Santan Boi is a Malaysian street food business, nomadically based between Brighton, Sussex and London. It was founded when it’s founder, Tom, returned from a stint living in Malaysia in March 2020.
A Corona business from the start, in just one year Santan Boi has already seen life as a market stall, events business, private caterer, pop-up, hot delivery and Finish-at-Home service.
Seeing the great food that Tom presents every time he posts his Malaysian cuisine on social media, we interviewed Tom to learn further about the behind-the-scenes that is Santan Boi.
Where did the idea for Santan Boi come from?
Starting a street food business has been a pipe dream of mine for quite a while, but I just always seemed to lack the reason to make the jump.
I discovered that reason when I moved to Malaysia in 2018, instantly falling in love.
I am both incredibly interested in food and incredibly greedy. For someone like that, Malaysia is nothing short of paradise!
The whole country seems to revolve around what is for the next meal. It also has a fascinating cultural history, which is a story that is often explicitly told through the dinner table.
But most of all, everything there is just really ridiculously delicious.
At the same time, I developed a little chip on my shoulder as to why I’d never had Malaysian food before!
It has developed since moving back to the UK, however, at its genesis, Santan Boi was a project to spread the gospel of delicious Malaysian food.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive, keep yourself busy?
I am either 100% standing-up or 100% sat-down.
I think my mind loves the chopping of onions, the peeling of ginger, the burning of myself with hot oil days. Meanwhile, I suspect my body prefers acts such as bookkeeping, social media and replying to emails.
For anybody in the hospitality industry, keeping busy is somewhat of a challenge at the moment. I find productivity through a survival instinct and determination to be there for the party at the end of this whole COVID mess!
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive?
Good quality caffeine gets me through the staring-at-my-laptop days.
Meanwhile, podcasts get me through the onion-chopping-van-packing-oil-burn ones. At the moment I am enjoying Jay Rayner’s Out to Lunch, which is brilliant - as everything he touches is.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Look after your back. You’ll need it when you buy your first deep fat fryer!
What is the one thing you do over and over again and recommend everyone else do?
Over-and-over might be a stretch, but I recommend finding the courage to make some terrifyingly monumental life-changing decisions.
So far in my life, I have made two of those decisions. The first is the decision to move to Malaysia. The second is to quit my job to pursue food!
It might be years until I can say if either was a success. However, I’m certain they will have pushed me to improve and I won’t regret either for a second.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Since starting my business, I have really enjoyed discovering the Malaysian community here in the UK.
From the very inception of Santan Boi, my focus was being able to recreate Malaysian flavours as well as possible. As much as I wanted to introduce Malaysian food to as many people as possible, this would be pointless if the food was not an accurate representation of the very food I fell in love with.
Back in Malaysia, I spent a lot of time researching. However, what I had not quite realised was that the Malaysian community here in the UK would be such a great resource.
My street food has always come with a 10% discount for Malaysians, but only if they tell me if they think it’s rubbish!
Fortunately - for my ego - the response has overall been really positive! However, when I do receive constructive feedback, this is really the stuff that is invaluable to the business.
Beyond this though, on a personal level, it is just really nice to make new friends that share an obsession with Malaysian food!
What's one trend in the F&B industry that excites you?
I have an intense dislike for anything that might be described as a trend.
HOWEVER, I am really encouraged by the “trend” for an increased conversation about culture and food, particularly the negative effects of cultural appropriation.
It is not just a conversation about political correctness. It is clear this stuff has a direct effect on the quality of food on our plates.
As Western chefs borrow from other cultures, they consciously or subconsciously modify them for commercial palatability, and the end result is that the food available to us as a whole becomes more western and more “white”.
Even if you ignore the fact that it is clearly pretty offensive to a lot of people, which in my opinion is entirely fair, diners should be concerned that their food has become less diverse, less exciting, and less delicious.
We need to stop doing this, reflect the food’s cultural heritage, source proper ingredients, study proper technique, and deliver an end product that is more truthful to the cuisine it is intending to represent. If we do this our restaurants will instantly become more diverse, exciting, and ultimately, delicious.
It is often misconstrued that this is an attack on creativity or “fun”, but this is nonsense. You want to make a Mexican Pizza then fine... but take time to learn how to make a good pizza and good Mexican food. Do not just top a pizza with chicken marinated in some vaguely cumin-coriander-lime concoction and call it a day.
As a rule of thumb, if you don’t know the specific name for a dish from that country then don’t do it. Mexicans menus don’t have anything called “Mexican chicken”… Neither should ours!
My rant is over!
What is the best £20 you recently spent?
It was a little while ago, but I bought a pineapple peeler in Penang, Malaysia, which is my favourite purchase ever!
It’s an ingenious little knife that cuts V-shaped grooves that allows me to remove all the eyes in a pineapple in under 1 minute.
I quite often have to peel kilos of pineapple. It cost me just £1.20 but has already saved so many hours of my life!
What is your favourite quote?
“If you open your mind too much, your brain will fall out” – Tim Minchin
Seems fitting in the age of conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers.
What are some of your favourite places to eat at?
Penang in Malaysia is hands down the best food city in the world; though Tokyo is a close second to me.
In lockdown, this would be very difficult, but the second I’m allowed to, I’ll be making a trip up to Sambal Shiok in London for a bowl of their delicious Laksa!
What's the best thing to order from Santan Boi?
The menu is ever-changing, however as I always tell people the ‘Kombo Klassic’ is called so for a reason.
Nasi Lemak & Ayam Goreng Berempah. It is Malaysia’s national dish, you shouldn’t need to know anything beyond that… but if you want to know, its coconut and pandan rice, spicy sambal, a whole host of trimmings and some spicy fried chicken.
It is, unsurprisingly, delicious.
Are there any exciting plans coming from Santan Boi soon?
God, I hope so…
At the moment we are running Finish-at-Home-Feasts in and around Brighton, however, the second I’m allowed to I’ll be back at events. Cannot wait to hopefully serve some hungry customers face-to-face.
You will be happy to hear that London is definitely on the cards!
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Learn about KC, who is starting a Thai food meal kit service in the UK next.