KUALA LUMPUR, May 18 — With most of us sheltering at home yet again, it’s inevitable that we see the return of an unavoidable aspect of #StayAtHome life: food cravings.
Sure, there are food delivery apps but it’s not the same as a hot, piping bowl of Penang prawn mee at your regular kopitiam, is it?
But what if you could replicate that exact same taste at home? What if you discovered that your favourite prawn mee stalls make their umami-rich stock from a ready-to-cook paste made in Penang?
The company behind the soup paste these hawkers and restaurateurs use is called Trupaste. That’s the little known industry secret: that for more than a few kopitiams and restaurants, their flavourful broth isn’t made in-house but kilometres away in another state.
John Ho, who is the youthful sales and marketing mind behind this family business, says, “Trupaste supplies easy-to-cook, authentic-tasting soup pastes to food and beverage (F&B) operators. Imagine a pot of flavourful soup in minutes, instead of hours!”
The Trupaste factory is strategically located in Jelutong, Penang, where there is a constant supply of just-caught prawns straight from fishing boats. The 25-year-old says, “Without going through any middle man, we get the best price for the most important ingredient for a pot of flavourful prawn soup: fresh prawn shells.”
By centralising and streamlining the production (cooking in a large batch, with the help of machines), Trupaste cuts down the cost of production significantly. These savings are in turn passed on to their customers, not to mention the major convenience of reducing their preparation and cooking time.
The family business truly started with Ho’s mother, Alice Chang, 56, and her two sisters Lily Chang, 60, and Chang Sok Kheng, 58. Born and raised in Penang, the three women had office jobs but weren’t fulfilled by their careers.
As they all loved cooking, the answer seemed obvious: They would start their own restaurant.
If this story seems familiar, it’s probably because we’ve heard it many times with hipsters opening trendy, Instagram-friendly cafés these days. The reality was quite different almost three decades ago when the Chang sisters opened Kedai Makan Besty Best in Sri Gombak.
Ho recalls, “Initially, it was pretty much a traditional kopitiam when they opened it in 1993. My mum made the drinks, Aunty Lily the prawn mee and Aunty Sok Kheng the koay teow soup. Hailing from a food haven like Penang, they’ve always been proud of the food they grew up with, and what’s better than serving your customers food that is close to your heart?”
However, the daily preparation of prawn soup and koay teow soup ate up a lot of their time, on top of managing the shop. Hiring more workers would ease their burden but also add to costs.
What if they could speed up the process of making the soups yet retain its authentic flavour?
According to Ho, this was how Trupaste started seven years ago: with a problem and a single product as its solution — an easy-to-cook soup paste for prawn mee. Soon they realised other F&B operators might also benefit from the time-saving pastes.
The challenge then (as it is now, but more on that later) was to convince other hawkers to give the new approach a try. To assure them that the paste was made from scratch, just as they would make it but without the added toiling for hours.
It was hard going but Ho notes that they eventually found their own niche: “Our products were welcomed by the new kids on the block who intend to go into the hawker business. Also restaurants who wished to add on food services instead of just selling beverages as well as some weary operators who saw that our pastes can really help to reduce their workload.”
Product diversification is key to ensure survival over time. Besides the aforementioned soup paste for Penang prawn mee, Trupaste also produces pastes for Penang asam laksa, Penang curry mee, tom yum, mee Jawa and koay teow soup, with more to come.
Using soup pastes that are prepared ahead of time — albeit still in the traditional manner, thereby satisfying the taste buds of long-term customers — has resulted in more options and flexibility. Kedai Makan Besty Best is unusual, though certainly not unheard of, in that the entire kopitiam is owner-operated.
Ho explains, “My mum and aunties run the entire shop instead of letting out stalls to other operators. In doing so, we managed to reduce the number of workers, including stall operators and helpers, from 21 to just nine people.”
Another benefit of this measure is a dramatic reduction in the shop’s preparation hours. Ho shares, “Within one hour, all 10 to 12 varieties of noodles are ready to serve. That’s why in Sri Gombak, we are the only shop who can start our business at around 6am while others — even hawkers who only prepare one type of food — are still busy cooking.”
Currently Trupaste’s customers range from hawkers, cafés and restaurants to canteen operators and cloud kitchens. The appeal is evident: shortening what would typically be a one-and-a-half-hour stock preparation to mere minutes is clearly more cost and energy efficient.
Traditionalists may remain sceptical, a sentiment Ho is keenly aware of: “If you were to ask old school uncles and aunties, they would most probably condemn us for using ‘shortcuts.’ Well, I will always explain that our prawn soup is prepared in the same traditional way as the generation before us did.”
Even before the pandemic started last year, the ever-competitive F&B industry was already facing challenges. Margins were razor thin. Every bit helps and Ho believes more F&B folks will get accustomed to this approach (or, as the Trupaste motto announces: “Traditional taste, new way of cooking”).
As Malaysia is presently undergoing its third round of the movement control order (MCO), the entire F&B industry has been affected heavily by the no dine-in policy, from restaurants to their suppliers such as Trupaste.
Ho explains, “Since movements are restricted, there will be fewer customers patronising restaurants as people tend to cook at home. However, with the introduction of our online presence, we can reach customers from every corner of Malaysia via our Facebook page.”
For some struggling restaurant owners, Trupaste might be a lifeline. Ho says, “Introducing our cooking paste will mean less dependence on workers and consequently less overhead cost. When business is slow due to another lockdown, just buy less paste. Kind of like tap water, open when you need water, close when you don’t.”
Trupaste is now entering its second phase of growth. As with many family businesses, the first phase was driven by the older generation.
Ho says, “My elders developed and tested the products, increased the distribution channels, upgraded production facilities and obtained relevant certifications. For example, our factory in Penang has expanded in its capacity with progressive automation. We have also obtained halal certification as well as from MeSTI (the Ministry of Health’s Food Safety and Quality Division).”
The next phase, then, will count on the new generation such as Ho, to focus on marketing and further expand their reach. One market that remains relatively untapped is a consumer base of Malaysians and non-Malaysians alike who reside abroad and crave an authentic taste of our local favourites.
Whether one is a student studying in London or a tourist in Wellington (at least, before the pandemic), it’s far from a breeze to get hold of a decent bowl of Penang curry mee, for instance.
Ho shares, “My uncle told me that his friend asked him to bring along a few chefs from Penang to Jakarta to start a Penang hawker centre there. My uncle explained it is not so simple, those who are experienced might be past their prime age to venture overseas while those who are young might not be able to produce the authentic taste as required.”
This is where Ho’s family’s soup and curry pastes come in; their ambition is to have their products “carry the flag of Penang authentic cuisine abroad.”
There’s certainly precedence for this optimism. As Ho reminds me: “Penang asam laksa has just been ranked as the 7th in CNN World’s 50 Best Food, even higher than tom yum goong in Thailand. If tom yum paste can be marketed worldwide, why can’t we?
One wonders how many of those bowls of Penang asam laksa enjoyed by fans overseas will be made with Trupaste’s easy-to-cook pastes? I certainly hope the answer is a large number, and growing. Malaysia Boleh!
Tel: 012-630 6492
Kedai Makan Besty Best
1, Jalan SG 3/4, Taman Sri Gombak, Batu Caves, Selangor
Open daily (except Sun closed) 6am-4pm