There are many vegetables and herbs that thrive in Malaysia. Bak choy, okra, long beans, eggplant and curry leaves are just a random selection of the delicious produce you’re likely to see on plates in Malaysian restaurants.
But once local platters are loaded with more exotic options – heirloom tomatoes, tamarillo, purple carrots, fennel – the automatic assumption is that air miles have been clocked and the word “imported” is intuitively attached, because these are vegetables and herbs typically associated with colder climates. I mean, whoever heard of Malaysian-grown kohlrabi?
Which is exactly the problem Australian Leisa Tyler was looking to solve when she started Weeds & More (www.weedsandmore.com). Tyler is a food journalist who has written for publications like Time magazine and was on the board of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants for 10 years.
It was when she was based in Singapore that she noticed that many restaurants there were heavily reliant on produce flown in from overseas.
“I had a very good friend who told me the reason people don’t grow or buy certain vegetables from Malaysia or Asia is because they were not the same quality as what comes in from Europe. So for me, that was just a matter of perception – if you wanted to grow good vegetables, you could grow good vegetables. So we had a bet and my husband started looking on the Internet for farmers in Cameron Highlands, because of course we had no idea about farming,” she says, laughing.
That was the start of a long and arduous journey for Tyler and her Dutch husband Ewout Kemner, a former physicist specialising in neutron scattering. The two scoured Cameron Highlands looking for a farmer who would work with them to grow vegetables typically imported from Western countries. They found one intrepid farmer – Fung Chee Siang, who owned the organic farm Hatiku Agrikultur – who was intrigued by their crazy idea.
“So for me, I just wanted to cut down on the carbon footprint of restaurants, I wanted them to start buying locally. And Fung had very, very similar ideals – he lived in Canada for 20-odd years and he was very Western about understanding environmentalism and where it was at that stage. So it took us five or six trips to convince him, but he said yes eventually,” says Tyler.
A long, hard road
And so the hard work began. Beginning in 2002 and for a few years after, Tyler and her husband kept pouring money down a seemingly bottomless pit. She had to continue working to support the project, which was beseiged with problems from the get-go.
“We grew a lot of things that just were complete failures, like brussel sprouts and blue kale. A lot of it was because we were using the wrong type of seeds, seeds which were more suited for climates like Holland and England, so there were compatibility issues,” she says.
Most people would have just thrown in the towel and called it quits, but not Tyler.
“I knew that it was going to work, I just knew – sometimes you know. Maybe I was really stubborn and tenacious, but I just thought, ‘There’s no way it’s going to fail, I’m going to force it!’” she says.
Eventually, after a lot of trial and error, they found their footing, using second-generation open-pollinated seeds that had modified themselves to the Malaysian climate, becoming hardier and more able to withstand the harsh monsoon seasons and high humidity levels in the highlands.
Tyler also had to overcome multiple logistical issues, including the fact that when she first started, no transport company was willing to move the vegetables from Cameron Highlands to Singapore, because the quantities were miniscule.
“They were used to dealing with tonnes, and we had kilograms. They said, ‘Forget it’, even when we offered a higher price. It was really tough,” she says.
The cogs of Tyler’s new-fangled machinery only began clicking into place a few years after she initiated the project, when the farm finally began producing viable produce and the logistics issues were ironed out.
These days, Tyler works with Fung and another farmer, Liew Kee Chong from Sunrise Organics, to produce over 60 varieties of vegetables and herbs that Weeds & More has successfully managed to grow, like tamarillo, purple beans, purple carrots, D’Avignon radishes, heirloom tomatoes, zebra tomatoes, kohlrabi, baby leek, Lebanese cucumber, chervil, fennel and basil. Both farms follow Australian organic principles, and look at ways to enrich the soil without using pesticides.
Grown to order
Right from the get-go, Tyler intended to produce the vegetables purely for restaurants and hotels in Singapore. She worked to create high-quality produce that would meet the rigorous demands of high-end eateries, initially enlisting two Singaporean restaurants – Cocotte (now defunct) and Burnt Ends – before word spread and demand started flooding in.
Now, Weeds & More has a waiting list of restaurants eager to work with them. Although the initial project was only meant for restaurants in Singapore, a few years ago, Taylor expanded her reach to Kuala Lumpur and her Malaysian clients now include high-end eateries like DC Restaurant, Bref, Nadodi and Entier, to name a few. She also supplies vegetables to the brand-new W Hotel in KL. Interestingly, all the restaurants have to sign up on a contractual basis, which means they have to be totally committed to getting their produce from the farms.
Once they sign up, the produce is grown to order for them, based on the quantities that they require. Tyler even encourages chefs to come to the farm and help plant the seeds themselves!
“Most things are on order, but it’s tricky because we don’t want to under-produce and shortchange people and give them less than their order but we don’t want too much wastage either because it’s really difficult to try and sell stuff on the market here. Once, our farmers planted too much kohlrabi, so we took it to the local pasar borong. We sent 50kg and not one piece got sold. People completely ignored it because they had no idea what it was,” says Tyler, laughing at the recollection.
It is incredibly easy to see why restaurants are so keen to sign up. Tyler is doing what many thought was either not worth doing or simply couldn’t be done at all. While there are farmers growing some varietals of Western-style produce, it’s unheard of for local farms to only grow this type of produce. But it’s a clever, novel idea that narrows the gap between farm and table, reduces the carbon footprint and helps restaurants save money.
And given that Tyler pushes really hard to deliver the best possible outcome in terms of flavour, it’s little wonder that chefs are chomping at the bit to jump onboard.
“The flavours are really good and this is what we work at. Everything is about trying to get the best out of the vegetables. And if something isn’t tasting good, we just take it off. Because we work with chefs, they are our customers and if something isn’t up to scratch for them, that’s it, we’re not going to grow it,” she says.
One of the most important elements for Tyler in setting up Weeds & More is that the produce is delivered to restaurants in a timely manner. Vegetables are sent out once a week and reach eateries in KL within seven hours of being harvested. For Singaporean restaurants, produce is delivered within a 24-hour period. In contrast, produce coming in from Europe usually ends up in restaurants seven to 10 days after being harvested!
Tyler says because the vegetables are delivered farm-to-table with freshness in mind, she has noticed that some restaurants are even taking the initiative to utilise more vegetable parts. “We recently started with the Grand Hyatt in Singapore, we’re sending them full broccoli plants. With broccoli, you normally throw away about 70% to 80%, so they’ve worked out a few recipes where they’re using the whole broccoli, so that’s good – it’s a new thing,” she says.
Business has been booming for Tyler and her team and she is now looking at expanding their reach to include more cold-climate edible flowers and garnishes, something she thinks they will be able to take on because Liew’s son John has returned from China and now helps his parents run the farm.
“We’re looking to expand even more with him on board. He’s good at paperwork and the organisation of the farm, which is really important when you’re dealing with 60 varieties. And we see a huge market in garnishes and edible flowers in Malaysia and Singapore, so we’re now exploring going into that area a lot more,” she says.
Given Weeds & More’s success on the local front, Tyler is enthusiastic about the prospect of others following in her footsteps. In fact, she almost seems to welcome the company, given that she and her farmers have been the only ones doing it for so long.
“Nobody grows any of this stuff in Malaysia, but it can grow. And there is a lot of demand for these temperate-climate produce. And I would support them (farmers) fully, completely.
They would be competition but I would support them in terms of finding markets for this stuff. If a farmer is prepared to grow it, I’m prepared to help him grow it,” she says.