Monica Josephine can’t imagine a life without spice. The Manado native and Singapore permanent resident spent her early childhood years surrounded by Indonesian cuisine, which is renowned for its fiery taste and complex fusion of spices. This Indonesian heritage endowed her with a love of all things spicy – and set her on the path to becoming a foodie entrepreneur.
Monica and her sister moved to Singapore for their studies when they were eight and nine years old. They soon found the variety of chili sauces and condiments, as well as the selection of fresh chilis in local markets, wasn’t up to their spiciness requirements. Their quest to create the perfect chili sauce eventually gave birth to MOFO Chili. (Before you ask, the name comes from the sisters: “Mo” from Monica and “Fo” from her sister, Steffi Elvira, who also goes by her nickname Foi.)
“We were just chilling in my room one night and we started talking about how we have yet to find bottled chili that is spicy enough to our liking. And the thought of making really spicy chili came up just like that,” said Monica, 30.
The younger of the two, she is the business and marketing muscle of MOFO, while Steffi takes care of product formulation and development.
MOFO Chili can be used across a range of cuisines, and not just in Southeast Asian food, said Monica. Adding a half a teaspoon of MOFO Chili to carbonara pasta, for example, balances out a creamy and heavy taste with spicier notes, she said. This is made possible as MOFO uses the freshest and spiciest chilis the sisters can get their hands on, mixed with just the right amounts of salt, vegetable oil and onion. “We mainly start with washing the ingredients, followed by blending and finally frying or drying them,” she said.
The two experimented with various recipes to create the perfect chili condiment – one that was not only suitably spicy but also reminiscent of their Indonesian roots.
“Manado is a city in Sulawesi, at the northeast side of Indonesia, where they eat chili with everything from breakfast to dessert. This city is the inspiration behind our creations and that is to come up with chilis that are versatile and can be used in every dish you can think of,” said Monica.
Other than delivering a spicy jolt, the chili needs to be versatile and well-rounded enough to be used in cooking and in marinades to bring out or balance the dish’s flavours.
The sisters roped in their friends for tasting sessions, and as soon as their products debut in 2013, it garnered a following among chili-loving Singaporeans as well as local food and beverage businesses.
MOFO Chili now boasts three products available for purchase on its website and at selected retailers, such as Naiise, Souley Green and Megafash. MOFO Gunpowder, rated Level 7 on the MOFO Heat Level scale, is a chili powder for those on the go. It can be sprinkled on a quick lunch – think ramen, pizza or even a sandwich – for a spicy boost.
Dodge the Bullet is a Level 5 chili sauce for those who prefer a more subtle taste, and is mild enough to be eaten as a dip. MOFO’s spiciest and most popular product is Final Destination. Rated Level 10, it’s concentrated enough for use in cooking. All of MOFO Chili’s products are vegetarian, which means it contains zero fish or shrimp products, which are commonly used in the making of Indonesian or Malaysian-style chili sauces.
Those new to spice might find MOFO Chili a bit too intense but for seasoned chili eaters they are spicy enough to be enjoyed in a meal without feeling like you are in a chili-eating contest.
At up to 2.2 million Scoville Heat Units, the Carolina Reaper is the spiciest pepper in the world. It’s been known to make grown men cry and run for the tap – even put them in hospital, on occasion. You don’t have to worry about calling emergency after eating MOFO Chili; its heat levels are short and sharp, not dangerous. “The spiciness kicks in after a few bites, but it disappears quite fast too,” Monica said.
Venturing into chili farming
Just last year, the sisters decided to farm their own chilis after experiencing sharp price fluctuations. Chili prices can range from SG$3 for a kilogram, to SG$13. Prices spike toward the end of the year when monsoon floods in Indonesia can kill off whole plantations.
The sisters’ plantation in Manado is three-quarters of a hectare. It’s their first attempt at running a plantation of any kind and Monica said the learning curve has been steep.
“Our ingredients are all sourced in Singapore, except for our special chili. The species we use is similar to Thai bird’s eye chili except it’s much more fragrant and spicier,” said Monica.
Monica’s own plantation was affected by heavy rains, she said. Farming infrastructure, such as irrigation systems, is the key to controlling floods. “It’s not just a small drizzle – it is non-stop raining and pouring for a few days,” she said.
Having their own chili supply ensures more control over the end product, said Monica. “I cannot charge my customers different pricing as I need to be fair. So it’s better if I grow them on my own. It’s the only commodity I use that fluctuates [in price]. The price of onions, oil and salt are fine.”
Monica travels back to Manado from Singapore every three weeks to check on the plantations. She intends to boost production to optimum levels through continuous pruning, among other tasks a plantation manager needs to bear. “Our first harvest weighed 74 kilograms, which is not bad but still not the best,” she said.
Fresh is best
Monica and Steffi are mulling whether to relocate their production facilities from Bali and Singapore to Manado so they can use freshly harvested chilis to make a tastier product.
In their early days, Monica and Steffi were mentored by more experienced peers within Singapore’s closely-knit artisan food circle. “We consulted with our friends and they said make as many different products as you can, until you come up with something that everyone is asking for, and that can be banked on,” she said.
“It was really just the two of us working every day to make the business happen and it was physically and mentally challenging from the start. We were clueless as to how to run a startup, let alone a food startup. But everyone in the F&B and especially the F&B startup scene is very helpful, so we learn from them and apply it to our business.”
While it is nearly impossible to compete on pricing when it comes to mass-produced chili sauces, quality and freshness are two traits that the MOFO sisters will not compromise on. Singaporean food artisans are almost puritans when it comes to their creations, and will work tirelessly to find the best ingredients for their creations. Such hard work is often underappreciated by consumers, she noted.
“Artisan producers are very proud of their own products, so they will never compromise in the quality of ingredients. If they are lacking ingredients, they simply won’t substitute them with something else,” said Monica.
Photos courtesy of MOFO Chili