Friday June 22, 2012
Reeling in the big bucks
Story and photos by GRACE CHEN
IT IS not known exactly when fish balls became a feature in Malaysian food, but in tracing the journey of this time-tested favourite, we will begin at a fish ball noodle shop operating between rows of wooden houses in Seri Kembangan.
The origins of Koh Hong Hoo’s fish ball noodle business can be traced back as far as the 1940s when his late father, Pui Thiam, sold them from a bullock cart, at a time when Seri Kembangan was still known as Serdang Lama. It was a village with no more than 50 houses and the Sungai Besi tin mine was still in operation.
“Back then, we made our fish balls by hand in the family kitchen,” said Koh, 52.
His most vivid memory of childhood was seeing his father return from the market with some 12kgs of wolf herring and watching his brothers and parents gut, debone and grind the flesh to a smooth consistency.
“It was tedious work because everything was done by hand. Work began at dawn and later, we had to roll the fish paste into a huge ball and slap it onto a metal surface.
“This process was what gave the fish ball a springy texture. It was a noisy affair as it could be heard three houses away,” recalls Koh.
But as far as he can remember, demand was always good. Even in the days of the Malayan Emergency between 1947 and 1960, the Koh family managed to rake in a comfortable profit.
“My father would open shop in between curfew hours and his customers would line up to buy his fish ball noodles,” he said.
But with the coming of the bell-bottom age, the younger Koh, who stopped schooling after Form Three, felt the fish ball making process was just too hard.
When he came of age, he swore that he would not follow in his family’s footsteps, and instead found work as a technician repairing household appliances.
This was between the late 1970s and early 80s, when electronics had just come into vogue.
However, while Koh could make ends meet on a technician’s pay as a carefree bachelor, his finances became a little stretched after marrying his childhood sweetheart, Low Yok Moy, now 45, in 1992.
That was when the father-of-three seriously reconsidered the family business.
He invested in a fish ball making machine, setting up their own fish ball noodle shop in 1993 and watched their income take a fourfold jump.
At that time a bowl of noodles with three fish balls and four slices of fishcake was only RM1.50. Due to inflation, the current price has risen to RM4.
On a good day, the Kohs can serve up to 300 bowls of fish ball soup, with some 1,000 scrunchy white orbs are consumed.
“It is the out-of-towners that will usually go for the fish ball only option with no noodles.
“With additional slices of fish cake, that will come up to about RM5.50 per bowl,” said Koh.
From the humble hawker stall, the fish balls themselves soon became an item viable for mass production.
According to the observations of one industry player from Johor, mass production of fish balls began in the state 20 years ago.
This is hardly surprising if one is to view it from a marketing perspective.
Andrew Ang, 42, the marketing manager of Kenko Food — a player in the fish ball manufacturing business since 1998 — thinks the fish ball market is huge.
“If you look at it, the fish ball is everywhere. It is in all the noodle dishes such as laksa, ho hee, char kway teow, chee cheong fun, and don’t forget yong tau foo, steamboat and lok lok market too,” said Ang.
He is quick to point out that manufacturers need not confine themselves to the Malaysian market alone as Kenko recently completed producing a container’s worth of fish balls valued at about US$20,000 (RM63,000) that will be shipped to Australia. This works of to be 900 cartons weighing 10kg each.
“There is definitely an overseas market in Canada and the United States. From this, you might assume that we are only looking at Chinese communities in these countries, but of late, even Westerners have taken a liking to fish balls.
“We can even go to China, using quality and taste as our advantage,” said Ang who revealed that, with an annual turnover of RM9mil in the past, Kenko’s target for this year will be RM10mil.
No doubt, the fish ball business is a promising one where Nicholas Goh, 29, the business development manager of Kenko Foods, is concerned.
By Goh’s estimates, Malaysians alone can consume close to some 30 tonnes of fish balls on a daily basis, which is the equivalent to the weight of nine large trucks.
It is a vision that Goh’s father — the founder of Kenko — must have realised very early on. Kiang Kuan, now 63 and a former bank manager, stepped into the fish industry as an importer before setting up a fish ball factory in Taman Tan Sri Yacob JB Perdana Indutrial Park in Skudai, Johor Baru.
Operations started off in the traditional way where workers processed by hand. Within six months, the factory made its first RM100,000.
“When I came to help at the factory, there were already workers.
“As I was still in school, one of my duties was to pack the fish balls into plastic bags of chilled water and tie them up with rubber bands,” said Goh, who has a degree in commerce and accounting from La-Trobe University in Melbourne.
Having agreed to continue his parents’ legacy, the first agenda was to automate production.
To date, the company has invested close to RM2mil on machinery to take care of the cutting, forming and packing.
Having made the decision to venture into frozen foods four years ago, Kenko has grown from 10 to 70 workers.
Monthly sales have easily slipped past the RM100,000 mark.
“The most crucial area is in the hiring of experienced workers to ensure quality. Here is where expertise is needed to watch over taste, texture and temperature,” said Goh.
Not surprisingly, with modernisation, the old ways have changed. Fish ball manufacturers no longer process the raw fish themselves.
Instead, they buy already processed fish paste known as surimi. This has raised concerns among consumer circles who question if manufacturers are fully aware of the contents in the base ingredient.
According to Goh, most manufacturers stopped processing raw fish themselves some eight years ago.
Even Koh, our fish stall noodle man in Seri Kembangan, has opted to buy his fish in a paste form from a supplier at the Jalan Pudu wet market.
“It is no longer cost effective for manufacturers to process raw fish like in the past. Hygiene is another factor.
“When you gut and debone fish, you will have to deal with blood and innards which can become agents for contamination,” said Goh.
In the end, it is integrity that determines what goes into a fish ball. Kenko, which imports close to 20 tonnes of surimi a month, said a supplier is only selected after visiting their processing plant.
“High-grade surimi, which is made of threadfin, can cost over US$3.50 per kg.
“Surimi that is lower in quality is cheaper at US$2.50. Choosing what quality is ultimately in the hands of the buyer.
“But at the end of day, you will be able to tell from the taste and texture of the product,” said Goh.
Another threat that can turn the best laid plans awry is heat. According to Siew Swee How, 34, who has been selling fish balls at the Seri Kembangan wet market for 25 years, the biggest challenge ultimately lies in storage.
For Siew, the largest capital outlay was for his eight 5ft x 3ft stainless steel freezers to keep the frozen fish balls at a comfortable -18°C.
Fresh fish balls have to be kept in an ice-filled tank to ensure their shelf life.
Fortunately, Siew was able to source for second-hand solutions which meant he did not have to pay more than RM1,000 for each freezer.
Not that there was a real need to be thrifty as Siew can make up to RM5,000 in gross sales on a daily basis just by selling fish balls and its by-products.
“As long as there is fish in the sea, we have nothing to fear.
“Although fish lay eggs in the millions, if we don’t take care of our seas, we will definitely have problem with production,” concluded Koh.