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KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 9 — Most of us have heard of lobak and prawn rolls. But have you heard of “lion head” or wondered why some sengkuang cakes are sweet while others are salty?
MengTong.Co hopes to provide the answers along with a smörgåsbord of scrumptious fried snacks. The fledgling food-and-beverage (F&B) business is started by Carmen Meng, her brother Jayson and her friend Cathy Lee.
Partly derived from Meng’s surname, the name of their company is also inspired by fond memories of childhood food. She explains, “In Chinese, Míng Shì Shítáng means ‘Meng’s Canteen.’ We can shorten that to Míng Táng or Meng Tong.”
The canteen moniker is intended to evoke images of yesteryear when school canteens and those of larger factories would always have a variety of fried snacks for sale.
Nostalgia can be calming during these uncertain times, and tasting the actual foods even more so.
Meng says, “The idea came across to start our business during the first movement control order (MCO). Being locked down in KL for months, we were missing our hometown food so much! That’s when we got the idea of bringing these well-known delectable local foods from Perak into KL.”
These deep-fried goodies include crispy beancurd rolls (tóng tóng juǎn) that shatter in your mouth, savoury prawn rolls (xiā juǎn) and lobak (also known as wǔxiāng ròu juàn in Mandarin or “spiced meat roll”).
“As Perakians, we can’t miss out on noodles – be it dry or soup – for breakfast and the perfect match for the noodles are the fried snacks, meatballs and lobak,” Meng shares, adding that a true Perakian would say liew when referring to lobak.
Beyond identifying a business opportunity, Meng also saw a way to share her love of her home state with others. When cuti-cuti Malaysia isn’t possible, why not bring the destination to the people, albeit through authentic foods and dishes?
She says, “I hope to promote more and more Perakian old-time food – I’ve been eating for over 30 years! – to people. We realised it is hard to get all these fried snacks in KL. It’s not only Perakians but also the people from KL who love these local fried snacks so much.”
The trio started their online business in July 2020, barely more than half a year ago. Meng recalls how challenging it was in the early days: “During this time I still have a full-time job in sales and marketing while at the same time I’m also running MengTong.Co with my partners.”
The newly-minted entrepreneur decided to quit her job a few months later after gaining some traction with customers who were more receptive than expected to purchasing fried snacks online and supporting local food businesses; the initial lockdown last year was a proving ground as everyone was staying at home and craving outside foods.
With disarming frankness, Meng observes that her decision was also entirely practical as “I know I can't cope with two jobs at the same time!”
Unlike many other F&B startups that launched during the MCO, MengTong.Co didn’t develop their products via research or trial-and-error. Instead, they chose to go the mentorship route and consulted an expert in the field.
Meng explains, “We had a sifu who had more than 30 years experience making the fried snacks. His son has taken over ever since our sifu retired 13 years ago. He also spends a lot of time sourcing good quality raw materials and ingredients such as the beancurd skin and taufu pok (beancurd pouches).”
As part of their production standards, all the food items are made fresh daily. Some of their offerings, such as “lion head” (shīzi tóu) and chives roll (jiǔcài juǎn) are new creations by their sifu’s son.
Another way MengTong.Co tries to differentiate themselves from competitors is to buck the trend. Take their popular sengkuang cake (shā gé bǐng), for example. The jicama-based treat is often sweet tasting so MengTong.Co came up with a saltier version to appeal to jaded tastebuds.
To showcase these Perakian delights, beyond the usual social media route, MengTong.Co also tried to get more exposure by taking part in markets and pop-up events. They joined their first bazaar at Taman Overseas Union (OUG), after being invited to participate by organiser Pingmin Market.
Meng recalls, “The response was better than expected. We got a lot of good feedback from the customers, especially for our red sweet sauce chee cheong fun, which paired really well with fried snacks.”
Visitors to the markets and bazaars (prior to the current iteration of MCO) where MengTong.Co plied their trade also enjoyed irresistible titbits such as ham meatballs (huǒtuǐ wán) and crab stick rolls (xiè liǔ juǎn); the latter particularly popular with the young and young at heart.
Of course, fried snacks always taste better when dipped in some spicy sauce so the trio came up with their own take on Snow Mountain Chili Sauce (xuěshān làjiāo jiàng), which does the trick wonderfully.
New products are always being developed as they discuss and analyse customer feedback. A recent offering is their namyu deep-fried pork (nán rǔ zhà ròu), redolent of the preserved beancurd flavour, a veritable explosion of umami.
Meng says, “You can’t miss having namyu deep-fried pork for the Hakkas and lobak for Hokkien people during Chinese New Year. These are our traditional New Year dishes or niáncài. In fact, the Cantonese refers to this ‘salty aroma’ which is what gets us salivating.”
On that note, MengTong.Co has designed a couple of Chinese New Year packages with auspicious names. The Abundance Set (or Wǔfú Línmén) has five (wǔ) different types of snacks while the Prosperity Set (Bā Xīng Bàoxǐ) has eight (bā). Numbers matter, especially if they have sounds with good meanings.
MengTong.Co’s Abundance Set contains eight pieces each of sengkuang cakes, “lion head”, beancurd rolls and prawn rolls, as well as five pieces of lobak and a 300 grams bottle of their Snow Mountain Chili Sauce.
For their eight-item Prosperity Set, the contents are the same as the Abundance Set but with the addition of eight pieces each of chives rolls, ham meatballs and crab stick rolls. Certainly their customers will not lack for a bountiful feast throughout the Chinese New Year period.
Yet Meng is not one to rest on her laurels, even after the hectic festive season. She shares, “We hope that in the coming months, we will have more and more products to launch in the market. We have gained a lot of confidence from all the positive feedback, and hope to have both retail and online shops.”
Business is business, of course. Breaking even and then making a decent profit; scaling up when the demand calls for it; streamlining their operations for improved efficiency – the trio are constantly contemplating these pressing concerns.
Yet they haven’t forgotten the joy of what they are doing and a deeper meaning in spreading what they love with everyone. Or as Meng puts it: “Ultimately, we wish to introduce more of Perak’s food to others.”
To order, WhatsApp MengTong.Co at MengTong.wasap.my