Had you asked me earlier, I would've dramatically - hand-over-heart - proclaimed myself a serious chocoholic. I thought I earned that title having meticulously curated my taste buds through years of dedicated research, otherwise known as gobbling chocolates at every opportunity.
I was sorely mistaken.
Enter Ning-Geng Ong Lingam, founder of the exquisitely crafted Chocolate Concierge and title bearer of flavor junkie, hardcore chocoholic and general cacao-know-it-all!
Ning and I first crossed paths during a weekly Philosophy & Science gathering led by a mutual friend at a local coffee shop a few years ago. Over professorial mini-lectures and lengthy discussions, we talked about all sorts of issues but never of chocolate. It wasn't until I stopped by Jasons Food Hall at BSC to picked up a couple bottles of wine that I stumbled upon Jason's second anniversary party. There we were graciously feted with wine, chocolates and specifically, the handmade truffles by Chocolate Concierge.
It made utter sense that someone as intellectually avaricious as Ning would be the person behind this brand - the maker of perhaps Malaysia's only artisinal chocolate and certainly, its finest.
As we tasted little slivers of the flavored truffles, Ning surprised us by opening a ripe cacao fruit - a tough hard chartreuse shell encased an oblong row of lightly fragrant white, pulpy seeds.
I've seen cacao pods in photos and even in art exhibits, in particular this fabulous cacao styled coffin by Kane Kwei at the San Francisco de Young Museum comes to mind, the cacao coffin makes the inevitability of death a little more playful and vibrant. Seriously - why not exit with a little splash of chocolate love?!
But other than that, I had never actually seen, never mind tasted fresh cacao pulp and was understandably intrigued.
So before Batik&Bubbles even existed, I knew this was something I wanted to know more about. This was the perfect opportunity to delve into the world of chocolate and get a little taste of what it means to be a chocolate maker in Malaysia.
So one fine day this past Spring, we caught up with Ning. He gave us a little tour of the cacao plants and trees that he's been nurturing behind his family's factory and together we whipped up some tasty, relatively healthy chocolate-carrot treats to share with B&B readers.
Most importantly, we got down to the topic of chocolate and specifically chocolate making!
Batik&Bubbles: Tell us a bit about your background and how you were led to the art of chocolate making?
Ning: For starters, visitors to Malaysia face a hard time looking for chocolates to take back home. I know as I was in that position myself when I used to live in the US and wanted to find the perfect gift for friends there. Chocolates are a universal gift and it's ironic that for a cocoa growing country, there are not many choices to pick from. I've seen these questions arise in expat and traveler's forums about where to one can buy locally made gifts to take home. So for a start up idea, why not step up and make chocolates locally?
The other appeal to me is that it is a topic that is seemingly endless. Other markets have really caught on to the wonders of chocolates, and although we are still progressing in that direction, I believe it is only a matter of time before consumers develop the appreciation and the awareness for fine chocolates locally. But the most exciting bit is that making chocolate from the ground up involves so many disciplines, here's where Physics is applied!
Plus it gives me that fuzzy feeling that I'm working with something that's local and I can grow literally in my backyard.
B&B: How do you define the ‘Made in Malaysia’ aspect in chocolate making?
Ning: Practically every 5 star hotel in KL has an artisan corner with handmade chocolates but to responsibly claim that chocolate is made here, the cacao needs to be grown here. There needs to be more transparency in chocolate. Many consumers know much less about chocolate making as compared to consumers of wine, coffee, and tea. Chocolate is shrouded with a lot of secrecy, mystery and myths.
When compared with coffee, these days if you go to a café and ask them where their beans are from, they can confidently say it’s a Brazilian/Ethiopian blend and can even tell you who’s their roaster.
But if you ask any chocolate shop in KL where their beans are from, they'll give you a blank stare.
Many of them don't even know that chocolate comes from beans. They’ll name a European country – like France or Belgium as the origin, and most consumers are happy with that answer without truly understanding what that means.
