The real garlicky deal

  • Focus
  • Monday, 07 Sep 2015

Ngo says he is keeping his fathers legacy alive.

Practically every bottle of garlic chilli sauce carries the name ‘Kampung Koh’, even those not made there. But if you want the original, then Ngo Kia Jong’s NGK is it, writes MEK ZHIN.

SLAPPING the name “Kampung Koh” onto a bottle of garlic chilli sauce is almost like conferring upon it the seal of approval, or “Likes” in contemporary parlance, for that’s where the savoury dip originated from.

When a particular brand becomes synonymous with a product, it becomes a generic term for the product. Hence, Colgate for toothpaste, Pampers for baby diapers, Jacuzzi for hot tubs and Tupperware for plastic containers.

Kampung Koh and garlic chilli sauce is something like that.

Ngo Kia Jong, is the current owner of the original recipe that dates back to 1969. It was his father, Ngo Kie Swee, who created the sauce and passed down the recipe to him.

Ngo produces some 4,000 bottles of the sauce every working day at his factory – which is about three or four days a week. Unless they receive a large order.

Housewives with spare time work here, helping with the bottling and labelling among other things.

What comes out of his factory is similar to everything else on the market. Or rather, one should say that everything else looks similar to his.

There are many pretenders but NKJ’s Kampung Koh garlic chilli sauce is the original.
There are many pretenders but NKJ’s Kampung Koh garlic chilli sauce is the original.

There are differences, though, Ngo points out. One of them being the label, which bears the name Kampung Koh Chilli Sauce and a simple cloud-shaped logo with the brand “NKJ’s” and, in even smaller lettering, the word “Original”.

Ngo says you can no longer find the original label his father used, but you can rest assured that the content in the bottle is unchanged.

“My father had used our surname as the brand name, but when it came time to register it as such, we found we couldn’t because, well, ‘Ngo’ was already known as ‘non-governmental organisation’, and apparently we might be mistaken as one,” he says.

The brand NKJ’s was registered about four years ago, although by then many other companies had started producing garlic chilli sauce as well. And as it were, anyone could call their sauce Kampung Koh garlic chilli sauce, even if it wasn’t made in Kampung Koh.

Vats of bottles waiting to be sterilised and filled at the NKJ factory. — Photos: SAM THAM/The Star
Vats of bottles waiting to be sterilised and filled at the NKJ factory. — Photos: SAM THAM/The Star

“Sure, he made a couple of mistakes, but that’s in the past now. What I’m doing now is to make sure what he made never disappears. It’s like keeping a legacy alive,” Ngo says.

“My dad loved garlic and chilli a lot. He especially liked garlic because he believed it was good for health and could kill germs. When used in cooking, it also made any dish taste better,” he says.

The senior Koh was a rubber tapper before becoming a chilli sauce entrepreneur. And he was particular about his sauce. In those days, many things were done by hand, and each ingredient used was thoughtfully considered to ensure it enhanced the two main stars of the sauce.

“For instance, he used pumpkin and sweet potato powder as thickeners, and they also made the sauce sweeter. These ingredients had to be bought, peeled, cooked and processed before it could even be used,” Ngo reveals.

About 15 years ago, the shifting consumer taste made him tweak his father’s recipe. Reluctantly, and then just a tad.

“People, especially the younger generation, prefer spicier foods. So we decided to make our sauce spicier, but this also meant that the composition of the recipe had to be tweaked because I didn’t want to lose the unique taste my father created,” he explains, adding that trial and error with a variety of ingredients eventually led to the current recipe.

Ngo’s father loved garlic and chilli, and that led him to concoct the much-loved garlic chilli sauce.
Ngo’s father loved garlic and chilli, and that led him to concoct the much-loved garlic chilli sauce.

Among the changes he made was to the chillies. During his father’s time, the chillis were imported from China.

“We now also import from India where the chilli is spicier. Malaysian chillies have more water content and are not as spicy. The price has gone up lately, but we are not going to increase the price of our sauce,” Ngo says.

If you want the best price for a bottle of NKJ’s Original, you’d have to go to Kampung Koh in Sitiawan, Perak where it retails at RM2.20 a bottle.

“Our customers are mostly retailers or restaurants, mainly from the northern region of Peninsular Malaysia, including Terengganu, Pahang, Kelantan and of course, Perak. They order whatever they need directly from us,” Ngo say, adding that he sells everything that he produces.

At the moment, he has no intention to expand or indeed make any plans. He just wants to maintain the business as it is.

“Some companies engage in price wars. They also have distribution networks and such. I just am not willing to engage in such things, particularly lowering prices, because it might mean compromise in quality,” he explains.

But there certainly are a lot of people wading into the business. Ngo has relatives, and even a friend of his father’s, who are manufacturing garlic chilli sauce.

In fact, an elder brother of his is also producing the sauce. But their recipes and label designs are different.

Taste is a very subjective matter, and Ngo points out that the various garlic chilli sauces you find in the market all taste different.

“The recipe I use, which is essentially the same one as my dad’s, is for batches of sauce. Everytime I make the sauce, I produce the exact same amount, and I don’t think I would make more or less than that because I don’t want the taste to change the slightest bit,” he stresses.

Ngo, who has five children and a grandchild, says none of his kids has shown an interest in continuing the family business.

“My eldest is 25. They aren’t interested now, but who knows? Maybe they will change their minds as they grow older, so people might still be able to get the original garlic chilli sauce,” Ngo says hopefully.

It’s certainly possible since they all seem to love the sauce. After all, the family goes through three or four bottles every week without fail.

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