GEORGE TOWN, Sept 26 — The plate of freshly-made gnocchi looks like an Italian flag in vivid green, white and red. It’s enough to make you want to holler "Buon appetito!”
These traditional Italian dumplings, made from flour, eggs and potatoes, are slathered with a trinity of sauces — green from the Genovese Basil Pesto, white from the Mushroom Alfredo, and red from the Pomodoro Sauce.
Yet this tasty treat isn’t made by a pasta maker in Genoa or Naples, but one based in Penang, specifically Shells Artisan Foods, a local purveyor of fresh handmade pasta and pasta sauces.
The founders are proudly Malaysian: Dayang Shella Amirul (fondly known as Shells), who hails from Kota Kinabalu, and her husband Chris Yeoh @Iskandar, a Penangite.
The couple lived in KL for over 20 years, working in the tourism industry, before deciding to return to Penang. Shella shares, "We wanted a more balanced life and to be near Chris’s mum.”
The business itself started in September 2019, when Shella was looking for fresh pasta but couldn’t find any. She recalls, "I remembered that I had attended pasta making classes in Florence, Italy many moons back. So I dusted off my old note book and started making my own pasta and brought them to potlucks and other gatherings.”
Friends and acquaintances started asking where they could get their hands on some fresh tagliolini or ravioli... and the rest, as they say, is history.
Founders Chris Yeoh and Dayang Shella Amirul (left). Fresh 'tagliolini' (right).
The strategy was to supply fresh pasta to home cooks so they may create their own dishes at home.
This was particularly an attractive notion during the Covid-19 lockdowns when dining out wasn’t possible or limited.
According to Shella, their menu is quite extensive with seasonal item changes while the more popular items become permanent fixtures.
One day you could decide to be pretty in pink with their Roses Ravioli. Go green the next day with the aforementioned Genovese Basil Pesto Sauce or some Spinach Ricotta Ravioli. Anything is possible.
Pretty in pink: Roses Ravioli.
She adds, "We make sure to use Italian flour in making all the pastas. We combine them with mostly imported ingredients for the fillings to try and be as authentic as possible. Just like how we tasted them in Italy and also to make them as natural as possible without using any preservatives whatsoever.”
The R&D process can be laborious, going from the idea board to the actual taste tests, which can run up to five cycles, before moving the recipe to production.
Still it can be quite fun. Imagine rolling bouncy gnocchi using a traditional rigagnocchi (wooden gnocchi board). The attention to detail is crucial to the artisanal approach.
Given the wide variety of pastas and pasta sauces they have produced over the years, some have become firm favourites with regular customers, from the comforting Mushroom Ravioli to the jet-black Squid Ink Tortellini.
Rolling bouncy gnocchi using a traditional 'rigagnocchi' (wooden gnocchi board).
Shella says, "We have loyalists for our Spinach Ricotta Ravioli, an OG product from Shells Artisan Foods. We use Belgian spinach and homemade ricotta cheese. Pair them with our very own Pomodoro Sauce and sprinkle some Parmesan cheese on top for the perfect trifecta.”
The couple are currently excited about their new Tuscan Chicken Ravioli, which uses 20 ingredients including non-antibiotic & non-hormone injected free range chicken, homemade sun-dried tomatoes, homemade chicken stock, spinach, organic sea salt and Sarawak pepper.
Shella enthuses, "This ravioli screams flavour and has to be paired with a light sauce like Browned Butter Sage which we have ready in our sauces repertoire to accentuate the filling.”
Speaking of sauces, the duo’s pick is their Puttanesca Sauce. The name is slightly naughty if you’re fluent in Italian; it translates roughly to "lady of the night”!
Shella explains, "This Neapolitan sauce is said to have lured men off the streets with its rich aroma and strong flavour during winter. As a tomato based sauce, Puttanesca tastes deeper and umami-ish due to anchovies, capers, chilli flakes, black olives and fresh basil.”
Their clientele vote for their verdant Genovese Basil Pesto Sauce, a sauce with roots in Genoa, Italy. Shella says, "We make this with fresh basil from a local pesticide-free hydroponic farm on the same day it is harvested, staying close to the original recipe an Italian grandma would be proud of.”
Go green: Genovese Basil Pesto Sauce (left). Spinach Ricotta Ravioli (right).
Running a fresh, handmade pasta business in Malaysia is not without its challenges.
Shella shares, "Pasta is not our staple food. It’s not nasi lemak or roti canai so it’s quite a niche market we have. Our clients are usually the types who like fine foods, world travellers who would like to re-enact the memories of eating fresh pasta from some rustic restaurant in Italy from the comfort of their home.”
Beyond reaching out to a receptive audience, the young business also has to deal with imported ingredient costs going up since the pandemic.
Shella says, "Some have gone up 100 per cent after Covid-19. We have no choice but to increase the price of our product accordingly. Since we started four years ago, we only increased our prices once - we try not to cut any corners with cheaper alternatives.”
Also, it is inevitable that their fresh pasta gets compared with the more commonly available dry pasta as well as machine-made ravioli from the supermarket.
Educating consumers about the difference between fresh and dry pasta is key. Shella adds, "As for ravioli, please compare the amount of filling that we give you with that of machine-made ones. They are different and taste different too.”
After starting with an online business targeting individual customers, Shells Artisan Foods is starting to pivot to supplying restaurants and hotels. Shella says, "Their orders provide constant numbers, ensuring we can continue in this endeavour and still maintain our own retail production, direct to our consumers.”
Mushroom Ravioli (left). Squid Ink Tortellini (right).
A paradigm shift was needed for them to make the switch.
Shella explains, "Instead of competing with the restaurants, we found a way to exist in the same ecosystem by supporting them in supplying fresh pasta. This in turn, makes it more cost effective for them long term while we still serve our core business, which is supplying direct to those who like to cook from home. It’s a win/win.”
The future seems bright for Shells Artisan Foods, even in these uncertain times. They will next launch pasta making classes as per requested by their clients. Shella says, "Our main goal is to open a Penang-based fresh pasta factory.”
Which makes one wonder if someone might put a spin on Penang asam laksa with fresh pasta some day. Anything is possible, no?
Shells Artisan Foods
Phone: 012-579 9808
* Follow us on Instagram @eatdrinkmm for more food gems.