Watch: How Ong Ning-Geng Has Carved A Name For Single-Origin Malaysian Chocolate
On an airless day in Raub, Pahang, we learn the first rule of fermentation: to always follow your nose. “Pay attention when visiting any fermenting farm, especially if things smell foul,” warns Ong Ning-Geng. The chocolatier scrunches his face ever so slightly. “If it doesn’t evoke food, it’s not good.” Fruity or vegetal aromas are a positive thing, it would seem. Rot is not.
The moment of truth arrives: pausing before one of 20 whisky barrels in his fermentation shack, Ning lifts a corner of the burlap sack. A sticky-sweet scent spills forth, drifting towards us in wafts and tendrils, penetrating our nostrils.
Inside each barrel is neither sauerkraut nor soy sauce, but cocoa beans, some still coated in placenta. Closing his eyes momentarily, Ning waves one hand in a circular motion as if to flex his wrist. “I’m getting banana, pandan, and a lot of leafy qualities,” he says, matching the learnedness of any vintner or viticulturist. Tapai or tuak is my shout-out, whereas someone else in our party proposes cekodok batter.
Heat, a byproduct of fermentation, radiates from the beans, which appear in a wide spectrum of purple, from lilac to eggplant. “Could I parboil an egg in here?” I ask, thinking of my own compost pile back home.
Ning’s answer is affirmative: “You certainly could sous vide certain foods in these barrels; the temperature wavers between 50 and 55 degrees Celsius.”
Speaking of offshoots, “I’ve a fun story about this fermentation shack,” grins Ning, pointing at a robust durian tree some five feet away. “We came really close to chopping down the then barren tree when setting up our ‘fermentary,’ but changed our minds as I quite liked the shade it afforded the shack.” In a strange case of symbiosis, the tree began to flourish, bearing superlative fruit shortly after. As it turns out, juices from the cocoa beans had seeped through cracks in the flooring, flowing into the soil, and providing all kinds of goodness to the tree’s roots.
What Do Chocolatiers Have In Common With Coders?
Just like in the best love stories, “It wasn’t overnight, but a slow courting process,” says Ning of his passion for chocolate. “I was first smitten by fermentation.
“There was a microbrewery movement in the States,” recalls the computer science major. “People were brewing beer from their homes.” As someone who is continuously guided by the pursuit of knowledge, the polyglot (who studied two years of Russian and dabbled in French and German) and food lover (during his charcuterie phase, he learned to churn out smoked duck legs and sausages) threw himself into the funky world of fermentation wholeheartedly.
“Cabbage turns into sauerkraut. Milk becomes yogurt and then aged cheese and so forth," chirps Ning.
I find the flavour transformation that is made possible by fermentation completely captivating.
While I’ve met many advocates of the ancient art of fermentation, some of whom identify as ‘fermentistas,’ no one’s put it in the same terms to me prior: “Now you’re thinking: how is fermentation like programming? Well, programming begins with the idea of a bot. After setting the conditions and the variables, the bot is left to do its own thing—you can liken it to a gnome or a house-elf that performs household chores.” Like coders, chocolatiers have to select the ideal settings, but of sugar levels, pH, and temperature before letting nature take its course.
Ning’s intellectual interest in the science of chocolate is matched only by his emotional attachment to nature: “Slashing my way through the jungle, spending a night outdoors, or swimming in the river has always struck me as the best kind of fun.” He credits his practical knowledge of the great outdoors, from looking for paw prints to pitching a tent, to being a boy scout in his schooling years. We see a bit of this cub emerge on the farm—dashing through the trees, diving into the swirling eddies of a nearby waterfall—except he’s now commander of his own land.
When Less Is More
Why does the world wax lyrical about ‘single-origin,’ whether it’s coffee, chocolate, raw sugar or rock salt?
“There’s nothing wrong with blended origin,” confesses Ning, taking me by surprise, “but with single-origin, it’s easier to get technical,” says the geek with a gleam in his eye. “You can put different origins on the table and go okay, we have three high altitude chocolate bars from Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. Let’s assume they’re all 70 per cent. How do they compare? But say I took the Malaysian, Indonesian and Vietnamese beans and made a 70 percent dark chocolate. If I detected something interesting, I wouldn’t know whom to credit! Single-origin chocolate affords the taster a window into what a region’s climate, soil and environment is like.” In the world of winemaking, one word encapsulates this idea: ‘terroir.’
