PEOPLE who open a Malaysian food outlet in Hong Kong always claim that they want to stick as close as possible to the original flavour of the dishes.
More often than not, however, the restaurateurs will tamper with the recipe to “suit the taste of the local tongue” and this usually means making it less spicy.
None of the dozen or so eateries that claim to sell authentic Malaysian food – ranging from roti canai to char kaoy teow and nasi lemak – dare serve the dishes with a full dose of chilli.
The same could be said with Ipoh Sin Seng Fatt – the outlet in Hong Kong selling Malaysian hawker fare with Yeap’s Ipoh Old Town curry mee being its piece de resistance.
When the shop first opened at a food court in the Whampoa Garden in Kowloon last September, many locals made a beeline to try out the dishes. Most of them gave the thumbs up but some complained that it was too spicy and too oily.
Thus the cooks began to tinker with the original formula, reducing curry paste and chilli oil. But alas, these modifications to localise the dishes changed the appearance and taste so much so that Malaysians who tried the curry noodles wondered what they were eating.
This left Yummy Holdings Ltd chairman Alvin Lam and outlet manager Eva Sin in a dilemma. So, they turned to Wang Ah Lan and her husband Yeap Chee Keat – the original producers of the noodle dish in Ipoh.
Wang and Yeap have been selling their Ipoh Old Town curry mee with chicken, prawns and roast pork at the Sin Seng Fatt Restaurant in Jalan Market for the past 14 years and they only agreed to franchise their chilli oil and curry paste to Lam’s company last year after much persuasion.
Just to make sure they got things right, Lam and Sin invited members of the Malaysian Association of Hong Kong for a tasting session last week.
Wang and Yeap arrived on Feb 18 to take in the sights as well as to find out what the Malaysian restaurants were serving.
While Wang gave remedial sessions for the cooks at Ipoh Sin Seng Fatt, Yeap did some “undercover work” and got a Malaysian friend to order a bowl of curry mee to determine what was “wrong.”
“The curry mee was so pale – like someone who was sick,” said Yeap with a shake of his head.
That was on Feb 19, and Wang got to work immediately the next day. The cooks had an earful and the reason for the pale soup soon became clear – the cooks were not putting enough chilli oil.
“It seems that young women customers complained of too much oil in the curry,” said Yeap. “I told the cooks and waitresses to teach these customers how to scoop out the oil.
“I then asked them why they put on lipstick and they replied to look pretty. It's the same reason chilli oil is put into curry mee – to make it look attractive as well as to give it the extra zing.”
Malaysian Association president Stephanie Ho, from Ipoh, agreed that the curry mee she remembered was bright red and tongue-burning spicy.
“Many Hong Kong restaurateurs are over-protective of their customers, especially when it comes to Malaysian food. They always make it less spicy.
“But those selling Thai food do not compromise. They serve the dishes as spicy as those in Thailand,” said Ho during a discussion at the tasting session.
She suggested that Ipoh Sin Seng Fatt, which has another outlet in suburban Teun Mun in the new territories, should adopt a similar policy.
“The locals know that Malaysian food is spicy and when they come to a restaurant for Malaysian food, I am sure they are expecting to burn their tongue.”
Eighty-five of Ho’s members made it to the tasting session and were served three dishes – prawn noodle, Ipoh chicken and curry mee.
Lam and Sin distributed questionnaires to obtain feedback on the food they know so well.
Most of them gave an ‘F’ for the prawn noodle, a pass for the chicken but all of them gave a resounding ‘A’ for the curry mee.
Wang was not surprised with the response to the curry mee as she had supervised the cooking to ensure that enough curry paste and chilli oil was used. However, she was taken aback by the reaction to the prawn noodle. She immediately went to the kitchen to investigate what had gone wrong.
She came back and sheepishly agreed with the findings of her fellow Malaysians.
Looking at her husband, Wang volunteered to serve her version to anyone who wanted to try. Within 10 minutes, she was back with the prawn noodle and it was deliciously familiar for those who tried it. She also provided a small plate of prawn chilli oil for adding-on.
Ho told Lam and Sin that they should serve the prawn noodle a la Wang, including a side dish of chilli oil.
“This is why in our franchise agreement, Wang is required to come here to carry out quality control checks as well as to give refresher courses,” said Lam, who offered the Malaysian Association members a chance to take up the franchise.
He hopes to open five more shops this year and also set up a central kitchen to supply the proper raw and cooked products to ensure uniformity.
He and his Malaysian partner Sam Chuah had invested over HK$2mil (RM984,000) for the two outlets last year. Chuah, a regular customer of Wang in Ipoh, was the one who introduced Lam to the Yeaps.
“We have identified popular areas like Wanchai, Causeway Bay, Happy Valley, Central and Tsim Sha Tsui as sites for our new outlets,” Lam said.
He revealed that each shop was making about HK450,000 a month in turnover and was confident that their investments would turn profitable within 18 months.
Lam said he was still looking for more Malaysian hawker fare to bring into Hong Kong and would add them to the menu of Ipoh Sin Seng Fatt.
“Many Hong Kong people who come back from their holidays in Malaysia seek the same dishes here,” Lam explained, adding that Penang dishes could be his next target.
As for Wang and Yeap, their simple food-stall business has become complicated since The Star reported about their venture with Lam last December.
“We are negotiating with a Hong Kong movie star who approached us about going into business in Malaysia,” said Wang, adding that business at her stall had increased tremendously.
Among the Malaysian Association members who left with a smile after the four-hour tasting session was businessman Willie Ooi, a Penang boy who has lived in Hong Kong for over 30 years.
“It was satisfying to have a good bowl of curry mee without having to hop on a plane back to Malaysia.
“Serving authentic Malaysian food in Hong Kong is a good way to sell our country. Good food is a major factor when people of Hong Kong decide on an overseas holiday,” said Ooi.
That should add some spice to Malaysian tourism.
o Wong Sai Wan is Editor, East Asia Bureau, based in Hong Kong (e-mail: email@example.com )