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The Evolution of Abby Lee's Mambow The Evolution of Abby Lee's Mambow

The Evolution of Abby Lee's Mambow

Posted on 09/07/24

While Clapton’s Mambow only opened at the end of 2023, the restaurant had been growing and evolving for years. Chef Abby Lee – who trained at Le Cordon Bleu and in Michelin-starred kitchens in Italy – opened her first pop-up on Commercial Street in 2020. Just after opening, though, COVID struck, and London was placed into lockdown.

“I hadn’t fully discovered Malaysian cuisine or my home recipes, so that pop-up was a fusion of those flavours with Italian ideas,” Abby remembers. “It was slightly confused, and that’s probably the state of mind I had at the time. I was still trying to discover what I had to say in food.”

Lockdown provided an unexpected opportunity for Abby, who spent the enforced down time with family in Singapore and Malaysia. “I had a real epiphany of what I wanted to do,” she says. “I found comfort in my home food and realised the beauty of it. I’d never seen that before because I took it for granted. I grew up around it and never looked twice at it.” Abby began watching her aunt and grandma, filming them cooking and taking notes of their recipes. When the time came to return to London, she had an idea.

Bolstered by this vision, the next iteration of Mambow was a market stall in Peckham. Restricted by space, Abby was forced to experiment, keeping a tight menu of six or seven dishes, and changing them every two months. “It meant that I could play with all of the ideas I had in the back of my head,” she says. That set-up wasn’t sustainable, though, and eventually it was time to open a place of her own. “I feel really comfortable here,” she says of the Clapton location. “I love the restaurants and I love the community here.”

Across the various versions of Mambow, Abby’s vision has shifted and evolved. The new restaurant embodies this, serving Abby’s own take on Malaysian food, something inspired both by her family roots and her professional background. “I couldn’t really help but bring in that European-trained thinking into the dishes,” she says. “I try and approach a traditional recipe and break it down, break down all the elements, so it becomes a whole new dish. You probably wouldn’t recognise it, but as soon as you eat it, it all falls into place.”

While the mixture of Malaysian and European ideas comes through in Abby’s cooking, it is also – by necessity – referenced in the ingredients she uses. A particular example of this comes in the seafood, which is a focal point of Mambow’s menu. Examples of the dishes on offer include stir-fry clams, grilled cuttlefish, and deep-fried stone bass steak, while the otak-otak prawn toast has been a smash hit every time it’s appeared on the menu.

“The fish and seafood back home are just totally different,” Abby says. “In that year in Malaysia, I documented the flavour profiles of the fish. You start a lot of curries or sauces with dried fish, fermented fish bones or things like that, so I’ve had to try everything to see what the level of saltiness is, or how fermented it is.” Abby applies this research to British seafood, generally caught around Cornwall, Devon, and Scotland. “Then I see how we can try to increase the level of funkiness,” she says.

Menu development often begins with a WhatsApp from the fish suppliers. “If they say that razor clams are the plumpest right now, then I start from there and see where we can go,” Abby says. “What’s in the book of sauces from Malaysia that I could use? What could I ferment that I have right now?” Rather than adapting the dish to suit the ingredients available, Abby instead adapts the ingredients to fit a Malaysian flavour profile. In this process, it’s important to start things off with the available produce. “I start all of the vegetarian dishes by looking at a harvest schedule and going from there,” Abby says.

This local produce is combined with ingredients flown over from Thailand, but only when it is strictly necessary – Abby references lemongrass or pea eggplant as examples – but Abby is keen to avoid an over reliance on these ingredients. “It could be much easier, but it’s less fun,” she says. “It’s a better challenge to try what’s on the English vegetable list and find similarities.” She mentions an artichoke that tasted like a water chestnut, and other unlikely commonalities. “Texture has been really important; it doesn’t need to be the exact flavour – I could always tweak that with some herbs – but texture is one of the main profiles.”

Whether the ingredients in question come from one of Mambow’s British suppliers or via Thailand, the most important thing is their quality. “In our cooking, I’m trying to balance a lot of herbs and spices, and some dishes might have heavy sauces or be made using a lot of fish sauce,” Abby says. “If the produce isn’t fresh from the sea or fresh from the farm, it just won’t stand up against a lot of the ingredients I’m using.” The most important thing, Abby adds, is that all of the ingredients “hold their own” in her cooking. “If a leek isn’t perfectly sweet, then I’m not sure what’s the point of using it with all those sambals and chilli pastes,” she explains.

This approach to food – one that mixes Malaysian and European ideas and ingredients – has already made Mambow a star of the London restaurant industry. It’s an approach borne out of Abby’s different experiences, from classical training to a lockdown epiphany, all of which have contributed to Mambow’s evolution over the last four years. The Mambow menu changes almost constantly, and the website has a section listing it’s “current vibe,” which hints that there could be more changes to come. Combine this with the constant innovations of the three Mambow iterations, and it’s impossible to say if this is its final form or if it will keep evolving.

Whatever Abby Lee does next, Mambow is the realisation of something she dreamed without realising it. “Now we have the full form of Mambow, of how I imagined it back then but couldn’t see it,” she says. “Now I can fully see the voice that I have for the Malaysian food scene and what I want to bring to it, to educate people to open up their minds about what Malaysian cuisine is.”

This article was written as part of SLOP magazine's takeover of Katto's journal. To pick up a copy of the magazine for free, become a Katto Rewards member here.