Malaysia is home to many food entrepreneurs, often born from a similar set of circumstances — an increased awareness of food and good ingredients, a growing interest in healthier food options that are free from preservatives, and new parents who are becoming more conscious of the food quality their children are ingesting. For Aishah Ishak, it was all three factors that inspired her to establish Aya Real Food in 2018, which sells ready-to-cook sauces and pastes for busy parents to get meals on the table in a matter of minutes.
Aishah had always mulled over the idea of her own brand but the impetus was the birth of her daughter, from whom the year-old company gets its name. “I had to juggle my work with caring for her and that’s when I realised what the brand I had in mind should be doing — helping parents like me, or even busy executives, eat healthy meals that are also tasty and boast familiar, delicious flavours. The healthy food movement is not new, but it hasn’t translated very well into local food. That was the niche I wanted to fill.”
Her ambition was backed by years of experience, coming from a home-grown, independent food manufacturing company based in Taiping, Perak. Her factory already had the necessary accreditation — it is HACCP and halal-certified — so her first challenge was to figure out what kind of food the new brand would be selling. Aishah took a year to extensively research and test ideas and ingredients, and came up with a starting menu of three vegetarian products and an ikan bilis snack.
The gillies mushroom rendang can be eaten as is, while the Padang-style Kalio sauce and sour and spicy Seafood Cook Out sauce is great as a salad or pasta dressing, or as a marinade for vegetables and meat. The Karashi Bilis is healthy comfort food, and can even be part of other dishes. Aishah has provided a slew of recipes on ayarealfood.com so you can customise each item to your cooking style.
“Everything is made from fresh ingredients and based on our own recipes so we can maintain quality standards,” she says. “People were starting to talk about going meat-free more than 10 years ago and that trend is finally picking up here, so I think it was a great time to introduce the idea of a mushroom rendang. It also opens up our customer base quite a bit, which is a good thing. The rendang taste is still there, it’s just the choice of protein that’s different.”
We got to indulge in some taste tests on site and everything was delicious — as a life-long vegetarian and a huge fan of local food, an easy favourite was the mushroom rendang with the Seafood Cook Out sauce coming a close second, which I had a dip with some bread. Meanwhile, The Edge photographer Shahrin Yahya took a liking to the silky Kalio sauce, and was definitely appreciative of the crunchy and spicy Karashi Bilis — he has already made plans to pack some the next time he is travelling and misses Malaysian food.
Aya Real Food’s sauces and pastes come in premium packaging to ensure freshness, and incorporate state-of-the-art treatment that assures its shelf life without compromising on taste. “Retort packaging is lightweight and is meant specifically for food that’s ready to eat,” Aishah says, opening a packet of rendang to show us. “This kind of packaging is also recyclable, safe and although it means a bigger financial investment for us, it’s important because it’s such a big step up from traditional plastic packaging.”
Although the cost of the packaging is a hurdle, it is one that can be overcome by scale eventually. What Aishah sees as a bigger challenge is education and understanding among consumers. “The whole vegan thing scares a lot of people,” she says wearily. “Even though the rendang is [good for] vegans, I prefer to use the term vegetarian as its more easily understood. There is this misconception that vegan[ism] isn’t for everyone, mostly because not many people get what it means. This is much like the lack of understanding surrounding halal certification in other countries, that halal means only for Muslims. We have to change perceptions and get more people to understand what healthy food is, and how to make it part of your everyday lifestyle.”
Although Malaysians are her target market, Aya Real Food’s products were also introduced in South Korea, Singapore, China and Japan last year through industry-wide events — the response has been positive, and pending approvals from local authorities, will soon be available in these overseas markets. In Malaysia, Aya Real Food is available online and in select grocers — Aishah and her team are currently working to increase its visibility and availability. “Although the younger generation don’t mind shopping online, we still have customers who prefer to buy food products in stores,” she adds.
The existing three recipes will be joined by another three early next year — a second ikan bilis variant, possibly with less heat, and two mushroom dishes that are drier than the existing rendang. “We are still experimenting to see what works, and that process takes time. That is phase one, though — phase two will be ready-to-eat meals for people who don’t want to cook at all, or who don’t have cooking facilities.”
This article first appeared on Nov 4, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.