Sweet and savoury food are often seen at opposite ends of the culinary spectrum. Yet for two divergent artisanal businesses — spice paste maker Batu Lesung Spice Company and single origin bean-to-bar chocolate makers Fossa Chocolate — one thing unites them: the commitment to craft.
The two small companies are founded three years ago, and the result of a meeting of minds. Batu Lesung started as a collaboration between Jeremy Nguee and Norhuda Rabani — both experienced F&B practitioners in their own right.
Fossa Chocolate, meanwhile was founded by three friends; Jay Chua, Yilina Leong and Cheris Chia. This was their first foray into the world of food and one which was jumpstarted by experimenting in their own kitchens with little more than a blender, an oven and the patience to temper chocolate by hand properly.
We meet with the founders of the two companies to find out what keeps them ticking.
Batu Lesung Spice Company: Jeremy Nguee
It took a stint in Saint Petersburg for founder Jeremy Nguee to realise the gem that is local and regional cuisine. Tasked with developing a Southeast Asian driven menu for a restaurant in the Russian capital, he realised that attitudes towards our own food abroad were vastly different from what’s commonly held at home.
“So many people overseas are fascinated by our cuisine when we pay so little attention to it,” he laments.
Then in 2015, he met Norhuda Rabani, the owner of Asyura Paste and the two set out to create a new space in the market where the flavours of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia would find a higher expression. Soon, traditional spice pastes that would otherwise take hours to cook at home were filled into beautifully designed packs, sold online and at pop-up markets. The dream was to elevate the cuisine to global heights where it can find pride of place on the shelves of Selfridges, Le Bon Marche and Tokyo’s Isetan.
His main challenge: Convincing customers who are used to buying ready-made spice pastes priced at just $2 for Batu Lesung’s, which can cost up to five times more.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?
I think for any artisanal product that’s made by hand, scaling is always an issue. It’s quite difficult because the distributors who do want to buy it, will buy in large quantities — more than what we can produce. As we expand, hopefully, we can find partners.
When we started, we were also quite worried that it was too expensive. Thank goodness the market recognises ‘value’. People will pay for such value and they are receptive, knowing that they can and should spend money to support the right guys.
Did you face resistance to how you price your items?
Huge. When we started the average price was $2 for a bigger packet. People don’t realise that we use more ingredients to cook down, and we spend a lot more time to produce these pastes. We price our products based on the effort, the ingredients and the fees that we pay for the design and packaging. Some people were quite shocked that we sold it at that price but over time, Singaporeans has become quite receptive. It’s encouragement for us because it shows that people are recognising the value.
When it comes to preserving Singapore’s heritage, where do you think we’re at right now?
We stand on the shoulders of the people who have come before us. We’re also at a good space where people are becoming a lot more aware of the treasure that we’re sitting on. Our identity is in our diversity. It isn’t singular. Our Singaporean DNA is about being dynamic. Because of this, you’ll realise that the number of collaborations that our generation is open to is so much more than what it was like before. It’s just the realisation that we are stronger together, where we can find energy, inspiration and encouragement.
What do you want people to know about what artisans do?
I would like our customers to think of themselves more as patrons than consumers. Every time you partake in something artisanal, you are supporting the person making it. Whether or not it’s Batu Lesung or our local writers and poets, you are not just consuming something for yourself. You are creating a viable and sustainable platform for our heritage.
What’s next for Batu Lesung?
We’re no longer just making spice pastes anymore. We’re trying to provide a platform that highlights artisans, preferably the ones who are not so well-known. We do collaborations with craftspersons. The first was with Mudrock Ceramics. They’re famous now and everyone knows them but back then we commissioned them to create a curry bowl. It was a meaningful project. The next one is with Project Coal where the maker, Crystal dyes fabric with tea and henna by hand, creating a patina. She makes tea towels and aprons with huge pockets.
