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KUALA LUMPUR, March 2 — Guess what’s inside this jar?
At first glance, it looks like a science experiment gone wrong or a rescued canister from a biology lab.
Hippies and health food enthusiasts, however, would rightly guess it’s just a jar of kombucha, with a floating “mother” (also known as SCOBY or a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast).
It looks freakish to newbies but for lovers of the fermented tea beverage, it’s magic waiting to happen. But this is no ordinary kombucha, made with lemon or berries; this one is flavoured with ginseng.
Yes, ginseng. With its subtle herbal notes, this is exactly the type of surprise food purveyor Zi You Shi² hopes to delight their customers with.
How about sweet potato oolong Basque burnt cheesecake or rectangular pineapple tarts, rather than the traditional round or oval shaped variety? The duo behind Zi You Shi² — Melvin Wong, 40, and Squall Chin, 37 — certainly believe in making food with a difference.
Neither are originally from the food and beverage (F&B) industry; Wong is a chemist by profession while Chin worked in banking. Not that this is any impediment.
Both co-founders are food lovers and are always in search of good food together. Wong says, “Our love for food began at an early age. Our mums are traditional kuih makers and we always helped out in the kitchen after school. We therefore picked up considerable experience and skills in baking in our younger days.”
In the spirit of fun food experiments, the pair created a concept called “Zì Yóu. Shí Shì” or 自由。食試 (stylised as Zi You Shi²) a couple of years ago. The name in Mandarin translates as “Freedom. Food Tasting” which they define as not imposing any limitations on dining preferences, with a focus on healthy food.
Wong says, “Having worked in the pharmaceutical industry, I noted people are more health-conscious. Ann Wigmore said, ‘The food you eat can be the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.’ People tend to have the perception healthy foods are bland so we explored making local foods with healthy ingredients.”
In 2019, Zi You Shi² launched their first product: snow-skin mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival. These were positioned as healthier options as they contained less sugar than typical offerings. They then followed this with the release of their now signature pineapple tarts as well as XO sauce.
Traditionally, pineapple tarts have been round or oval in shape. There is a reason for this; in Chinese culture, a circle is auspicious because it is considered the shape of heaven and a full circle symbolises fullness and unity.
However, Malaysia and Singapore aren’t the only countries with a tradition of making pineapple tarts. Taiwan has their own version, laced with mashed winter melon in addition to the pineapple. Known as fènglí sū or pineapple cakes, these tend to be more rectangular in shape.
This is where having extensive food knowledge, especially beyond our shores, can pay dividends.
In addition to his banking career, Chin is a prolific recipe creator and has authored over 35 recipe books. Coupled with Wong’s pharmaceutical experience, the duo aim to develop recipes that rate highly in health and in flavour.
Wong shares, “The most important criteria for making pineapple tarts is that they must be moderately tender and non-sticky so customers don’t feel uncomfortable chewing them. We have selected different varieties of pineapple in making our jam, to achieve a tingling sour-sweetness without adding extra sugar but allowing the natural sweetness of the pineapple to shine through.”
Once the basic recipe has been tested and well received comes the time for tweaking. The pastry is made with French fermented butter. Variations include their popular bakkwa pineapple tarts – if in Singapore, they put pineapple in their bakkwa, why not have fun with the reverse?
It’s this sense of glee and gaiety that led them to tweak their kombucha with the aforementioned ginseng. But behind such playful experimentation is a keen sense of business.
Wong is bullish about the trend of health drinks and healthy hydration, paired with the demand for flavoured kombucha drinks. He says, “The global kombucha market is likely to progress at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 22.21 per cent during the projected period of 2019-2028.”
After about a year of research — from tea leaf selection to fermentation process improvement — Zi You Shi² launched their kombucha products late last year.
Wong says, “It was a pleasant surprise that in less than three months we managed to achieve four-digit sales by bottles in the last quarter of 2020, considered the challenging environment with plenty of competition during this pandemic.”
Perhaps the lesson here is not to wait till everything is perfect before starting. In the beginning, Zi You Shi²’s operations were rudimentary; they listed their products via an online store on a Facebook page. Over time, Wong and Chin started participating in various bazaars until the first movement control order (MCO) last year.
Wong recalls, “MCO 1.0 did not affect us very much. We had set up our business module via online marketing and on-demand delivery. In fact, we recorded a slight increase in sales as we noticed a craze for burnt cheesecake during MCO 1.0. In response, we launched our burnt cheesecakes, including the first Malaysia bak kut teh flavoured burnt cheesecake.”
This year, however, the second MCO saw a small drop in their sales. Wong explains, “MCO 2.0 took place about a month before Chinese New Year. The response was slower than expected due to market uncertainty, lower spending power plus more people making cookies from home.”
Despite the ups and downs, Wong observes that most of their customer feedback has been positive overall, with many becoming repeat customers and even their friends.
He says, “Many local cafés and restaurants are selling our kombucha as an alternative beverage on their menu, including Blissful Cottage, Old China Café, Café Yamatatsu and SUPE Vegan.”
To further this, Zi You Shi² is welcoming collaborations with more local eateries. Wong adds, “Getting into grocers and supermarkets is also part of our plan, as that will make our products more accessible to the public. We aim to add a few more products and kombucha flavours later this year.”
If nothing else, Zi You Shi² has proven that even when the going is tough, with a global pandemic and increased competition from other online based food purveyors, there is always an opportunity to break through the noise. Especially if you happen to be serving tasty treats... with a twist.
Zi You Shi Shi 自由。食試
Tel: 016-260 1013