Malaysians are a strange lot when they travel. They love to travel but when it comes to foreign food, there is a limit to how many meals they can have. At some point, they will have to find an Asian restaurant and have a meal with rice. It’s like oxygen, you can’t go without for too long.
In London, you would You would think that there would be many places where you can find an authentic Malaysian restaurant in London. Over the years, many places have been and gone. I lament the loss of Satay Stick on Bering Street, with their satay grill at the entrance, wrapping everyone in their enticing scent as you enter. Another fab place for Hainanese Chicken Rice and the most authentic “wok hei” infused Char Kway Teow (with extra pork crackling) was the Singapore Mandarin Oriental in Holland Park. Sadly, the chef owner has retired and left a massive void for a decent chicken rice in London.
Fortunately, I have now found Zheng in Chelsea. It’s opened by a Malaysian couple, after their first one in Oxford. Izlinda Baharom, the executive chef has designed a menu incorporating Malaysian favourites using some heritage recipes handed down from her family.
On a side historical note: the restaurant is named after Admiral Zheng He (or Cheng Ho as per our history lessons) He was the famous Eunuch Admiral of the Ming dynasty who had the biggest fleet and ships of that time. It is said that he visited America before Christopher Columbus in 1405. It is recorded that he visited the important trading port that was Malacca at least 5 times. He was also the Chinese official who brought the princess to marry the Sultan, bringing along 500 people. With the intermarriage with the locals, the Nyona and Baba race began. Hence, Melaka is a great destination for the unique fusion Nyonya cuisine.
At first glance, you would not associate this elegant Chelsea restaurant with Malaysian food. Dark wood panelling, hand painted Chinoiserie and velvet banquette seating creates a stylish backdrop. On the day we were there for lunch, the other customers were Malaysian families visiting their kids for the summer holidays.
I was truly excited to see so many Malaysian favourites on the menu. You can opt to have some street food favourites like the Char Kway Teow or to have a typical dinner with several dishes and rice. On the advice of our friendly waiter from Seremban, we opted for the latter and ordered a few of their star dishes.
Malaysian satay, a must have starter. With chunky pieces of chicken, yellow hued from the turmeric and spice marinade and delighfully charred edges from the grill. Served with the traditional wedges of red onions and cucumbers to scoop up the sauce. Great flavours but one wrinkle is the tiny dish of satay sauce.
Crispy salt and pepper squid, a classic Chinese dish, delicious.
Firstly, the sambal belacan. Our favourite condiment made with pounded red chilli and some toasted belacan and a squeeze of lime. (Malaysians have been known to carry a stash of this when they travel.) Belacan is made of fermented shrimps and is Malaysia’s key ingredient that provides that umami zing to a lot of dishes, a bit like fish sauce. Zheng’s sambal belacan is hot, spicy, pungent and is the real deal. They must have a great supplier for the belacan.
For mains, we ordered a nasi lemak to share on the premise that the sambal tumis must be really awesome. Nasi lemak, which literally means coconut rice, is a favourite breakfast street food. In every corner of Malaysia, watch out for the ladies with the big bamboo buckets of rice in the morning. The best ones still wrap up the rice in a banana leaf, topped with crispy fried ikan bilis, skin on peanuts, a few slices of cucumber, hard boiled egg and the sambal. Everyone has their favourite stall and it is not uncommon to drive across town for your fix.
Zheng’s upscaled version is served with a choice of chicken or beef rendang. Sakura in KL made popular the way to serve nasi lemak on a place with all the delicious condiments arranged around the plate like a clock face. It has been so copied that every hotel and coffee shop has been serving it like this and charging a premium for the pleasure.
Fish Assam Pedas, is a sour fish curry with strong punchy flavours from the tamarind peel and tamarind flesh. This is a pure homecooking delight as it’s not a dish that can be dressed up to look fancy. The fragrance of this dish is usually enhanced with ginger flowers which was missing, but an oversight that is forgiven as this is one ingredient that is really difficult to source in the UK.
Beef rendang, one of the most iconic dishes in Malaysian food. Zheng does a stellar job with aromatic, melt in the mouth beef, smothered in a spice and herb laden sauce.
I would have liked to try their Char Kway Teow too but it doesn’t go with the other dishes we ordered. Gives me a reason to return to sample the street food dishes on offer. (Side note: Fay Maschler is incorrect in saying the Char Kway Teow is a Penang hawker dish. Their version is still done with flat rice noodles but is left white and incorporates prawns and chinese chives. The KL version is dark from soy sauce and always has bean sprouts and fresh clams. They are quite different but equally delicious. )
For pudding, kuih ketayap, the light pandan pancake with palm sugar coconut filling was a taste of home.
Sago Gula Melaka, the dessert named after the dark brown palm sugar that flavours it. This is a dessert which I serve often at my Malaysian Supperclub and it always surprises me when the guests ask for more. It’s ubiquitous in Malaysia as it’s caramel flavoured palm sugar imparts a sweetness married with the creamy evaporated milk. The sago is there just to add some texture. (Sago is not tapioca, it is actually the heart of a Sago palm tree.)
Am so glad to have discovered Zheng Chelsea for it’s authentic Malaysian flavours and that awesome Sambal Belacan. For Malaysians who are homesick, add this place on your list. For those who want to explore Malaysian food, Zheng is a Malaysian Restaurant that I’d recommend.
Zheng offers a lunch menu: 1 course for £13.90, 2 courses for 16.90 and 3 courses for £21.90. alternatively, there is a comprehensive ala carte menu too.
4 Sydney St
London SW3 6PP
Tel: 020 7352 0957
EatCookExplore was a guest of Zheng