Against the Grain

26 September 2017

From cheese to smoked fish, these home-based businesses are changing the course of local gourmet food.

When intoxicated with passion but without the means to run a full-fledged operation, one must do all it takes to appease their obsession.

Whether it means late night tinkering in the kitchen or backyard, or a litany of unsuccessful attempts, these home-based businesses are churning out gourmet foods from under their own roofs.

Milky Whey Cheese
Cheese isn’t exactly a staple in most Malaysian pantries, which is exactly why founder of Milky Whey Cheese Annisa Iwan decided to venture into making lesser-found cheeses in her own kitchen: she had big plans to introduce the wonderful world of solidified milk to local palates.

Her maddening obsession with cheese began like most of ours – while devouring cheese boards overseas. When in lands where the cheeses are fresh and creamy, and the accompanying bread dense and hearty, it’s only natural to long for the same things back in Asia.

Annisa’s kitchen is stocked with moulds, steel pots and all manner of gadgets to aid with the precision of cheesemaking

Annisa started her journey into the Milky Whey universe in 2012 when she was based in Jakarta. To recreate the plump, juicy cheeses she tried in Italy, she attempted her very first variety at home – mozzarella. Soon after, she was puttering about with haloumi and cottage cheese.

Cheesemaking is not a skill that’s easy to pick up; most types can take up to three days to complete minus the aging. But Annisa pored over books and online resources, and many mouldy batches later, she’s emerged as something of a local cheese hero.

Annisa’s “cheese cave”

When she moved to Kuala Lumpur three years ago, she bought fridges (or cheese caves), moulds, steel pots, thermometers, and all manner of gadgets to aid with the precision of cheesemaking. And with increased intensity, she stood over her stove, stirring milk for hours on end, and laboured over each cheese wheel like a child of her own.

“If you’re not passionate about it, it’s quite difficult to do all of this because there are some cheeses that need extra time or care,” says Annisa. “Some of them need to be washed like a baby for the first two weeks, and for Raclette, we need to wash or flip it every day.”

At the moment, she’s trying her hand at French and alpine cheeses but in the past, she’s experimented with over 30 varieties including Lancashire, Dunlop, Montasio, Tommes, provolone and Asiago. In the near future, she hopes to find her niche and specialise in particular types.

It’s not always a vision of perfectly formed rinds and oozy centres for Annisa. As Malaysia is not quite the ideal climate for cheesemaking, one of the biggest challenges for her is humidity.

Where the curd-draining process is actually aided by our hotter weather, the aging process proves tricky. Because of this, she’s forced to alter the humidifier on her fridge multiple times a day to achieve the optimum mouthfeel.

“If the humidity is too high, the cheese will become too mouldy, and if it’s too dry, the cheese will become dry and won’t age well,” she explains.

Amidst all her nit-picking over the details, it’s all the better for the large expat community near her home in Desa Sri Hartamas who make up her regular customers. She observed that many Malaysians who try her cheese for the first time gravitate towards the stronger, bolder types even if unfamiliar with cheese in the first place.

“The Malaysian palate is quite sophisticated, they’re not scared of eating strong cheese. Because they’re used to eating belacan and ikan masin and spices, the milder cheeses only taste like solid milk,” she says.

In the future, once legal and logistical aspects are sorted, she hopes to see her cheeses in supermarkets as she single-handedly turns local milk into local pride. “It’s almost like an addiction, it’s very hard to stop,” she says.

Augustine Smokery
If starting a home-based business is all about trial and error, Henry Augustine Chuah knows all too well about it. The talented 28-year-old is the founder of Augustine Smokery, a small fish smokery based in Setia Alam with humble beginnings.

Chuah too was inspired by his time overseas, particularly in New Zealand where he mastered the art of smoking fish. His introduction to smoking began in Twizel, a town in the South Island that housed a smokery next to a fish farm.

“It was so different from what we have here,” he says, referring to the sometimes rubbery, sweaty, vacuum-packed versions of smoked salmon that line supermarket shelves here. Thereon, it inspired in him a desire to replicate at home the version he had in New Zealand.

Many fire alarms later and with the aid of his friends and parents, Augustine Smokery kicked off in Malaysia. “The first thing I did [here] was I went to Daiso and I bought two aluminium trays and a packet of wood chips and assembled a smoker,” he says.

These days, Chuah works with more sophisticated equipment, albeit handmade. He and a friend built his current machine from scratch, and he managed to avoid the exuberant cost of hiring a manufacturer to design one for him. His current wood of choice is meranti, a premium variety also used in South Africa smokeries.

The smoking process is conducted in the outdoors, mostly on weekends and outside of his day job as a credit analyst. While he oversees the ingredient orders and heavy-duty cleaning, his parents help out with the actual smoking, a process that can take up to ten hours.

“The process of actual smoking is very similar to making lap cheong. It’s all about extracting as much moisture as you can from the protein, or fish in this case,” he explains. “One basic ingredient that you need is really salt or sugar, or any form of mineral. The word for it is curing.”

Augustine Smokery’s trout paté

Something that Chuah is especially enthusiastic about is hot smoking, a smoking process that subjects the fish to higher temperatures and produces flaky flesh that passes off as “cooked” fish. This method of smoking is “suitable for people who don’t like to eat sashimi”, he says.

On the contrary, cold smoking is the type of smoked fish you might get in a supermarket or hotel. “It’s a method that’s been adopted in the cold countries, more prominently in Scandinavia,” he says.

A great initiative by Chuah’s operation is the use of local fishermen wherever possible. While he still works with ocean trout, he also relies on local fishermen from Pulau Ketam who supply the likes of mackerel, barramundi, snapper, garoupa, and eel. “Anything from Malaysia can be smoked,” he says.

He’s ensured that even the salt he uses during the curing process is from a local salt manufacturer that uses saltwater as opposed to iodised salt. It’s no surprise then that restaurants championing local produce such as Table & Apron and Coquo regularly request smoked fish from Augustine Smokery.

As more restaurants turn to liquid smoke and gadgets to produce “artificial” smoke, Chuah is adamant that the taste and quality of properly smoked fish is unparalleled. Nothing fishy about that. 

By Surekha Ragavan


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