KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 21 – For those of us who grew up in Chinese households – particularly Hakka and Cantonese families – there’s nothing more warming than a bowl of zhū jiǎo cù or vinegar pork knuckles, especially on cold, rainy days.
Now imagine that dish transposed to a bowl of ramen – the molasses-thick black vinegar used to slowly braise pork belly that is sliced up into chunks of Japanese style chashu; half an ajitsuke tamago or seasoned ramen egg, the soft white framing an almost liquid yolk; thin, Hakata style ramen noodles that have a firm bite; and a flavourful tonkotsu broth saturated with fat and collagen, coaxed from boiling pork bones over many, many hours.
What you have, then, is a bowl of Vinegar Belly Ramen, the Hakka meets Hakata trademark dish of Fusion Man Noodle, a ramen and rice eatery in Kuchai Lama.
Fusion Man Noodle is the brainchild of Zac Kwek and Jimmy Yap from PapaSan Canteen, the Kuchai Lama stalwart renowned for its Omu Curry Rice with generous chunks of chicken karaage.
To spearhead this new, barely four months old endeavour, the duo roped in Phang Hui Min, whom everyone affectionately calls Chef Phang.
Kwek shares, “Chef Phang used to be our chef at BeanMart Café. When we decided to expand beyond our first Papasan outlet, she was very keen to explore one that sells ramen.
"We wanted to create a different Japanese ramen eatery that isn’t selling traditional ramen, so we used a Japanese Kyushu ramen as our foundation and fused it with Asian flavour toppings."
The 39-year-old Chef Phang’s ramen journey first began two decades ago when she was studying hospitality at the Le Meridien College in Melbourne. Hoping to earn some money to help pay for her college and living expenses, she took a part-time job at a ramen shop.
She recalls, “Since young, I was surrounded by relatives who are in the F&B (food and beverage) industry, selling Hakka food at kopitiam stalls. So it’s never tough for me. However, the food culture is very different in Australia compared to Malaysia: the cooking part is very similar, but when it comes to setting up an eatery in Australia, it’s a lot tougher.”
Upon returning to Malaysia 10 years ago, Chef Phang continued to work at another ramen eatery. Clearly ramen has been a big part of her life, and she will be the first to acknowledge that she is more comfortable with ramen than any other specific food.
Specialising is no bad thing; in fact it can help one stand out even more in a saturated and competitive F&B market. But even in Malaysia, ramen specialists aren’t exactly rare. The team had to go one step further to truly be unique.
This is where they took inspiration from their ramen maestro’s humble background, so rich in heritage. Kwek explains, “As Chef Phang is from a Hakka family, we added traditional Hakka flavours to our menu. Our signature ramen is the Vinegar Belly Ramen, which uses the cooking style for the iconic Hakka vinegar knuckles to prepare our pork belly with ramen.”
Their popular vinegar pork belly is also present in another bestselling bowl, the Fusion Man Ramen, where it shares the limelight with prawns, egg floss, minced pork, julienned cucumber, onions, lime and the surprising – but effective – addition of foo chuk (crispy bean curd skin).
The biggest challenge in making good ramen is time. To make their flavourful broth, Chef Phang boils pork bones for at least eight hours every day.
She explains, “Ramen broth requires long hours of boiling, using huge amounts of pork bones to produce very little soup. No mistakes can be made while preparing the broth, otherwise you will have no soup to serve your customers.”
When it comes to ramen, the work that goes into preparation is tedious. From making the tender chashu to preparing the aforementioned broth, it takes the team at Fusion Man Noodle at least three hours each day before they can open for business.
This intensive effort and care for details pay off when you take your first sip of the ambrosial soup. Chef Phang observes, “For a good bowl of ramen, the soup has to be hot and the ramen has to be cooked for a precise amount of time. Otherwise ramen noodles will be undercooked or overcooked.”
