KUALA LUMPUR, July 5 — Four years ago, Chuah Jay Mee took a leap of faith amid extraordinary circumstances and started Herba and Rempah, an online home-based business selling Peranakan cuisine.

Like many professionals, the 45-year-old couldn’t work during the pandemic. "It was MCO and I couldn’t run my PR/event business; everybody around me was selling food, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ since there wasn’t much I could do,” she recalls. "One dish led to another, and it slowly expanded and became more and more famous — so it got me thinking, ‘Should I go back to my PR/event business and stop this completely when MCO stops?’

"I tried to juggle both, and it was really tough,” she says, looking back at the period after MCO was lifted. "After that, I made a firm decision to open up a cafe.”

In May 2024, she opened the doors to her first physical location, marking a new milestone in the business that’s been in the plans for the last couple of years.

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"When I first started (Herba and Rempah) I hadn’t thought about it,” she says of opening a restaurant. "After about two, three years, I started thinking about it because a lot of customers would come to me and ask to dine in.”

Herba and Rempah is now a full-fledged restaurant, located in Dataran Prima, PJ.
Herba and Rempah is now a full-fledged restaurant, located in Dataran Prima, PJ.

Chuah searched for a location for a while before eventually settling on Dataran Prima, Petaling Jaya. "My old office was there before, and it’s near to my home as well. I felt I could start here first.”

Opening a restaurant for the first time has its challenges, but so does running a food business out of your own home — especially when Peranakan cuisine is involved.

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"It was very challenging, I had to do all the groceries myself, all the kitchen work myself,” she remembers of the early days of running Herba and Rempah.

"For Nyonya food, there’s a lot of work involved, especially cutting all the herbs and spices to make sure it reaches the right taste. That’s why I named it Herba and Rempah — it involves so many different kinds of leaves and herbs, and yes, it is very labour intensive.

"Right now, in the cafe, I can hire more staff and teach them how to do it,” she says. "I will be the one doing QC (quality control), tasting things so I’m slightly better off. But I’m very particular and can’t let go completely so I still get in there every day to check on things.”

This meticulous approach to cooking was instilled in Chuah by her 94-year-old grandmother Lim Chew Lan, who she learned to cook from. "I learned during my college days away in New Zealand when I had to learn how to cook for myself,” she recalls.

Salted fish bone curry, also known as 'kiam hu kut gulai' is one of Chuah’s father’s favourite dishes and is a must on the menu.
Salted fish bone curry, also known as 'kiam hu kut gulai' is one of Chuah’s father’s favourite dishes and is a must on the menu.

"I would call home and say, ‘How ah, this one add what ah?’ and it was always Nyonya food because that was my staple food when I was young.”

"She’s very particular about how you cut the vegetables, what ingredients you use, the quality of them,” she says of her grandmother. "If you cut the vegetables senget a bit, she would go ‘cannot, cannot’; you must be on point, how long the carrots are, how long the long beans are — you must always be on point.”

Chuah reminisces about the struggles of learning to prepare jiu hu char for the first time. "Wah, there’s so much to cut, to slice, I almost gave up at first,” she laughs. "Oh my goodness, it’s so tough. Oh, the slicing — you cannot imagine!”

Beyond knife-manship, Chuah added that her grandmother had very exacting standards for ingredients too. "She had very high standards: what kind of salted fish you use, the quality of hae bee you use is very crucial,” she continues. "Quality is so important, and without quality, you cannot bring the right taste out in your food.”

The food, of course, is the main factor behind the success of Herba and Rempah in the last few years. Most of the crowd favourites continue to feature, and there are plans to expand the repertoire in the future.

This spread of dishes at Herba and Rempah includes the 'sambal petai hae bee' at the bottom right, which is scarcely seen in KL anymore.
This spread of dishes at Herba and Rempah includes the 'sambal petai hae bee' at the bottom right, which is scarcely seen in KL anymore.

Salted fish bone curry, also known as kiam hu kut gulai is a classic Peranakan dish, is a dish Chuah felt must be on the menu. The salted fish bones add a robust and intensely savoury character to the mildly warming curry, which is a real treat when ladled over rice.

"It’s one of my dad’s favourites, and he gets the best kiam hu from Taiping for me,” she explains. "It’s called tanau kiam hu (usually larger, firmer fillets of ikan kurau) in Hokkien, and it’s quite expensive and very good quality.”

Another must on the menu for the self-described "full-blood Penangite” is sambal petai hae bee, which was Chuah’s favourite growing up. "Whenever we travel, my grandmother would make a packet for us to bring overseas. We love it so much, so this was a must, must add into my menu kind of thing.”

While restaurants serving sambal petai are a dime a dozen in Kuala Lumpur, this variation made with the dry hae bee is a lot harder to find, making it something of a rare gem.

Other classics like kueh pie tee and Nyonya acar also feature, though Chuah is not content with being stuck in time. Herba and Rempah’s roti jala is notable for its multicoloured, rainbow-like appearance.

"Roti jala everywhere is yellow colour, so when I started I felt I couldn’t be the same, I need to do something different,” she explains. "So I created this rainbow roti jala, using natural ingredients like blue pea flower, pandan, turmeric, strawberry and purple sweet potato to get the colour. I like to bring a modern twist to it.”

The rainbow 'roti jala' is one of Chuah’s more aesthetically pleasing creations that grab the eye without losing its soul.
The rainbow 'roti jala' is one of Chuah’s more aesthetically pleasing creations that grab the eye without losing its soul.

Though it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows when Chuah first thrust herself into this journey, she credits her loyal customers with giving her more belief in herself.

"When I first started, my family wasn’t sure I could do it,” she says. "I wasn’t the type who cooked every day, I wasn’t the type who was always in the kitchen. But once I started the first dish, the second, third dish — wow, the response was just amazing!

"The feedback from customers really kept me going,” she adds. "Word of mouth spread from one, to 10 customers, and now to around 3,000 plus customers. I’m truly amazed and very thankful to all the customers because without them, we wouldn’t even be open anything today.”

And how does her grandmother, who is the genesis for all the recipes, feel about the restaurant? "My grandmother is very proud and happy that she has passed on her knowledge to me,” Chuah says.

"That’s why she came from Taiping just to see the shop — she’s really excited about it!” Her grandmother, Lim, says, "It's wonderful to see the fruits of her labour. She has successfully turned her hobby into a business,” she adds.

"The food business is never easy. It starts with choosing good quality and the finest ingredients including herbs and spices, and it’s her passion in cooking and serving the best food that makes her successful.”

Lim, 94, made the trip just to see the restaurant in its early opening days. She’s very happy to see that Chuah has 'successfully turned her hobby into a business'.
Lim, 94, made the trip just to see the restaurant in its early opening days. She’s very happy to see that Chuah has 'successfully turned her hobby into a business'.

Herba and Rempah

13-1, Block I, Jalan PJU 1/37, Dataran Prima, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor

Open Monday to Saturday, 10am-3pm.

Tel: 017-209 1898

Facebook: @herbaandrempah

Instagram: @herbaandrempah

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