The sheer hard work that goes into making niche food products


Lim has so far made 85 different kinds of classic cheese and spends nearly every waking moment tending to his cheese. Photo: ART CHEN/The Star

Running a niche home food business requires a lot of time and attention to detail. The products on offer are not cheap and entrepreneurs say it’s due to the sheer amount of sweat and tears expanded in making these products, often with little or no help at all.

For Ethan Wong, the founder of home-based tempeh chip brand Truly Gourmet, his commitment to producing the best starts from the ground up.

Wong makes his tempeh from scratch, fermenting it himself. Every day, he wakes up at 5am and spends three hours hand-slicing the tempeh before manually frying it in a combination of rice bran oil and canola oil.

Wong makes his tempeh from scratch and every day he spends three hours hand slicing tempeh into thin pieces. — ETHAN WONGWong makes his tempeh from scratch and every day he spends three hours hand slicing tempeh into thin pieces. — ETHAN WONG

The results speak for themselves – Wong’s chips are delicious – thin, crispy shards that are perfectly fried (but not overly oily) and seasoned delicately with sea salt.

“A lot of people have this misconception that making tempeh chips just involves taking ready-made tempeh from the market and frying it. But it’s not like that, I make it from soy beans and ferment it myself for a few days, so it is much more technical and painstaking, ” he says.

Dexter Lim, who sells cheese, has so far made 85 different kinds of classic cheese in the past year and spends nearly every waking moment tending to his cheese, with the help of his wife Natalie Chiang and the family’s domestic helper.

“For each recipe that I make, I have to check with a few sources and also do trial and error in order to get it right, because we want to make sure that it’s as good as what it’s originally supposed to be. So from making new batches to ageing the cheese, it basically takes up my whole day, ” he says.

Lim only uses natural cultures and raw, unpasteurised milk from a boutique local farm, as he says this is the authentic way that cheese was made back in the day.

“Cheese dates back 7,200 years and has always been natural, but because of modernisation, labs isolate the cultures and this sacrifices the flavour nuances, which is why commercial cheese is so different from what we produce.

Lim’s many cheeses are a delight – from the piquant pungency of harta, a cheddar cheese infused with garlic, chilli and jering (a bitter bean akin to petai) to the house-made herbed halloumi, which has a bouncy hold and a rich mouthfeel. Lim’s powerful Covilly blue cheese (named after Covid-19) is another improbable winner that surprises equally with its strength and appeal.

The bone broth is simmered over low heat for 24 hours to 48 hours in titanium coated pots.  —TENGKU ASAADThe bone broth is simmered over low heat for 24 hours to 48 hours in titanium coated pots. —TENGKU ASAAD

Tengku Asaad and Rahayu Permatasari, the founders of The Daily Broth also do a lot to ensure that their homemade bone broth is top notch. The two only use organic vegetables, organic chicken and pasture-fed beef to make their three bone both variants: beef, chicken and vegan broth.

Additionally, they have invested in 11 titanium-coated pots and spend each day monitoring the temperature of the broths in the pots and slow-cooking it for between 24 hours to 48 hours to extract maximum nutrition.

“The pots that we use are the best for avoiding chemical leaching. And how our bone broths differ from a usual stock is that for example, when we make our chicken bone broth, we remove all the fat from the chicken and boil it to remove the scum.

“After removing the scum, we roast the chicken to get more flavour, then it is put into the pot with other vegetables and cooked at a set temperature and left to simmer for 24 hours. For beef bone broth, it takes 48 hours. Once the cooking process is finished, the meat is pulled from the bones, ” says Rahayu.

Even after all that is done, their work is not over yet as the broth needs to cool down for a certain amount of hours, after which Asaad and Rahayu inspect it again to see if there is any fat that needs to be skimmed from the broth.

“It is a lot of work and very time-consuming. For beef bone broth, a batch that we make on Monday is only ready for shipment on Thursday, ” says Rahayu.

The hours of hard work are reflected in the bone broths, which are light but packed with flavour. The beef bone broth is particularly appealing and has lovely bovine undertones underscored by a natural sweetness while the chicken bone broth has rich avian notes interspersed with a nuanced vegetal quality. Even the vegan bone broth, which one might expect to be fairly bland, has thrilling umami flavours, courtesy of the vegan miso in the concoction.

It takes six hours to cook a large batch of Mushroom Lah's mushroom rendang! — AISYA JABARUDDINIt takes six hours to cook a large batch of Mushroom Lah's mushroom rendang! — AISYA JABARUDDIN

Aisya Jabaruddin and her husband Akmal Hakim Ali’s mushroom rendang from their brand Mushroom Lah is an equally tedious affair, although it is only cooked up once a week. The duo first prepares all the ingredients for the rendang beforehand – a process that takes an entire day.

Then on Saturday mornings, Akmal wakes up at 3.30am to start cooking 52kg worth of rendang, a back-breaking, sweaty process that takes six hours of non-stop cooking to complete.

As a result, the rendang is oh-so flavourful – the plump mushrooms have a spongy hold, and meld fluidly with the spicy, thick rendang paste, which drapes each mushroom slice like a slinky dress would hug all the right curves.

“It’s a challenge because it’s very hard to prepare and takes a long time to cook. But then again, if it only took 30 minutes to make, nobody would buy it!” says Akmal, laughing.

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