This summer, Soho’s The Sun and 13 Cantons is hosting Wild Serai, a Malaysian supper club run by husband and wife team Yolanda Augustin and Sharif Assan as well as Yolanda’s aunty, Mary Augustin. This Beak Street pub has become one of London’s most notable food business incubators — a venue that has nurtured food talent, ranging from Asma Khan at Darjeeling Express, Mandy Yin of Sambal Shiok and Matt Young of Rok.
Malaysian food is not new to London, favourites such as family run C&R Café, and Singapore-Malaysian Roti King and Rasa Sayang in Chinatown have been well-known to Londoners for years. But Wild Serai is aiming to draw attention to a lesser known Malaysian cuisine: As well as cooking familiar dishes such as roti canai, nasi lemak and chicken satay, the chefs are cooking dishes of the Dayak (indigenous) people of Sarawak (Malaysian state on Borneo island) — and in particular, the cuisine of the Iban tribe.
‘Wild’ is Assan’s moniker, referring to his Sarawak and Iban heritage and ‘serai’ is Malay for lemongrass, an important ingredient in Malaysian cooking. As a child in West Malaysia Yolanda would be sent out by her grandmother to pick serai, which grew wild on the banks of the ditches built to collate rainfall during rainy season, near her house. It was the hours spent on the kitchen floor watching her grandmother cook — pounding spices and ingredients in her giant pestle and mortar — and being in London searching for serai to cook dishes from home, that inspired the launch of Wild Serai.
For the duration of the residency at The Sun and 13 Cantons, “aunty Mary” is running the kitchen, a veteran chef with over 40 years experience and also founder of successful lunchbox delivery service ‘Aunty Mary’s Malaysian Pantry’. Yolanda writes menus, organises the logistics and cooks alongside her aunty at the weekends, with Sharif responsible for front-of-house, as well as the essential skill of Iban barbecuing.
Augustin and Assan were married a few years ago in a traditional Iban wedding at Sharif’s family farm in Serian, just outside of Sarawak’s capital Kuching. The ceremony was steeped in community spirit and traditional Iban food cooked with ingredients from families’ farms. Inspired by the experience, when she returned to London Yolanda started researching Dayak Sarawakian recipes and incorporating them into Wild Serai’s supper clubs. As the recipes for these dishes are passed down orally the passion behind this aspect of Wild Serai’s menu is to celebrate some incredible cuisine and to also keep the dishes alive, as they are an important aspect of the Dayak culture.
“Food is such a great way to create dialogue, and it’s important to be talking about the Dayak culture,” Yolanda explained to Eater. She also spoke about the difference between East (Borneo) and West Malaysia, with East Malaysians having a more open dialogue between the different tribes and communities (Sarawak has over 28 indigenous tribes, plus Chinese, Indian, Malay and European communities), something she feels passionate about championing. (Malaysia is currently in a very interesting time politically, with the party who’ve held power for 61 years being ousted at the March elections.)
As well as its usual dishes, from this week until the end of the residency on 31 July, Wild Serai is launching an Iban menu (which will need to be ordered 24 hour in advance). This is after successful weekends celebrating Gawai, the Sarawakian Dayak harvest festival, were Wild Serai served traditional Iban dishes.
The Iban menu will include Red hill rice (rice grown in hill paddy fields), Vegetable Goreng Belachan (green leafy vegetables stir friend in shrimp paste), Manok Pansoh (chicken or guinea fowl marinated in fresh galangal and lemongrass, steamed over charcoal fired in a bamboo casing stuffed with cassava leaves) and Jani Tunu (BBQ pork served with a chilli, tamarind and lime dipping sauce).
Next year the owners hope to be able to host a festival in celebration of Gawai — including traditional dancing and Tuak the Iban’s rice wine — as awareness and familiarity of the food builds. After a few more residencies planned this year the team hope to find a permanent space in 2019. Looking back at Yolanda and Sharif’s childhood, Wild Serai takes on a sense of nostalgia “[it is a] celebration of the very best of Malaysian cooking, with a strong Eurasion, Malay, Nyonya and Iban influence,” said Yolanda.