What that actually means is, when someone claims that they are using Belgium chocolate, 99% of the time it turns out to be chocolate from Callebaut, a large entity that sells chocolate to bakers or chocolatiers.
B&B: So aside from practical gifting, why does chocolate making interest you?
Ning: One of the reasons why I got into this is because I’m fascinated with fermentation. I’ve got a background is Physics and Computer Science and Masters in Finance from Lewis University in Chicago, and while it may seem random, in fact Physics is relevant.
Fermentation is exciting! I see microorganisms such as yeast as tiny robots. If you set the conditions right, if you feed them, you have the right temperature, and the right environment, they work for your ceaselessly – 24/7. They transform something like grape juice, or rye, or potatoes into something exciting. Even coffee beans are fermented, not to mention kimchi, sauerkraut, cheeses, kombucha, yogurt, kefir… a lot of interesting foods are fermented foods.
Not everyone makes the connection that for chocolate, fermentation is the key. It’s the primary reason why fine chocolate tastes different compared to the bland, low quality stuff. It’s the fermentation!
So there’s a lot gained from getting that right in terms of chocolate making. Without fermentation there will be no chocolate profile to speak of. Using a wine metaphor, the difference between crafting wine and grape juice lies in the fermentation.
B&B: How long have you worked with chocolate and what were the steps you took to learning the craft?
Ning: When I first started 8 years ago, there were a number of cacao trees I started caring for but first, let me set the background a bit. In recorded history, the Aztecs were the first to reap the benefits of cocoa but it wasn’t ‘chocolate’ as we know it today. The cacao beans were dried but not necessarily roasted. It was ground up together with maize and chili or pepper into a paste, and then water was added to make it a gooey, thick drink. This was called 'Xocolalt'. It was rarely sweetened, except perhaps with honey, which itself was quite scarce.
So fastforwarding - about 28 years ago, Malaysia was actually the third in world cocoa production. Over the years this has declined due primarily to disease but also because rubber and palm oil were gaining in popularity as crops for plantation. So I started caring for a number of cocao trees given to me by the Cocoa board called “Cocoa for the Citizens” in English. So if you’re a Malaysian citizen, you could go to the cocoa board and say ‘Hey, I’m interested in planting some cacao trees’ and they’d give you free trees.
I started to toy with the idea of making chocolate with the fruit and started making micro-batches after two or three years. My first batches were bought in full by an Irish buyer, just like Sarwakan pepper, it all went for export. After that I had a number of batches going as a hobby, but in 2013 a storm led to all my trees swept away by the river and I had to start from scratch. So I went back to the cocoa board and requested specific coco varietals I wanted – a mixture of clones and hybrids and I’m now working with 8 different varieties of cacao trees.
B&B: Where did you get the knowledge on how to do this?
Ning: I visited a chocolate making facility in Switzerland right from the beginning. I also started looking at regional makers of chocolate – Vietnam is worth mentioning. Vietnam is at the center of a lot of attention because farmers are working together with expertise in cocoa to improve the quality of the beans, specifically in the post harvesting process. Traditionally, the farmers undertake the fermentation step but a lot of the farmers haven’t been paying attention to the process of fermentation. So there's now a trend in countries like Vietnam and Costa Rica to place the post-harvesting process of fermentation away from the farmers to scientists, who can carefully control for the flavor of the bean.
So while Vietnam has started to do this, we are not far behind. This is one of those concepts that just make sense, so a lot of people have arrived at this at the same time.
B&B: Interesting, so let’s talk a bit about how chocolate is made?
Ning: So as you’ve seen, chocolate comes from a tree and the beans are its fruit. The plant grows from 10 degrees South and 10 degrees North of the equator, so there’s a sweet band of 20 odd degrees around the equator that cacao grows in. There are instances where people have successfully grown in latitudes beyond those 20 degrees, but that’s the exception and not the norm.
