Dining at Megumi Matsuda’s Knock Knock Café is like having dinner at mum’s – at least if your mum were Japanese.
She serves up just one dish a night, and diners are expected to help by fetching their own cutlery and water. And, like mum, she sometimes has a little treat for you after dinner – it might be home-baked cake or artisanal ice-cream.
A hearty Okinawan taco rice can be on the table one night, lasagne the next and nasi lemak the following night. As her Malaysian husband, Daniel Liew says, “You don’t ask mum what’s for dinner, right? You just eat!”
Serving just one dish a night seems an unlikely recipe for success, but it works: Megumi has had diners knock-knocking on the café’s door for over five years now.
“It’s a simple concept and I’m happy that my customers like it,” says Megumi, who moved to Kuala Lumpur from Okinawa in Japan about 20 years ago.
Most of her diners are residents of the condominium where her café is located, and where she lives with her family.
While they can’t choose their meal, they can enjoy a different dish every night for a month, rotating between Japanese, Malaysian, Western and even Thai cuisine.
Knock Knock was actually Daniel’s idea. The management consultant thought that he and Megumi could combine her love for baking with his passion for coffee into a successful café. (The name comes from the sound of coffee grounds being knocked out of the filter.)
They began with coffee and cakes, and later added sandwiches, pastries, cookies and ice cream sourced from home chefs. Very quickly, Knock Knock became the cosy space for coffee that they envisioned.
But it was also a space for Megumi’s family to gather for their evening meal every night. Soon there really was knocking at their door – customers had noticed them eating and wanted to join.
“They asked if they could have a meal here too,” Megumi recalls.
Serving an extended “family”
Megumi began cooking bigger portions for five to six people a night, but as word got around the neighbourhood she soon found herself making up to 25 portions. The business has since settled down to a more manageable 10 to 15 customers a night.
She serves them exactly the same food as her family: homely dishes that are often not found in restaurants and are packed with nutrition and cooked with lots of heart.
Some dishes recall her childhood in Okinawa. Megumi says she has been pleasantly surprised at how much her diners enjoy Okinawan staples such as stuffed cabbage rolls.
Cabbage rolls are a familiar item on Japanese dinner tables but are rarely found outside Japan. A mixture of minced chicken with tofu is rolled inside a boiled cabbage leaf and served in a light Japanese broth. Accompanied by rice and vegetables, it’s a hearty and nutritious meal.
Okinawan taco rice has also won many fans at Knock Knock. The fusion dish originated in Megumi’s hometown: having learned about tacos from Americans based in Okinawa, locals soon adapted them by taking the seasoned minced meat and serving it on a bed of rice with salsa, cheese and vegetables.
“When I eat this, it’s like going back to my hometown and eating it with my sisters,” Megumi says.
Ochazuke is also popular with her diners. Known as comfort food in Okinawa, it’s Megumi’s go-to if she feels under the weather. The nutritious, easy-to-eat dish is made by pouring hot green tea over rice laden with savoury toppings like dried fish and pickles and is served with vegetables and egg.
Yakisoba (fried noodles), okonomiyaki (Japanese pizza), Hokkaido seafood stew and Japanese curry rice are Knock Knock favourites as well.
Feeding the Japanese craving
Despite serving just one dish a night, in a location with barely any foot traffic, Knock Knock continues to thrive because it offers customers exactly what they want.
Megumi thinks success in the hospitality industry is all about listening to customers: after all, opening up her family’s dinner table was actually her customers’ idea. And given that many of them eat there nightly, she works hard to serve them homely meals in a cosy environment.
Although she tries not to repeat any dish in a month, she will sometimes cook up a favourite food upon request. Sometimes, she even learns new recipes for customers who are longing for a particular dish, such as the Italian favourite chicken cacciatore.
Like mum, if there’s a vegetarian in the house or if she runs out of food, Megumi can whip up an alternative option quickly. But don’t expect to choose what that dish is, of course!