One of the things I truly love about food is the connection it brings to others. Outside of my core friends – those who have stuck around for twenty or so years now for reasons unbeknownst to me – the true friendships I’ve built since have all had a foundation in eating; whether through long boozy lunches, judging rooms, or in more detailed professional capacities, the world of food has introduced me to some of the very best people I know. As well as some of the very worst. I guess I’ve always been drawn to breaking bread across a table with others. My earliest memories of going out to dinner aren’t of posh restaurants, but of big groups of family and friends all but taking over The Moghul in Acocks Green at 6.30pm sharp on a Friday night. Mom’s time. Mom’s rules. The big groups were a comfort to a woman who already had anxiety creeping through her veins, long before the agoraphobia and depression kicked in later on in life. It was her safe space outside the home; a quick two hours away for a couple of pints of cider and dinner. No starters allowed because she wanted to be home by the time it got busy, but poppadoms – so many poppadoms – and deep balti dishes that perfumed the room, passed from one to another to sample. The greediest did very well out of those meals. As I got older I used to run for the door at the first chance, leaving Dad to get the bill so I could get to my friends in some dreadful bar, shirt stained and breath full of garlic. Looking back, I wished I’d soaked up every last second of those meals for the most amount of time possible. 


I got into a conversation with someone in a work setting which ended up with dinner at Kopitiam. We talked at length about Malay food – his country of birth – and he covered a page of scrap paper with details of the make-up of the country, including which dishes belonged to which groups, some lesser-known dishes and some suggestions of where to find them. Kopitiam featured heavily. He suggested dinner, to which I agreed instantly, which ended up being a group dinner for which he pre-ordered and accepted no payment from any of us. This was a demonstration of every corner of Malaysian cuisine with deep footnotes on every dish, from a man who has lived it and misses it. Over two hours I learnt more than any book or food tour could ever have taught me. 


The crux is that not every Malaysian dish is going to be for me. I still have no idea what to think of fruit rojak, which has no obvious reference point other than being a jumble of various fruit bound in a spicy shrimp paste. It’s odd to this Anglicised palate, though I like the crispy dough pieces, and pineapple with sweet sambal is straight-up gorgeous stuff. Similarly the assam laksa, a seriously fishy and spicy broth soured with tamarind, is a bit too much for me to really enjoy. I can appreciate the starting point but the finish reminds me too much of the time I was served scallop tripe. It’s a memory I don’t want back. 


But my, when it is good, it is so very good. We hear the backstory of the quintessential Kuala Lumpur dish, Hokkein Mee, a kind of surf and turf noodle dish lacquered in dark soy sauce. It’s rich and fragrant, the genius addition of fried pork fat which tops it a finishing flourish of salt and fat to a new favourite. There is a very good rendition of Nasi Lemak to go along with an equally impressive beef Rendang with slowly braised beef which retains just a little bite. A seafood curry is brash in the best possible way, with the various bits of squid and crustacean cooked gently. Rice is on hand to work the last of the sauce out of the peripherals of the bowl. 


The table is filled with sambal pork with okra that tempers down the shrimp paste, with a similar detail on the sambal Tung Choi, which is morning glory in sambal with added chillies. It is not for the faint hearted and I adore it to the point that others hardly get a look in. The Chinese dish of Chau Kueh Tiaw is a flat noodle dish rich with oyster sauce and fatty sausage, whilst Ayam Merah is my new favourite Malay dish. The thick bloody red curry is complex and deep, with chicken slowly cooked until it files for divorce from the bone. We’re told that no two versions are the same. That is fine with me; this one will do every time. We finish with ice Kacang, one of the weirdest things I’ve ever put in my mouth. At the base is red bean, sweet corn, and jelly, all swimming in a puddle of condensed milk. It’s hidden under a flurry of shaved ice dyed various colours. Even now, a couple of weeks after eating it, I have no idea what to think about it. At least I can say I’ve tried it. 


Today is my mom’s birthday. She would have been just 58. Almost seven years gone and not a day goes by when I don’t think about her. I want to say that I hope she is proud of me, but I know for certain that she would have been whilst never pandering to my oversized ego by blowing smoke up my arse. A woman who was full of trauma and complexity and, most importantly, unconditional love. I’ve often said that she would not have survived the pandemic; the fear and the unknown would have been too much for her to handle, but now the world has come to terms with it I think that she would have relished the born-again optimism. We would have been going for a curry tonight. 6.30pm sharp at The Mogul. Loads of us sat around the table making small talk and laughing too much. Instead, I’m thinking about how she passed on to me that urge to share food with others, and how the best meals amount to much more than what’s served in front of you. Kopitiam was excellent. The company was better. Never leave that table until everyone else has gone.