In Malaysia, sandwiches are rarely the stars of the menu. Perhaps it’s because putting food between bread seems too simple, or because so many restaurants offer them as a kind of afterthought. Either way, we rarely see a passion for sandwiches as you might find, for example, in New York. We rarely take our sandwiches seriously.
But one woman is changing that. Basira Yeusuff takes sandwiches very seriously indeed. A trained chef who recently returned to Malaysia, 27 year old Basira is the founder of Yay, Sammich!, a gourmet sandwich stall often found at festivals and markets. What not many people know is that Yay, Sammich! also operates out of a suburban terrace house in Bangsar, which is open for business at weekends.
From the outside, the house on Jalan Limau Purut looks like any other on the street. There’s nothing to indicate the culinary haven that lies within – except, perhaps, for the giant red moustache motif hanging on the outside. Foodies will remember this moustache as the insignia of Crumbs – a short-lived sandwich bar in Lucky Garden.
“The rental was killing us,” Basira explains. She had been working as a chef at a Changkat bar when someone offered her the money to start Crumbs: “He said, you’re 26. Here’s some money. Let’s start something.” But the condition was the location, which also proved to their downfall. “We decided to close and not make any more loss.”
So the café crumbled. But not before it made its mark: Time Out KL named Basira’s baby lime cake one of the best things they had eaten for under RM15 in 2011. When I step into the living room-café, there’s a tray of these freshly baked cakes laid out, along with some tempting salted caramel brownies and pecan pie. Little pots of cut flowers are scattered around, and X Factor is playing on the TV in the next room.
No sandwiches are on display, because these are all freshly made to order. I doubt that any limp lettuce or stale bread has ever seen the light of day in this house. Scanning the extensive menu, it’s hard to choose, but in the end my weakness for roast dinners leads me to the “Kinda Christmas”. It’s roast chicken with gravy, cranberry sauce and cheese. Basira recommends I have it in a laugen – bread which is similar to pretzel dough, soft on the inside and coated with a salted sheen.
She gets me settled with a refreshing “cocktail” of elderflower cordial and iced tea, and then disappears for a while, emerging later with my creation. I don’t say “creation” flippantly: almost everything, including the cranberry sauce and gravy, is handmade. Even the crisps are cut by hand. As for the sandwich itself, each mouthful like a hug for my soul: the gooey cheese melting over the roasted chicken, the flavourful gravy (made from chicken juices) soaking into the warm, soft bread. The sweet, sharp cranberry is the kicker. The interview is put on pause as I dissolve with each bite.
“Some people can eat a Subway as a snack but this is a full fledged meal.”
“Anything you see here, this is what I learned in kitchens in Germany, in a Michelin star restaurant,” says Basira, who studied culinary arts in Switzerland and also worked in Singapore before returning to Malaysia. “Some people can eat a Subway as a snack but this is a full fledged meal. Sorry, it’s not healthy – it’s got cheese, gravy. But veggies too so it’s ok,” she adds with her cheeky giggle.
She explains that she’s always “liked sandwiches. And there’s a lack of good sandwiches here.” By putting so much care into her sandwiches, Basira wants to reach the niche of people who want good food at affordable prices. One of her most popular sandwiches is the “Tender Me Brisket”, which has beef brisket, jalapeno and cheese. The beef brisket is seared and then stewed for six hours. Yep: six hours.
On a friend’s advice, on my next visit I try the brisket sandwich. The beef is ridiculously tender, sweetened by its lengthy hours in the pot, and complemented with tangy jalapeno. “All this stuff is what you’d see in a traditional restaurant – no shortcuts,” says Basira. She names the Salmon Ninja as another popular offering: smoked salmon, cucumber, wasabi cream cheese and nori.
“People find it weird when you specialise in something.”
“I like restaurants that specialize in one thing,” says Basira. “Often, Malaysian restaurants have to have everything – one mee goreng, one pasta dish, one whatever they specialise in. I get people coming in who are like, ‘Oh, you don’t have pasta? Oh, rice also don’t have?’ People find it weird when you specialise in something.”
We talk about the recent food fads that have hit KL: cupcakes, macarons, burgers. The outlets appear with a boom, springing up faster than mushrooms. Despite her obvious talent, Basira is happy to keep her business small-scale and “underground” for now. She’s in no hurry to open a café again, or employ any staff – “Maybe a food truck. But we’ll see how.”
During the week, Basira caters office groups and parties. The kitchen-café in Bangsar is open to visitors Friday to Sunday, but by appointment only. During my visit, a few people stop by to tapau, all of them marveling at the cosy café. Like me, they leave with a smile on their face. I ask Basira about the growing trend towards home dining, like supper clubs. “I think people are finally realizing that not everyone can afford to pay overheads,” she says.
Sustainability is important: pop up shops can easily pop up once, never to be seen again. But with someone as passionate as Basira, I sense that this is not going to happen. Simply put, she cares about her sandwiches too much. In a dining scene where so many try to cash in with “the next big thing”, her homemade café is a welcome oasis of slow, careful invention. For that, I am eternally grateful.
Yay, Sammich! Jalan Limau Purut, Bangsar 59000, KL. Find out more about Yay, Sammich! here.