KLue Vol 109 November 2007
Text: Robyn Eckhardt Photos: David Hagerman
Sometimes life takes the most unexpectedly delicious turns, delivering one not to where he might have expected but to where he was surely meant to be.
Five years ago wonton mee-loving Muar native Goh We Peng was a student at HELP University. There, he made the acquaintance of fellow Johor-ite Tan Chu San. Goh and Tan's relationship blossomed as many in Malaysia do, over bowls of noodles and plates of rice and talk of food.
One day the couple wandered into Section 17's Restoran K Intan, where the specialty was wonton mee, featuring fresh noodles that the old uncle running the shop made himself in a small back room. One mouthful and they were hooked.
'Those noodles were very special,' recalls Tan. 'Not as soft as other mee. Springy like a rubber band, but not stretchy.'
Goh and Tan had found their definitive noodle (the char siew, or barbecued pork, was pretty tasty too). They celebrated their discovery by eating at the shop everyday, becoming close to the older couple as they became better friends themselves. Eventually the old uncle, impressed by Goh's enthusiasm, volunteered to teach him the art of noodle making. The younger man was keen, but he and Tan finished at HELP and left Kuala Lumpur before he could take the uncle up on his offer.
While Tan remained in Johor fresh graduate Goh headed to Singapore to take up an entry-level accounting position. After a year in shirt and tie he decided that eight-hour days and the physical comfort of a desk job in an air-conditioned office weren't for him. Goh left Singapore and returned to Johor, where he and Tan pondered their future. They'd not forgotten the mee master's offer.
'It was fate,' surmises Tan.
They returned to Kuala Lumpur and undertook tutelage in Section 17. As the uncle showed Goh how to spin skeins of springy noodles from flour and eggs and coax sweetness and char from strips of pork belly, his wife taught Tan how to make wonton and keep a food business humming. After three months they were on their own, selling wonton mee and char siew from a coffee shop in Setapak. Business grew as word of Goh's handmade mee spread, and then ground to a halt after just nine months, when the coffee shop's owner inexplicably reclaimed their stall.
Once again fate intervened.
At Restoran K the old uncle's health was failing. He was looking to sell his business. Goh and Tan returned to PJ to work with the uncle and his wife and, a month later, took over lock, stock, and barrel. As their twenty-something peers enjoyed late nights and carefree weekends the couple threw themselves into sixteen-hour days devoted to attracting new customers and winning over long-time regulars wary of their youth and relative inexperience.
In the kitchen, they learned by trial and error, soliciting customer reactions to the incremental changes they made to the shop's menu. As he perfected his char siew Goh attempted to reconcile conflicting diner preferences for fat versus lean and crispy blackened bits versus clean, uncharred met. Tan began serving siu gao (boiled dumplings), tweaking the filling's seasonings by the day. The stout old gua lu ('hanging' roaster) in a corner of the restaurant's half-open kitchen did double duty as Goh undertook to perfect a siew yoke ('three layer' roast pork) recipe given him by a friend of Tan's mother. ('We threw away many pieces of pork at the beginning,' he confides, shaking his head with a smile.) Tan introduced her mother's chicken feet and mushroom stew to almost immediate customer approval.
They hired one worker, and then one more. Goh made mee every morning before service started, and then through the day disappeared into the back to whip up new batches once, twice, three times as demand required. Days remained long (the couple re-opens the shop in the evenings for bak kut teh and more noodles). Relatives and not a few friends questioned the couple's willingness to work so hard for so little obvious reward.
Once in a while, Goh and Tan wonder too. Says Tan, 'Sometimes we ask ourselves, are we crazy?' Then adds, 'But if we do what we really like then we feel happy.'
Their modest goals for the business include hiring another worker and introducing more dishes to the menu. One of these days the couple, who registered their marriage at the end of 2005, would like to have a proper traditional wedding. But there's little time now for the distraction of planning.
'Right now it's Do Do Do. We must pay attention to every detail and can only think about working hard for a good result,' Tan explains.
But there is one major change afoot. Before the end of the year Goh and Tan will hang a new sign christening their restaurant 'Jiu Siang' ('forever fragrant'), a name that symbolizes their dedication to serving mouth-watering mee (and other dishes) for a good, long time.
Restoran K Intan (soon to be Jiu Siang Noodle House), 616 Jalan 17/10, Petaling Jaya. 9a-3p and 6p-9p. Tel. 012-754-1287/012-756-1214.