This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on December 27, 2021 - January 2, 2022
Amid a gruelling day of deadlines, meetings, children’s multiple online classes, walking the dog, managing cohabiting troubles and running never-ending errands — the idea of spending hours whipping up complex healthy meals is enough to drive anyone to a breakdown.
Sure, at some point at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic while we were still figuring out a routine, we made time to cultivate our own yeast cultures for sourdough pizza bases, whisked instant coffee by hand over 200 times to make the Insta-worthy Dalgona coffee and revelled at the endless capabilities of our air fryers.
But with the Covid-19 pandemic well into its second year, with evolving fast-spreading variants causing a surge in infections and corresponding deaths in many countries and renewed lockdowns, simple has become the way to go.
According to a survey by market research firm Vase.ai, 85% of respondents in Malaysia said they have been consuming their daily meals by cooking at home, and around seven out of 10 said they cooked elaborate meals.
Its survey of 1,100 Malaysians in June last year found that 7% of the respondents chose to prepare easy-to-cook meals such as pasta and eggs or microwave meals, with 30% stating instant meals were the preferred choice and 20% opting for fast food such as burgers and fries.
Mother of two primary schoolers (and two fur babies), Thevi Kulendran had to think of ways to get her young charges to stick to eating healthy and offer variety at the same time, as they were spending hours in front of computer screens and often bored out of their minds with little to keep them occupied outside of schoolwork, music classes and chores.
“Quick and easy meals are essential when you’re juggling so many things. It is already stressful trying to keep up with the kids’ different schedules and yours. And, takeout isn’t always an option because you don’t know what goes into your food,” she says.
Thevi — who is the face of Thevi’s Kitchen, a food page on Facebook and Instagram — started coming out with easy-to-prepare meals from pantry staples just to manage the daily grind.
The former public relations professional started documenting her cooking adventures in 2015 to share her passion for cooking, food photography and styling, and as means to share much-loved traditional family recipes.
“Growing up, cooking was just a chore we had to do. It’s either we cook or clean, so it wasn’t something I truly enjoyed then.
“It was after I became a stay-at-home parent that I started cooking a lot more. The children needed to eat and I wanted to make sure they had nutritious food. I could also try my hand at recipes that I rarely had time for before. I learnt a lot from YouTube tutorials and all the tips and tricks from other home cooks and chefs.
“I started sharing what I used to cook at home or what my grandmother used to cook, and I shared those recipes. And, I used to get a lot of questions like ‘what kind of dhal do you use?’, ‘how do I pick the right dhal?’. That’s when I realised that there are plenty of people who want to try different kinds of cuisine.”
Along the way she developed her recipes, which then saw the food page morph into the recipe-sharing platform that it is today.
When the pandemic hit, she acquired more followers who were keen to try out her recipes. “I think with everyone being home, they needed good ideas on what to cook and eat because there were few things you could do other than exercising or hobbies.”
Thevi also started recording more reels — with the help of her children — of her cooking and styling process.
Some of her recipes — sardine pasta, chicken soup with a base of canned mushroom soup, and kicap chicken — take less than 30 minutes to prepare. And Thevi found she was attracting first-time cooks.
“I was getting questions like ‘what pan should I get for this dish?’, ‘what pot are you using for this?’, ‘how do I pick an avocado?’
“I also realised very few people read through long captions. I’ve had instances where I have posted recipes down to the little details, and some people would still mess it up and send messages asking what went wrong.
“To deliver a clear message and engage the audience, I felt it would be better to shoot reels for quick and easy recipes,” she says.
People also wanted more flexibility in their recipes and needed to know what substitutions would work, says Thevi.
“People wanted to eat home-cooked food that’s quick to prepare. They didn’t want to spend a whole day slogging in the kitchen. Many were working from home and taking their kids through their lessons simultaneously.
“So, I was moving towards those kinds of recipes when the pandemic hit. The recipes were mostly what my grandmother used to cook. She used to cook a feast on Saturdays or Sundays in a jiffy. I still wonder how she managed to whip up so many dishes in a couple of hours,” she says.
“I tried my best to replicate her process through the reels, and that had got more people to try out the recipes I posted on my feed,” she says.
There were also instances where some would see the photos of the meals she had prepared and be too intimidated to try making those themselves because they looked fancy when plated and photographed.
“They see beautiful food pictures and they think, ‘I can’t do that, it is too fancy.’ When it is really not; it’s just that I take pride in what I have made and decided to plate it nicely.
“So, when they watch the videos and see how easy it is to make, they are motivated to try it. Like I posted an easy chicken curry recipe that my grandmother used to make, and it takes 30 minutes. Many loved it because it is a simple recipe to follow,” she says.
It was this that caught the attention of gourmet grocer K Fresh by First Pick. The company then engaged Thevi to craft recipes using produce flown in from South Korea.
Her 12,000 followers may be drawn to her take on everyday food, but Thevi’s “makcik kantin” — a persona she takes on whenever she prepares meals for her children — is equally endearing.
On the other hand, Mushroom Lah founder Aisya Jabaruddin started creating vegan recipes for the local palate after observing that there were too few options to explore for Malaysians who wanted to make a lifestyle change.
