After moving to Kuala Lumpur, Jayden Koay notice something fishy: the local keropok just wasn’t up to scratch.
The keropok (fish crackers) in the capital had a sour taste; he suspected there was too much flour in the recipe. He longed for the fried keropok from his hometown of Kemaman, on Malaysia’s east coast.
This gave Koay an idea. If he wanted good keropok, others in Kuala Lumpur probably did too. There might even be enough demand to support a business. He also wanted to find a way to support a friend, Wong Jawey, who had recently dropped out of university and was looking for work.
Fast forward three years. Kemaman Fat Boy is flying off the shelves, and 21-year-old Wong is still working with Koay, 29.
“I was never a chef,” says Koay. “But I realised there was a potential for a snack business in the big city as there is demand for authenticity.”
Authentic east coast
He is sentimental about the business; he wants his products to accurately reflect the original crackers found on the east coast.
About 400 kilometres from Malaysia, Kemaman is a district in the state of Terengganu. The district is an oil and gas base, but the traditional fishing economy is still important for many communities.
The area is home to many fisheries processing businesses, which supply their products throughout the state.
In particular, Terengganu is synonymous with keropok, which are sold in roadside stalls as well as large shops.
But Koay says there’s a distinction between fish crackers from the south of Terengganu, where they tend to be deep fried, and the north, where keropok is typically steamed.
The traditional recipe for Kemaman-styled keropok is simple: the amount of fish should be equal to the amount of flour used. He believes most producers in the capital skimp on the fish in order to save money.
Kemaman Fat Boy produces keropok using ikan tamban, a type of sardine that it sources from the Selayang wholesale market in Selangor, about 15km from the centre of Kuala Lumpur.
Despite a regular supply, Koay says that producing consistent flavours has been a challenge.
The monsoon weather affects the fish so that when the cracker is deep-fried the taste can change. Koay says that during the rainy season on the east coast the sardines tend to have more fat in them, which leads to thicker fish crackers. “We want the crackers to be light and crunchy and that only happens when there is less fat in the fish as it makes the crackers thinner.”
The monsoon weather also affects the processing period, as it prolongs the fish drying process.
Koay says the team has learned through trial and error, and by visiting other keropok businesses back in Kemaman.
As mentioned, Kemaman keropok is made up of equal amounts of fish and flour, as well as a pinch of salt and sugar.
Some recipes call for sago flour to be used instead as it worked better as a binding agent, but that can add to the cost because sago is pricier than plain flour.
Koay found that using plain white flour does the trick as it does not change the taste of the keropok at all. “It’s a simple recipe, it’s not a secret recipe. It’s a question whether you want to put in the quality.”
The chili that accompanies the fish cracker is also important. The Kemaman recipe requires tamarind to be added to the chilli paste along with salt and sugar. Again, Koay feels that producers in Kuala Lumpur make “lousy” chilli because they skimp on tamarind, or exclude it completely. “The result of that is a pinkish chilli which is far from what should be the authentic taste.”
Building from a slow start
Kemaman Fat Boy’s central kitchen in Kuala Lumpur generates revenue of about RM5,000 (SG$1,676) a month on average. But during festive periods, such as Chinese New Year and Hari Raya Aidilfitri, sales go through the roof – RM40,000 (SG$13,400) in monthly sales is not uncommon.
To cope, Koay temporarily expands the Kemaman Fat Boy kitchen by renting or buying stoves and hiring more cooks, up from his usual team of five employees.
He also has to source raw fish crackers directly from the east coast. Through trial and error – and many taste tests – he has manage to find reliable suppliers from Terengganu that will give him the same flavour and quality as his own recipe. “But it’s always tricky to get the balance right. Customers are a discerning lot, they will know the slightest different in taste.”
While business is good now, it hasn’t always been so rosy.
“Initially we started selling keropok in night markets and hawker centres, and really struggled. For the investment we made, it was not worth the effort.”
Kemaman Fat Boy originally rented a stall in Connaught Garden’s night market. About 10km south of Kuala Lumpur, the night market is one of the city’s largest, spanning 2km, and is famous for its unusual or hard-to-find food and snacks.
This was one of the reasons Kemaman Fat Boy lost out. Koay says Connaught Garden draws a mostly young crowd who want gimmicky products, such as colourful drinks in lightbulbs or “smoky” ice-cream made with liquid nitrogen.
The cost of renting a stall was only RM150 (SG$50) a night, but it took too long to set up and so Koay eventually abandoned the idea.
He’s moved his business online and instead supplies directly to a handful of cafes and shops. The online business reduces costs but does pose its challenges in terms of third-party logistics.
Koay says that is the problem for all e-commerce players where businesses are still struggling to work efficiently with courier companies or despatch services.
Issues with delayed or damaged goods are common, he says, so he finds he has to troubleshoot regularly. Either deliver the goods himself or invest in reputable delivery services.
Kemaman takes a social twist
The energetic Koay says this is all part and parcel of being an entrepreneur. Kemaman Fat Boy is one of several businesses he has launched; others include City Farm, a company that provides vertical farming consultancy.
He admits the food business will evolve as customers’ taste evolve and mature with new trends.
From producing authentic and original flavours of the Kemaman keropok, they have created different flavours such as adding cheese and chilli to the fish crackers.
“I’m even being pressed to have salted egg flavour, because everyone else is doing it,” Koay laughs, but adds that he is in no hurry to follow the trend.
He wants to ensure the product is of high quality, and has invested in food tests for the various crackers he had produced.
In the future, Koay wants his enterprise to take on a social cause. That idea cropped up after he enlisted his 62-year-old mother to help make the fish crackers. He thinks it is important – particularly for health reasons – that older people have the opportunity to stay active and continue working if they want to.
“There are many retirees who still are keen to work, and we can use their skills,” he says. “I want to create a non-profit organisation in the future that employs these senior workers so they can keep busy.”
For now, Koay wants Kemaman Fat Boy to establish itself as a well-known company offering authentic and traditional fish crackers.
“When we first created the brand we used the word ‘Kemaman’ to mark our hometown, and ‘boy’ to represent me.
“My designer added the word ‘fat’ as a way to brand it as a food business. So like the business, I’ve also grown sideways to represent my brand,” he laughs.