With this in mind, the choice of Kyushu ramen was largely due to how smooth the noodles are, leaving a very pleasant mouthfeel.
Chef Phang shares, “Kyushu ramen doesn’t have a floury taste that most noodles have. More importantly, Kyushu ramen can absorb flavours from our soup, making the noodles taste better when you slurp them.”
The inclusion of Hakka cuisine influences helps make the ramen stand out further as Chef Phang opines that Hakka food has a tendency to be very flavourful, a delicate balance of mostly sweet, sour and a slight tinge of saltiness.
She adds, “Therefore it’s not difficult to match well with our soup. What is more difficult is how to present our traditional Hakka flavours so that this can be easily accepted by all of our customers.”
One way they have tried to achieve this is by contrasting flavours and textures, particularly unexpected ones such as the juxtaposition of a spicy pork broth and a kushiage style skewer of jackfruit (albeit fresh, rather than deep fried) in their Volcano Ramen.
Fusion Man Noodle, despite the shop’s name, also offers many rice dishes such as their Kaisen Pepper Pao Fan (rice with white pepper soup, tiger prawns and lala clams) and a comforting bowl of Braised Radish Beef Tendon Rice.
For those with large – and I do mean large – appetites, nothing would satisfy more than the gargantuan Meaty Bento Combo. Imagine their signature vinegar pork belly and chashu paired with fried chicken, Taiwan sausages, kimchi, corn, pickled vegetables, pork lard, rice and both ramen egg and century egg!
Yet given their chef’s years of ramen experience, there’s no doubt the draw here is their ramen.
A bowl of ramen is a magical alchemy of noodle and soup; neither one can fail if the whole is to succeed. There is an intangible craft and a playful marriage of disparate flavours that bind them together into something that is more than the sum of its parts.
With such stellar offerings, one would imagine that there would be long lines and a packed house when they first began. Kwek had certainly hoped for that but the vagaries of these uncertain times have put a dampener on the proceedings, to say the least.
“We opened on May 5, two days before the announcement of the full lockdown,” Kwek shares. “As such, we had no time to even prepare for takeaway or delivery. Preparing hot soup and ramen for takeaway is a challenge: we have to make sure the soup can be tightly packed, and ramen still has to be delicious even after delivery.”
It wasn’t easy but the first year of the pandemic, with their experience at PapaSan Canteen, had taught the team to continue without complaints and adapt as they go along.
Now that restaurants are allowed to open for dine-in again with certain restrictions, they intend to continue take-away and delivery while allowing dine-in, albeit with a limited number of customers in their small eatery.
Kwek says, “Depending on just take-away and delivery is not enough for us to cover our monthly expenses. This business cannot sustain with limited cash flow. A ramen eatery sells a bowl of ramen in hot soup; the best experience to enjoy it has to be from dining in.”
For now, the dining layout at Fusion Man Noodle is basic and straightforward, with a row of seats for customers to enjoy their ramen. Kwek adds, “This way, facing the wall, they can enjoy their own bowl of hot ramen, especially for customers dining alone. Ours is a very simple set-up, with little or no decorations at all to save on set up costs as we have very little funds to start with.”
Therein lies the lesson, perhaps, for other would-be entrepreneurs: even with a shoestring budget, the right product and the right mindset could make a challenging time an excellent opportunity to open a new F&B business.
Rather than the death knells we sometimes hear, as diners become accustomed to the latest SOPs (standard operating procedures), food entrepreneurs can design their new eateries – be it a restaurant, a café or a noodle shop – with the new norm in mind.
After all, we all need to eat. The businesses that can make it safe, comfortable and delicious for us to dine in will surely thrive, no? At the very least, there’s never a better time to slurp some incredibly good ramen noodles.
Fusion Man Noodle
No. 17-G, Jalan 1/114, Off Jalan Kuchai Lama, KL
Open daily (except Mon closed) 11am-3pm & 5pm-8pm
WhatsApp: 012-588 3281