If you tell me there’s a dish that’s ‘so finger-licking good, I won’t even need wet wipes’, you will have my full attention. I think you all know that I don’t mind a bit of dainty dining, and I’m now quite accomplished at navigating my way round a table cluttered with multiple sets of cutlery, but I’m just as happy to forgo that altogether. In many cases, fingers (clean ones, of course) are just as good as forks, and in some situations, they’re even better. A plate of Malaysian chilli crab is a fine example; forks will bring you nothing but sauce in the face with a side of frustration, whereas diving in there with your fingers will bring you unadulterated, delicious joy. And sauce in the face, but that’s a small sacrifice.
I recently discovered this finger-licking goodness at the Wild Serai Supperclub where their signature Malaysian chilli crab reduced the room to silence, bar the cracking of shells and slurping of crab meat and sauce… But I’m getting ahead of myself; before that there were other delights. Each table came laden with the most gigantic prawn crackers I have ever come across, which is no mean feat considering my affair with them has been a long one. From a young age, I’ve watched my mother transform them from unappetising opaque discs to the wonderfully salty, crunchy crackers we all know and love, and naturally I’ve eaten more than my fair share. And so the memories started flooding in.
Curry puffs were also a favourite in our household growing up, though my parents never bothered with the painstaking task of making the pastry. We always cheated with a bit of shop-bought puff pastry and called it fusion; but at Wild Serai, Aunty Mary (the lady with the apron and the skills) clearly didn’t take the same shortcuts. The lightly spiced potato filling was encased in a rich, flakey pastry made from a water dough and lard dough, combined to create the prettiest of swirls on the outside. Wild Serai definitely pipped my parents in the curry puff category with these little creations, but in my humble and hungry opinion, my dad still holds the satay king crown.
I assumed that the chicken satay was marinaded in a fairly standard combination of galangal, lemongrass, shallots, sugar, ground cumin and coriander, and as such expected some hard-hitting flavours, but they were barely a slap in the face. I did like the faint smokiness from their charcoal grilling, and thought the finely balanced and utterly addictive satay sauce was what really brought the dish back from the brink of boredom. A harsh assessment you might say, but I’ve had a lot of good satay over the years, and that’s still not to say that this isn’t better than most others you’ll find being served up across London!
Now, we can go back to the crab… with a hefty bit of lobster thrown in for extra indulgence. That wasn’t part of the original plan but when faced with a crab shortage at their local fishmonger, the Wild Serai team decided they just had to make do with lobster. And we poor, unsuspecting diners just had to take it in our stride; it’s a good thing I like all my sweet-fleshed crustaceans equally. Quality seafood will always render quality taste, so while the meat can be a bit fiddly to get to, it’s worth every stain on that shirt. But dare I say, the star of this dish is what it’s swimming in on the plate. The most unctious sauce, bursting with flavours – sweetness, saltiness, and spiciness – and perfect for smothering over everything. Crab, lobster, deep fried mantou buns, my face; everything was smothered and I proudly licked my fingers afterwards.
I’d like to meet the person who would still be hungry after that, but Wild Serai must think they exist as there was yet more food. A small bamboo boat-load of Nyonya Kerabu glass noodle salad tossed in a piquant dressing was presented as a palate cleanser before we made room for a large, juicy butter prawns tossed in fried curry leaves, birds eye chillies, and desiccated coconut. The coconut might seem a bit unusual to the uninitiated but once it soaks up all that lovely buttery flavour, it adds a richness and texture which makes this dish really special. In any other circumstance, this would be the main event but I think even it would accept that it’s no match for the chilli crab and lobster.
Everything I had eaten up to this point was familiar and soothing; these were dishes I knew and loved. But when it came to the dessert, I was flummoxed – a Malaysian version of a crème brûlée?
I wasn’t sure how it would work, but by the time I got to the bottom of the pandan and coconut milk pudding and the tooth-achingly sweet Gula Melaka ice cream, I could be nothing but impressed by its cleverness. The layers of flavours and temperatures perfectly replicated the experience of eating ais kacang, a shaved ice dessert loved by Malaysians all over the country; and once again I was transported back to that tropical, humid heat of a place I hold dear in my heart and stomach!
I was promised finger-licking good food, but I got so much more from Wild Serai. Please don’t mistake my nostalgia with bias; I thoroughly enjoyed every one of the dishes and fell head over heels in love with some, not only because they mean something to me, but simply because they were unpretentious and tasty.This is classic Malaysian home-cooking delivered with style, soul and generosity, which any Malaysian will tell you is just as it should be!
Have you ever tried Malaysian chilli crab?
Thanks to Wild Serai for treating me to the most finger-licking good crab and lobster I’ve eaten in a long time, but as always, all opinions are mine and mine alone! If you don’t trust my judgement, perhaps In Her 30s can convince you too…