There’s no chance of sneaking in quietly for a meal at Madam Lu. An ear-shattering “Helloooooo!!!!” rings out across the restaurant (and quite possibly the whole of Civic) as each new guest arrives at this Malaysian favourite in the Melbourne Building.
Ming Kong, whose diminutive stature belies her impressive decibel level, is a familiar face to many Canberra food-lovers. With her husband Alan Lu, she ran the popular Ming’s Chinese and Malaysian restaurant in Phillip for more than 15 years before selling up and opening Madam Lu’s three years ago.
“We wanted to do more authentic Malaysian food,” says Ming, who was born about 180 km north of Kuala Lumpur in Ipoh, a city famous for its melding of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisines. Recreating the homestyle cooking of her childhood was the goal.
“The Malaysian spice level is different from Sichuan spiciness,” says Ming, who moved to Canberra in the 1990s to study accounting but found it wasn’t her thing.
“Malaysian food is based on a balance of spice and chilli, and we also use a lot of coconut – it’s easy to get in Malaysia and gives things a creamy texture.”
While Chinese-born Alan does most of the cooking – “he’s much better than a lot of Malaysian chefs … he knows how we handle spice” – Ming makes the Nyonya tamarind curry, a regular on the menu, as well as delicious steamed glutinous rice and pandan custard sweets, called kuih, that can be eaten in or taken away.
Alongside the Nyonya curry, other signature dishes at Madam Lu include chicken rice, laksa, Ipoh hor fun (prawns, chicken, beef, fish cake, vegetables and noodles in egg sauce), and Penang char-kway teow (fried rice noodles with prawns, Chinese sausage, chives and bean sprouts). The odd but popular Malaysian staple, bak kut teh, a Chinese herbal soup with pork ribs, is also a hot commodity.
I’ve popped in for lunch a couple of weeks after visiting Madam Lu with a group of mates for a Chinese New Year dinner. Our table of 13 was one of many big groups that night – some celebrating the Lunar New Year, others birthday parties.
There were few in the house unfamiliar with the restaurant’s voluble host, who flitted from table to table, shooting the breeze. It was a jovial night – but nobody could call it quiet. Or tidy.
Our first dish was yu sheng, associated with prosperity and abundance and traditionally eaten to welcome in the new year. The Malaysian way involves getting everyone around the table to dig their chopsticks into the platter of finely sliced vegetables, salad and fish and fling the food into the air – the higher the better.
Once we’ve all had a go, there’s radish, daikon, carrot, jellyfish, candied and pickled ginger, peanuts, fried dough, raw salmon and random other bits and pieces from one end of the table to the other. I’ve not seen this much disarray since going through my wardrobe to find a dress that fits just after Christmas.
Today’s lunch is a far more sedate and tidy affair. I’m tucking into satay sticks with a sauce so moreish I could eat it on its own by the spoonful, as well as another starter called lok bak, a five-spice meat roll wrapped in dried bean curd served with a sweet chilli sauce.
I arrived early for a chance to talk to Ming before nearby office workers start arriving for lunch specials such as nasi goreng, combination laksa and Singapore noodles.
Ming punctuates our conversation with occasional shout outs to the kitchen staff, and regular greetings of new arrivals, many of whom she knows by name.
“I’ve always been loud,” she tells me. “Some people have done bad reviews of me on TripAdvisor, saying I shouldn’t scream in the kitchen. But I’m not screaming; I’m not angry. This is who I am. This is such a busy environment that when I need to talk to the kitchen, I have to do it loudly otherwise they won’t hear. We don’t have time to quietly whisper.”
Ming’s manner doesn’t seem to have done business any harm. She says new generations of the same families are now coming along to eat the dishes she remembers from her childhood.
“I’ve seen lots of the young ones grow up,” she says. “We’ve known many of them since we had the old place. They all call me Aunty, Aunty.”
It hasn’t always been easy, she says.
When she and Alan first started the business 20 years ago, they nearly blew their savings.
“We were quite naïve and thought it would be so easy to open a restaurant, but we slowly built it up and learnt how to do it.”
Ming says passion is the key to good Malaysian food.
“Malaysian cooking is time-consuming. My rendang takes me three to four hours to cook, and when I say a dish has Angus beef, I really mean Angus. We never cut corners.”
It also takes a genuine interest in people.
“My godson told me recently that I own a restaurant not to make money, but because I like to talk to people. Sometimes it takes someone else’s eyes to see who you are and I think he’s absolutely right. I’m the most talkative person. I should start a YouTube channel … I’d be more famous than Uncle Roger,” she says with a wide grin.
As I’m finishing off my favourite dish of the day, a nasi lemak comprising a mound of coconut-infused rice with chicken curry, fried anchovies, peanuts, fried egg and sambal sauce, a woman from the florist next door comes in for a chat.
“What’s going on? You’re so quiet. I can’t hear you from next door. Are you alright?” she says to Ming fondly.
“But I’m not a loud person,” Ming responds, as I throw my hands over my ears in anticipation of the ear-splitting laugh to follow.
Madam Lu is at 20/42 West Row, Canberra. It’s open for lunch and dinner, Monday to Saturday (except public holidays).
The Institutions is a new column celebrating the stalwarts of our local hospitality industry. Do you know a much-loved restaurant, bar or cafe that has stood the test of time and remains a much-loved part of the community? Tell us about your favourites for potential inclusion in the series.