BEFORE the end of the 20th century, organic goods seemed like a transient fad. Fast forward to the 21st century, and it has settled down here to stay.
Organic produce like vegetables, grains, seeds nuts and everything else from the ground have made their way into restaurants as popular menu items.
Restaurants and cafes that label their food and drinks as “organic”, or in more generic terms, “vegetarian”, are mushrooming in Malaysia, and many densely populated suburbs have at least one outlet.
As the population becomes a little more aware of what they’re eating and the origins of their food, organic or vegetarian restaurants want to be the first choice for diners, as well as sources of information and fellowship to improve the quality of their lives.
Organic restaurants in Malaysia have their own personal stories to tell, be it from their humble yet challenging beginnings to their life-mission into making the world a better, happier and healthier place.
Get your green on
Eco Green, an organic shop and restaurant on Jalan Aminuddin Baki, Taman Tun Dr Ismail, serves generous portions of salads and greens in a delicious variety or tastes and colours.
For the last 14 years, the owners, husband and wife team Wong Kai Yuen and Sherine, couldn’t be more proud of what they’ve been doing, not only in a business sense, but in their contribution to society.
The business wants to be “different” from others by fulfilling its mission to be a movement that advocates the practice of living an organic lifestyle as well as saving the environment.
“In most cases, business is about making money, but I think businesses have to move on to a better and higher purpose to create a more meaningful value proposition to benefit society. People need to change their commercial mind-set because it doesn’t mean that if you have more money, you’ll have more in your life,” says Wong, a former engineer in an industrial waste water company.
Although easier said than done, his company is striving to achieve this ambition and Wong believes that if businesses adopt this modus operandi, the world would be a better place.
To reinforce his point, Sherine notes that while people are happy eating conventional vegetables because they are supposedly healthy, they might not know where or who these vegetables have come from, or how they were grown.
“Consumers are disconnected from the producers of their food and that’s where the danger lies. They don’t know the amount of chemicals and pesticides used on the food that may lead to long-term detrimental effects on their health,” explains Sherine, who’s also the restaurant’s chef.
She and Wong visit organic farms to study how the crops are produced so that they can communicate to their customers the value of these items that end up on Eco Green’s menu.
Some of these items are various types of vegetables and salads with dressings, tumeric rice Nasi Lemak, as well as meat based dishes like oat curry chicken, spicy and sour fish rice.
“People are willing to spend more for luxury cars because they understand the value and how they’re made. But many wouldn’t mind and of course can only afford mass produced cars. In saying this, we match the price of our dishes to a conventional restaurant,” says Sherine.
Labelling the restaurant “organic” doesn’t mean just slapping the word on a signboard.
“Organic is not a generic and solid term which is either black or white, or yes or no. Our food comes mainly from organic farms that use no additives or chemicals, while some do have very small amounts of chemicals in them. We can’t say we’re 100% organic, but the industry as a whole is evolving and we’re also part of that growth,” explains Wong.
While restaurants have to be transparent about their operations, customers should be willing to enquire about the food they eat.
Wong stresses that jwhile the food is labelled as “healthy” or “organic”, people should still find out the story behind its production, cultivation and delivery.
Living the simple life
After creating an easy-to-follow recipe book for healthy organic food in 1992, Tracy Ngo and husband Lai Keun Ban decided to venture into the food business as a platform to feature their vegetarian dishes.
In just the first year of operations, their vegetarian restaurant, Simple Life, broke even and now their colourful menu boasts a variety of dishes that include their versions of Nasi Lemak, charcoal bread sandwiches and even fries to cater to younger patrons. There is also the occasional egg and dairy products in some of the selections.
“People think that organic food is bland and tasteless since the food is mostly vegetarian and does not have additives and extra flavouring. Based on feedback, our customers like our food because it is tasty and our business has grown by mainly word of mouth,” says Lai.
Simple Life now has outlets in KLCC, Sunway Pyramid, SS2 Mall, Mont Kiara, Bangsar South, Leisure Mall, The Gardens Mall Midvalley, and Melaka Raya in Malacca. Its newest one just opened on Thursday in Setia City Mall, Shah Alam.
But such success wouldn’t have become a reality if not for the tumour that Ngo discovered near her ear which grew to the size of a ping-pong ball in a short time.
Although it was benign and removed immediately, the doctor recommended Ngo adopt a fully vegetarian and, preferably, organic lifestyle.
“He explained that the cells of the tumour fed on acidic food like meat, processed and chemical-laden foods. But organic and naturally grown vegetables with none of the enhancers make the body more alkaline and thus reduces the risk of relapse,” says Lai.
After that, Ngo and a friend started buying organic beans and vegetables from Australia and sold them as a small business.
“She soon became very passionate about experimenting and cooking organic food, then went to Taiwan to study vegetarian recipes because it’s a very popular diet there,” says Lai.
It was still a feat to start the business because organic products were expensive so Lai and Ngo felt that it didn’t seem sustainable at the time.
“We were lucky to have met people who helped to put the recipe book together, as well as gave us opportunities to do cooking demonstrations and health presentations,” says Lai, adding that it led to the opening of their first restaurant in Melacca in 1996.
The rest as they say, is history.
Living a long life
Some 20 over years ago, vegan chef and diet counsellor, June Lim, wanted to make a change in her lifestyle for the better.
The former “meat lover” discarded all animal products from her diet and went vegan, which comprises food that excludes not only meat but dairy products as well.
She also started her vegan macrobiotic business selling organic products in the early 1990s and now her restaurant Woods Macrobiotics is doing well.
“It’s safe to say that I’m the pioneer in the organic products and food industry. Twenty years ago, nobody knew what brown rice, millet or other grains were.
“The knowledge of these whole foods was very scarce and I felt a great need for people to know about them and their health benefits. I included them in my recipes to make them as delicious and tasty as possible and that’s probably why the business grew as people started to understand the health benefits as well,” says Lim, who is in her 60s.
Although the business was slow to start with, it grew significantly after two years at a rate of about 20% a year. While that would be encouraging for most business owners, Lim has no plans to open more outlets as her mission is to help others achieve their pursuit of better health.
“That has always been the most important priority for me,” she says.
Lim says she has not been sick, even with the common flu for the last 25 years, thanks to her daily walks and vegan diet. Unfortunately, her late husband who was not on any specific diet, succumbed to cancer 10 years ago.
“There are more people turning towards a holistic and organic lifestyle. But out of those numbers, some are taking it a step further by going on a macrobiotic diet. The food is organic and comprises 50% wholegrain cereal, 30% root and leafy vegetables and 20% of nuts, seeds, beans or seaweed,” she explains.
Macrobiotic food is to help prevent sickness, while the word “Macrobio” is Greek that translates to having a long life.
The food at Woods is prepared by a Japanese chef and thus the dishes resemble attractive Bento boxes (Japanese lunch boxes featuring assortments of different food). There’s even carrot cake, with the cream made from tofu, instead of regular cream cheese.
“Our food is simple and living a macrobiotic lifestyle will soon heal your body and is good for detoxification. In fact, an individual will feel a difference in just seven days of eating purely macrobiotic food,” says Lim.
She hopes that the organic industry will grow holistically and not commercially.
“I’m concerned people will be misled by the industry into forgetting the core aspects of what organic food should be or should do for you. There are plenty of so-called mass produced organic products that are heavily commercialised, so people need to be smart consumers,” says Lim.