Masterchef fans will know the name Ping Coombes but for those of us that are a little less enthusiastic in the kitchen, she is the winner of the 2014 UK TV show. Specialising in authentic South East Asian cuisine, the chef and mother (of one and a half kids!) designs the menu at Chi Kitchen Oxford Street – a contemporary Pan-Asian restaurant offering exotic dishes using fresh produce. Ping Coombes’ new Brunch Club at Chi Kitchen will feature an ever-changing set menu, exploring traditional dishes of South East Asia, all inspired by Ping’s Malaysian roots but with a personal twist.
Now I can’t claim to be a Straits food connoisseur, having lived in Singapore for the past three years I wasn’t a huge fan of the heavy carbohydrate lunches under the 32-degree sun. Shift the offerings of curry and rice on a fragrant and ethically sourced banana leaf on a 16-degree morning in London and my appetite for this kind of comfort food grows.
Inspired by Indian and Malaysian flavours, the menu began with an amuse bouche of rassam, a tangy tamarind-based soup. Said to open the appetite and aid digestion, the shot glass size was possibly the most moreish part of the meal. Servings of the banana leaf rice were generous and varied, where a handful of cabbage cooked in coconut milk, baby spinach with lentil, lamb curry and chicken varval (a fried, mildly spicy, Tamil dish) was distributed among a mountain of fluffy white rice. A light yet impactful sambal, a typically hellishly hot chilli sauce made an appearance on the leaf too. As for utensils, those in the know may have guessed that we were requested to use our fingers.
With humour, Coombes joked that forks would come at an additional price but the intention was to immerse oneself in another culture, or in this case, the culture of my parents. Visuals of tired labourers and office workers alike coming together during a mealtime for some homely nourishment flooded my senses – the spices, the layers of salty, sour and spicy and the sounds of tongues moving to the syllables of numerous languages. And picture all of this clashing against the loud growls of vehicle engines and the fumes of exhaust pipes. I’d experienced this before on summer holidays in Asia and in the hawker centres in Singapore.
South East Asian food isn’t pretty and doesn’t look it either. It’s certainly not luxurious – although it is a luxury to have such genuine flavours at such an accessible price point in the West End. This kind of food is one for the nostalgia that brings you back to an experience you never thought you’d miss. And arguably, isn’t that the best kind of food?