Elizabeth Haigh’s Mei Mei, the Borough Market counter influenced by Singaporean kopi tiam culture, will add an evening service from Friday 17 July. Bā will be an eight-coursed menu, starting at £45 per person, which Haigh likens more to family-style dining in Singapore and Malaysia than a sequential tasting menu.
Haigh says that elements of the menu and vibe will be similar to her pop-up at Mortimer House, which featured ox cheek rendang buns, a by now signature miso fried chicken with caviar, and barbecued beef rib with black sesame bearnaise. While dishes will be similarly complex, including that beef rib with toasted rice, roasted pepper, and nasi kerabu, that formality doesn’t really interest her and Haigh unpromptedly rejects any lazy notions of modernity and elevation. Bā will be closer to a “family table,” albeit one with 1.5 metres between every seat in the open air of London’s oldest food market. “Two-to-three dishes at a time, with a rice, a soup — it feels like a natural evolution from the food at Mei Mei, and it gives the team the chance to flex a little more.” There will also be an even more informal menu at £25, set to include barbecued meats, rice bowls, and dishes closer to the food served in the daytime, as well as the option for diners to “spoil themselves” with caviar or other luxury supplements.
The decision to do an evening service also partially came out of a bad experience with two restaurant delivery companies, whose platforms both mislabelled Mei Mei as Malay and one of which used a stock photo of “any Asian food,” according to Haigh, on Mei Mei’s listing. “You wouldn’t do that to Flor with ASAP Pizza, and stick a Pizza Hut picture on there, so why did they do to it to us? When they’re taking almost 50 percent commission, they’ve got to work for it too.” Haigh wanted to do something that felt as oppositional to that carelessness as possible, and so settled on Bā’s style of food and service. Haigh says Mei Mei could resume food delivery, but is on hold for now.
Future plans for the evolution of Mei Mei itself were also halted by the coronavirus crisis, leaving Haigh with specialised kitchen gear sitting dormant at Borough Market. Bā is an opportunity to both make use of that, and test out interest in a style of food that she hopes to expand on in the future. “I have plans for an Asian-influenced bakery, kopi tiams all over — I want Singaporean kopi tiam culture to be something Londoners immediately understand when they hear the words. We have so much equipment — too much to clean, as my chefs say — because Mei Mei was initially envisioned as having other spaces by now. It might be more risky than delivery, but the pay off will be greater in the end, and it allows people to enjoy the experience of hospitality again, in a controlled, outdoor environment where it’s easier to manage staff safety, which is, I think, what people have missed most.” A full COVID-19 safety assessment will be posted online before opening; Haigh has provided all staff with masks and the autonomy to choose if they wish to wear further PPE, with full paid sick leave even if staff ultimately test negative for COVID-19.
Haigh said that Mei Mei’s experience of lockdown had been heavily influenced by Borough Market reopening throughout. It both allowed her to accelerate production of Mei Mei sambals, kaya, and spice mixes, and created the expectation that the counter itself would remain open. She said that “we were already in the process of developing the products, and had the skeleton of it in place,” but the need became more urgent when the pandemic turned the operational benefits of a small, zero-rated unit into a nightmare. “We needed to do something to bring an income, because we didn’t qualify for grants, insurance was still up in the air, and being a new company we found it very difficult to get a bounceback loan [from the bank]. The market never closed down, so we thought we’d take advantage of having an open air space, and I personally was finding it very difficult to find good ingredients — rice, sambal.”
The decision to move retail products online for home delivery was driven by a reluctance to ask customers to come to the site in a period of lockdown. Now, although online sales have fallen, Mei Mei’s kaya, sambal, and spice mixes are on sale at the market itself with regulars comfortable to return: “One woman bought seven jars of kaya at once, for her whole family.” Reusable refills are soon to go online, posted by mail order after initial plans to refill jars at Mei Mei itself were scuppered by COVID-19.
The reopening itself was a complicated experience, again due to the delicate balance of autonomy as a cafe and obligations to the regulations in place at Borough Market. While Haigh said she had spent nearly every day at Mei Mei during lockdown — becoming best pals with her courier and seeing no other people for days on end — the initial reopening early on proved overwhelming, both from supportive regulars and trying to deal with demand with just one other staff member. Now, against popular narratives of “super Saturday,” with the full team back onsite things have quietened down significantly. Aside, that is, from revellers on the outskirts of the market, who forced stalls to shut down on Saturday after a fight broke out. Haigh hopes that in future weeks, demand for food will overtake first pint energy.
The first service for Bā is slated for 17 July, with one sitting at 7 p.m.; bookings are expected to go online this week.