KUALA LUMPUR: Not too long ago, deep fried fish skin and potato crisps joined the salted egg yolk craze, riding the wave of demand for snacks and titbits smothered in the savoury golden sauce.
They quickly became a familiar sight on festive occasions, featured prominently alongside traditional treats like pineapple tarts and bak kwa.
Several local and international brands currently dominate the Malaysian market, providing a variety of flavours and variations.
One brand making its mark here is Hou Sek Gourmet Snacks, or “Super Tasty”. The business which is barely 10 months old was founded by Klang Valley entrepreneurs Ivan Lim and Wong Su Mene.
Speaking to FMT in a recent interview, Lim said they came up with the idea after observing the salted egg yolk phenomenon across the causeway in Singapore.
“I realised there were no major players in Kuala Lumpur, so I thought, why not try to enter the market here?”
Salted egg yolk crisps are paper thin slices of deep-fried potato, coated in sauce usually made from duck eggs and marinated with curry leaves, sometimes with dried chilli as well.
The deep-fried fish skin, also smothered in salted egg yolk sauce, is usually made from the Vietnamese Basa catfish.
The treats range in price from RM40 to RM50 for one or two packets.
Lim said the often exorbitant price tag was another reason he and Wong began the business.
“I’m quite a cheapskate,” he said. “I would never spend RM50 to RM60 on a pack of chips. So when I got a packet from my friends who brought it back from Singapore, I decided to start my own business.”
Lim, 26, said he initially did it only for fun. But what started out as a side hobby has since ballooned 10-fold in profits.
“I remember telling my partner, maybe we’ll sell 100 packets and have some extra allowance,” he said.
“But the funny thing was, in a week we hit five figures. Probably the execution was done right. The response was very good.”
When asked how he managed to keep his prices down while still providing quality products, Lim remained coy, attributing his success to good research and advice from experts.
He added however that Hou Sek undergoes a “tedious process” to create its trademark salted egg yolk sauce for its crisps and fish skin.
Hou Sek has three products available both online and in supermarkets in the region: the Golden Salted Egg Fish Skin (125g/RM22), Golden Salted Egg Potato Chips (125g/RM20) and Crispy Original Fish Skin (60g/RM9).
No intention of stopping
Lim, who also started a cafe from scratch during his university days, is now a full-time digital product specialist with a bank in the city centre.
His average day begins at 6am, when he wakes up and hits the gym. He starts work at 9am and returns home at 9pm or 10pm, which is when he sits down to plan his business. He also tutors on the side.
He said it was often a struggle to run Hou Sek alongside his other endeavours, but he has no intention of stopping until the business joins the ranks of global competitors in the market.
He also shrugged off concerns that he would eventually leave the business once it has made its mark in the world and take on a less active role in the company.
He told FMT he had received offers from his competitors to merge his business with theirs. However, he turned them down, saying he would push Hou Sek to become the best through his own hard work.
Such work involves him in every aspect of the business, including research and testing which he did on his own in Hou Sek’s early days.
At one point, he said, he went through round after round of testing and emerged shivering due to the excess amount of salt.
But because Hou Sek strives for quality, he said, neither he nor his partner have any intention of cutting corners.
He recalled an episode earlier this year, during the Chinese New Year season, when his supplier was unable to provide enough raw ingredients to meet orders and he was forced to look for an alternative type of fish.
However, he said, the taste from this fish was noticeably different. So despite having several hundred packets ready for sale, he refused to put them on the shelves.
“We realised it was not acceptable to our customers. We did not want to give poor quality products just to earn an extra buck or two.
“We pulled back orders and told our customers if they wanted them, they would have to wait until we got our supplies which could be well after Chinese New Year.”
Some were angry, he said, but many were understanding. This became a lesson to him to plan well in advance.
Spare no cost
In addition to the rigid quality control, Lim spares no cost in ensuring that his products are up to mark. For example, Hou Sek only uses Patin fish for its deep-fried fish skin.
Some brands also use artificial salted egg yolk powder, which is a cheaper alternative but causes products to lose out on taste and quality. Lim said Hou Sek would never do this, no matter the cost.
When asked if he had plans to introduce a variation of his products that were accessible to less affordable people, Lim said this might be difficult as he would need to balance the quality of the products with bringing down costs.
However, he said he was open to doing so to compete with other brands in the market.
“We don’t want to be seen as a brand that is premium, but at the same time our quality is downgraded,” he said, adding that he might need to do more research.
“It’s just that with our current line-up of products, we are using ingredients that are high in cost.”
Hou Sek has already received an offer to set up shop in Sarawak, while Lim is looking into selling his products at high-end Singaporean outlets as well.
The brand is also in the midst of getting halal certification, although Lim said his kitchen, based in Bangsar, is 100% pork-free.