Before the pandemic, most people relied on restaurants and cafés to get vegan meals. So, Aisya, who has been an ardent vegan for six years, started putting more of her recipes on her feed — which garnered quite a bit of attention when she was asked by TikTok to be one of its food creators.
She then started crafting recipes and modifying some favourite Malaysian dishes using staple, everyday ingredients.
Aisya has easy recipes for local dishes such as laksa Johor, apple pie, pad kra pao — a Thai dish made of minced chicken stir-fried with basil — and even five-ingredient peanut butter balls.
“There is the perception that veganism is an expensive and time-consuming lifestyle. I’m the only vegan in my family, and I had such a hard time making my parents understand why I chose this path. They used to think it was difficult because they thought there needs to be a lot of substitution to meals we had daily, and that the food wouldn’t be as tasty.
“My mum, for example, would cook beef and chicken rendang during Hari Raya, and set aside the paste to make rendang from tofu for me, because she used to think that tofu and tempeh are the only vegan ingredients that she could substitute for meat.
“But by the time it made it to the table, the dish would be so soggy and unappetising. There are ways to make rendang with tofu but the process of preparing the tofu takes a little longer than meat,” she says.
Determined to rectify their perception in the early days of her vegan journey, she embarked on a mission of experimenting with different vegan ingredients such as mushrooms to make rendang, and succeeded.
And it was this mushroom rendang experiment that has now turned into an online business for Aisya, who lost her job during the pandemic.
With the support of her husband, Akmal Hakim Ali — who is also vegan — she started Mushroom Lah in June last year. “The first time Akmal tried the rendang, he ate half of the two kilogrammes of it.”
They started out making 8kg of rendang a week and now they make 60kg, yet, there is a waiting list.
Aisya continues to attempt other recipes and has garnered a following of over 8,000 on Instagram since last year.
If you haven’t bought an air fryer or succumbed to investing in a cast-iron casserole pot since the pandemic hit, chances are you are in the minority.
According to Commerce.Asia, an e-commerce ecosystem of technology and big data solutions, there was an 880% surge in purchases of cooking appliances such as frying pans and woks online.
Artisanal luxury cookware retailer Queenspree tells Digital Edge that it saw a 400% jump in sales month on month at the peak of the movement restrictions in 2020 and this year.
The retailer sells both local and international artisanal cookware such as Le Creuset and Staub. It started out with just one brand but has now expanded to a variety of premium cookware brands from the UK and Europe.
Queenspree, founded by Abdul Rahman Md Din and Rafiza Abd Hamid, was launched in the last quarter of 2019 — barely three months before Malaysia came under its first Movement Control Order (MCO) on March 18, 2020.
Rafiza, who is the start-up’s chief financial officer, says its month-on-month sales grew rapidly during the MCO because of the company’s capacity to operate digitally and scale order processing.
“Year to date, September 2021 sales figures rose by 48% compared with the same period last year — with both periods plagued by lockdowns,” says Rafiza.
“The pandemic was definitely a factor, but e-commerce is also an enabling factor. Businesses that were not ‘digitally’ ready might not be able to ride the wave to its full potential.
“We observed that some of our bricks-and-mortar counterparts had to switch to online selling by taking orders through WhatsApp during the pandemic, but it was definitely a struggle for them to process the orders manually,” she says.
With the economic stimulus provided by the government, coupled with a moratorium on loans, most people had a lot more disposable income.
“Many took the opportunity to acquire things they had been longing for, something that they desired but would not normally purchase due to the high price point. It has been observed that these desirable brands are the ones that have done really well,” Rafiza says.
Queenspree also introduced buy now, pay later (BNPL) payment options provided by companies like Hoolah and GrabPay, and zero-interest instalment plans for up to 12 months with Maybank. Rafiza says around 40% of Queenspree’s orders use BNPL.
She believes that the pandemic-driven uncertainty is one of the reasons many opted for BNPL options.
“Although some customers can afford to buy the goods in one go (based on their purchase record), they still opt for the BNPL option just because it gives them more room to manage their cash flow in case of any uncertainty,” she reasons.
This form of payment is also seamless and instant. “The BNPL seamless user experience from application to approval is also a factor. The process is as easy as entering one’s card details and some extra personal information — that’s it. The risk assessment algorithm will then take over, and approval or rejection takes place almost instantly.”
Moreover, BNPL makes products more affordable, and the service is free of charges and interest if payments are made promptly.
All these factors have motivated the company to aspire to expand regionally.
Rafiza says the company is undertaking a systems upgrade project to streamline the checkout and fulfilment processes for international orders. This includes partnering with STRIPE, an international payment solutions provider that will enable the processing of international payments in “a more secure, intuitive and robust manner”.
It has also entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with one of its suppliers in Milan “which will enable us to introduce more European brands on our e-commerce platform”.
Rafiza and her husband are certainly looking upwards and outwards in spite of the pandemic. “We aspire to be a regional hub for kitchen furnishing products by enabling our technology and growing our product offerings,” she says.
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