Toh’s Daily Chili Garlic lives up to the adjective in its name. Once opened, it is usually passed around the dining table at almost every meal until, all too quickly, a spoon scrapes the bottom of a sadly empty jar.
When Malaysians and Singaporeans were preparing to spend more time at home under their various iterations of lockdown, demand for essential and some indulgent items soared. Toh Yong Chien, 30, affirms that sales of his popular handcrafted condiment almost doubled during this period, from an average production of 5,000 jars a month to orders totalling 7,200 jars from across the Causeway alone. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the flavourful condiment has quickly established itself as a daily staple. Little surprise there, as it is an addictive blend of chilli flakes, crunchy garlic, onions and roasted sesame seeds, with an extra spicy version available for those who can handle the heat.
Toh developed the recipe while working as a chef. He went to Japan to study animation but felt he would struggle to survive financially in that career path. He switched his major to culinary arts and graduated with adequate work experience. When he returned to Kuala Lumpur in 2014, a friend was opening a now-defunct Japanese restaurant in Wisma Cosway and Toh agreed to helm the kitchen. Its customers comprised locals who would often ask for a spicy dip to complement the clean and fresh profile of Japanese cuisine.
“I had to work with whatever ingredients were available, so I created a simple, garlicky chilli oil to accommodate them,” he says. “It swiftly gained popularity — customers would return specifically for more ‘fried chilli bits’. That was the first generation of my chilli garlic. Business boomed at the restaurant, but the workload was overwhelming, as I was the only one who had mastered the recipe and had to prepare vast quantities for the diners.”
Realising its potential, Toh began producing small batches to sell to friends and family and, later, at artisan markets and bazaars. He used the letters in his surname to fashion the product’s premise — taste of happiness — and eventually started manufacturing the original and extra spicy versions under an eponymous label for mass consumption.
Restaurant regulars would be able to clearly distinguish the current bottled version from the earliest renditions. Initial feedback deemed the condiment almost cloying with excessive oil. Toh brought the spice of the chilli and crunch of the garlic to the forefront, rendering the oil — he substituted palm oil with coconut oil — to the role of binding agent rather than star of the show. The result was a textural bite of explosive flavour that could hold its own while complementing any dish it was served alongside. The versatile condiment pairs just as well with pasta and burgers as it does with dumplings, noodles, porridge or savoury snacks such as yam cakes. For the homesick Malaysian living abroad, this stuff would be worth its weight in gold.
Made entirely from natural ingredients, and thus free of preservatives, artificial colouring and MSG, Toh’s Daily Chili Garlic is proudly Malaysian-made and vegan-friendly. These qualities have earned it a prominent place on the shelves of local organic shops and grocery stores, as well as regular orders from Singaporean retailers.
“Chef and product manufacturer are entirely different roles, but I enjoy both,” says Toh. “The latter especially pushes me to grow. I started with nothing, from zero. There are new challenges to grapple with and resolve every day, and I am always trying to improve product quality without compromising on nutritional value. As a chef, my mission was to create memorable experiences through food, but the volume of customers was, of course, limited. As a condiment manufacturer, I can do the same for a much, much wider audience.”
Appreciation for his product is flowing across borders, with interested parties approaching Toh for import rights around the world. “This, along with expressions of satisfaction by our customers, is very encouraging,” he says. “We are so grateful because it motivates us to improve and keep moving ahead. We’re looking to expand the product range and the business. I’m still trying to work up the courage to step out of my comfort zone, but I know this is what I’m meant to be doing.”
And the proof is in the pudding; even after all these years, Toh still enjoys a side of his chilli garlic. “The extra spicy is good, but my favourite remains the original version, as the milder heat suits me better. I like it best with plain white rice — that’s all I need for a great meal.”
This article first appeared on May 25, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.