Always stay 'hungry': How a Taiwanese bento shop in JB persisted amid the Covid-19 pandemic

The quintessential Taiwanese snack: Deep fried sweet potato fries with plum powder. — Pictures by CK Lim and courtesy of HOJA Bento
The quintessential Taiwanese snack: Deep fried sweet potato fries with plum powder. — Pictures by CK Lim and courtesy of HOJA Bento

JOHOR BARU, Aug 25 — We take our first bite tentatively. We have few expectations, having been disappointed so many times before.

But this time these deep fried sweet potato fries, dusted with plum powder, evoke memories of our first trip to Taipei, of treks to our friend’s favourite shop for a midnight takeaway, of supper and snacks.

This is the taste of Taiwan we remember.

Given the travel restrictions imposed worldwide, we are, of course, not in Taiwan. Instead we are in Johor Baru, in a Taiwanese owned bento shop.

The cosy, unassuming interior of the shop exudes the warmth of home. And it is home-cooked food that HOJA Bento aims to serve to customers, old and new alike.

The shop’s name in Mandarin — Táiwān biàndang — translates simply to Taiwanese bento, that most comforting of packed lunch boxes. Here, you can enjoy your bento as dine-in though takeaway and delivery remain popular.

Tang Cheng Yu, the Taiwanese owner of HOJA Bento in Johor Baru.
Tang Cheng Yu, the Taiwanese owner of HOJA Bento in Johor Baru.

What’s more Taiwanese than braised minced pork rice (lǔròufàn)? HOJA Bento’s version is the Tainan Braised Minced Pork Bento which, given Tainan was a major hub of sugar production, has a subtle sweetness different from other regions of Taiwan.

As with all bentos here, the set comes with a bowl of hot steamed rice and an assortment of side dishes, which may vary on any given day. During our visit, these included a savoury omelette, shredded cabbage and pickled vegetables. All the better to whet our appetites!

Tang Cheng Yu, the Taiwanese owner of HOJA Bento, drops by our table to make sure everything is in order. It’s not what you expect from a simple shop that serves basic fare in Malaysia but this is the norm in Taiwan where customer service and that little extra bit of care is the norm.

Bento sides may vary; one set featured omelette, shredded cabbage and pickled vegetables.
Bento sides may vary; one set featured omelette, shredded cabbage and pickled vegetables.

Despite being born in Taiwan, Tang is no stranger to our part of the world. He moved to Malaysia with his family at the age of nine and later furthered his studies in Singapore. After graduating from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, he worked in Singapore for three years, focusing on branding and marketing.

He recalls, “I liked my job. However, there was no time for my own self. If you do not stay at the office till late, projects can’t be completed in time. I knew very well that the life of a designer in Singapore was not how I pictured myself to be 10 or 20 years down the road.”

With the confidence of youth, Tang bought a plane ticket and flew back to Taiwan, to explore opportunities in his birth country. He worked as a waiter in a Spanish restaurant in Taipei, learning more about Western cuisine — from the attention to detail to consistency in ensuring every dish is presented the same way.

Thick milk tea and Oriental Beauty Red Tea (left). Tainan Braised Minced Pork Bento (right).
Thick milk tea and Oriental Beauty Red Tea (left). Tainan Braised Minced Pork Bento (right).

He shares, “I started to enjoy the atmosphere in the restaurant and decided to work at the kitchen department. So I started over again from dish washing. I fell in love with the food-and-beverage (F&B) industry: it’s similar to design where food is like a colour palette. Plates and cutlery are like brushes: you present foods in a way that express ‘you’ or a painting you want to show.”

When a student is ready to learn, the teacher will appear, or so the adage goes. Tang eventually found his mentor in a fellow Taiwanese, a shi fu (“master”) who ran a couple of Taiwanese deep fried food shops in Miao Li, a city in north-western Taiwan.

“I also learned from an old uncle who owns an old braised pork rice shop in Tainan. I went back to Malaysia and spent about six months to come up with the brand ‘HOJA Bento’ — hoja in Taiwanese dialect means ‘delicious’ — so you can tell from the name I am selling Taiwanese food.”

Tang is no stranger to the numerous challenges a F&B entrepreneur faces almost on a daily basis. He says, “When we first started HOJA Bento, it took time to grow our followers and for people to get to know us. We have many days with zero orders and we have to eat everything we prepared for that day!”

The cosy, unassuming interior of HOJA Bento exudes the warmth of home.
The cosy, unassuming interior of HOJA Bento exudes the warmth of home.

Customers are everything, not only in terms of sales but feedback. Tang explains, “Every day we have new customers requesting information about our bento delivery because our regular customers introduced us to them. Persistence is the only key to our success. When we know and believe we are good and the food we serve are our best, our customers definitely can feel that passion.”

A lot of that passion manifests in the form of cheese. Popular Taiwanese snacks such as deep fried creamy milk buns are topped with cheese that Tang lightly melts with a blowtorch. Slice into a breaded chicken roll and hot cheesy lava oozes out.

Thick milk tea or nǎichá is another favourite, with or without boba pearls. For non-dairy lovers of Taiwanese teas, the Oriental Beauty Red Tea (dōngfāng měirén hóngchá) is an absolute thirst quencher.

While the movement control order (MCO) caught some F&B entrepreneurs off-guard when it began in mid-March, Tang was prepared.

Slice into a breaded chicken roll and hot cheesy lava oozes out.
Slice into a breaded chicken roll and hot cheesy lava oozes out.

He says, “Before MCO, we already built a large group of HOJA Bento followers, which started with bento delivery. So business without dine-in is fine for us, as we are just doing what we have always been doing: food delivery. We also joined many food delivery platforms so new customers can find us more easily and try out our food.”

With everything that has happened, Tang feels he has plenty of lessons he would like to share with other young entrepreneurs. It’s his form of giving back to an industry that has provided him escape from his unfulfilling life in Singapore.

“Always treat your customers as if it’s their last time eating at your place. Always have an open heart for suggestions as you need to know no matter how good you are, there’s always something you can learn.”

He notes that he is learning new things every day, from his staff and customers. He returns to a favourite topic: “Persistence is a must but persistence in a correct way. If you do not have new customers or have no regular customers despite having been opened for some time, something is wrong and you need to fix it.”

To ensure customers never get bored, Tang continues to try out new things in HOJA Bento’s kitchen every day, to keep their menu fresh. As Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh argued in his book, Delivering Happiness, “We must never lose our sense of urgency in making improvements. We must never settle for ‘good enough.’”

Or as HOJA Bento’s mantra goes, as per Tang: “Always stay ‘hungry’ for everything!”

HOJA Bento 台灣便當
10, Jalan Permas 4/2, Bandar Baru Permas Jaya, Johor Bahru, Johor
Open daily (except Mon closed) 11am-8pm
Tel: 010-825 2577
www.facebook.com/HojaBento/

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