Rempah takes cuisine around New Zealand

ROTI ROUTINE: Rempah Foods owners Caroline and Reuben Danam prepare authentic Malaysian food in their Miramar premises.
ROTI ROUTINE: Rempah Foods owners Caroline and Reuben Danam prepare authentic Malaysian food in their Miramar premises.

Penang-born chef Reuben Danam's mouthwatering authentic Malaysian rendang sauce with lemongrass, galangal and ginger can be bought from supermarkets throughout the capital for Wellingtonians to use as a meal base at home.

At Rempah Foods, the company that Danam runs in Miramar with wife Caroline as a director, the business has grown to making more than 1000 roti breads by hand every day.

The company has a six-day-a- week takeaway operation at Park Rd, alongside its busy kitchen that also produces fresh packaged sauces sold at stores around the country.

Danam's passion for food stretches back to his childhood, with fond memories of his mother's cooking. "I've always loved food," he said.

He trained as a chef when he moved to Wellington from Malaysia 20 years ago and worked for Air New Zealand producing special vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free meals, then in managing the production of packaged foods at Kopi Catering.

In 2008 he set up his own takeaway store in Johnsonville, selling authentic Malaysian food, as well as fish and chips. Customers loved his creamy laksa, piquant sambal and hand-flicked roti breads that were fluffy, crisp and moist.

"Kiwis are well-travelled, they want to be certain the foods are authentic," he said.

Rempah, which means "spice" in Malaysian, started stocking small quantities of packaged sauces and rotis in gourmet supermarket Moore Wilsons in May 2009, then moved to its Miramar premises in October that year.

Its packaged food is now sold at New World and Pak 'n Save supermarkets throughout Wellington, upmarket speciality food stores in Havelock North, Farro Fresh in Auckland and Nosh Food Market in Auckland, Mt Maunganui and Hamilton.

Because it is fresh without any preservatives, the shelf life for sauces is about 30 to 35 days and about 20 days for roti. A lot of Rempah's ingredients come from Moore Wilsons, with ingredients such as tamarind and kaffir lime leaves now easily available in New Zealand.

"Basically, the difference with Malaysian food is that it is part of three ethnic groups - Malay, which is the traditional, Chinese and Indian. The three different ethnic groups combine their ingredients to make Malaysian products -- that's the beauty of it," Danam said.

"When you see our curries or sauces they tend to have a bit of curry powder but they've also got lemongrass. We use a lot of turmeric roots and coconut cream, which is different to the Indian food where they use a lot of fresh cream."

Some of Rempah's most popular dishes, after the rendang, are fried egg noodle dish mee goreng and a chicken dish, ayam percik, in which chicken is marinated in honey, lemongrass and spices and then grilled and served with peanut sauce.

Word of mouth and some publicity in print, such as in Woman's Day, has helped the business grow. South Island customers who tried the products while visiting Wellington or Auckland often phone to ask how they can locate them.

There are plans to get stock into the South Island shortly and through the country within a year.

"We are slowly moving out of Wellington at the moment. Our idea was to keep it simple, do it small to concentrate on the business, then grow it in a way so as not to not lose control of production or quality - not to forget about taste," Danam said.

"I'm also thinking of franchising this concept to other places if somebody is interested to have Rempah in Auckland, Taranaki or Taupo."

His experience in commercial food businesses before starting Rempah meant he knew what sort of systems needed to be in place. In a franchise format, franchisees would buy curry bases from his Miramar operation that at present makes 80 to 90 litres a day.

Rempah Foods' peanut and rendang sauces were nominated in the Food Safety category and last year's New Zealand Food Awards, with judge Kay McMath saying they retained their natural and authentic flavour profiles during the packaging process.

The Dominion Post