-19 pandemic forced Abby Lee to return to Malaysia for six months, she saw the cuisine of her home country in a whole new light, discovers Molly Codyre. After a crash course in Malaysian cooking, she brought these flavours back to London with Mambow

The story of Abby Lee’s Mambow is something of a modern London culinary fairytale. The Malaysian chef, who moved to the UK on her own at the age of 14 to attend school, has achieved the kind of success that many new chefs can only dream of – but it certainly didn’t come easy.

After graduating university, Lee enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu, not entirely out of a belief that a career in kitchens might be her future, but because remaining a student allowed her to stay in the country for longer. Unsurprisingly, though, she caught the cooking bug, and, after graduating, headed off to Italy for a full culinary immersion. “Back then I was so new to cooking, I thought the only way in was basically to be classically trained,” Lee tells me. “Italy was calling. The idea of really rustic cuisine and lots of seafood. I spent two years in Puglia, so I was just on the coast.” She brought what she learned in Italy back to London, opening a pop-up in Spitalfields in 2020 with minor Malaysian flavour influences.

You can probably see where this story is going next – that pesky spanner in the works, the Covid-19 pandemic, derailed Lee’s plans, and she returned home to Malaysia to gather her thoughts and figure out what to do next. “Having to face the aftermath of that closure was just so intense that I was like, okay, maybe I have to just go home and start again,” Lee explains of the decision. “It was probably the lowest point of my life and I was just being comforted by the food that I was given from family,” she continues. “I never really thought seriously about our food. It’s just something I grew up with, and so this was the first time I looked at it critically and recognised the depth to these flavours.”

It sparked a eureka moment and Lee quickly realised the necessity of learning how to make these dishes and cataloguing the recipes while she still could. Over an intensive six months that she refers to as a ‘crash course’ in the cuisine of her home country, she shoulder tapped everyone from aunties to old school friends to take her through the markets, shadow at the pans and introduce her to the nuances of Malaysian cuisine. Armed with multiple notebooks outlining everything she had learned, she returned to the UK to set up Mambow 1.0 – a restaurant in Market Peckham. “I guess I was testing the waters back then,” Lee tells me of this first iteration of Mambow. “It was a shared food hall space. I was trying to cram this restaurant concept into it, and sometimes it didn’t really work because people just want to grab something and go. But it was nice to really test the Mambow dishes.”

In late 2023, just 18 months after opening in Peckham, Lee moved Mambow to a permanent site in Clapton, a space that allowed her to flex her creativity more fully and “feel comfortable to show more of myself and my culture and maybe go overboard with plating.” Glowing reviews quickly followed. It seems that for this fairytale, there is no midnight pumpkin.

Lor bak

Mambow Peckham

“This is probably the most nostalgic dish. It’s the first thing we opened with in Peckham. I just thought pork and prawn, deep-fried, it’s a very classic dish back home, and here I’ve wrapped it in tofu skin which gets really crispy. I just think that the flavours of five spice and sesame oil are a good entry point for people here to start thinking about Malaysian food because the flavours are more from the Chinese side of Malaysia, and so I think people who are familiar with Chinese flavours would be excited about it. The first few months we had it on the menu every English person would be like “that’s like a sausage roll,” which I think helped them relate to it and made it a good jumping off point for communicating those flavours. But it’s just never really been able to leave the menu.”

Otak-otak prawn toast

Mambow Clapton

“So that’s actually on the menu right now. This dish was another classic. We’ve actually done many forms of it through Mambow. I started with the most traditional form which was more like a fish custard, which is steamed in a banana leaf. And I guess throughout the last two years I’ve tried to find different iterations, because I love that flavour. So it started with that very traditional form, and then went on to another form where basically it’s more like a fish cake texture, and it’s flatter and you basically really chargrill it on the fire, and you usually eat that one with rice. And then the third wave we had it more like a paté, so the fish custard was very loosely set and we served it with seeded crackers and crudités. And then when we moved to Clapton I was like, there’s got to be one more way I can do this. I just thought, everyone likes prawn toast, so I decided to replace the fish with prawns and change the ratios slightly so it attached to toast and then still incorporating the flavour of the wild betel leaf which you wrap the prawn toast up in. So it’s still really reminiscent of the original dish with the same flavours, but this version became one of the favourites as soon as we opened. So I think this is the final version – I could probably do one more, but that would be for my own enjoyment, really.”

Perut ikan

Mambow Clapton/home in Malaysia

“I guess I put the Perut Ikan on for my most personal memories with my aunt, just because all those herbs, I guess the labour that goes into it is mainly about slicing all seven kinds of herbs in there. My aunt would grow those herbs in her garden, so the memory is probably the strongest of us growing those herbs together and really picking them and the smells of them – it really makes this dish smell like home, probably the most like home. And so just to learn that curry from her was probably what I loved the most out of everything. It’s just the labour of love she’ll put into it. I am so inspired by her and admire her so much – she’s such a power lady. Back home it’s actually a pickled fish stomach curry, so it’s really quite fishy. Obviously I can’t get that here, so there’s actually a lot of dried fish fried at the start that kind of melts into the sauce to create that fermented smell and there’s quite a bit of fish sauce added at the end as well, so I think it pretty much matches the level and smell that she gets it to as much as I can. At home it’s more of a soupy curry broth, and you drink it, whereas I think I wanted to be a bit more dramatic with it. I also love fish steaks because you get all that fat and collagen and that big bone, so that’s something that I had to really recreate in that format and get the drama of the tail and the piece of fish.”

Kam heong mussels

Mambow Peckham

“The mussels were probably one of the most talked about dishes when I put them on the menu in Peckham. And so I felt like that was something that I could keep on the books that might reappear down the line. It’s just that balance of umami that I’m really happy with. It’s just like the mussel juice, there’s Malaysian curry powder which is a blend of seven spices, the addition of dried shrimp oil, and then the crispy dried shrimp on top as well, and soybean paste, curry leaves and sour black peppercorns. I think on the whole, it’s something that I would eat every day, that sort of fishy, curry leaf, shrimpiness and soybean taste. Kam heong means golden fragrance in Cantonese, and it’s literally just like you can smell that fragrance and you usually have it with clams or prawns. But I just feel like the mussels from Cornwall are so fat and juicy and so good, the flavours are just unbeatable. Sauce-wise, it really sticks in my memory.”

Kuih dadar, kopi ice cream

Mambow Peckham and Clapton

“I’m very passionate about Malaysian kuihs which can be either sweet or savoury. The word kuih loosely translates to cake, but it isn’t always sweet so you can’t really think of it as a dessert. So, I love being able to introduce all the different forms of kuihs I’ve had on the menu the last few years, which I miss so much from home, and is just one thing I can’t find here. I think people just don’t have the time to make these desserts or savoury ones, and I think this is the one that people loved the most – mostly because people love crepes, but also because of the amount of gula melaka inside, which is this Malaysian coconut palm sugar, that’s sort of like that flavour you’ll find in a lot of the sweet kuihs back home, and lot of that melted sugar taste – it’s just so rich. I hope that my next venture is a kuih shop – just shelves full of kuihs of all different colours. Because they’re all so beautiful, and just the texture of them. There’s stuff like tapioca, lots of glutinous rice-based things, and so everything’s quite bouncy or chewy. These ones are coloured with pandan, and then I pair it with a Malaysian instant coffee ice cream which is an extremely nostalgic flavour of that condensed milk and very dark roasted instant coffee. I’ve probably had the most fun with the dessert section figuring out how to plate these little cakes.” 

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