AT a corner single-storey shop in Morsjaya, Miri, Ko sells speciality noodles handmade with pumpkin, sweet potato, and cangkuk manis.
A top seller is her seaweed kway teow soup, which she cooks one bowl at a time.
Her stall is usually very busy but she remains unfazed, always ready to greet customers from different backgrounds as she goes about her work.
Petite with short hair, Ko was born in Kapit to a Foochow family that sold vegetables for living. She learned to speak Hokkien early in life as most people in Kapit spoke that dialect in those days.
“Being able to speak Hokkien is an advantage – so much easier when looking for jobs outside of Kapit. It really helps when you can speak different dialects,” she said.
She is also comfortable speaking Iban.
Ko is a widow. She and her late husband had two children, who are working outside Miri. She manages the shop by herself.
“Where I was born, we had to work very hard. There were no distractions for us when we were young.
“Although I didn’t go to secondary school since my family couldn’t afford it, I learned by observing people around me,” she said.
Ko is no stranger to hard work. She helped her mother look for wild ferns and sold vegetables from a very young age. Interacting with her, one can see her outlook in life and towards business is similar to that of business guru Jack Welch’s followers.
Be No. 1 or 2
When she told me she would not sell mee sua, it immediately struck me that she practises one of Welch’s mantras.
Welch used to tell his mentees, “When you’re number four or five in a market, when number one sneezes, you get pneumonia.
“When you’re number one, you control your destiny. The number fours keep merging, they have difficult times. That’s not the same if you’re number four and that’s your only business. Then, you have to find strategic ways to get stronger.”
Ko doesn’t want to be number four, selling mee sua like everyone else. In fact, she now sells one of the best Sarawak laksa with a special secret flavour and people keep going back to the stall she started with her late husband more than 10 years ago.
She said after being in the food business for a while, she realised no matter what the media said about lard, she had to try selling it together with deep fried pork skin and deep fried pork fat, adding, “This has brought a lot of return customers.”
One of my friends bought some lard from her and noticed it was always freshly made and of good quality.
Her Foochow seaweed kway teow is a best seller – not many stalls in Miri have it.
She said her friends told her since it wasn’t convenient for them to make just one or two bowls of seaweed kway teow at home, they would be happy to just come and have a bowl twice a week at her shop.
To the Foochows, seaweed reduces anxiety besides being iodine-rich, which helps to control thyroid-related health issues.
Ko’s products fly off the shelves.
Her kampua tossed in lard and homemade deep fried shallots is in demand in Miri. It is the high quality ingredients and the fresh lard she uses that make her products popular.
“Many customers come and tell me this. I always tell them I use freshly made good quality lard. It’s okay to eat a bit of lard, say once a week, or may be a bit more with noodles.”
Endeavour and innovation
Without knowing Welch at all, she practices ‘focusing on innovation’ – another of his lessons in marketing.
She is the top – if not the only – producer of hand-made cangkuk manis noodles in Miri. Her tasty green noodles and sweet potato noodles, also made by hand, are equally popular.
She welcomes feedback from customers, saying it helps to improve her cooking.
“The reason I’m not selling mee sua is that too many shops are doing it. So I create my own dishes. I have to be innovative to remain competitive.
“My best seller is Sarawak laksa. I buy the paste but add extra ingredients. The feedback is good. In fact, I have been selling laksa for more than 15 years already,” she added.
A small company
Welch advises his mentees to “behave like a small company”.
As I looked at Ko’s setup – a small 15’ by 20’ floor space with six small tables outside on the concrete next to the road – I felt she is running a small company with three cheerful women employees.
With multi-ethnic staff, she can attract a lot of customers from different backgrounds. The workers are trained to make noodles, wontons, and drinks apart from chopping vegetables.
As we left her stall after a hearty brunch, I realised that even though her working team is relatively small, there is a very good working culture.
Regular customer Deanna (name has been changed) admires Ko for her sincerity and truthfulness. She frequents the shop to buy very fresh deep fried pork skin.
“The krup-krup is nice and not too salty at RM5 or RM10 a packet – good for weekend snacking and very convenient to pick up from the shop.
“I’ve learnt to cook Foochow fried noodles and for the toppings, I add Madam Ko’s crunchy deep fried pork fat. Very nice indeed,” Deanna said.
Whenever she’s free, Ko makes wontons and arranges them neatly in a box to keep the flies out and the steamed dough fresh throughout the morning.
She doesn’t sell overnight dumplings but makes fresh ones when the need arises.
“Customers don’t mind waiting a while because they know they are getting freshly-made products,” she said.
Seaweed kway teow soup
Another customer Elizabeth (name has been changed) said she came to the shop with her friends to enjoy teh-C kosong, a bowl of seaweed kway teow soup, and the refreshing morning breeze.
“Madam Ko does not keep her ingredients outside but in a fridge. Of course, there are a few flies here and there as this is an open area near some rice stores and the tamu.
“What’s important is service with a smile. I think this is what street food is all about. If you like the food but don’t want to eat it in the shop, you can always take away,” she said.
Elizabeth added that from what she had read, seaweed soup has been consumed by Icelanders and people from Caribbean for centuries as an all-round pick-me-up tonic.
She said her grandmother and her mother boiled seaweed from China to make soup.
“We had seaweed soup when we were young. My grandmother even told us seaweed is good for digestion – maybe because she added a lot of vinegar to the soup. My grandmother was slim throughout her life. But it could also be due her Putian genes.”
As we made our way to the nearby tamu, Ko gave us a friendly wave and said, “Come again soon” in the same cordial manner that I know my Foochow relatives in the lower reaches of the Rajang would extend.
And who knows she may have a new noodle delight in store when you next call at her shop for a meal.