Cocoa is first harvested as a fruit and cracked, and that fresh pulp together with the beans are fermented and dried. Traditionally, the three main processes happens at the farm level – harvesting, fermenting and drying.
Most chocolate makers buy their beans directly from their farmer, a middle person, a collective, or from the commodity market itself - such as the London or New York Exchange. These beans would get purchased and then shipped onward to Europe, the US, or whichever destination for processing. For instance, Indonesian beans might be shipped to Malaysia, and here they would be cleaned, roasted, de-husked, and then crushed. The crushed beans are further refined and tempered, whereby the right melting point, snap, gloss and shine to the cocoa is obtained.
B&B: And in Malaysia, who is harvesting the cacao trees here?
Ning: The local farmers were already selling to collection centers and roaster-grinders since cocao beans used to be a major crop for Malaysia. And we have retained a lot of the processing facilities here but the majority of beans are brought from Indonesia and supplemented by Malaysian beans. So there are manufactures making chocolate for the Malaysian market but they are using a mixture of beans. In addition to that, it's not clear to me that the manufactures are placing quality above all else. As mentioned, a lot of the farmers are not really paying attention to the fermentation, so in the same vein of what's happening in Vietnam and Costa Rica, the the fermentation process needs to be taken over from the farmers.
I create artisanal chocolate under Chocolate Concierge, which I established in 2015. The term artisanal simply means that the owner is involved in every step of the way – granted, this is only possible up to a certain size. So I’m still producing small batches, at less then 20 kilos a time. My footprint is small with these micro-batches.
B&B: So can you tell us a bit about how to determine the flavor profile of chocolate?
Ning: When you consider chocolate tasting, there are five traits you should consider - the texture, the sweetness, the acidity, the roasting and the overall cocoa experience. It's crazy to think of it but some chocolate has no chocolate flavor or very low intensity of chocolate flavor, so that is reflected in the cocoa experience – is this chocolate chocolately?
So lets talk about one of them, say roasting. Some people say they like dark chocolate and prefer that bitter-sweet taste. That can be a marketing term that some chocolate makers may employ in order to over-roast low quality, cheaper beans. A high roast would remind you of burnt coffee, whereas a mild roast would have more fruitiness coming through.
The acidity, the fruitiness, the floral notes of the chocolate dissipate, whereas the bitterness, the robustness, the nutty, woody-ness notes would increase as the roast gets higher. So for beans origins that are extremely floral or fruity, you wouldn’t want to subject those beans to a higher roast as floral and fruitiness characteristic are the first to go.
At this point in our conversation, Ning opens up three types of chocolate buttons that originated from three different countries and invites me to blind taste them and rank them in terms of acidity. In spite of using coffee as my palate cleanser, I nibbled thoughtfully and managed to rank them properly.
Granted there were only three types, but still this little test served as a chocolately balm in easing the pinch of how much more there was to learn about chocolate making before one could properly label oneself a chocoholic, at least with any measure of pride.
Ning emphasized that aspiring chocoholics, and lovers of chocolates in general, should always trust the direct sensory experience. That we ought trust our intuition and trust our senses, our first impressions.
Well, my intuition is that this is gorgeous, complex, delicious chocolate.
But I may need to eat a lot more in order to confirm this initial impression. I am nothing if not a devoted researcher in such important matters and luckily for me, and for fellow chocoholics and foodies alike, not only can you pick up these chocolates at the Chocolate Concierge counter at Jason's Food Hall at Bangsar Shopping Center, but Ning also runs a monthly series of tasting and sensory development classes to initiate you into the realm of chocolate.
Check out Chocolate Concierge Facebook page here for more details on future classes and their stunning website at: http://www.chocconcierge.com/ to learn more.
We'll be sharing the recipe for the healthy chocolates that we made shortly on our Batik&Bubbles Facebook & Instagram page as well ♥ Enjoy people, we certainly did!