The Malaysia Hall Canteen serves, hands-down, the best Malay food not just in the UK, but in Europe, maybe even the Western Hemisphere! The history of the Malaysia Hall Canteen goes back more than 60 years - even before then-Malaya got its independence from the UK.
Before Malaysia, there was a clutch of sultanates and also directly-ruled colonies like Penang (founded by the British in 1786) and Singapore (founded in 1819) which became a federation of states known collectively as British Malaya by the late-19th-century. This two-century-old relationship meant the Malaysians & Singaporeans have always seen their ties with Britain as something very “special”. Generations of Malaysians and Singaporeans have been educated in the UK - members of royalty, prime ministers, etc. When Malaysia achieved its independence from the UK in 1957, its first-generation leaders then were all British-educated.
It was said that when Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Cambridge-educated prince from Kedah, who was to be Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, announced to the Malayan students in London that their country was to become independent, they carried him on their shoulders around the Malaysia Hall, then situated in Bryanstone Square, near Marble Arch.
I remembered my first time at the Malaysia Hall Canteen in Bryanstone Square, joining a long queue of Malaysians (mainly students) in the late-70s. Then, it was the only place where we Malaysians & Singaporeans can have a taste of “home”. The Toishan-Cantonese fare down in London Chinatown were off-limits to the Malays who’re Muslims and do not partake pork nor non-halal meats there, whereas to us Chinese-Malaysians and Chinese-Singaporeans, we sometimes long for the chili-heat which characterises many of our Malayanised Chinese dishes rather than the bland, rustic Chinese fare of London’s Toishan-Cantonese.
Singapore broke off from Malaysia in 1965, but the two countries were still bound together culturally and also gastronomically. So, Singaporeans still traipse into Malaysia Hall Canteen for their curry fix. Nowhere else in the world outside Malaysia & Singapore is there a true Malay food oasis like the Malaysia Hall Canteen in London.
In 2004, Malaysia closed down its original then-50-year-old Malaysia Hall Canteen in Bryanstone Square. It elicited howls of dismay from generations of Malaysians who had dined there, and made headline news in Malaysia and Singapore, as the student-centred Malaysia Hall was the birth place of prominent student organisations such as the socialist MASS (Malaysia Singapore Students Forum), among others. In response to the public outcry, the Malaysian High Commission procured the former York Hotel site on Queensborough Terrace and spent £5 million to refurbish the building. The new Malaysia Hall was born and, with it, the indispensable canteen.
Malaysia Hall Canteen, through the last 7 decades, is always run by a Malaysian government-appointed operator, usually a Malay-Muslim chef. There has been quite a few changes of operators - some have opted to stay on in London after the end of their tenure to start their own food business, like Tukdin and Makan Place.
Well, it seems that the current operator (since April 2018), Hairani Muhammad and her husband Azhar Kamaruddin, of the popular Makan Café in Portobello, once ran Malaysia Hall Canteen at the old Bryanston Square location in the late 90s, so it’s a homecoming of sorts for the couple.
The spread of traditional Malay breakfast food options when I was there last Saturday was every bit as authentic and affordable - since the eatery is partially subsidised by the Malaysian government.
I tried the de facto Malaysian national breakfast: Nasi Lemak, with Beef Rendang, Ayam Goreng Berempah (spiced, fried chicken) and Bergedil (potato-chicken croquette). The dish comes with the usual sides of toasted groundnuts, crisp-fried anchovies (ikan bilis), a wedge of hard-boiled egg, slivers of fresh cucumber and generous lashings of spicy-red sambal. 100% authentic - only possible here at the Malaysia Hall Canteen. And all for just £5! An absolute bargain - although I remembered my similar meal back in 1979 was under £1!
I also tried the Malay-style Mee Goreng (fried noodles), but it came across as pretty bland and greasy. Avoid.
The Malay-style curry puffs here are pretty respectable - filled with curried potatoes-peas-carrots and diced chicken, for 60 pence each (compared to £2.80 for a curry puff from Singapore’s Old Chang Kee over at Covent Garden).
The other Malay kuehs (sweetmeats) are all pretty authentic - also sold for 60 pence a piece: Kueh Dadar, the pandan-flavoured moist crepe filled with freshly-grated coconut & brown sugar, and Kueh Keria, a dense Malay donut incorporating mashed tapioca into its batter.
I know that, if I ever miss good Malay food, Malaysia Hall Canteen will be that dependable fallback option. Mind you, the place is pretty spartan - its original purpose was for Malaysian students to meet and have a taste from home.
Lunch and dinner-times are the best times to explore this place. It does get crazily busy though and, if you’re not Malaysian, make sure you get a Malaysian friend to bring you along!
Malaysia Hall Canteen
30-34 Queensborough Terrace
London W2 3ST, UK
Opening hours: 8am-10pm daily.