In the absence of international travel I have been reliving past experiences through cuisine. This is an approach that Valerie Kolat, the chef and owner at Dapur Malaysia, wholeheartedly agrees with.
For Valerie, cooking is a way to maintain her links with Malaysia and Kerala; to keep the memory of her parents and grandparents alive.
The restaurant has recently celebrated its first birthday. Not the best year to choose to open your first restaurant but Valerie has risen to the challenge. She never trained as a chef; she originally came to Yorkshire from Kuala Lumpur to study computing, but heads an efficient operation. The open kitchen means you can see Valerie and her staff preparing your food and be assured of food safety measures.
We were met by manager Tomasz Wilczewski, famed for his flamboyant moustache, which at the moment is highlighted behind a full face transparent visor. COVID regulations are taken very seriously here. Staff wear face coverings and gloves to serve food and drink, the tables have been spread out and a one way system put in place. Valerie told me she feels a duty to her family, staff and the community to make the restaurant as safe as possible in the current climate.
Malaysian food is one of my favourite cuisines. Having travelled in Malaysia, and experienced good Malay cafes in London, I have often been disappointed by the food on offer in the rest of the UK. Dapur Malaysia has brought authentic, well cooked Malay cuisine to Leeds in a smart setting.
Malaysia is a country that has been built upon immigration. Valerie’s family moved there from Kerala in India. There is also a large Chinese community. These influences have been combined with the general South East Asian cuisine of spice, coconut, rice and noodles to form unique dishes.
The starter sharing platter showed these influences on one plate. Chinese wonton, Indian lentil cakes, Asian fish cakes, the curry puffs and chicken wings combined different influences and satay could be seen as a national dish. You will find a greater depth of flavour in the satay marinade and sauce than the usual Thai offerings, although I have to admit it is not quite the same as eating satay straight from a charcoal barbecue on the street. All of these dishes can also be ordered separately. The curry puffs are my favourite – light pastry wrapped around a soft, spicy vegetable filling; a uniquely Malay street food dish.
Valerie started her food retail journey by preparing street food to sell at Sunday market events and festivals. A street food stall at Leeds Trinity led to customers encouraging her look for permanent premises; many recommending Chapel Allerton. The restaurant, opposite the Mustard Pot on Stainbeck Lane, is fortunate to have an outside courtyard as well as a large airy interior. The colour palette and floral design on the menus and walls reflect traditional Malaysian fabric designs. On the rather overcast day when I visited, they added a splash of tropical colour to a rather grey Chapel Allerton.
As well as combining cultural influences, Malaysian cooks love to combine textures. This is particularly noticeable in the Nasi Lemak – firm rice is served alongside crunchy peanuts, brittle dried anchovies, silky boiled egg and soft stewed rendang. My companion tries the chicken rendang but it is also available in beef and vegetarian options. Rendang is perhaps the most complex of Malay curries, slow cooked in a sauce full of spices and thick coconut milk. It is wonderful eaten with a traditional canai roti bread, which I am pleased to see is also on the menu.
Vegetarians are well served with a whole section of plant based dishes. In order to give myself the opportunity to try vegetables and meat, I opt for a ‘thali’ where you can pick up to three dishes which are served in small bowls alongside rice, salad, chutney and chapati. Putting aside my addiction to rendang, I tried chicken in lime leaf curry, pork curry and a vegetarian dish of butternut squash, sweet potato and chickpeas. The chickpeas provide the texture here in a soft, warming curry whilst the pork is a real ‘vindaloo’. I note that the word vindaloo is not used on the menu, probably because of associations with tandoori restaurants that use the label for over hot chilli dishes. The Portuguese dish from Kerala combines tamarind, vinegar and chilli to provide a base that packs a kick but does not overwhelm. I was not surprised when Valerie told me her maiden name was Campos.
Meals are beautifully presented; street food here has been refined. Valerie plans to introduce an expanded menu which includes seafood and fish. The proposed grilled fish in banana leaf will be a must-try. There is also a short children’s menu, main and dessert for £7.95 – as well as small plates, so you could give children free rein of the menu by ordering smaller portions. You could order small plates and sides to eat tapas style. Prices are generally very reasonable, with mains ranging from £8.50 to £14.95 and small plates £5.50 to £8.95.
I don’t usually eat dessert in Asian restaurants, but for the sake of completeness felt I should. The influence of Malaysia and India could both be felt in the mango cheesecake and Mama’s Payasam. The latter was new to me. The idea of noodles in sweet, spiced milk did not immediately engage. Yet, having heard how Valerie’s mother had taught and inspired her, I had to try this family recipe. The spicing was delicate but rich with strong cardamom, and hidden amidst the vermicelli were pistachio, sultana and pomegranate, preventing the noodles becoming monotonous. I have to admit I waddled home after consuming this, but it was too good not to finish. If you like something lighter, there’s a good selection of Northern Bloc ice cream.
We accompanied the meal with a bottle of chenin blanc from their short but good wine list. Cocktails, beer (bottled and draught), soft drinks and a full bar are available. I was a disappointed that there were was only one mocktail on the menu. Perhaps the new menu will address this too.
The restaurant developed a good take out service during lockdown. Delivery drivers and individuals came and went during our visit. If you haven’t tried Malaysian food before, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised. If you have, you’ll discover old favourites presented with a refined twist. Eat in or take out: come and enjoy.
5 Stainbeck Ln, Chapel Allerton, Leeds LS7 3PJ
Unless otherwise captioned, photography is by Ben Bentley.