These are halcyon days indeed. Like no other time in Malaysian history, our local food and beverage industry-neither so mature that we've already been there and done that, nor still so undeveloped that we're in our culinary infancy-has been enjoying a truly golden period of growth. Years from now, our children's children will reminisce, remembering how their grandparents spoke so reverentially about the time the gastronomic tide turned, and an epiphanic flash informed Malaysians that they could make just as good, if not better, creations than the imported foods they had so depended upon for pleasure. Everywhere you look, the spirit of enterprise has been ignited, and many local entrepreneurs, often as young as they are fearless, are launching their own brands, which in turn has sparked a domino reaction inspiring yet more food-preneurs to take the plunge and to live the dream. From ice cream and bacon jams, to milk and cheese, these local brands have registered on the foodie radar because they are delicious, winsomely artful, imaginative, and boast an aesthetic ethos that is a far cry from the packaging of local brands barely a decade ago.
Granted, jams are neither revolutionary nor hard to make, but when Five and Two Fine Foods launched their range of bacon jams, KL sat up and took notice. Despite being a moderate Islamic country, Malaysia has welcomed a plethora of pork-centric eateries to its gastronomic landscape, so the entry of this brand, run by a husband and wife team, has not merely been logical, it's also strategically admirable. Apart from bacon jam, Five and Two now also offer bacon sambal, angry (think spicy) bacon, candied bacon sticks, and even bacon jams flavoured with all manner of liquors (whiskey and Cointreau being just two). No longer content with just being a cottage industry, the founders are looking to expand the geographical reach of their brand.
Remember when Haagen-Dazs was the go-to brand whenever we got hit by glacial cravings?Thanks to some bright young things have come up with a clutch of local ice cream brands that have captured both our imaginations and our tastebuds, these days we are veritably spoilt for choice. Arguably the most successful of the bunch has been Cielo Dolci, which launched as an ice-cream delivery business but now has its own brick and mortar outlet. Not merely surviving but fluorishing in a market that had experienced a deluge of local ice cream brands, Cielo's success can be directly attributed to the constant reinvention of their flavour portfolio, and their marriage of Italian techniques with local flavours. Their signature nasi lemak gelato may be entirely unorthodox but it is concomitantly comprehensible to our national psyche. If one were to interpret the extensive palette of flavours, each as vivacious as the last, it would seem that founder Keewin Ong's rule of thumb for customers is: the rule is, there are no rules.
For many homegrown brands, their first steps towards establishing their enterprises may have been small, tentative even, not so for Bright Cow, an ambitious project that saw the founders importing several hundred Fresian cows into Malaysia to produce quality local milk. The urban farmers have since launched a cheese factory, in collaboration with an Italian master cheese maker, and their locally produced gorgonzola and brie are now sold alongside foreign cheeses. Milk is delivered in glass bottles and cream, yoghurt and butter are also now part of an inventory that is diversifying all the time. What would have been laughed off as inconceivable a little over a decade ago isn't just entirely viable now, it's also extremely lucrative.
And it's not just first time entrepreneurs who are getting their feet wet. The latest product that's gotten KL all hot under the collar, literally, is a sambal ikan bilis that's handmade with love by Malaysia's own, model Bernie Chan. Spurred on by years of exhortations from friends to sell her famously popular sambal, Chan decided to do it to keep herself busy during a quiet spell and, in the six weeks since she embarked on this "hobby", has singlehandedly produced, with assistance from her mother who patiently adorns the labels with her meticulous handwriting, more than 500 jars.
If nothing else, it's incontrovertible proof that these are exciting times in food indeed. All you require is an amazing recipe, a flair for cooking and business, the willingness to work hard, and a pair of bulletproof cojones to make your dream a reality. Malaysia boleh, indeed!