The rise of restaurants like Kopitiam in New York and Roti King in London has put Malaysia on the map, with national dishes like nasi lemak and roti canai now well-known around the globe.
But how do we fare outside the glitz and glam of the big cities?
A couple of hour’s drive from London is Bristol- a city in the UK famous for its rich maritime history and renowned university. While hardly a countryside hamlet, it’s not the first place you’d expect to find a popular Malaysian-themed supper club up and running.
Serving five courses and a cocktail for £55, Mulebird was set up by British-born Ben Yapp back in 2019 following a lifelong love affair with food- in particular, with South-East Asian flavours. Essentially a one-man-show, Ben acts as host, chef, waiter and manager to the supper club; a range of tasks he puts on the back burner while carrying out his main job as a freelance management consultant.
The aptly named Mulebird acts as a symbol of his heritage: Mulebirds were traditionally a crossbreed of two different species of bird to bring out their best qualities. With a Malaysian Chinese father and English mother, Ben’s childhood was shaped by a marriage of Western and Eastern flavours that carried on to adulthood. Describing his cooking as a modern twist on traditional Malaysian flavours, Ben attributes much of this philosophy to his mixed background.
After living in Sabah and Singapore from the age of six to 16, he returned to the UK to complete his studies and settled in Bristol. But it wasn’t until 2018 that he took a leap of faith and turned his passion for cooking from a hobby into a business.
“I took a year-long sabbatical that I spent travelling- and eating- my way across South East Asia with my family. It reminded me how rich and vibrant all the flavours from home were, and really reignited my passion for food. When I got back to the UK, I quit my job and started freelancing instead, giving me the time I needed to dedicate to cooking.”
His approach to cooking reflects his years spent growing up on both sides of the world: while the main thrust of his flavours are unmistakably Malaysian, playing with non-traditional influences and more Western techniques has become his modus operandi. Colourful dishes like Iberico pork neck char siu and charred aubergine with whipped mozzarella and sambal oil are just a few examples of Ben’s eclectic cooking style.
“Another example would be the Hakka pork bao that we do. It uses a lot of the traditional flavours of a Hakka pork belly recipe my dad learnt in Sabah where he grew up, but I actually sous vide it for a day before and change some of the spices and ingredients for a modern twist.”
Dessert is one area where his Western influence shines through. While their flavours are predominantly Asian, Ben often incorporates Western baking and pastry techniques to prepare sweet treats for the supper club, like with his pandan madeleines.
Ben explains that Malaysian food was few and far between in Bristol, let alone where he lived at the time outside the city.
“While sharing Malaysian cuisine with Bristolians was a huge motivating factor in starting the supper club, I can’t say I was motivated by totally selfless reasons,” he laughs.
“Cooking is a massive destresser for me, so I thought why not create a platform where I could do something I love, make good food for myself and share it with others?”
Ben initially promoted the supper club by reaching out to local food bloggers and creating social media pages. Now, most places at the table sell out within a week.
What’s even more impressive is that Ben has had no formal training as a chef.
“I did take a pastry course at Cordon Bleu a while back!” he exclaims. “But other than that, I kind of just picked things up along the way. Websites, cookbooks, videos.”
I’ve just always loved cooking. A lot of people say it’s stressful, but it’s the opposite for me. It just clears my head.”
Ben recounts coming back from school to watch his father dicing garlic and chillies in preparation for Hakka Chicken Rice- a version of the classic Hainanese chicken rice influenced by his father’s Hakka heritage.
“I’d steal pinches of whatever had been left on the chopping board,” he laughs. “You’d have thought raw garlic was too strong for a kid, but not for me. I loved it.”
While initially operating out of Ben’s family home, Mulebird soon expanded to accommodate increased demand and the supper club is now held out of a community kitchen that seats around 12-14 people per sitting, sat together on a long table.
“I like to think of the supper club as more of an experience rather than just a meal. Everyone sits together at a communal table, so you get to know other guests over drinks and food. By the end of dinner, people leave having exchanged numbers and made new friends.”
When asked where he sees Mulebird going in future, Ben smiles.
“I think the ultimate dream would be to host the supper club in a space in my front garden one day- cooking in your own space really helps you tailor the experience to be exactly how you want it to be. And to grow my own ingredients and incorporate those into the dishes, to give people a connection to the produce.”
“Other than that, it would be just to keep Mulebird going in some form even when I get busy with work and with life.”
If you’re in Bristol, UK, you can give the Malaysian supper club Mulebird a go by contacting Ben Yapp.
Cover images supplied by Ben Yapp / Mulebird.