Cast your minds back to the 1980s. Asian restaurants were few and far between in the UK, and rarely given as much airtime as French bistros and Italian restaurants which were interspersed between fine-dining rooms that catered to British taste buds, often in the most affluent of neighbourhoods. Of course, these days you can find food and flavours from every corner of the world. South East Asian cuisine is plentiful in the capital; but back in the eighties, this wasn’t the case.
Maureen Suan Neo was an innovator in this space, opening up not one but eventually five restaurants with a menu as diverse as Singapore’s food culture. Singapura first opened in Fulham in West London, in a neighbourhood that was definitely more accustomed to more European tastes. But people flocked because the food was fresh, delicious and most importantly: authentic. She carved a niche for cooking Nonya cuisine, which combines Chinese ingredients with spices and cooking techniques used within the Malay and Indonesian community.
Maureen’s career changed over the years, and now instead of running restaurants, she runs Nonya’s Secrets, an award-winning range of sauces, sambal mixes, curry pastes and oils from the South East Asian diaspora. We caught up with Maureen to talk about the food she loved growing up, how that translated into her career in cooking, and what she’s doing with Nonya’s Secrets.
What did you grow up cooking and eating in Singapore, and how did that inspire your career in food?
The food in Singapore is so incredibly diverse. And my food memories come from the variety of dishes that you’d eat for every meal of the day. As a general rule, it would be a lot of noodles, curries, lots of snacks, and cakes – just so many wonderful things. As a child, I remember following my mother at the market every day. And there would be a choice of all sorts of savoury and sweet dishes. And of course you would see all the street food, so we would sit down and have a snack or two, and then buy more to take home for a mid-morning snack. This variety meant it was quite a hard decision to know which cuisine to specialise, because there are so many lovely, wonderful dishes. I kind of stuck to what I knew best, the Nonya cuisine, which is my upbringing – a combination of Chinese and Malay dishes. It’s really about using the indigenous herbs and spices, like shrimp paste, lemongrass and coconut; so they will be sort of very rich and complex dishes. It's not just very straightforward like a roast, the way you just rub salt and pepper and stick it in the oven. We don't even have an oven. Everything is done on a stove and is braised in a clay pot or cooked as a stir fry.
You opened Singapura in the mid-80s, and had a few more restaurants opening in London after that. Now, there’s such diversity in restaurants across London; but back then, what was the reception to Singaporean and Malay cooking?
My menu was very different to what was around at the time, especially in Fulham, where there were mainly European restaurants. So in that way, it was quite a draw. The first restaurant only took 25 covers, so it wasn’t difficult to fill it. There were a lot of Nonya dishes on the menu, which was new to a lot of people, so it was very popular because of that.
Is there a specific recipe or dish from your childhood that you return to, and why?
The one that stands out is the Rendang we served in the restaurant. It's got all the aromatic flavours of the lemongrass, spices and the richness of the coconut. It was my father's recipe, who was Indonesian, and the dish was incredibly popular – everybody loved it! My mother has got her own speciality which is a Nonya sambal curry dish, which is again made with lots of lemongrass and candle nuts, galangal and lime leaves. It’s quite subtle and her preparation was quite different. And I always remember my father’s satay sauce. His was so different from everybody else’s; it was very rich and the spicing was just right. It was very complex, with about 20 different ingredients, and it would take a long time to make. You would roast the peanuts from scratch then grind them yourself; the texture had to be just right. It couldn’t be too smooth because then you wouldn’t taste the crunchiness of the peanuts. We served it at the restaurant and people were asking for bowlfuls of it.
Why did you start Nonya Secrets?
When we had the five restaurants, one of them was more focused on street food where you could buy lunch boxes. There was always a queue around the block. So we were serving about 400 meals a day, from one branch, and then another few hundred from another. People that used to come to us were terribly spoiled for choice in that it was all fresh; dishes were cooked first thing in the morning, and then displayed in a buffet style for them to help themselves. So when the restaurants came to an end, I was sort of bombarded by emails from clients who were missing my food. I didn’t want to open up another restaurant and I couldn’t do it from home (my husband wasn’t prepared to turn our home kitchen into a commercial kitchen!), so I thought that if I started to make spices and pastes then all people needed to do was add their own meat or vegetables. So it was really to help my previous customers replicate the food I made in the restaurants, to the same standard.
Your cooking, recipes and products have mixed South East Asian roots – some Malay, some Indonesian, some Thai – are there any other recipes or dishes from other South East Asian cultures you’d like to explore?
This is not the sum total of what the cuisine has to offer – there are still so many flavours I could explore. But it takes time and money to do that; and I also don’t feel like there’s too much need to go into other South East Asian flavours, because I have so many of my own recipes to add within the Nonya cuisine alone!
What does cooking at home look like for you now?
I definitely resort to using my own jars because once it’s already made, why would I want to make everything from scratch again? So I’ll raid my pantry and pick out the jar that I happen to fancy that day. Especially if I’m going to have guests over, I can just cook up a feast by having three or four different dishes on the table, all just from opening up a few jars. So it’s incredibly easy. Because with each recipe there are so many ingredients that you need; it would be wasteful for just the two of us to have everything ready and available all the time. So I tend to just use my jars. But I’m also really fond of other international cuisines, like Mediterranean, Italian and Middle Eastern, so my pantry is just full of all sorts of spices. I love variety – it’s what I miss about living in Singapore!