Five minutes with: Ellen Chew

The restaurateur on bringing authentic Singaporean and Malaysian cuisine back to Chinatown, her big love of spices and the special person she'd most like to cook for

Food and Drink 19 Nov 2021

Chef and restaurateur Ellen Chew

Chef and restaurateur Ellen Chew

What can we expect from Rasa Sayang’s return to Chinatown?

For it to be bigger, better and more beautiful! Our new décor is partly inspired by 1970s/80s Malaysia and Singapore – the glory years of the Straits hawker scene. We have also brought back favourites like Malaysian hokkien mee, chai tow kway and hokkien king prawn noodles.

What do you wish Londoners knew about Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine? And about the hawker scene that you are inspired by?

We are a small part of the world and understandably people are not as familiar with our cuisine as, say, Thai or Chinese cuisine. Singaporean and Malaysian cuisine is unique as it is heavily influenced by Malay, Indonesian and Indian cooking and ingredients. The Malay Peninsula was on the active spice trade route attracting traders, travellers and merchants of all ethnicities. This multiculturalism translated to a wonderful explosion in the Straits culinary scene with the culmination of myriad spices and ingredients. Singapore was also colonised for many years by the British, and this is evident in our culinary offerings as well.

Rasa Sayang has reopened in Chinatown
Rasa Sayang has reopened in Chinatown

Will Rasa Sayang have a signature dish and if so, what will it be?

One of the signature dishes of Rasa Sayang has always been beef rendang.  The amount of love and time it takes to create the dish makes this one of the most popular dishes in our restaurant. It’s made from about 10 different spices and takes about six to eight hours of standing in front of the stove and stirring to make sure the beef is infused with all the flavours and cooked till it’s tender without being burnt. It’s truly a labour of love.

Do you think London’s perception of Southeast Asian cuisine has changed since you opened Rasa Sayang in 2008?

Yes, for sure! I think the internet has truly shaped and educated everyone in foreign culinary offerings and cultures and in a very short span of time. People are now much savvier about food than they were 13 years ago. Back then, we got frowns and complaints when we served a whole fish with the head and bones – but today, many Londoners take it as a sign of authenticity. Today, we are free and confident to introduce the real, robust flavours of our cuisine knowing that diners are now seeking real experiences and not something that’s altered to suit the local palate.

What ingredient can you not live without?

Chilli! I’m a spice fanatic so I can’t imagine life without chilli. It’s also one of the key ingredients to Southeast Asian food.


Singaporean chilli crab at Rasa Sayang
Singaporean chilli crab at Rasa Sayang

What are your biggest passions outside of food and drink?

I love collecting old Southeast Asian and Chinese records from the 1950s to 1970s. I love old Chinese jazz and curating my collection brings me on a journey into the past. I’ve also recently bought a powerful telescope to gaze into the night skies and galaxies. The vastness of the unknown is very intriguing, and on clear nights, it’s truly gorgeous and breathtaking.

Who, living or dead, would you most like to cook for and what would you make them?

My late father. I never got a chance to cook him a proper meal and it would be wonderful if I was able to spend a day cooking with him and not just for him!

What’s next for you and the Chew On This group?

2020 and 2021 have been a hectic couple of years opening concepts and expanding our footprint in the UK. I’d love to take the time in 2022 to concentrate on building and elevating those brands.