If you ask your Singaporean and Malaysian friends: Where can I find the most local Malaysian cuisine in Taiwan? Most of them will tell you: “Mr. Chee Curry” near the back gate of National Taiwan University.
Take “Laska Soup,” a popular spicy noodle soup from Peranakan cuisine, as an example, at “Mr. Chee”, you can taste the authentic spiciness of Laska. A slight difference can make the flavor either too overwhelming or too plain. The perfect recipe has enticed many Singaporean and Malaysian people living in Taiwan. You might assume that Mr. Chee is an experienced chef, but actually he is a young entrepreneur who started his own business two years ago at the age of 25. Interacting with customers tactfully, he seems to be an innate businessperson. He smiled and said, “Well, I’m Hakka!*”
His sophistication in doing business might also relate to his experience driving a food truck around Taipei. After graduating from high school in Malaysia, he came to Taiwan to study nursing at Fu Jen Catholic University. Although he received the certification and became a nurse after graduation, he found that the conservative working environment of hospitals didn’t suit him well, and started to plan his own business: “I want to do something that directly benefits myself.”
He discussed it with his sister: “Taiwan is well known as a ‘gourmet kingdom’, why can’t I find any authentic Malaysian cuisine here?” Because he used to hang around the kitchen with his mother since childhood, he had good cooking skills, and he believed that his hometown flavors would find a market in Taiwan. After quitting the nursing job, he bought a food truck and embarked on his journey as a chef.
In the next seven to eight months, Mr. Chee drove the truck all around the Greater Taipei area, from Xindian to Wugu. Communication and negotiation with other vendors and even policemen was also a part of his daily affairs. Fortunately, as he insisted on importing key ingredients from Malaysia, his food soon attracted many nostalgic Malaysians. In August 2015, he finally opened his first restaurant. Now, customers start to show up around 4:30pm, and it is hard to find a vacant seat if you come at 6:30pm. His success, however, was not achieved as easily as it seemed.
“I had to wash so many dishes everyday and this excoriated my hands so seriously that I didn’t want to shake hands with others. When I gave change to customers, I always had my palm down.” Recalling the days when he had just started his food business, he said, “I peeled potatoes alone at midnight, wondering if my business would go well tomorrow. All the worries and pressure were on my shoulders.”
As if reviewing his entrepreneur diary, he continued, “I still remember that my restaurant opened on the 8th August last year, and a strong typhoon happened to strike Taiwan that day. There was no water supply the next day, so we couldn’t wash the dishes at all. I was thinking that if there was still no water the next day, I would have been forced to close the store. Fortunately the water supply recovered in the early morning of the 10th. We instantly washed all the dishes and prepared to open the store for the 3rd business day of ‘Mr. Chee’.”
Mr. Chee went on to share with us how he made his mother understand his decision of giving up the stable nursing job and running his own business, how he refurbished the store on his own after renting the place, and how he made it through all the other difficulties. For a new business, any small thing happening can easily frustrate the entrepreneur. “You have to live with all the worries on your own. I think if you need to complain about all of these to someone else, that means you are about to give up.”
No matter what challenges he faced, as long as he saw the smiles on his Malaysian fellows’ faces, he felt it all to be worthwhile. Mr. Chee is very confident about his cuisine. But what exactly makes Malaysian curry different from the curry from other regions? “Malaysians are good at using spices. We add red onion, lemongrass, chili oil, and coconut milk. The proportions of each ingredients are our secrets!”
While introducing his cuisine to us, he was in the middle of making the Nasi Lemak. Adding Sambal, the Malaysian spicy sauce, beside the rice cooked in coconut milk, he placed a piece of banana leaf under the Sambal sauce to complete the dish. Why does he insist on spending extra money to use real banana leaves for decoration? “That’s what makes it Malaysian!” Actually banana leaves are commonly used as vessels in Malaysia. Although at “Mr. Chee” banana leaves are not used as main vessels, a piece of decorative banana leaf still symbolizes the Malaysian culture.
Does he plan to open more “Mr. Chee Curry” stores in Taiwan? He said, because the ingredient cost is rather high, his main goal at the current stage is to promote the Malaysian culture. “I want to share the authentic Malaysian flavor with more people.” In the near future, he wants to open a 24-hour restaurant. “For Malaysians, nights are the time when we hang out together!”
*Hakka people are Han Chinese people whose ancestral homes are chiefly from the Hakka-speaking provincial areas in Southern China. It is often said that Hakka people are good at doing business.
About Jonathan Chee
Born in Malaysia, Jonathan graduated from Nursing Department, Fu Jen Catholic University (Taiwan), in 2012. He worked at the Emergency Department of Cardinal Tien Hospital for one and half year after graduation. Due to his passion for food and cooking, he decided to sell authentic Malaysian cuisine in Taiwan, and started from driving a food truck. After two years, he finally started his own restaurant, “Mr. Chee Curry“, in Dan-an District, Taipei, in 2015.