Living in London is certainly no joke for international students, especially when you’re suddenly hit with cravings for
your favorite foods from home, which, unfortunately, do not exist at your nearest Tesco or food market. Though London is celebrated for its multicultural status, featuring a wide array of cuisines to indulge in, the food found here most definitely does not quite capture the essence of home. As a fellow Malaysian here in London, there are times when I miss the generous portions of Penang Char Koay Teow, dreaming about the aromatic smell of the wok-fried flat noodles piled sloppily onto the bright orange plates they would be served on. Or, perhaps, a good, steaming bowl of Koay Teow Th’ng noodle soup for cold winter days. Thankfully, I have done my fair share of Malaysian food hunting during my last two years in London and have bookmarked a couple of restaurants that have truly satisfied my cravings.
Malaysia is an ethnically diverse country with its main population comprising Malay, Chinese, and Indian people. Consequently, there is an assortment of foods from each ethnicity’s culture that have joined together to create what we know as Malaysian food today. Each dish originates from an intricate family recipe passed down from generation to generation, making it more than just food but a story told by its makers. There is no doubt, then, that Malaysian food here certainly holds more sentimental value to its creators, and to the owners of these restaurants, especially since these family recipes have been brought from one continent to another.
A favorite of mine is C&R Café—a family-run restaurant tucked into one of Chinatown’s alleys, offering the most authentic Malaysian Chinese food in the city. Since my first year of university, I have regularly returned to their restaurant whenever I longed for a taste of home. A staple order of mine would typically include their famous Char Koay Teow and an iced Milo, the perfect reward for surviving my morning classes. No other restaurant in London captures the art of “wok hei”—the charred flavor that is the secret to success in every wok-fried dish—as exquisitely as they do. The smell instantly transports me back to my hometown in Penang, almost as if hawkers were frying the noodles right there in front of me. If you would prefer a little challenge for your taste buds, C&R’s Penang Prawn Mee and Assam Laksa are always a shout—they are your go-to dishes to help train your palate for spicier, sour tastes that are often found in Malaysian cuisine. C&R Café also boasts an abundance of side dishes that are perfect to indulge in as a group, ranging from their grilled satay sticks to stir-fried sambal kangkong with belacan (my mouth waters just thinking about it).
As a staunch advocate of C&R Café among my Malaysian and other international friends alike, I was just about kicking my feet with excitement when I was given the opportunity to chat with the restaurant’s founder, Rosa. Leaving her life in Malaysia behind, she emigrated to London in the late ‘90s and started her restaurant from the ground up. C&R Café has been booming with business and sharing the love of Malaysian food with many in London since. Here, Rosa tells us more about her business journey, and the joys and difficulties behind it all.
RC : Hi Rosa, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today!
Rosa : Of course, it’s always a pleasure!
RC : So, why did you decide to start a restaurant here in London?
Rosa : It was a long time ago when I came to London, and I liked to eat laksa. But I couldn’t find any good laksa in London. The restaurants here at the time were mostly run by people from Hong Kong who hired non-Malaysians to do the cooking, so they didn’t really know how laksa should taste. I had been to a few Malaysian restaurants around London but still couldn’t find a good laksa. So, I tried to make my own laksa with our ingredients - it’s now our star dish! We use fresh ingredients for our laksa, like dried shrimp, lemongrass, and lots of turmeric.
RC : Fresh ingredients definitely elevate a dish. I was curious about what C&R stands for, actually?
Rosa : C is the initial of my husband’s name, and R for me. I run the business myself, and I am the founder - not him! He’s from Hong Kong, but I’m from Malaysia, so I told him I wanted to set up a Malaysian restaurant. We got this small shop, and when we were starting, we only sold 10 dishes, like nasi lemak and chicken curry. My husband said we couldn’t earn any money from just 10 dishes, so we added more to the menu, and now we have a lot of demand. My husband wanted to open more C&R shops, but I felt that this one was enough for me.
RC : Did you face any difficulties when you first started your restaurant?
Rosa : Well, you need to work hard. You need to work long hours, and you need to suffer. Now I think no one wants to work in restaurants and it’s harder to employ staff unless they’re willing to work part-time. Our part-time staff here maybe work about 2 or 3 days a week because they don’t want to work long hours like before!
It's not easy to run a restaurant. You need to take care of the kitchen, and you need to work with the waiters and waitresses – it’s teamwork. You need to coordinate, you know? But we are a family business, and we are all family, so it’s easier to work with them. My daughter and son help me, my nieces are there at the counter. We have all worked from young to old. The chef is also my nephew, which is easy because I can tell him how to cook and explain to him the different styles of cooking needed for each dish. Because, sometimes, depending on which part of Malaysia you’re from, the food is different from the other cities. But, since they’ve been working here for 10, 20 years, they have mastered how to cook these dishes. Some restaurants let junior chefs cook, but we usually let our senior chefs do most of the cooking, so it’s more authentic.
RC : I see, and do you think the flavors of Malaysian food in London have changed over the years?
Rosa : No, I think they’ve stayed the same. It’s only that some of the restaurants try to do a fusion style now, but we still stay authentic - we just do what we like. Nowadays, many British people travel to Malaysia, so they know what certain dishes are and how they taste. They say, “I want kangkong!” because they’ve been to Malaysia. They all know how to eat nasi lemak, so we don’t need to explain to them what it is because they know everything.
Our food is more of a street food style, so it’s easier to cook. But people like to compare our food to other Malaysian restaurants in London. Some of them are run by Malay Malays or Malaysian Indians, but we are Malaysian Chinese. That’s why I sometimes have to explain to customers that other places are different, like how Roti King specializes in roti canai, which is Malaysian Indian cuisine.
RC : That’s true! And what do you enjoy most about running this business?
Rosa : Oh, because I like food, and I like restaurants because you get to meet a lot of people! If you didn’t have a restaurant, you’d be staying at home and you’d have nobody to talk with. But in a restaurant, you can meet a lot of people; it’s easy to pass your time. Our location is great also because we’re near Piccadilly, so people sometimes come directly from Heathrow Airport to here and bring their luggage with them when they come to eat. There’s also a hotel now around here, so when they wake up, they come and eat here. Many Malaysians visiting London also miss Malaysian food even while they’re on holiday, and I ask them, “You’re from Malaysia, how come you’re coming here every morning to eat laksa or nasi lemak?”
RC : Hahaha, that’s right! We can’t get enough of our food. How is Malaysian food important to you then?
Rosa : Because I like Malaysia and Malaysian food, and I want all the British people to know Malaysia.
RC : I love that! Thank you for your time today, Rosa.
____________ It is great how Rosa’s initial trouble of finding good laksa in London has led her to be the owner of a Malaysian restaurant that has been running for a good 25 years now! I’ve got to admit, the laksa at her restaurant is truly unparalleled. So, if you do happen to be in Chinatown, and are looking for some homestyle Malaysian food, do pop into C&R Café for a heart-warming bowl of goodness!
Edited by Fathima Jaffar, Food and Drink Editor