Know that ‘single-origin’ shouldn’t be confused for ‘nationality.’ Ning presently identifies seven districts of Malaysian single-origin chocolate. “Although it is an organic list and will keep evolving as we discover new terrain,” he carefully adds.
To meet demand, Chocolate Concierge supports two indigenous tribes in the vicinity in addition to harvesting its own trees. “The orang asli land in the peak of the main range can be considered as one origin. So too is the area occupied by our farm,” he states.
What makes some chocolate more acidic, aromatic or appealing than others? To start, there’s the matter of genetics which, more often than not, is completely out of one’s hands. The ensuing determinants, however, pose a nightmare to anyone diagnosed with decidophobia—the fear of making decisions.
“The second factor is terroir, which we discussed earlier, and includes farm management: How much sunlight should I provide the plants? What’s the soil nutrition like? Do I irrigate or not? Do I use fertilisers? And if so, what kind of fertilisers?”
Chocolatiers also have to mull over the process of harvesting: “Do I harvest at the right ripeness? Do I discard any bad pods or decide to use everything?”
Fermentation, which we learned about at the start of our trip, is where things are most likely to go awry. “Most farmers aren’t incentivised to do it well,” sympathises Ning.
But there’s more! Before looking at refining and the actual recipe (“Do I add vanilla?” Ning doesn’t), there is roasting.
Step inside my ‘chocolate sauna.’
No longer purple but a nice toasty brown, row upon row of beans are ‘sweating it out’ on work benches. “The bigger players use machines to roast their cocoa, but we believe in sun-drying, which produces the best flavour. Even better than sun-drying is sheltered sun-drying,” boasts Ning, waving a hand at the enclosure. Similar to coffee, cacao’s floral notes are the hardest to retain, but Chocolate Concierge preserves all that and then some.
Teaming Up With Other Tastemakers
“My mission from day one has been to radically advance recognition for Malaysian single-origin chocolate,” Ning reminds us. “I see it as something beyond what a single person, entity or company is able to pull off.”
Unlike most chocolate brands in Malaysia, Chocolate Concierge goes beyond retail by closely collaborating with tastemakers.
Our chocolate counter in Bangsar Shopping Centre lets me get feedback from our end consumers, but there must also be proponents within the food industry.
Chefs and restaurateurs aside, Ning’s biggest allies, much to his own surprise, have been beverage specialists. “There is this ongoing collaboration with bartenders and brewers who want to use our cocoa products, whether it’s fresh juice, cacao nibs or husks.”
As a food writer based in KL, I’d always known that it was just a matter of time before I had to tell Ning’s story. To discover Malaysian gastronomy is to encounter Chocolate Concierge products at some point or other: whether in my boyfriend’s favourite porter produced by Modern Madness or as dessert ‘dim sum’ at the W Kuala Lumpur (complete with edible chocolate chopsticks and chopstick rests!).
“Ten years ago I was tasting all this chocolate from France, Belgium, and Switzerland, or hearing people rave about chocolate of Madagascan, Ecuadorian, Venezuelan, and Bolivian origins,” reminisces Ning. “But we didn’t think to look in our own ‘backyards.’ Subang Jaya, where I lived some 22 years ago, used to be large swathes of palm oil estate, did you know? I remember walking between the palm oil trees and seeing an abundance of cocoa plants too.
“Malaysia has got a good market for chocolate. People enjoy it during Valentine’s and Christmas, in their lava cake, tiramisu and chocolate bars. So I thought, there are two dots: why can’t we join the two and produce Malaysian chocolate using Malaysian cocoa? That’s what got me started.”
Like Water For Chocolate
A fitting crescendo to our farm visit, Ning is prepared to break open a bottle in his office back in Kepong. There is no sabering of Champagne; rather, most of us are about to sample cacao juice for the first time.
The fizzy beverage practically leaps out of the bottle, drenching our bemused host, who fills our cups till they literally runneth over. Truffles, cookie dough, and koji-fermented cocoa beans are passed around and sampled in the name of research—or so we tell ourselves. Death by chocolate can’t be the worst way to go, surely.
- Photography Dean Shari
- Words Samantha Lim