KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 7 — Nestled inside a Taiwanese-style café in the heart of Bukit Bintang, a tiny bakery has been slowly drawing folks — some from as far as Malacca — in search of sourdough breads and buns that are both organic and vegan. It’s a pantry of wholesome goodness for those in the know.
Run by 34-year-old former interior designer Teh Chia Yee, Pantree Bakery is very much a labour of love.
She says, “I learned baking because I love eating bread. I found that I enjoyed the mixing, kneading and waiting process too. Sometimes it’s like a meditation for me — focusing on one thing at a time, just like making pottery, my other passion.”
According to Teh, everyone can enjoy and benefit from vegan breads, especially those who are allergic to dairy products and eggs.
She adds, “I’m not a full-time vegan yet but I’m allergic to eggs. I use soy milk instead of cows’ milk; coconut oil instead of butter. Vegan is just a choice of diet to exclude anything that is animal-derived ingredients.”
All the breads at Pantree Bakery are sourdough — even those sinful-looking cinnamon rolls. No instant dried yeast are used.
Teh explains, “Sourdough bread is made by the fermentation of dough using naturally occurring lactobacilli — that’s friendly bacteria — and yeast. It has a more complex flavour than the normal bread. I like the tangy flavour and chewy texture.”
Sourdough bread is supposed to be good for our digestive system too, something those with leaky gut syndrome may appreciate.
Teh says, “It’s easier to digest as the fermentation process helps to break down starches into a simpler form of sugar, which is the food for natural yeast. Therefore, sourdough bread has a lower glycemic index. Those who are sensitive to gluten may try sourdough breads.”
Pantree Bakery’s organic, vegan baked goodies aren’t limited to sourdough-based country loaves, however. Teh also makes a wide variety of buns, rolls and cakes, depending on the supply of fresh, seasonal ingredients from the organic farms and markets.
She says, “If the farmer tells me he has a really good crop of purple sweet potatoes, for example, I’ll make sweet potato rolls.”
From apricot bagels to potato rosemary buns, tomato olive ciabatta to oat molasses buns, masala chai cake to pumpkin-seeds-and-longan buns — Teh has sweet and savoury treats for every palate.
Even classic goodies such as banana muffins are made using organic bananas while her popular chocolate moist cake sprinkled with cashews and cacao nibs would satisfy even non-vegans. She also makes small batches of water kefir, such as a wine-like one from red grapes.
Not one to rest on her laurels, Teh is constantly experimenting with new recipes. She says, “Currently I’m trying a recipe with 30 per cent light spelt flour. The bread is not for sale yet as I only have limited spelt flour for now.”
The Penang-born artisanal baker has been a bread lover since young. She says, “I’d have bread every day for breakfast. My mother even taught me how to bake as a kid but only very simple cakes.
“I remember a lot of kneading, which now I know isn’t absolutely necessary. Because of all that kneading, I told my mother I didn’t want to help her to bake anymore. How things have changed!”
As Teh is a self-taught baker (other than having attended a one-day sourdough workshop in London while on holiday three years ago), she had to learn through researching recipes online as well as by trial and error.
She would also seek advice from more established bakers such as Martin Prior of White Brick Oven.
“I spent the first half a year making not-so-successful loaves. It was only later that I found out it was because I didn’t use a proper scale. Baking can be unpredictable.
“Depending on the temperature and humidity, I may need to adjust the time or how much to stretch and fold to prevent over-fermenting the dough. Today, my starter is three years old now; it’s still working well and going strong.”
Starting her own organic and vegan bakery was a leap of faith for Teh, especially when there is a dearth of similar businesses when she first started. However, she discovered that the same scarcity she spotted was also an opportunity.
“I only knew a handful of sourdough bakeries when I started baking. It was even harder to find one that bakes sourdough using organic ingredients.
“So after working for a year at Justlife Café to learn more about the organic food-and-beverage industry, I started my own micro bakery in a vacant space inside Justlife Malacca.”
Despite not having any prior experience running a business, Teh followed her instinct and immersed herself in the day-to-day operations of commercial baking and managing a café.
She recalls, “I got a good response from the locals and tourists. I really enjoyed Malacca; it was a more relaxed pace of life. But I realise that the market is still here in KL. I also found it difficult to juggle baking and waiting on customers.”
When one of her ex-colleagues who runs Purple Miao, an organic café, told her he was moving into a bigger shop at Wisma Bukit Bintang and had extra room, Teh took another leap of faith.
After moving into the shared space in October, she is now supplying breads to Justlife shops in Tropicana Avenue and Malacca, as well as several other cafés.
“It also solved the problem of friends and some cafés in KL asking me to bring breads back from Malacca for them. Now, though, it’s the reverse: I have to send breads back to Malacca to my regulars there who miss them!”
Appealing to a broad base of customers is still hit-and-miss. Teh explains, “As I bake only sourdough breads, I have customers who enjoy chewy bread the way I do. They say it’s European style.
“But there are also some who don’t enjoy sourdough bread because they find it hard to chew so they threw the leftovers away, sadly.”
Still, Teh is undeterred. Her journey, though full of challenges, is ultimately fulfilling. She says, “One of the most memorable things is the happy faces of vegan customers, as they are happy to find a fully vegan café cum bakery in the town.
“Non-vegan customers don’t mind trying vegan breads either; they find it interesting that there’s substitute for eggs and butter.”
Vegan or not, organic or not, there’s no substitute for a happy baker. Judging by Teh’s beaming face, Pantree Bakery is one happy place for bread lovers too.
G-03 Ground Floor (inside Purple Miao café), Wisma Bukit Bintang, 28 Jalan Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur
Open Wed-Mon 8am-4pm; Tues closed
Tel: 017-401 7427