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Fresh from the Farm
Olijasca café in Ipoh serves food grown in its very own farm.
In the courtyard of Olijasca café, there’s a little door in the wall. As we eat lunch inside, enjoying the escape from the day’s blistering heat, we see an uncle emerge from the door: suntanned and bare-chested, wearing a wide straw brimmed hat and boots.
This is Uncle Chung, and he oversees Olijasca’s farm. While the softly lit café is cool and contemporary, stepping through the door will see you standing in the midst of mud and abundant plants.
There are guava trees, pomegranate vines and huge bushes of lemongrass. In the distance, we see sprouting stalks of sugar cane and sweetcorn. There are also rows of basil and dill, and a greenhouse with trays full of young shoots.
Olijasca is one of Malaysia’s few cafés to adopt the farm to fork concept – and here, they take it quite literally. The produce grown on the acre of land behind the café goes directly to the kitchen, and onto the menu.
When Olivia Yow and her siblings started this venture, they knew it would be a challenge. “Ipoh is good for hawker food, so our menu is unusual for a lot of people,” says Olivia, who returned to her hometown after living in Canada for several years.
In many countries around the world, “farm to fork” or “farm to table” is becoming a familiar expression in the food and beverage industry. The idea is for restaurants to try to source ingredients locally and sustainably. In a way, it’s a throwback to a time before the world relied on imported, mass produced food.
Many of the dishes at Olijasca use fresh ingredients in surprising ways. There’s a savoury pie which includes chunks of aloe vera, for example, and tea brewed from roselle – colloquially known as Ribena fruit.
But there are also plenty of familiar dishes, such as spaghetti with homegrown basil pesto, and chicken wraps. A lot of fresh microgreens feature in the salads, while the fruit is pressed into juices and used for desserts.
The Yow family envisioned a restaurant that would serve healthy food and contribute to people’s health and wellbeing. Olivia has a medical science background, while her sister Rebecca is a nutritionist and her brother Jasper comes from the IT industry.
Together, they combined their skills (and their names) to open Olijasca in December 2015. The bungalow which houses the café was previously a residential house owned by the family.
“I love hawker food too,” says Olivia. “But while it tastes good, a lot of it is laden with MSG. In Malaysia, I feel we need a lot more education on food – for example, on genetically modified crops and on how animals are bred.”
As well as the challenges of explaining their menu to mystified customers, there have been other hurdles. “It was difficult to find a chef at first, because many of them are used to using certain ingredients.”
Olijasca’s menu does not contain artificial flavourings and colouring, and the menu changes to reflect the harvest. However, the café also relies on other local producers to fill in the gaps. Similarly, they sell off their own excess produce from the farm.
“There are a lot of organic farmers around but they lack a support structure,” says Olivia.
In time, she hopes that Olijasca will be a way for more organic producers to come together. While many urban Malaysians might look forward to an Australian brunch or Italian dinner, Olivia emphasises that our local ingredients deserve a place to shine.
“The mentality here is that people like imported food,” says Olivia. “But Malaysia is blessed with a lot of good produce, all year round.” At Olijasca, they are certainly determined to prove it.
Olijasca is located at:
17, Jalan Sultan Nazrin Shah (Jalan Gopeng) Ipoh
Operating Hours: Tuesday – Sunday @ 12pm to 10pm
Contact: 05 - 241 2708
By Ling Low
Photos by Ling Low
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