Fossa Chocolate: Jay Chua, Yilina Leong, Charis Chia
Single-origin bean-to-bar chocolate may be a fairly recent phenomenon in the food world but that doesn’t mean that its artisans are any less committed to the craft. In fact, it’s only after the explosion of fourth wave cafes — where the focus has shifted to tasting notes and terroir — that the art of crafting fine chocolate came to the fore.
This is certainly what inspired three young entrepreneurs, Jay Chua, Yilina Leong and Charis Chia — all aged 30 and under — to start their own brand.
“Single origin chocolates tell a story. For every bar we have, we work with farmers and we can tell their stories,” says Yilina Leong. “For example the Pak Eddy bar, we name it after the farmer in Indonesia and this is more meaningful for the customer.”
The trio are so passionate about their craft that they started out heading to their shared kitchen in Tuas after a full day at work to make chocolate. Knocking off at 2am for an entire year before they committed to the venture full time was the norm.
Today, they have a comfortable workspace to call their own and collaborate with big brands from hotels to spirit labels. What keeps them going? Passion. “When it’s something that you love, like a hobby, it really doesn’t feel like work,” says Jay. Here’s more.
How did you get started?
Jay: At home just to try out [laughs]. I got some beans from friends. It wasn’t the most refined chocolate but it was definitely better than what we had in the market. It was just for fun. We were peeling the beans by hand, grinding it using a small nut grinder and tempering everything by hand.
Yilina: The ‘aha’ moment was when somebody gave us a craft chocolate. It had two ingredients: cocoa beans and sugar. But we tasted the notes of raspberry which is not something we could get in the mass market. So that was when we started getting beans from friends and started to replicate everything at home.
What was the first-ever chocolate bar like?
Jay: It was gritty, I mean the beans that we got were from friends weren’t the best. There’s not a lot of chocolate making literature around so we figured most of the things ourselves. Everyone has their own way of doing things and we find our own ways with the limited machines that we have.
Looking back, did you think you would get to where you were today?
Yilina: At some point we did [laughs].
Jay: We were thinking that if we ever were to make a big order, we’ll do it full time. Maybe about 2,500 bars. Today we make about 500 to 600 bars a day.
Charis: Back then it was big because we were very small and didn’t have all this equipment.
Do Singaporeans really care about the origin of chocolate?
Charis: We have many customers who, when they buy chocolates outside they would buy bean to bar chocolates. They do care and if they see a new origin chocolate they really wanted to try.
Jay: They also compare our bars with other craft chocolate makers using the same bean and single origin. They’d taste and give us feedback.
It sounds like a huge task. Have you guys ever feel like giving up, and what keeps you going?
Jay: It’s the conversations that we have with people. It’s a good platform to work with other people, like maybe a coffee roaster. We can come up with something amazing together, like a coffee chocolate bar. We have learned so much and it’s never boring.
What plans do you guys have for the future? Expansion?
Jay: Everything is handmade so there’s a cap to how much we can expand. We don’t want to expand too fast, it has to be organic so we don’t take a super huge order where we can’t control the quality. But more collaborations across different industries would be nice. I hope that we can build up to a size where we can buy two tonnes of raw cacao with a special fermentation protocol.
Yilina: It’s really about building communities with personable chocolate. It’s not just about Fossa but also about putting the Singapore name out. As we start to export, we get mentions on social media and people overseas going, “Hey, there’s a bean to bar chocolate maker doing really interesting things.”
Charis: For me, I do go for events and sell to the customer and I realised that there isn’t a big chocolate culture in Singapore. I hope that we can grow and educate more people, which is also why we came up with all these unique flavours.
In support of local artisans, Kenwood Appliances has launched Love Wholesome, a community campaign to spotlight food sources, going local and sharing your food with friends and families. Preserving our culinary heritage plays a huge part, one spearheaded by other food crafters like Shermay Lee and Rosana Musa.
Do your part and whip up a storm at home. With artisanal products and easy-to-follow recipes available on lovewholesome.com you’ll be cooking everything from ghee roasted prawns to Hokkien popiah in no time. Check out the website for more.