A few weeks ago, a first-time restaurateur recounted an incident that made him realise how grossly he had underestimated the number of vegans in Malaysia.
“My friends and I mostly eat meat, and I don’t really know many vegans, so I designed my restaurant menu to be very meat-heavy. On opening day, a girl came in to celebrate her 21st birthday and said she was vegan. And I was like ‘Uh-oh’,” he said.
In many ways, his naivete isn’t unfounded. While the Malaysian diet of the early 20th century had deep ties to the herbs, vegetables and fruits found in gardens and orchards, rising standards of living now mean that the average Malaysian consumes approximately 52.3kg of chicken a year (as opposed to 3.46kg per annum in 1960), according to data from the Department of Statistics Malaysia and the Food and Agriculture Organisation.
But in recent years, there has been a shift in mindsets, amid swelling concerns about animal welfare, health issues associated with excessive meat consumption as well as the environmental effects of raising livestock.
There has also been growing testimony about the power of a plant-based diet – a recent report in Jama Internal Medicine drew a link between a plant-based diet and a reduced risk of developing type-2 diabetes.
For all these reasons and so many more, a rising number of Malaysians are slowly but surely embracing veganism. In fact, according to Mintel Research, vegan claims on new food and drink products in South-East Asia shot up by 440% from 2012 to 2016.
And this is precisely the growing market that My Plant Deli (www.myplantdeli.com) is looking to serve.
In their family home in Setia Alam, Selangor, Naren Narasiah and his wife Honey Moser have made up a large homemade cheese platter. Their three young children eye the contents of the platter with rapt attention.
“Thank you, mummy,” says six-year-old Thalisa Grace as she squishes a mouthful of what appears to be cheddar cheese into her mouth, a smile lighting up her face.
To the untrained eye, nothing appears amiss. That is until you peer a little closer at the “cheese” and eventually take a bite. It’s a cheese unlike any other you’re likely to have tried because it is completely vegan.
“The cheese is made with soy milk, coconut oil, tapioca starch, carrageenan (a seaweed extract), nutritional yeast and salt,” explains Moser.
Moser and Naren are the people behind My Plant Deli, a local home-based brand they started two years ago to cater to the vegan community.
Naren is an energy consultant with a background in automation engineering while Moser is a former teacher who gave up her job to homeschool her children. Both are vegans and Moser is also a seasoned home cook who has been experimenting with vegan recipes for nearly 15 years.
“I love to cook. I’ve always loved to cook and people have asked me over the years – ‘Are you going to sell your food?’ And I said, ‘No’.
“And then two years ago, one day on a whim, I searched to see if there were any Malaysian vegan groups and there were and I joined those groups and shared some photos of things that I cooked. And people were commenting and asking, ‘Where can I buy the cheese and sausages?’ So I thought ‘Why not just try selling them?’ And that was two years ago,” she says.
Seizing the huge gap in the market for vegan produce, My Plant Deli offers an extensive made-to-order selection of cheese that ranges from cheddar to mozarella, Monterey Jack, brie and multi-flavoured cheese balls. Each variant can be further customised for people who might have dietary restrictions or allergies.
That aside, Moser and Naren also make a whole range of vegan fare like sausages, salami, cakes, brownies, date bars and frozen pizza. Although there has been interest in all their products, their biggest hit has undoubtedly been the cheese (the best-sellers are mozzarella cheese and cheddar cheese).
“I have a customer who called me up from Johor Bahru and said, ‘When is your next trip to JB?’ and I said, ‘Not anytime soon’. He said, ‘My wife is pregnant and she really needs your cheese!’ I told him that unfortunately he would have to wait. And he said, ‘It’s okay, I’m taking the bus and coming to KL to buy two blocks of cheese,’” says Naren, relating the impact the cheese has had on some members of the vegan community who previously had very few vegan food options in Malaysia.
Basics of vegan cheese
Making the cheese – according to Moser – is the equivalent of cooking a cream sauce.
“You mix all the ingredients together then you have to cook it over a particular heat, stir it properly and then pour it into moulds to set overnight. It takes about 30 minutes to make a block of cheese and it’s not that hard but you do have to know what you’re doing and you do have to make sure the ingredient amounts are correct.
“If you don’t do it right, the mixture can completely separate, it can go grainy, it can turn to slop. If you don’t cook it long enough, it may not harden. But I’ve been doing it for so long I don’t find it difficult anymore,” she says.
One of the motivating factors that spurred Naren and Moser to sell their cheese was a desire to provide clean food for vegans looking to expand their meal repertoire without breaking the bank.
“We wanted to come up with products that were healthy, free of chemicals and were affordable so regular people could afford to buy it,” says Naren,
At the moment, most of the cheese blocks start at RM25 and can be ordered online through their website, with delivery available throughout Malaysia.
Taste-wise, the “cheese” is very different from conventional versions, something that is more pronounced if you’re not vegan. The cheddar cheese is much softer and spongier than classic renditions with a pleasant, but significantly less defined flavour profile. Because of the coconut oil used in the mix, there is also a lingering oiliness on your hands if you leave it out at room temperature for a while.
One of the highlights of vegan cheese blocks is its ability to melt like old-school cheese, meaning you can use these cheese to make dishes like lasagna or macaroni and cheese and get that same ooey-gooey cheesy texture in the dish.
Moser also makes a selection of cheese balls, fashioned out of pulsed cashews, refined coconut oil, filtered water, lemon juice, apple cider vinegar and seasonings. Unlike the cheese blocks, the cheese balls are meant to be spread on crackers or toast. These spreads are really delicious and share a slight similarity to cream cheese, although there is a passing resemblance to hummus too.
Naren says the business has grown exponentially since they first started out and their customers aren’t just limited to individuals. More and more, the brand is generating interest from cafes, restaurants and manufacturers looking to jump on the vegan bandwagon.
“Even though we are very small right now, we have had requests from one local company that supplies coconut-based food and has a presence in 42 countries. They have asked us to contract manufacture vegan cheese for them. And we have also had requests from as far as Hong Kong, Macau and Australia for our cheese, sausages and ice-creams,” says Naren.
Although they have had to turn down bulk requests as they are still a two-man operation, the duo is heartened that there is so much demand for their products.
At the moment, Naren and Moser supply their cheese to popular pizza eatery Crust in Mont Kiara as well as Pizza Express in Subang Jaya.
They also supply a wide range of their cheese, sausages and cold cuts to Vegan District, a new vegan grocery store in Petaling Jaya.
Eventually they expect to expand in order to grow the business better.
“The immediate plan is actually to open up a store so people can come to a central location. But the plan for further expansion is there because requests are coming in from large manufacturers. And with my background as an automation engineer, I hope to figure out how to automate the entire process,” says Naren.