AS A trained biochemist, Clarissa Chong knows better than anyone else that commercial instant noodles were loaded with nasty additives. And she was faced with her greatest nightmare when her eldest daughter came home from kindergarten one day asking for instant noodles.
After a brief moment of panic, she decided that if she couldn’t beat them, she’d join them.
“I had been producing quick-cooking noodles under my company Cottage Farm for a few years, so I told myself this was a good time to venture into instant noodles. If I succeeded, I could help other mothers facing similar challenges,” she shares.
Many experiments later, she created a first-of-its-kind vegetarian instant noodles from all natural ingredients. Not only did it win her children’s approval, the product became one of Cottage Farm’s stellar performers.
The homegrown company has since launched other innovative dried food products targeted at health-conscious consumers who want delicious, easy-to-prepare and nutritionally balanced meals. Carbonara air-dried quinoa noodles or mulberry-based beverages, anyone?
Cottage Farm started as a vegetable delivery service in 2009, inspired by a visit to organic farms in Cameron Highlands.
Looking to exit a ten-year career in the medical diagnostics industry, the idea of helping others cultivate healthy eating habits resonated with Chong, whose parents grew their own organic vegetables and educated their children on the dangers of plastic, long before the fight against plastic became a movement.
Using an online subscription model, Chong began offering a home delivery service of fresh, organically grown vegetables in Klang Valley.
“I was overjoyed to find out that children, who don’t usually like vegetables, enjoyed mine because organic vegetables are sweeter,” she says.
Unfortunately, her luck began to run out after three years. Small-time vegetable delivery service providers like herself were gradually squeezed out by commercial players.
Customer retention was another problem. There were always new signups but the dropout rate was very high.
“When I called them, my customers told me they would love to cook but they had no time, so they ended up eating out.”
That gave her another idea. What if she provided these time-challenged folks with a solution?
In 2011, Chong switched to noodle production. She figured that she couldn’t go wrong with a food that was universally loved by Malaysians, including her own family. After identifying a certified organic supplier overseas, she linked up with a reputable food manufacturer and came up with quick-cooking noodles made from unbleached wheat flour.
When the first batch didn’t do well, she tweaked the second batch to incorporate vegetables into her noodles.
“I turned to the farmers who used to supply to my vegetable delivery service. They always faced an issue with surplus harvest and they would call me from time to time asking if I could help take the load off them. Pumpkins in particular grow very fast when the weather is hot. I thought, why not kill two birds with one stone?” she says.
Her quick-cooking noodles – now available in pumpkin, spinach, seaweed and unpolished rice – were a hit. “Most similar products in the market use vegetable powder or juice, which omits essential fibre. My customers loved the fact that our noodles use whole real vegetables with their nutrients and fibre intact. They are very popular with children, especially fussy eaters who love the natural sweetness that comes from fresh vegetables,” Chong reveals.
While the actual production process is outsourced to a reputable food manufacturer, product development is done entirely by Chong in a modest shoplot that serves as warehouse, packing station and laboratory for Cottage Farm.
One of Chong’s biggest technical challenges is striking a balance between taste and nutritional value, especially for meal replacement products where taste is contingent on “food powder” – her preferred description for seasoning packets that come with instant noodles.
Citing her initial experiment with instant noodles, she says, “Commercial instant noodles taste so good because the seasoning is made up of artificial flavourings synthesized by computer codes. You can never get the same bold, strong flavours using all natural ingredients.”
Chong spent more than two years on research and development to create her inaugural vegetarian instant noodles.
“I must have walked into every shop in Brickfields searching for herbs and spices and experimented with all kinds of combinations and cooking methods.
“Shitake mushrooms, the basic ingredient of my food powder, didn’t generate an intense enough flavour, so a friend suggested adding sugar to bring out a stronger taste. But being aware of the carcinogenic glycation process that takes place between sugar and amino acids, I couldn’t bring myself to put in more than the bare minimum.
“In the end, I added dried carrot powder to achieve the desired sweetness,” she says.
If Chong seems more hands-on than your typical business owner, you’re right.
She sources every ingredient personally and goes on physical site inspections before selecting a farm as her supplier. She replicates certain processes that are carried out in the factory – such as checking noodles for chewiness – to ensure the final product lives up to expectations before it goes to market.
As a precaution, she conducts random tests on her vegetable supplies to check for pesticide levels, even though she already commissions an industrial lab to carry out standard ingredient testing.
These additional steps are time-consuming, but they give her extra confidence in her products. In fact, Chong believes that staying true to her ethics is crucial to survival in the health food business.
“One of the things I learned while running my vegetable delivery business was that not all organic products live up to their name,” she says.
“Integrity is a big thing in the health food industry. Organic food customers, particularly, are sensitive and read labels very carefully.
“At the same time, Malaysians have a trust issue about whether products are really organic as claimed. As the price for organic products can be prohibitive, consumers want to make sure they’re getting their money’s worth.”
For Chong, it means relentlessly improving products to the point where they’re indistinguishable from commercial ones to encourage people to make healthier choices.
To that end, she adopts an unconventional approach. When she has devised an improved formulation of an existing product, she will recall the incumbent off the shelves and replaces them with the new version.
She believes this is the ethical way to innovate.
“If they can have something better, why should customers settle for substandard products? And if my balance sheet is healthy, why not share the goodness?”
Integrity is a trump card
While her perfectionist tendency may sound like an accountant’s nightmare, Chong assures that the business is doing “more than ok”.
After incurring losses in the early years, revenue has climbed steadily as Chong progressively reformulated her products. From less than ten stores in its first year of operation, today, more than 70 outlets carry Cottage Farm’s products nationwide. They include premium supermarkets like BIG, Village Grocer and Jaya Grocer.
But it took a long time to get to this stage, she admits.
“If you’re in it for quick money, forget it. In this business, you must have a genuine passion for helping people to lead a healthy lifestyle.”
Chong’s next mission is to formulate gluten-free noodles.
“A few years ago, I saw a little boy at an organic shop in Subang looking longingly at my noodle snacks [a product Cottage Farm has discontinued]. The shop owner warned me not to let him eat it because he was allergic to gluten. When I saw the disappointment in his eyes, I told him, ‘Auntie will make gluten-free noodles for you one day.’
“It’s been six years and I haven’t achieved the result I want. It’s difficult because the gluten is the ingredient that makes your noodles deliciously chewy, and none of the products in the market comes close.
“But watch out, I’ll get there one day,” she says with a gleam in her eyes.